Clouds are mentioned lots of times throughout the Bible, referring sometimes just to the part they play in the weather (Luke 12:54, Ecclesiastes 11:4), sometimes to the presence of God (Exodus 13:21-22, Numbers 16:42) and sometimes figuratively when speaking about multitudes of people, like the passage at the start of Hebrews 12:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses..."
In Job 36, Elihu speaks to Job about God's greatness, verses 22 - 33 and Job 37:14-16 say this:
"Pay attention to this, Job. Stop and consider the wonderful miracles of God!
Do you know how God controls the storm and causes the lightning to flash from his clouds?
Do you understand how he moves the clouds with wonderful perfection and skill?
When you are sweltering in your clothes and the south wind dies down and everything is still, he makes the skies reflect the heat like a bronze mirror. Can you do that?"
So clouds in the Bible are both figurative and real, they are symbols of the presence of God and they are super interesting! Did you know that an average sized cumulus cloud (1 cubic km in size) weighs as much as 80 elephants? For more on clouds, the Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Prettor-Pinney is a really interesting read.
In the great medieval work "The Cloud of Unknowing" the image of a cloud represents the intellectual darkness between us and God, who is 'other', yet who through love and prayer can become known. Here is how it starts:
"When I first begin to reach out to you, my God,
all that I find is a darkness,
a sort of cloud of unknowing;
I cannot tell what it is,
except I experience in my will
a simple reaching out to you, Lord God.
This darkness is always between me and my God,
no matter what I do,
and it prevents me from seeing you clearly
by the light of understanding in my reason,
and from experiencing you
in sweetness of love in my affection.
So help me to rest in this darkness
as long as I can,
always crying out after you, whom I love.
For if I am to experience you
or to see you at all,
in so far as this is possible here,
it must always be in this cloud
and in this darkness.
Back in pre-renaissance times, art depicting God's presence in a cloud would only show an eye or a hand stretching out of a cloud, however with the renewed interest in Greek culture during the renaissance the old images of Zeus and the rest of the gods sitting on clouds passing judgement and the occasional lightning bolt were popularised again. Still today many of us visualise God as a petulant, entitled, fallible deity choosing to distance himself from the sinful human race. To worship this god would be to worship Zeus, not the God of the Bible.
We spent time with charcoal and paper sketching what we saw in the sky and pondering the words from the Cloud of Unknowing. Some of us just played in the sunshine!
In the sky we could see cumulus, stratus and cirrus clouds, we were happy that the nimbostratus (carrying rain) stayed away for long enough for us to draw and share our thoughts at the end of our gathering.
Incidentally there was an incredible sunset that evening, as Psalm 19 says, "the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands".