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.