The Use of Symbolism in the Bible

It is perhaps undeniable that symbolism is used throughout the scriptures.  The psalmists paint vivid word pictures as they describe God’s unchanging nature and his mighty works, Paul uses countless analogies to portray the contrast of law and grace, and even Jesus himself uses parables and symbols to share the wonders of the kingdom of God.  All of these things, parables, word pictures, types, shadows, and analogies is what I’m referring to when I say “symbolism”.

In this same vein, as I’ve been studying scripture further, the more types and symbols I discover.  For instance, I’ve been looking at the story of Noah, when he sends out the raven, and then later the dove on both occasions.  As I’m studying this, I see more than just a man on a boat trying to save all the life in the world, but I also see a picture of the Holy Spirit.  Noah, as a type of God, sends out his spirit in the form of a raven and a dove and it had place to rest, so the spirit returned unto him.  Though as time past, “in the fullness of time” as it says in Galatians the Spirit found one olive branch to land upon in the person of Christ.  Next, because of this single branch, God released his Spirit again and it was finally able to dwell on the earth (a symbol of what happened on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts).

Now let’s talk about this.  Is the story of Noah true?  Yes, I believe it is.  And anthropology seems to agree with this, as almost every people group has a “flood” story.  Did God intend for the story of Noah to be a foreshadowing of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?  If you ask me, I would say absolutely.  My personal belief is that the Bible is like a deep painting that has layers and layers of color and texture making it impossible to search it’s fullness.  But let’s say that wasn’t God’s intent.  Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that it never even entered God’s mind that somebody like me, however long after the days of Noah, would look at this story and come up with the conclusion that there was a deeper meaning in this account than just a single family, countless animals, and a heck of a lot of water.  What if God never intended the story to speak that?  Is it then wrong for me to interpret that?  My answer is “no”.

Let me ask this…when you look at a tree blooming in the spring, is it wrong for you to think of God’s beauty?  Or as you sit under a starry Colorado night, is it wrong to meditate on God’s vast depths?  I would again say “NO”…absolutely not.

Now, with that being said, can symbolism be dangerous?  Absolutely yes!  If I approach scripture, and interpret some meaning of a certain obscure passage that the writer, nor the Holy Spirit, even intended, harm can result.  I believe this is most commonly seen in the prophetic realms.  One reads an Old Testament prophecy and plugs in their assumption of what symbol mentioned equals which country, based upon current events, and whamo!  There you have yourself one potentially harmful prophecy.  (Not at all implying that this is always the case.)

Obviously, anyone can make scripture say just about anything they want it to; leading to control and manipulation.  Oh, this scripture means Koolaid and this scripture means poison….that’s how a cult forms.  So how do you navigate scripture while receiving the full benefits of symbolism while avoiding the pitfalls?   I utilize these rules when looking at Biblical symbolism.

-Biblical symbols have to be interpreted through the Bible.  (i.e. Christ is often referred to as an “olive branch”)

-Biblical symbols have to edify other truths of scripture.  For instance I would be wary of some “new” truth in scripture.  New to you is one thing, new to the believers throughout time is another.  I look for symbolism to give a fuller picture to the truths of the Word, as in the story of Noah.  I already new how the Holy Spirit came into the world, because Christ clearly teaches this, but the Noah account gave me a clearer picture of God’s heart in the matter and the importance of Christ.

-Biblical symbols should always elevate Jesus.  If the symbolism you’re using does anything other than elevate Christ, I would question it’s validity.  All of scripture points to Jesus, our symbols should be no different.

In fact, I think this final principle is perhaps the key.  The life of the believer, the truth of the Word, and the beauty of creation, all point to Christ.  Our revelations should always lead us to Him and His great love.  This is best seen in Revelation.  People reads John’s prophetic book and they come up with all sorts of conclusions.  For me, I haven’t figured it all out, but this I know.  In the first few verses it says, ‘this is a revelation of Jesus Christ”.  That tells me if your interpretation paints a picture of anything other than the person of Jesus…you’ve read it wrong.

The Word is a deep water….blessed is the one that takes the time to navigate it’s fullness.  Have a great week.

lucasmiles

  1. Barnabas Willis left a comment on August 27, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Lucas,

    I was researching and stumbled upon your website. I’m a minister working with college students and and was really encouraged by your blog. You seem to have a good balance and understanding of biblical truth combined with interpretation. What I loved the most is how you mentioned that everything points to Christ. If we take this into consideration when reading God’s word, we can really never go wrong. I pray God’s blessing over your life.

    Barnabas

    • Robert Jensen left a comment on November 21, 2009 at 4:39 pm

      I noticed that symbolism too. I do not day that the raven is the Holy Spirit though, I think it is Satan traveling to and fro through the earth. The dove is the Holy Spirit, notice the difference between the dove and the raven, the dove was sent “from himself” or “from his bosom.” I think the dove bringing back the freshly plucked olive branch is God the Holy Spirit presenting the sacrifice of God the Son to God the Father. When the dove goes out seven days later and doesn’t return is Pentecost seven days represents seven weeks of 50 days. The Holy Spirit couldn’t indwell man until the crucifixion of Christ.

      • Robert Jensen left a comment on November 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm

        Correction of above: Seven days represents seven weeks OR 50 days.

  2. pprmint777 left a comment on December 6, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Lucas, I’ve studied Biblical symbolism for years, too, but I’m embarrassed to say I never noticed the raven and dove symbolism. How beautiful!

    Thanks for you insight.

    ppr
    (I found your site because you somehow found mine first: 777 Peppermint Place)

  3. Pamela left a comment on December 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    I prefer to think outside the box of the limited, finite and flawed reasoning of the human mind, and consider the signs, types/shadows and symbols that leed us to a Person greater than our own comprehension. Good word Lucas.

  4. Jared left a comment on December 21, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Fascinating insight….really appreciate hearing another person’s views on the importance of symbolism. I am a life long mormon, who recently had a “born again” experience, due to symbolism. As you may know, the mormons worship in latter day temples. And one of the ordinances we do is receiving our endowment, which is a 2 hour long cerimony, very similar to masonry. In fact, i believe Joseph Smith used a lot of masonry ideas and symbols, in our latter day temple cerimonies. This said, i had questions about the meanings of things. So i prayed one night, went to the internet and God lead me to things i had not thought about before. One thing lead to another, and I was changed and born of the spirit. I now am studying the bible and the book of mormon in ways i have never looked at them before. And i totally agree with you that in scripture, even from other religions, in nature, (sun,moon,stars), in people, in stories, in movies, all things teach man, symbolically, and they all point to who God is, by pointing to Christ and the real meaning of Christ. Even Jesus the man, in my opinion, was a symbol of “the Christ”….Thank you for your insight.

  5. Joachim left a comment on June 25, 2015 at 10:49 am

    Nice insight…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.