The Language of the Prophets

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As I mentioned above, much of the Bible is written in symbols. A helpful way to understand this, perhaps, would be to speak of these symbols as a set of patterns and associations. By this I mean that Biblical symbolism is not a code. It is, instead, a way of seeing, a perspective. For example, when Jesus speaks of "living water" (John 4:10), we rightly recognize that He is using water as a symbol. We understand that when He spoke to the woman at the well, He was not merely offering her "water." He was offering her eternal life. But He called it "water." We should immediately ask: Why did He do that? He could have simply said "eternal life." Why did He speak in metaphor? Why did He want her to think of water?

Now this is where we can make a big mistake, and this is the primary error of some interpreters who try to take a "symbolic" approach. It is to think that Biblical symbolism is primarily a puzzle for us to solve. We can suddenly decide: "Aha! Water is a special code-word which means eternal life. That means that whenever the Bible talks about water symbolically, it is really talking about eternal life; whenever someone takes a drink, he is really becoming a Christian." It just doesn't work that way (as you will see if you try to apply it throughout the Bible). Besides, what sense would it make for the Bible simply to put everything in code? The Bible is not a book for spies and secret societies; it is God's revelation of Himself to His covenant people. The puzzle-solving, mystical interpretation tends to be speculative; it does not pay sufficient attention to the way the Bible itself speaks.

When Jesus offered "water" to the woman, He wanted her to think of the multiple imagery connected with water in the Bible. In a general sense, of course, we know that water is associated with the Spiritual refreshment and sustenance of life which comes through salvation. But the Biblical associations with water are much more complex than that. This is because understanding Biblical symbolism does not mean cracking a code. It is much more like reading good poetry.

The symbolism of the Bible is not structured in a flat, this-means-that style. Instead, it is meant to be read visually. We are to see the images rise before us in succession, layer upon layer, allowing them to evoke a response in our minds and hearts. The prophets did not write in order to create stimulating intellectual exercises. They wrote to teach. They wrote in visual, dramatic symbols; and if we would fully understand their message we must appreciate their vocabulary. We must read the Bible visually. The visual symbols themselves, and what the Bible says about them, are important aspects of what God wants us to learn; otherwise, He wouldn't have spoken that way. /

So, when the Bible tells us a story about water, it is not "really" telling us about something else; it is telling us ^out water. But at the same time we are expected to see the water, and to think of the Biblical associations with regard to water. The system of interpretation offered here is neither "literalistic" nor "symbolic"; it takes the "water" seriously and literally, but it also takes seriously what God's Word associates with water throughout the history of Biblical revelation.

What are some of the Biblical associations which might have occurred to the woman at the well, and to the disciples? Here are a few of them: ,

1. The watery, fluid mass that was the original nature of the earth at the creation, and out of which God formed all life (Gen. 1);

2. The great river of Eden that watered the whole earth (Gen. 2);

3. The salvation of Noah and his family by the waters of the Flood, out of which the earth was re-created (Gen. 6-9);

4. God's gracious revelations to Hagar by a fountain (Gen. 16) and a well (Gen. 21);

5. The well called Rehoboth, where God gave Isaac dominion (Gen. 26);

6. The river out of which the infant Moses, the future Deliverer of Israel, was taken and made a prince (Ex.2);

7. The redemptive crossing of the Red Sea, where God again saved His people by water (Ex. 14);

8. The water that flowed from the stricken Rock at Sinai, giving life to the people (Ex. 17);

9. The many ritual sprinklings in the Old Testament, signifying the removal of filth, pollution, sickness and death, and the bestowal of the Spirit upon the priests (e.g., Lev. 14; Num. 8);

10. The crossing of the Jordan River (Josh. 3);

11. The sound of rushing waters made by the pillar of cloud (Ezek. 1);

12. The River of Life flowing from the Temple and healing the Dead Sea (Ezek. 47).

Thus, when the Bible speaks of water, we are supposed to have in our minds a vast host of associative concepts, a complex of Biblical images that affects our thinking about water. To put it differently, water is supposed to be something like a "buzzword," a term that calls up many associations and connotations. When we read the word water we should be reminded of God's saving acts and revelations by water throughout Scripture. The Bible uses many of these "buzz-words," and increases the number of them as it goes on; until, by the time we get to Revelation (the capstone of Biblical prophecy), they all come rushing toward us at once, in a blizzard of associative references, some of which are obvious, some obscure. To the one who really knows his Bible and has noted the literary patterns and images, much of the book will look familiar; to the rest of us, it's confusing. In Revelation, we are confronted with all the Biblical connotations of numerous images: not only water, but light, fire, clouds, angels, stars, lamps, food, stones, swords, thrones, rainbows, robes, thunder, voices, animals, wings, scavengers, eyes, keys, trumpets, plagues, mountains, winds, seas, altars, blood, locusts, trees, heads, horns, and crowns.

Revelation also presents us with pictures of a Woman, a Dragon, a wilderness, a mark in the forehead, a sickle, pearls, a winepress, a cup of wine, a Harlot, a river, Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, resurrection, a wedding, a marriage supper, the Bridegroom, and the Bride/City in the shape of a pyramid. And then there's the use of symbolic numbers: two, three, four, seven, ten, twelve, and multiples thereof -24, 42, 144, 666, 1,000, 1,260, 7,000, 12,000, and 144,000.

This is why it's necessary to understand the Bible and its use of symbols and patterns if we are ever to understand the Book of Revelation. The following chapters on the Paradise theme in Scripture are designed to introduce the reader to the Bible's use of imagery. Essentially, this is an exercise in Biblical Theology, the technical term for the study of God's progressive revelation of salvation. In principle, the whole Story of redemption is taught in the early chapters of the Bible: the rest is simply built upon the foundation laid there. This is why, as we shall see below, the later revelations depend so heavily on the theme of the Garden of Eden.

As we enter this study of Biblical imagery, let's review the basic rules:

1. Read visually; try to picture what the Bible is saying.

2. Read Biblically; don't speculate or become abstract, but pay close attention to what the Bible itself says about its own symbols.

3. Read the Story; try to think about how each element in the Bible contributes to its message of salvation as a whole.

We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it at first.

St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation [11


The story of Eden contains three basic ideas, concepts which confront us repeatedly as we study the Bible: Creation, the Fall, and Redemption in Christ. As these ideas are developed throughout the history of salvation, we see familiar images and actions reappearing and patterns beginning to take shape, until the last book of the Bible finally answers all the questions that began in the first book. God's self-revelation is a coherent, consistent whole; and it comes to us in very beautiful literary forms. Our proper understanding of the message will be inadequate unless we attempt to understand and appreciate the form in which that message is communicated. By beginning our study where the Bible itself begins, we can more readily understand not only the Book of Revelation, but the Bible itself - why the writers of the Bible said what they said in the way they said it. And our reasons for doing so are that we might more fully trust in God's promises, obey His commands, and inherit His blessings.

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