Understanding Scriptural Symbols

Understanding Scriptural Symbols

What are we to do with all of the symbolic language in the Bible—the imagery, figurative expressions, parables, allegories, types, shadows, similes, and hyperbole? Sometimes this imagery is clear and powerful, but often it seems baffling and strange.

Approximately 27 percent of the 1,184 pages of the Old Testament is made up of prophetic writings, or what the people at the time of Christ called simply “the prophets.” (See, for example, Luke 24:27, 44.) At almost any point in those writings we are immediately confronted by symbolic language.

Sidney B. Sperry noted some years ago that this penchant for figurative language is partially due to the fact that the Bible is the product of Oriental or Eastern peoples—and Eastern peoples are much more prone to use imagery than are the Occidentals or Western cultures:

“We ofttimes read our Bible as though its peoples were English or American and interpret their sayings in terms of our own background and psychology. But the Bible is actually an Oriental book. It was written centuries ago by Oriental people and primarily for Oriental people …

“It may be of interest to contrast the speech of modern and ancient Palestinians with our own. In thought and speech the Oriental is an artist; the Occidental, on the other hand, may be thought of as an architect. When speaking, the Oriental paints a scene whose total effect is true, but the details may be inaccurate; the Occidental tends to draw diagrams accurate in detail.” (Ensign, May 1972, pp. 29–30.)

While this difference provides some interesting challenges for the modern reader in our Western civilization, those challenges are not insurmountable, and when they are met, the returns can be productive and satisfying.

Since a thorough explanation of the use of symbolic imagery in the Old Testament, or even in “the prophets,” would require a work far beyond the scope of this article, we shall only give a general introduction to the subject. This introduction, however, should serve to help decipher imagery wherever it is found in the scriptures.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “I make this broad declaration, that whenever God gives a vision of an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it. Don’t be afraid of being damned for not knowing the meaning of a vision or figure, if God has not given a revelation or interpretation of the subject.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., p. 291.)

There are occasional uses of figurative imagery, such as Ezekiel’s “wheels” (see Ezek. 1:15–21), for which the Lord has not yet given us the interpretation. But for the most part, we do have the keys for understanding the symbolic imagery used by the Lord and his prophets.

Six guidelines can aid us as we deal with figurative language in the scriptures:

1. Do the scriptures give the interpretation of the symbol? Often the Lord reveals the keys to the imagery right in the scriptures. A classic example is the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. (See Dan. 2:19, 31–45.) Another example is Isaiah. After using the imagery of a neglected and run-down vineyard, the Lord says: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant.” (Isa. 5:7.) There is no need for speculation or debate. The answer is clear.

In these two cases, the scriptural interpretations were given in context. More frequently, the interpretation is found elsewhere in scripture—sometimes even in a completely different work of scripture. For example, Daniel’s use of the phrase “Ancient of Days” (see Dan. 7:9, 22) refers to Adam, but we discover that through the Doctrine and Covenants. (See, for example, D&C 27:11; D&C 107:54.)

2. Do the writings of modern prophets help us interpret the symbolic imagery? Sometimes the key to understanding a symbol may not be found directly in the scriptures, but prophets of the Restoration have helped clarify the meaning. A good example of this is found in one of Joseph Smith’s sermons. While the Lord reveals through Daniel that the beasts he saw in Daniel 7 and 8 represent various kingdoms (see Dan. 8:20–21), the Prophet Joseph Smith helps us better understand why this imagery is used.

“You there see that the beasts are spoken of to represent the kingdoms of the world, the inhabitants whereof were beastly and abominable characters; they were murderers, corrupt, carnivorous, and brutal in their dispositions.” (Teachings, p. 289.)

3. Use the study aids in the new editions of the scriptures. An invaluable source of help for English readers is found in the study aids of the LDS edition of the King James Version. Chapter headings, footnotes, cross-references, the Topical Guide, and the Bible Dictionary were prepared under the direction of the Scriptures Publication Committee (which consisted of several members of the Quorum of the Twelve). These provide consistent and important help in interpreting symbolic imagery.

For example, in the headings to Isaiah 13 and 14 [Isa. 13–14] we learn that Babylon is used as a type, or symbol, of the world. In footnote b to Jeremiah 23:5 [Jer. 23:5], we learn that “Branch” is a symbolic name for Jesus Christ. And note how a very puzzling reference to “palmerworms” and “cankerworms” is cleared up by footnote a to Joel 1:4.

4. Let the nature of the symbol teach you. While the Hebrews loved imagery and used it heavily, they did not choose their symbolism arbitrarily. They drew their imagery from the objects and events of everyday life and made spiritual parallels. This is a very important point, for often we can let the symbol itself teach us about its significance.

Again let us draw on some examples to illustrate. Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations when Judah fell captive to Babylon. In the closing chapter he laments, “The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned!” (Lam. 5:16.) The imagery of the crown is clear. The crown is a symbol of the power to rule; therefore, Jeremiah’s imagery tells us that Judah lost the governing power she once held. As another example, the Lord warns the northern kingdom of Israel that because of their wickedness he will “meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps.” (Hosea 13:8.) The ferocity and terrifying destructive power of a mother bear separated from her cubs is clear and has great impact.

5. Listen to the inspiration and promptings of the Spirit. Elder Bruce R. McConkie noted that one of the reasons the Lord uses parables and other forms of symbolic imagery is that they can simultaneously reveal and conceal meaning, depending on the spiritual readiness of the hearer.

“Our Lord used parables on frequent occasions during his ministry to teach gospel truths. His purpose, however, in telling these short stories was not to present the truths of his gospel in plainness so that all his hearers would understand. Rather it was so to phrase and hide the doctrine involved that only the spiritually literate would understand it, while those whose understandings were darkened would remain in darkness. (Matt. 13:10–17; JST, Matt. 21:34.)” (Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 553.)

As we search the scriptures, we have the right to pray for wisdom and inspiration to understand what is meant. We are also entitled to the help of the Spirit when interpreting the figurative language correctly. The Spirit is the great teacher.

6. Balance the interpretation of symbolism with other revelation and gospel knowledge. The final guideline, and one of the most important, is to fit the interpretation of any symbol into the overall scheme of gospel knowledge. No matter how clever, or how logical, or how ingenious our interpretation of a particular symbol may be, if it contradicts what is revealed in other places, we can assume it is wrong. One of the best illustrations of this principle is found in a puzzling passage in Daniel.

As he closes his book, Daniel says: “And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.

“Blessed is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and five and thirty days.” (Dan. 12:11–12.)

What are these “days?” Are they literal days, or do they mean years? From what point of time are they marked? What future events were foretold in this passage?

Here is a case where the Lord has not yet given us the key for interpreting a passage. Yet time after time, in the past and in the present, people have sought to “crack the code.” They use this passage to predict the date of the second coming of Christ or the events associated with it. The declaration of Christ himself is clear and unmistakable: “But of that day, and hour, no one knoweth; no, not the angels of God in heaven, but my Father only.” (JS—M 1:40; italics added.) This sets aside all other attempts to date the Second Coming, no matter how clever or logical the interpretation of the Daniel passage may seem.

So it is with the interpretation of all scriptural symbols. They must harmonize with other doctrine and revelation or be rejected.

With these six guidelines in mind, let us examine some general categories of imagery used throughout many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

Symbolism Drawn from the Human Body

It is not surprising that almost every member and organ of the body is used figuratively in the scriptures. If we ask, “What function does this member of the body or organ serve for the whole person?” (guideline number 4), we gain a better understanding how that part of the body is used symbolically.

Since the head houses the thinking and governing organ and is also the topmost part of a person, it signifies such things as the thoughts (see Isa. 1:6), ruling power (see Ezek. 16:12), or the relative importance of something (see Jer. 22:6). When the head is bowed (lowering it below its normal state) it connotes humility or shame. (See Lam. 2:10.) An uplifted head suggests the opposite. (See Zech. 1:21.) Anciently, to forcibly shave a man’s head (to make him bald) was a deliberate humiliation, and thus baldness is often used as a symbol of God’s judgment upon the people. (See Isa. 15:2; Ezek. 7:18; Amos 8:10.)

The eyes and ears are the primary organs of perception, so by extension they suggest perceiving God’s will and doing it. To give “ear,” for example (see Isa. 28:3), means to hearken or obey. On the other hand, ears that are “heavy” are symbolic of disobedient people. (See Isa. 6:10.) The phrase in Jeremiah 6:10 [Jer. 6:10], “their ear is uncircumcised,” implies that there was nothing in the obedience of the people that justified their being known as the covenant people.

Since we breathe air through the nose, the nostrils were the symbol of life. (See Isa. 2:22.) And the tendency of the nostrils to flare out when angry or frightened helps us to understand such passages as 2 Samuel 22:9, 16 [2 Sam. 22:9, 16] and Job 41:20.

The mouth, lips, and tongue are the organs of eating and speaking. Proverbs 19:28 [Prov. 19:28] says, “the mouth of the wicked devoureth iniquity.” And Isaiah’s classic passage which says the “people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me” (Isa. 29:13) shows the power of this imagery. (See also Isa. 59:3; Mal. 2:6.)

Since things are hung around the neck, it is often associated with slavery or bondage. The “yoke” upon the neck (see Isa. 10:27; Jer. 27:2) and the “bands of thy neck” (Isa. 52:2) provide clear and powerful imagery of spiritual, and sometimes literal, bondage. On the other hand, when Isaiah says, “thy neck is an iron sinew” (Isa. 48:4) and when Jeremiah notes the people “made their neck stiff that they may not hear, nor receive instruction” (Jer. 17:23) the image is that of stubborn pride. The reason for this is linked to another function of the neck. It holds the head and turns it. Since the bowing of the head is a sign of humility, to be stiff-necked is the symbol of pride.

And so it is with the other parts and organs of the body. The heart, which is the organ of life, signifies the real, inward person. It is one of the most frequently used symbols of the body. In the Old Testament alone references to the heart appear almost six hundred times, most of them signifying this concept of the inward man.

The shoulders bear burdens, and thus symbolize carrying or bearing. (See Isa. 30:6; Ezek. 12:6.) The arm is the symbol of strength and power. (See Isa. 33:2; Jer. 21:5; Ezek. 30:21.) This gives added meaning to the phrase “I will put not my trust in the arm of flesh.” (2 Ne. 4:34; see also Jer. 17:5.)

The hand is used almost as frequently in a figurative sense as is the heart. The hand is the organ of doing and action. When Isaiah says “your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:15), he speaks of powerful condemnation. But when the Bible says of Ezekiel, “the hand of the Lord was there upon him” (Ezek. 1:3), Ezekiel is receiving a tender and moving commendation.

The knees are the symbol of submission, because when one kneels it brings his head much lower than the person before whom he kneels. Someday every knee will bow to God. (See Isa. 45:23.) Another derivation from the knees comes from the fact that when a man is frightened, his knees tend to tremble or feel weak. So at times the knees symbolize weakness or cowardice. (See Isa. 35:3; Ezek. 7:17.)

The feet serve as the organs of mobility and stability. In the scriptures they may signify the idea of walking (i.e., living) properly (see Isa. 59:7) or, in the case of the great statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, they represent unstable kingdoms (see Dan. 2:41–43). To trample something underfoot (as in Isa. 26:6; Lam. 3:34) suggests subjugation, contempt, or conquest.

Note Isaiah’s depiction of the house of Israel as a body full of sickness and disease when he said:

“Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.

“From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.” (Isa. 1:5–6.)

Imagery Drawn from Nature

Another common category of scriptural imagery consists of images and metaphors drawn from the world of nature. However, the meaning of these may not always be as readily evident as were those of the human body because many modern readers are not in the same daily, intimate contact with nature as were the peoples of Bible times. Where our life is highly mobile, fast-paced, and filled with technology, theirs was simple, uncomplicated, and relatively stable. In our modern age, the agrarian experience is foreign to most. Few have experienced the growing cycles of various crops, milked a cow, butchered an animal, or harvested grains. So we should not be surprised that we do not always grasp significance of images drawn from agrarian life.

A classic example of this, and one of the most beautifully profound passages of Isaiah, is at first reading difficult to understand. After describing some of the judgments of God, Isaiah says:

“Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech.

“Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground?

“When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place?

“For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him.

“For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod.

“Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen.

“This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working.” (Isa. 28:23–29.)

The footnote for verse 29 (remember guideline number three!) gives us the first clue. It tells us that the reaping and threshing of the world (or, we might say, the judgments of God) will be properly done even as it is on a farm. The people of Isaiah’s day were not confused by his language; they needed only to draw upon their everyday experience. Let us walk through the imagery to get a sense of the understanding they probably had.

Note the question in verse 24: “Does the plowman plow all day to sow?” A farmer plows only long enough to prepare the soil for planting. He doesn’t plow a field over and over just for the sake of plowing it. When he has “made plain [or smooth] the face thereof” (Isa. 28:25), a process we call harrowing, he plants the crops. Anciently, the farmer walked in the field with a bag of seed and cast the seed across the ground in great sweeping arcs. Thus the phrase in verse 25, “he casts abroad.”

Scholars believe “fitches” (Isa. 28:25) were the black poppy. Cummin is still a common spice.

Isaiah here is likening Israel to God’s field. When Israel has become hardened through apostasy and iniquity, they can no longer receive the seed of the gospel message. Thus, the Lord’s chastisements and judgments serve as the plowing and harrowing processes. But like the wise farmer (see Isa. 28:26), God doesn’t plow Israel with his judgments any more than is necessary to prepare them for growth and change. It is an act of love and wisdom, not vengeance.

In verses 27–28, the same idea is taught, but now the imagery changes from the time of planting to the time of the harvest. Any farmer knows different crops must be harvested in a different manner. Anciently, wheat was threshed by rolling or dragging heavy weights (such as a cart wheel) back and forth across the heads to separate the kernels from the husks. Sometimes a threshing sled was used.

But the seeds of the black poppy and cummin are not like the hard grains of wheat. Fitches and cummin were threshed by holding bunches of the stalks upside down, then striking them sharply with a stick so the seeds fell onto a cloth below. (See Isa. 28:27.) To put fitches or cummin under a cart wheel would turn the soft seeds to pulp.

So the imagery is the same as that in verses 24–25. God’s judgments are like the various methods of threshing. If the spiritual state of the people is not too far gone, then a sharp rapping with a stick (or mild judgments) can bring them to productivity. In deeper stages of apostasy, however, more drastic methods may be required. An understanding of the symbolism used helps turn this passage from one of difficulty to one of power and beauty.

For another example of how an understanding of the imagery can add to our understanding of the message of the prophets, note Isaiah’s description of Israel as “a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers.” (Isa. 1:8.) Set in the midst of a series of scathing denunciations, this picture of Israel is a little puzzling. A cottage in a vineyard? That doesn’t sound so bad. We tend to picture a quaint little English cottage with a thatched roof sitting in the midst of a green field of grape vines. Is this such a negative image? But this is an erroneous picture, because we are not familiar with what Isaiah depicts.

“When the vineyard and the cucumber crops were ready to harvest, small booths, or huts, were built in the fields so the owner or his servants could watch over the harvest and protect it from thieves or animals. These huts were generally crudely made and hastily erected. After the harvest, they were abandoned and quickly became dilapidated and forlorn relics of the harvest. Jerusalem was to be like that—once proud and useful, but now, through her own spiritual neglect, an empty and forlorn relic.” (“Old Testament: 1 Kings—Malachi”, Religion 302 Student Manual, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 137.)

There are a hundred other examples of such symbolism in the writings of the prophets. The most majestic tree of ancient Palestine was a type of cedar tree that towered a hundred feet or more. These were found only on the slopes of the mountain ranges of what was then and is still known as Lebanon. So the “cedars of Lebanon” (see Isa. 2:13) became a symbol of those who were proud and lifted up in their own sight.

Jeremiah challenged the people of his day, saying that if they were already troubled by the first of the Lord’s judgments, how would they cope with the fury yet to come? Yet he couches it all in figurative language. “If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? and if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan? (Jer. 12:5.)

The annual flooding of the Jordan River, in the early summer just as the first of the grain harvest was beginning, drove the lions and other dangerous animals from the thick undergrowth that lined the banks. Because most of the people were in the fields for the harvest, these wild animals did great damage. Thus, Jeremiah’s question, “Then how wilt thou do in the swelling of the Jordan?” is a powerful reminder that if Israel does not repent, much worse is yet to come!

Ezekiel’s allegory of Israel as a vine tree—a grape plant (see Ezek. 15:1–8)—is yet another example of the power these ancient inspired writers found in the natural world around them. Ezekiel notes that the only value of the grape vine is the fruit it produces. Its wood is too twisted and gnarled to be used to make anything. So it is with Israel, the Lord warns. If it cannot produce good fruit, then the only alternative is to burn the vineyard.

From the plant and animal kingdoms, from the weather and the climate, from the daily life of farming and herding, from the geography that surrounded them, from political and historical settings, the prophets of ancient Israel constantly drew imagery and metaphors that would more powerfully convey their message. Through the prophet Hosea the Lord said, “I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets.” (Hosea 12:10.)

It is our privilege and blessing to learn to understand the similitudes and images, the symbols and metaphors designed by a wise and loving Father to more effectively teach his children. The imagery of the prophets was meant to be understood by the faithful and those who search his word with diligence. If we pay the necessary price, the writings that were so filled with life and power when first uttered by these inspired men can and will once again be filled with life and enter with great power into our minds and hearts.

[photos] Photography by Derek Smith

Gerald N. Lund, director of the Curriculum and Instruction Division of the Church Educational System, teaches Sunday School in his Bountiful, Utah, ward.