As children, my friends and I would jokingly say that thunder was the noise made by God moving his furniture, or that God was bowling. We said those things knowing full well it was not correct – surely God does not have furniture, and it is very unlikely that he bowls, right? Yet, I still had some sense there was more behind the lightning and thunder than just “nature”.
The prophet Jeremiah expressed that sense when he wrote, “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.”
It is reasonable to understand that God is ultimately the one responsible for thunder and lightning without attributing every lighting strike or clap of thunder to God’s purposive activity. To presume the ancients’ understanding of thunder and lightning was purely based on superstition is a gross oversimplification and demeaning to their intelligence and culture. They recognized we live in a cause-and-effect world, and there must be some greater power in the chain of causation which lies behind the power of thunder and lightning.
As summer approached, our sons greatly anticipated the possibility of thunderstorms. They loved seeing the lightning and hearing loud claps of thunder. When a thunderstorm was approaching, we would gather at the big sliding glass door to watch the show – interjections made after every flash and crash. To be honest, I loved it too. There is something exciting about such matchless displays of power – especially from the safety of one’s home.
The Israelites spent much of their time outdoors, and would have been keenly aware of the dangers of approaching storms. They would have had some knowledge of the nature of these things. Not all lightning is dangerous. They would have seen multiple lightning strikes off in the distance without it directly impacting their lives. Today we know that lightning is a common occurrence worldwide. The national weather service reports that around the world there are about 100 lightning strikes every second – 8.6 million per day! Only a very small number of these lightning strikes ever impact human lives.
Nevertheless, thunder and lightning certainly are tools which God may employ to accomplish his purposes. A number of places in scripture describe how lightning and thunder are used by God to alter the course of history. One of the plagues against Egypt involved thunder, lightning and hail. There is an account of how loud thunder confused and scattered an enemy army. Later, the words of the prophet Samuel spoken against the disobedient Israelites were confirmed with an unusual bout of rain and thunder. On a couple occasions, the prophet Elijah calls down fire (possibly lighting) to counter the followers of Baal.
In one particular example, the psalmist dramatically (and accurately) describes the thunderstorm which accompanied the parting the Red Sea: “The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked.” They at least understood there is a correlation with these events.
While these remarkable events are recorded in scripture and are attributed to God’s activity, we need not think that they associated God’s activity with all lightning and thunder. The purpose of the historical books is to record significant history changing events and demonstrate how God was working to form and direct the people of the covenant. God used lightning as a tool to capture their attention, but it captured their attention and was attributed to God because it was in some way different from their normal experience of thunder and lightning. These events had demonstrable outcomes which would not have occurred under regular circumstances.
Understanding the great power which must be behind thunder and lightning, the biblical authors used them metaphorically throughout scripture. The writer of Psalm 97 uses a thunderstorm as a metaphor for God’s reign and his judgements. The dark clouds conceal God in his glory – the full disclosure of God is too much for people to bear. Because he is a God of righteousness and justice, his judgements (i.e., lightning) proceed from his throne.
People then as now likely witnessed how trees exploded or were caught on fire after being struck by lightning. We know now that lightning is extremely hot – it may heat the air it passes through up to 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit – five times hotter than the surface of the sun! This super heating of the air creates a shock wave of air which produces the sound we know as thunder. In short, thunder comes from lightning. So, the psalmist appropriately wrote of God’s judgement that, “Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around. His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.”
Before lightning arrives and strikes nearby, one may hear the thunder rolling in the distance. Similarly, God’s judgement does not proceed without warning. Speaking of God’s judgment, Job’s interlocuter, Elihu, says, “Who can understand how he spreads out the clouds, how he thunders from his pavilion? See how he scatters his lightning about him…This is the way he governs the nations…His thunder announces the coming storm.”
Again, from Psalm 97, the writer indicates that all are accountable to God’s judgement because “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory. All worshippers of images are put to shame...” – the enemies of God are forewarned and will be held accountable. King David wrote that, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic…the voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.”
The way God makes himself known is unmistakable which led the apostle Paul to write, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” That “voice” is not just thunder and lightning alone, but the authoritative commands and direction given by God in scripture.
At the end of human history, when Jesus returns, he assures us that it will not be mysterious or in secret, but that everybody will be aware of it. “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The apostle John’s vision of the end is even more dramatic: “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’ And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth…” It will be obvious to everyone.
As the thunderstorms roll in again this summer, I trust I will not resort to my childish thinking. Rather, I will hopefully hear that “voice” and be reminded of the power which lies behind it – reminded that the powerful and majestic God of the universe is making himself known to all the world – reminded that he is moving in history to accomplish his purposes.
 Jeremiah 10:12-13 and 51:15-16
 See Exodus 9:23-34, 1 Samuel 7:10-1, 12:14-18, 1 Kings 18:20-40, and 2 Kings 1:9-14
 Psalm 77:17-18
 Compare Psalm 97:1-7 and 2 Samuel 22:9-16 (repeated in Psalm 18:7-15)
 See also Exodus 19:9 and 1 Kings 8:10-12
 Job 36:29-33
 Psalm 29:3-7
 Romans 1:20
 Matthew 24:27 and Luke 17:24
 Revelation 16:17-18