Vos on Old Testament Theophanies

In his short but profound work, Eschatology of the Old Testament, Geerhardus Vos set out to answer various questions about the Old Testament theophanies and their meaning. What is a theophany? Why did God act in such a way as to reveal himself in human and/or angelic form to specific individuals? Why did the theophanies occur at the particular times at which they did in the Old Testament? Why are some theophanies friendly and others frightening? Is the Angel of the Lord a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ? Questions like these should arise naturally in our thinking as we read of the theophanies that occurred in the patriarchal narrative, at Sinai, in the days of Joshua and the Judges and during the exile.

Since some will not be familiar with several of the words that Vos uses, I thought that it might be helpful to give a short vocab list prior to his two short sections on theophanies:

Theophanies – “Personal representations of God in visible form” (Vos’ definition)

Deluge – The Flood.

Eschatology – The study of the last things. Vos often uses this word with reference to those events that occurred in the Old Testament that were precursors of the events of the consummation at the end of time. For instance, he will speak of the deluge (i.e. the flood) as having an “eschatological character” to it. What he means by this is that the flood was pointing to the final destruction and judgment of the world when Christ comes to bring about the consummation of all things. Usually, when an Old Testament event (such as a theophany) occurred, it carried with it some aspect of judgment or salvation that pointed beyond itself to the final theophany when Christ comes to save and to judge. Vos will highlight this throughout.

Patriarchal – This word simply refers to the era of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (i.e. those spoken of as “the fathers” in Scripture). Sometimes it refers to the Old Testament saints through the Mosaic era in general.

Parousia – The coming of the Lord. This word is usually used in theological writing with a special focus on Christ’s first and second coming; however, Vos and others often use this word to refer to God “coming” down in judgment at such times as the Flood and for redemption at such times as at Sinai. Any judgment/salvation appearance of God can be considered a “parousia” (i.e. a coming), though they all point forward to what will happen at the consummation with the coming of Christ at the end of time.

With these definitions in mind, here are Vos’ two magnificent sections on theophanies out of his Eschatology of the Old Testament:

The Eschatological Element in the Theophanies

“Redemptive eschatology is more than revelation. The typical signification of the deluge lies on the judgment side and not primarily on the side of redemption. The eschatology of nature is typical of the eschatology of redemption. Revelation in the patriarchal history foreshadows eschatology along the line of redemption. The expression “fire and brimstone” (Gen. 19:24) in connection with the destruction of the cities of the plain is expressive of the eschatology of judgment. This, however, is probably the chief, if not the only exception. But the main emphasis is on the redemptive side. Theophanies are personal representations of God in visible form. They go beyond the mere purpose of revelation; they express, in primitive form, God’s approach to and communion with man. God does not merely speak in a theophany; he acts!

With respect to the past, the theophany represents the renewed approach from the past severance of God and man. This loss of fellowship was expressed in man’s expulsion from paradise. The theophany marks the first step toward the return of the primitive, normal intercourse. With respect to the future, the theophany presents the renewal of the paradise-condition and as such presages a full future paradise. It points to the new world. This significance is expressed in the locality of the theophanies. Notice that this form of self-disclosure is not expressed before the entrance into Canaan. It links theophanies with subsequent appearances of God in Canaan. These are but the beginning, and they differ from the later forms in their being momentary. They are simply visits. An approach toward permanent nearness is made by the building of altars, which are revisited as places that God might frequent. All this prepares for the permanent divine in-dwelling. Canaan prefigures the eschatological state of Israel. It is the land flowing with milk and honey; i.e., typical of paradise. Note that Canaan was afterwards the scene of the highest permanent theophany of the Old Testament (i.e., the temple) and therefore typical of the final consummate state of the theocracy.

The Angel of Jehovah stands for the completeness and comprehensibility of Jehovah. Through this Angel the theophany is limited to redemption; for the visibility of appearance belongs to redemption. This procedure of linking Jehovah with one figure is practically equivalent to the later Messiah. The significance of the Messiah is to make God’s work and significance concrete. Thus, the malach-theophanies are real prophecies of the incarnation. The substantial reason is that the Messiah carries this principle to its logical conclusion, viz., that God is with us, Immanuel. Everything messianic is, in the last analysis, eschatological.

Theophanies become determinators of subsequent eschatological terminology. “Coming” or “advent” is the main eschatological term. “God comes” expresses the keynote of all eschatology. This is because the presence of God is of great eschatological concern. Hence, the importance of the parousia. In later times, the idea became more general. Even in patriarchal times, the term coming has reference to general eschatology and messianic eschatology. The epiphany of Christ and the parousia are ideas that ultimately come from the Old Testament.

Consider, finally, the condescending, friendly character of the theophany. This is more pronounced in the patriarchal period than later because “saving” was then emphasized in distinction from the “judging” later on. The supernatural is benevolent in its intent. Later imagery of eschatological language is largely theophanic. Jehovah comes in fire, earthquake, etc. These are absent from the patriarchal theophanies. It was natural that the saving element should be emphasized first because the center of eschatology is, in the first place, the saving and not the destruction of enemies.

The Sinai Theophany

Like the deluge, God’s appearance on Sinai contains an eschatological element. However, in the deluge, the negative destruction-idea of the world’s crisis is brought out. Here at Sinai, the constructive, positive element of redemption is presented. This is further brought out by viewing it in its historical setting. In its context the eschatological significance is clear because it is the climax of the events of the exodus. These events were the redemption of Israel and are typical of the messianic redemption in the New Testament. The terms of our salvation are derived from this. Now the New Testament redemption has the inherent character of gravitating toward an end and this same feature must be sought in its typical forecast; i.e., the climax at Sinai is typical of what will happen at the end of the world.

This event is preceded by a judgment culminating in the judgment of Egypt. The plagues are preparatory to the final catastrophe, and they also serve as the last summons to repentance. A similar scheme is found in the prophets: Amos 4:6–12 enumerates famine, pestilence, war, etc. (cf. also Amos 7:1ff. and Hos. 9:7ff.). In Babylonian eschatology, this same idea is connected with the deluge.

This culmination is brought about by a theophany (i.e., God coming) and resembles the theophanic character that is everywhere theophanic. This in itself would not represent the end of the world, but this theophany bears an extraordinary character. We have here thunder, thick cloud, sound of trumpet, mountain of fire, etc. Some of these are to impress the people with Jehovah’s majesty or the majesty of his law (cf. Ex. 20:20). But on the other hand, this also belongs to the legislation as a judging act of God by expressing the terribleness of the divine judgment of sin. The phenomenon of volcanic eruption is unique in this account. Even though this eruption was natural, it well serves its purpose because it is in the most terrible natural phenomenon. This extraordinary event furnished forever the setting of the final theophany.

It serves to bring the people to Jehovah (cf. Ex. 19:4). If any eschatological purport is inherent here, it signifies not only the final coining, but also the crisis. The theophany now becomes an abiding fact. Jehovah henceforth abides with his people.

The Old Testament associates this event with eschatology. When the prophets speak of the wonders of the future, they never link it with their own times, but always seek the analogue in the Mosaic period (cf. Jer. 23:7–8; Isa. 63:11–12; Hag. 2:6–7; Mal. 4:1).

In regard to the New Testament references, the trumpet of the resurrection of which we read in Revelation is the Sinaitic trumpet. Hebrews 12:18–29 parallels the Sinaitic and the final event along three lines: (1) the two mountains, the material and the spiritual (i.e., Mount Sinai and the heavenly Jerusalem); (2) the prophecy of Haggai is quoted in which we are told that God made the earth tremble (“yet once more will I make to tremble the earth not only, but also the heaven”); (3) there is a concluding word that God is consuming fire.”1

1. Vos, G. (2001). The Eschatology of the Old Testament. (J. T. Dennison Jr., Ed.) (pp. 85–87; 105–106). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.