What does the Bible mean when it refers to the corners of the earth?

corners of the earth
Question: "What does the Bible mean when it refers to the corners of the earth?"

Answer:
The phrase corners of the earth is used several places in the Bible as a figurative term for the outermost borders or most distant parts of the earth.

Job’s friend Elihu describes the voice of the Lord as thunder and lightning: “Keep listening to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth. Under the whole heaven he lets it go, and his lightning to the corners of the earth” (Job 37:2–3, ESV). The word corners in the passage is a translation of the Hebrew term for “wings,” as in the wings of a bird outstretched over its young. The fully extended wings reach the extremities of the creature. Therefore, corners indicates the extremities of a thing, and in this case, the earth. The Lord’s voice fills the whole heavens and travels to the furthest ends of the earth.

In Isaiah 11:12, the prophet speaks of a future restoration of Israel in which the dispersed of Judah will gather together from “the four corners of the earth.” The “four corners of the earth” is a poetic reference to the earth’s farthest reaches in the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. In other words, there will be a worldwide gathering of God’s people. The same idea is conveyed by the “four corners” in Ezekiel 7:2, except that here the all-inclusive event is the catastrophic end of the world: “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to the land of Israel: ‘The end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land!’” The New Living Translation renders the second half of the verse as follows: “The end is here! Wherever you look—east, west, north, or south—your land is finished.”

In Revelation 7:1, the apostle John’s vision unfolds from a heavenly vantage point. John is so high above the world he can see “angels standing at the four corners of the earth.” His depiction of the earth having “four corners” is in no way a scientific description. John uses symbolic language to create a visual illustration of the four directions of a compass. John’s picture suggests that these angels are standing over the whole world, and nothing is beyond their control. Also, many numbers in the Bible have a symbolic or idiomatic application, and the number four often represents earth and its boundaries.

The phrase four corners of the earth appears a final time in the Bible in Revelation chapter 20: “When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore” (verses 7–8). Before Satan is thrown into his final place of judgment, he will be released from his temporary prison in the Abyss (verse 3). He will go out into all the earth to deceive the nations. The idiom four corners of the earth is used again here to mean “the extreme limits of the world.”

Skeptics have argued that expressions like corners of the earth prove that the Scriptures depict a flat or square earth. But the Bible’s use of this idiomatic phrase was never intended to mean that the earth has literal, squared-off corners. The writers of the Bible used figures of speech just like we do today. Shakespeare wrote, “All the world desires her; / From the four corners of the earth they come, / To kiss this shrine, this mortal-breathing saint” (The Merchant of Venice, II:vii), but no one assumes that The Bard believed in a flat earth. We understand his use of poetic descriptions.

All languages have idioms. When we say we have “the best of both worlds,” we refer to enjoying “an ideal situation” and not “two worlds.” When poetic portions of the Bible speak of “the corners of the earth,” they refer to the entire world.

Recommended Resource: The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel

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