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Symbols

10th March 2010, hej

 

2) Bible Symbolism


The bible mostly uses very straightforward language. The majority is a simple communication. Error is often made when people 'interpret' according to their theories, out of context, the simple communication as symbolic. To further confuse, some others may interpret prophetic 'symbolic' language as literal.


Bible symbolism is consistent and, once understood, is easily recognised. Bible symbolism is not any different to ordinary English use of metaphor as illustration.


Some examples we have no trouble understanding are:

People may say anything, from a bank to a boat, is "Steady as the rock of Gibraltar."

We don't mean the bank is steady in the same way as the rock is. The 'image' or symbol of the rock of Gibraltar gives a multitude of other subtle ideas to the idea of 'steady'.

We might say of a lost object- “it's a needle in a haystack!”.

We don't mean it really became a needle, we mean that all the issues of finding a needle in a haystack are present in the situation. The picture or symbol of the needle in the haystack in a few words gives a lot of information.


In just such a way Bible symbol is shorthand for conveying a multitude of characteristics. A comprehensible, understood, thing is used to explain another. The mental outline, picture or “figure” of one thing is used to communicate characteristics regarding another thing, usually more complex. Just as English is rich with such 'picture' language, or figurative language, so was Hebrew.


Prophetic Symbolism (figurative language)

The Bible does not aim to speak about science, or observation of the natural world. It is the record of God's interaction with humans. It is about humans and relationships. It speaks of how people are to treat each other and how they form a relationship with God. This is why the Bible never dates, as human nature, and interaction, hasn't changed over time. The Bible therefore comments on politics, as politics is the relationship of people at a national level.


In Isaac Newton's 'Observations on the prophecy Daniel', he stated, “For understanding the prophecies, we are, in the first place, to acquaint ourselves with the figurative language”

Isaac Newton with his scientific mind clarified the definitive basis of prophetic symbolism.

“This (figurative) language is taken from the analogy between the world natural, and an empire or kingdom considered as a world politic”

Newton said that after studying the Bible he could see clearly that there is a pattern where a natural visible features of the physical world is used to describe some aspect of the political intangible 'world' of nations. This is especially evident in the prophets. He then goes on to explain each. The following uses Newton's order and goes to the Bible to show examples.

Heavens and Earth:

The heavens and earth encompass our whole experience of the natural world. In analogy, in prophecy, they relate to the whole political world. The aspects of the political world, the focus of the bible prophecy, are related to aspects we understand of the natural world. In the political world some are elevated above others into ruling positions. Those great ones that rule are 'high' above the ordinary person and are said to be in 'the heavens'. The Hebrew for 'heaven'(shâmayim) is from a word for 'lofty', or 'high'. One can rise in power into the political heavens, and likewise descend. The ordinary person is said to be of the earth. In Hebrew a word for 'earth' (ădâmâh) is related to the name Adam.


Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice. (Psalm 96:11)
Hear, heavens, and listen, earth; for Yahweh has spoken: (Isaiah 1:2)
Sing, you heavens, for Yahweh has done it! Shout, you lower parts of the earth! (Isaiah 44:23)

In all of these instances the heavens and earth have human emotions, and skills, which inanimate nature cannot have. They are poetry and prophecy are analogy. Isaiah particularly uses this analogy

Sing, heavens; and be joyful, earth;
for Yahweh has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted. (Isaiah 49:13)

Isaiah is both poetry and prophecy. Note the poetic pairs: heavens - people, earth - afflicted.


In any instance when you read 'heavens' in a prophetic book, or a prophetic song, where it is speaking of the fate of nations, think first it means political heavens. There may be some instances where prophets speak of the natural world, but they will be rarer.

Hell

As an extension, of the idea of ' the heavens' being those people elevated and the earth being the ordinary people, hell is the lowest parts of the earth, and is used in prophetic language to illustrate those who are miserable, and subjected to slavery or other political subjection.


That thou shall take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How has the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased! The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked, and the sceptre of the rulers. .... thou shall be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. (Isaiah 14:4-15)


The king who put people into slavery and subjected them to a living death, is to be removed from power and himself and his rulers subjected to hard slavery. This analogy is used in common language when people say after a very bad experience “It was hell!”

Heavens Shake & Earthquake

In the natural world the heavens do not shake. Bit in the political 'heavens' large events can 'shake' the political structure. Isaiah uses this image, note how the shaking is the result of God's anger. God is not angry at the natural world, rather at the people who live on earth.


Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:13)


If the earth are the common people a great earthquake, is an event that like a natural earthquake changes their political world. This symbol or analogy is also used throughout the western world.

An example from a source which is not religious at all is the 'Socialist Review, No.126, December 1989, pp.11-14', by Tony Cliff titled “Earthquake in the East”

We are witnessing the most massive earthquake of the social and political order in Eastern Europe. It is on a scale reminiscent of 1848 and 1917.....To understand an earthquake you have to look at the pressure inside the system. It is summed up with Marx’s statement that when the social system becomes a brake on the development of the productive forces, the epoch of the social revolution starts.

Note Tony Cliff does not explain he is using an analogy- he uses the word 'earthquake' as synonymous for revolution, assuming his audience understands. In revelation, this analogy of an earthquake is used a few times,


The smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. (Rev 8:4-5)


There is no way in the natural world a fire will cause the earth to quake! This is symbolic of people. We will return to other symbols in this verse.


Sun & Moon

Just as the sun dominates the heavens of the natural world, so the sun is emblematic of the supreme ruler in the political world. The moon is the lesser ruler. Jacob had not trouble understanding his son Joseph's dream.

“Behold, I have dreamed yet another dream: and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.”He told it to his father and to his brothers. His father rebuked him, and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves down to you to the earth?”(Genesis 37:9-10)


In the tribe of Israel now numbering many people in the extended family, Jacob was the supreme ruler, and his wife was secondary by virtue of reflected glory. Isaiah is clearly not speaking of the natural moon and sun, when he writes,


Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed; for Yahweh of Armies will reign on Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem; and before his elders will be glory.(Isaiah 24:23)


There is no reason for the natural moon to be without words, if Deity rules as a king from Jerusalem. But we can easily understand how the religious authority, who are secondary to the national leaders and secondary in the political 'heavens', like the moon, will be put to silence by such an event.


In prophecy we should readily see the analogy of 'the sun' to kings. The sun is accepted as the symbol for a king from Ancient Egypt, to ancient Ceylon, to France. In ancient Egypt Aten a sun deity was pictured as a king and considered father to the king (Pharaoh). From approx 160 BC Kauravas of Sir Lanka used the sun and moon emblems to represent the two royal clans. http://www.karava.org/sun_and_moon. One king, Louis XIV reigning 72 years in France called himself the 'Sun king' and surrounded himself with images of the sun. Historians are happy to retain the analogy in Louis' self title as he was an absolute ruler for much of his reign and considered beneficial to French culture. The analogy to the sun carries all the ideas associated with our experience of the natural sun.


Just as the natural sun and moon set and rises, so do kings and religious powers. They can be covered or wane. They can also be 'turned to blood', which means they are attacked violently and wounded.


Stars

We understand this word, thanks to Hollywood's use of the term in the early 1900's, before electric light spillage prevented us from seeing stars and Satnav replaced all navigation by stars. If someone says “for the stars, silver is the new black”, we would not look with concern to the heavens, but rather conclude famous people were wearing silver in preference to black. Stars in prophetic analogy also are famous people. They may not be political rulers, though some have such a personality they become stars. Some stars become political rulers. Daniel explains the analogy

Those who are wise shall shine as the brightness of the expanse; and those who turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)

The wise shall have influence or 'shine' so we know of them like we see natural stars. Deborah uses this rich language in her song of victory


“The kings came and fought, then the kings of Canaan fought at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo. They took no plunder of silver From the sky the stars fought. From their courses, they fought against Sisera.(Judges 5:19-20)

Sisera was not defeated by stars doing strange things. If we read the parallel account, he was defeated by the kings of Canaan. Notice the poetic links: kings came = from the sky, Kings of Canaan = stars, and, waters = courses.


Fire & meteors

In the natural world a fire consumes. In the political world a war will in s similar way devastate a nation. Fire is warfare in analogy. Due to gunpowder this is now literally as well as figuratively true. But in the image the picture of random nature of a driven fire captures how a war can kill people in its path. And war, like fire, is fought until it is burnt out or put out.


Through the wrath of Yahweh of Armies, the land is burnt up;
and the people are the fuel for the fire. No one spares his brother.(Isaiah 9:19)

If it was a fire in the natural world you would need a lot of people to be its fuel, this speaks of how in war the Israelites were defeated (burnt-up). The destruction was worse as traitors helped the enemy by giving their brethren to the enemy as 'fuel' to help the enemy's warfare or 'fire'.


A meteor is a fire that descends rapidly from the sky, as such in analogy it is warfare by a remarkable leader. As such being in a 'furnace' is like being in slavery to another nation.

Scorching of the sun is like a pointless and un-winnable war or persecutions by a tyrant king.


Thunder, Lightning, Rain

For a king to 'ride on the clouds' means they in an exalted place reign over many people.

For the sun to be covered by cloud, or by smoke speaks of oppression of a great king by enemy armies.

Tempest or great wind speaks of wars, and storms.

Thunder for the voice of a multitude (causing fear).

Storms with thunder, lightening and hail signify a powerful exalted enemy coming in war 'down on the heads' of their enemies.

But if the rain is moderate, it speaks of blessing of the 'living water' of the word of God.

Dew then is the early blessing of the doctrine of the Spirit

Drought symbolises spiritual barrenness(or the lack of hearing of God's word).


Some other pictures and analogies used throughout scripture.

Light and Darkness

The most easily understood analogy is that light equals knowledge and darkness equals spiritual ignorance.


The Woman, Wife

Isarel is likened to a woman who is married to God. The principle of unity in marriage is articulated in Genesis

The Harlot

Israel when they serve many gods is likened to an unfaithful woman.


The Beast

There is a contrast between enlightened humans and base humans, where base ones are likened to a beast

Man held in honour, and who understands not, is like the beasts that perish. (Psalm 49:20)

Nebuchadnezzar when he is consumed by pride is turned into a beast until he learnt that the Most High rules in the kingdoms of men.

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