Symbolism

“Symbolism is symbolic of the symbol it symbolizes”

                                                                      TJ Smith

Man, that was deep!  I don’t even know what that means.  But it is true that what something is meant to identify or express is far for important than the object itself.

Use the wedding ring as an example: it can be cheap or expensive. Ornate or simple. It can be of white or yellow gold, or a cigar band.  The ring itself has little value alone, but its significance is far greater. How about a gold crown?  That should speak for itself, right?  Maybe not.  I saw the fry cook at the local hamburger joint wearing a gold-colored paper crown.  Does that mean I should bow to him when he hands me my order?  Maybe he was a descendent of royal peanut-oil?  The point is the symbolism of a crown was being marketed by the fast food restaurant to induce the image of royalty wanting to eat a burger at this place. We all understand the imagery of a crown. The entire world understands. But the symbolism is what is always more influential that the actual object. 

The Wedding dress: though Mary Queen of Scots wore a white wedding gown in 1559 when she married her first husband, Francis Dauphin of France, the tradition of a white wedding dress is commonly credited to Queen Victoria’s choice to wear a white court dress at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Around the world, brides use all colors and fabrics to celebrate their wedding.  Yet they all pale when compared to the symbol the dress represents.  Ironically, the Western church believes the bride mentioned in the book of the Revelation wore a white dress, though the color was never mentioned.

Even the ensigns the children of Israel carried in the desert, as well as the ensigns the Roman guards carried, were not as important as what they represented. Just as the Police Officers badge is just a piece of metal shaped into a star, it represents something far more powerful: Law and Order. 

One mistake we make when reading the Bible, and especially books like the Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and others, is to not look beyond the physical item to understand the symbolism behind it.  Let’s face it, Revelation 21 is not about a real dragon being tied to a real chain and thrown into some bottomless pit.  First, there is no such thing as a bottomless pit.  Eventually you would fall out the other side of the earth   if you didn’t burn up in earth’s magma 1800 miles down.  The chain in Rev. 20 represented God’s power and authority to restrain wickedness, and the bottomless pit represented the darkest doom and gloom with no control over the circumstances, at the mercy of the one who placed you there. Finally, I think we can agree that the dragon symbolized Satan.  The Greek word is “drakon”.  In this usage, a dragon was not fire breathing nor did it have wings. In fact, just the opposite: Revelation 12:16 “And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.”(ERRB)  The word “flood” has definitions all related to water.  This particular dragon did not breath fire, but water.  Nor do we find any reference to it flying.  It would be best to ignore Hollywood and medieval western European folklore of what a dragon looked like.  The Greek word came first, then over the centuries the physical representation has morphed into what we understand today: a gigantic flying-fire-breathing, mythical creature living in a cave, who might be able to speak english, with a Sean Connery accent.  Probably just heartbroken from some past dragon-love gone awry. 

The symbol John saw in his vision was only to help the reader (or listener) get an idea of what this vision  represented.  If a woman calls a man a snake, we can probably assume he is a womanizer. 

Remember this principle when you are trying to understand the symbolism in the book of the Revelation.  It was not intended to paint a physical picture of actual scorpions stinging men for 4 months, nor to have us understand that someday, stars will “fall” out of the sky.  Since there is no gravity in space, and since even the smallest of stars are many times larger than our Sun, and since there is no direction in space and therefore a star cannot “fall”, this phrase is ‘symbolic’ of earthly rulers and powers being displaced.  We learn this from the dream that Joseph tried to explain to his father in Genesis 37:9-10:

9And he dreamed another dream, and related it to his father, and to his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed another dream: as it were the sun, and the moon, and the eleven stars did me reverence. 10And his father rebuked him, and said to him,‘What is this dream which thou hast dreamed? Shall indeed both I and thy mother and thy brethren come and bow before thee to the earth?’”  (Brenton)

Be a Berean and study for yourself. Begin to filter your understanding according to the type of Biblical genre you are reading. Is the passage apocalyptic, poetic, historical, Epistolic, Prophetic? Learn this first, then proceed.

Here is a quote from Pastor Mel Lorenz[1]

“Later today I will go to my mailbox, remove its contents, go into the kitchen, and sort the mail. I will be able to tell from the size, packaging, and addresses on the mail which pieces are advertising, bills, and personal mail. This sorting into types helps me discern the value of the different pieces.

There is a large bookstore I frequently visit. I know just where to find histories and biographies, novels and picture books, technical manuals and reference works. Knowing the different genres and where to find them helps me gain what I am looking for.

And when I open the Bible, I know from having studied it for decades whether I am reading a gospel passage, a prophecy, a Psalm, or an epistle. I do not expect Isaiah to lay out the details of the history of Israel as do the books of Kings and Chronicles. I know when I’m studying a Psalm that the forms of a poem or song will help me understand the meaning. And when I read 1 Corinthians I know I’m listening to one side of a two-sided conversation.


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2016/03/the-many-genres-of-scripture/

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