Why “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses”?
AT HEBREWS 12:1 we read: “So, then, because we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also put off every weight and the sin that easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
The question has been asked, Why did the writer of Hebrews speak of “so great a cloud of witnesses” instead of so great a crowd of witnesses?
By saying, “So, then,” the writer of Hebrews is referring back to the previous chapter where, after having first given a definition of faith, he starts out to list the men of faith, from Abel on down through the patriarchs, Moses, the judges and on to the prophets, which reach to the time of Christ, as John the Baptist was the last of the old Hebrew prophets. The writer could have referred to these all by the ordinary Greek word okhlos, meaning “a crowd,” but because he wanted to make his point as forceful as possible he used a metaphor, and spoke of them as a “cloud.” In modern English a great swarm of locusts that covers the sky is referred to as a cloud of locusts.
His objective is especially clear from the fact that here he did not even use the usual Greek word for cloud, nepheʹlē, from which comes the English word nebulae, referring to a cloud. This word nepheʹlē occurs upward of twenty-five times in the Christian Greek Scriptures in its singular or plural form. For example: “They will see the Son of man coming in a cloud.” (Luke 21:27) “A cloud caught him up.” (Acts 1:9) “They will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 24:30) “Look! He is coming with the clouds.”—Rev. 1:7.
Instead of using this word, the writer of Hebrews used néphos, the only occurrence of it in the entire Christian Greek Scriptures. This is a word that is often used in a metaphorical sense by both Greek and Latin writers as “a dense cloud of shields,” “a cloud of spearmen.” Concerning this use of néphos Professor Wuest states in Hebrews in the Greek New Testament:
“The word ‘cloud’ here is not nephele which is a detached and sharply outlined cloud, but nephos, a great mass of cloud covering the entire visible space of the heavens, and therefore without definite form, or a single large mass in which outlines are not emphasized or distinguished. The use of ‘cloud’ for a mass of living beings is familiar in poetry. Homer speaks of ‘a cloud of footmen, a cloud of Trojans.’ Themistocles, addressing the Athenians, says of the host of Xerxes, ‘we have had the fortune to save both ourselves and Greece by repelling so great a cloud of men.’”
The distinction between néphos, “a cloud-mass,” and nepheʹlē, “a cloud,” is similar to the distinction made between petra, a rock-mass, and Petros, referring to a single rock, used as a proper noun.
Thus we see that the writer of Hebrews here carefully chose an unusual word, néphos, or cloud-mass to stress the great number of witnesses, in keeping with his observation: “And what more shall I say? For the time will fail me if I go on to relate about Gideon,” and so forth. Yes, there were so many that there was no recounting them all; they were not just a crowd but like a cloud-mass.—Heb. 11:32.
The foregoing is of more than mere academic interest to Christians; it means more to them than merely a fine point of language. By the use of this word néphos we have driven home to us how great indeed was the number of those who witnessed faithfully to Jehovah God, how many were shining examples of faith, even though those named in the Scriptures may be said to be comparatively few. Thus when Elijah thought that he was the only one that had been jealous for Jehovah’s name, Jehovah assured him that He had in Israel seven thousand that had not bowed their knees to Baal. (1 Ki. 19:18) Since we as Christians are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” (martýrōn, “martyrs”), not observers, we can take courage that we also can prove faithful as we seek to follow the “Perfecter of our faith, Jesus.”—Heb. 12:2.
Also worthy of note is the care with which the writer of Hebrews chose his words, making use of an unusual expressive metaphor to drive home his point. His example in this is one that all ministers who would influence others by word of mouth or pen would do well to follow so as to do the greatest possible good. “A word at its right time is O how good!”—Prov. 15:23.