Introduction to Symbolism in the Bible
Throughout the Bible, symbolic language abounds. This is especially true of apocalyptic language found in prophesy. Beasts rise from the sea with seven heads and ten horns. Locusts wear golden crowns on their heads. Trees are witnesses. A bear rises up and devours three ribs. A king is a head of gold. This is visionary language.
The Bible contains many different uses of language: prose, poetry, song, narrative, parables, prophecy. Just as in English, the Bible uses metaphors, similes, hyperbole, colloquialisms, literal language, and yes, symbolism. We must recognize when we read an English translation that the original language was Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek.
The rules of hermeneutics, or how to interpret scripture, require us to look at symbolic visions differently than historical narratives, for example. Otherwise, interpreting all prophetic passages as literal will make the passages absurd.
This means word studies. It can seem to be a long and tedious way of determining meaning, but it is really the only way to be accurate.
In a word study we start with the immediate context of the symbol in the passage you are reading. We must then go through other prophecies and finally, all scriptures with beasts, seas, horns, etc. to determine how the words or word phrases are used. Several uses of the word may become apparent, the context will narrow the intended use in a specific passage.
In the past this was accomplished using exhaustive concordances such as Strong’s or Young’s. However, in the age of the computer these time consuming comparisons can be made in seconds. This leaves us with only the tedious task of reading through all the passages in context. There are no short cuts in Bible study just as there are no short cuts in love.
The Bible is a giant love song from our Beloved. Every word, every phrase whether they are from poems, prose, or songs, are meant to lead us to a deeper understanding of our Lover. The more we find God, the more His plans and purposes fill our lives. Finally, His plans and purposes become clear and actionable.
FYI: The dispensationalist try to deny this symbolic language stating over and over that they interpret the Bible literally. They are disingenuous in their position as they almost always have both hands and both eyes intact [Matt 5:29-30]. Their “I feel, I think, I believe” hermeneutic is arbitrary and therefore can not be put to any reasonable test.