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Symbols Used in the Bible

This study of symbols used in the Bible is not exhaustive. It is only a selection of some of the more common symbols, which may help you to better understand parts of the Bible.

Symbols in this study:

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Incense – the Prayers of Saints

Revelation 5:8

Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Here we see the Bible directly identifies incense as the prayer of the saints. (A "saint," by the way, is a person who has accepted Jesus as his savior. Saints are "cannonized" by the Holy Spirit, not by the decrees of an earthly church.)

Revelation 8:3-4

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand.

Prayers and incense in Revelation 8:3-4 are used together, as if they were one and the same thing.

Psalm 141:2

May my prayer be set before you like incense;

David said his prayer is "like incense." Notice how far back this symbolism goes, all the way to 1000 BC. Just remember, incense is not prayer. Incense is symbolic of prayer. If you offer literal incense, that is not the same thing as praying. Symbolism helps you understand spiritual things better; they are not a replacement of spiritual things.

When God gave instructions on how to build his Tabernacle, it included an altar for incense:

Exodus 30:1-6

“Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. It is to be square, a cubit long and a cubit wide, and two cubits high—its horns of one piece with it. Overlay the top and all the sides and the horns with pure gold, and make a gold molding around it. Make two gold rings for the altar below the molding—two on opposite sides—to hold the poles used to carry it. Make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Put the altar in front of the curtain that is before the ark of the Testimony—before the atonement cover that is over the Testimony—where I will meet with you.

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Stars – Angels

Angels are not stars (at least, not as far as I know). Neither are stars angels. The Bible sometimes uses the word "stars" as being symbolic of angels. It doesn't have to be that way every time the word "star" is used in the Bible. But in the Bible, when "star" is used symbolically, it means angel. Here are some examples:

Revelation 1:10-20

On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea." I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

Psalm 147:4

He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.

Isaiah 14:12-13

How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God;"

I don't know if there are any stars above God's head, but here in Isaiah 14 it seems to me Satan (the one cast down to the earth) wishes to set his throne above the angels of God ("the stars of God"). Apparently he knows he cannot do battle with God, but he can be second in command, and rule over the angels.

Luke 10:18

[Jesus] replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."

Revelation 12:7-9

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Revelation 12:3-4

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.

This is where we (theologians) get the idea that one-third of the angels followed Satan when he was cast out of heaven. Many people call them demons, although I'm not sure that's an accurate description.

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Sword – Word of God

Ephesians 6:10-18

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Notice that in the Armor of God, the Sword is the only offensive weapon we have. All other items are for defense only. Thus, when we deal with our enemies, we don’t have an inquisition and burn them at the stake; instead, we preach the Word of God to them.

Revelation 1:16

In [Jesus'] right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.

Hebrews 4:12

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

I kind of like the phrase used in the King James Version, "For the Word of God is quick and powerful." In this case, of course, "quick" means "living," not "fast."

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Word of God – Jesus

John 1:1-3

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

All thing were made by the Word. Thus,

Genesis chapter 1 says,

And God said, “Let there be light," and there was light.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." So God made the expanse

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so.

And God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds." And it was so.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so.

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky." So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind." And it was so.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

And so we see, as recorded in John 1, that Jesus, the Word from God, created all things on earth. Or, God created all things by his Word, which is Jesus.

1 John 1: 1-4

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

John said he and the other apostles saw the Word of life, they touched it, they looked at it, and this is what they are teaching. Now anybody knows you cannot see a literal spoken "word." Also, you cannot see "life," although you can see things that are alive. But this "Word of life," is Jesus, who came to earth, whom they saw and touched and spoke to.

Revelation 19:11-16

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter." He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

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Oil – Holy Spirit

The Bible uses “oil" as symbolic for the Spirit of God, however this is a bit more difficult to illustrate because I know of no Bible verse that says “Oil is the Spirit of God." Instead, we see how oil is used, how it is credited for work that is actually done by the Spirit, and how oil is used in the Bible alongside mention of the Spirit of God. In other words, it’s a leap; it’s a conclusion one arrives at.

But remember, this is not an important aspect of the Bible. If you think it’s not true, it changes no Biblical doctrine; you can well go through your Spiritual life without ever thinking of oil as being symbolic of the Spirit.

Symbolism is used simply to give you an idea about how heavenly things work.

1 John 2:20-21

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.

People anoint with oil. But this "anoinging from the Holy One" is not done with oil. It is done when the Spirit of God comes on us and fills us.

Jesus said in John 16:13

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.

Luke 4:18

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

Olive oil is good for cooking food in, but it cannot teach you how to preach good news to the poor. You can sit all day in front of a barrel of oil and it won’t teach you a thing. Only the Spirit of God can do that. When you are “anointed" to preach to the poor, that means the Holy Spirit is within you, giving you help, guidance, direction and power.

Acts 10:36-38

You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

And thus we see that God anointed Jesus not with oil but with the Spirit of God.

In addition to that, we see throughout the Bible people who are “anointed" with the Spirit of God and other people who are anointed with oil and afterwards they have the spirit of God in them. Therefore theologians tend to equate the Biblical use of oil with the Holy Spirit, such as in the Parable of the Ten Virgins

Matthew 25:1-13

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’
But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

The virgins are symbolic of church members who are waiting for Christ to return. Some are prepared; they have "oil," that is, they have the Spirit of God in them, which is a mark of the Christian, a true believer. Other church people are in chruch only but they have never made a faithful commitment to God and Christ. That is, they are just playing the game. They have no oil – no Spirit of God in them. When the time comes for judgment, those spiritless church members will be found lacking, and God will separate the "sheep from the goats," as told in Matthew 25:31-46.

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