Question: "How can I recognize and understand biblical symbolism?"
Answer: The language of the Bible is rich with metaphor. The biblical writers used familiar, everyday objects to symbolize spiritual truth. Symbols are quite common in the poetic and prophetic portions of the Bible. By its very nature, poetry relies heavily on figurative language; when Solomon calls his bride “a lily among thorns” (Song of Solomon 2:2), he is using symbols to declare the desirability and uniqueness of the Shulamite. Prophecy, too, contains much figurative imagery. Isaiah often used trees and forests as symbols of strength (e.g., Isaiah 10:18-19; 32:19). Daniel saw “a goat with a prominent horn between his eyes” who “came from the west . . . without touching the ground” (Daniel 8:5), and we interpret this as a kingdom (Greece) and its king (Alexander the Great) who speedily conquered the world.
Jesus’ teaching was full of symbolism. He presented Himself as a Shepherd, a Sower, a Bridegroom, a Door, a Cornerstone, a Vine, Light, Bread, and Water. He likened the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast, a seed, a tree, a field, a net, a pearl, and yeast. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other symbols in the Bible.
Note that a literal interpretation of the Bible allows for figurative language. Here’s a simple rule: if the literal meaning of a passage leads to obvious absurdity, but a figurative meaning yields clarity, then the passage is probably using symbols. For example, in Exodus 19:4, God tells Israel, “I carried you on eagles’ wings.” A literal reading of this statement would lead to absurdity—God did not use real eagles to airlift His people out of Egypt. The statement is obviously symbolic; God is emphasizing the speed and strength with which He delivered Israel. This leads to another rule of biblical interpretation: a symbol will have a non-symbolic meaning. In other words, there is something real (a real person, a real historical event, a real trait) behind every figure of speech.
Here are a few symbols used in the Bible:
Walk with God: To "walk" with someone is to live in fellowship and harmony with him. Since God can only live in a way that reflects His holy character, to "walk with God" is to live according the path He has laid out, to obey Him.
Genesis 5:22; 6:9; Deuteronomy 10:12; Joshua 22:5; 1 Kings 8:23; Micah 6:8
Dust, stars, sand: The Bible often uses these metaphors to represent the number of descendants God promised to Abraham. This would include Abraham’s physical descendants (Jews and Arabs) as well as Abraham’s spiritual progeny (those who live by faith, Galatians 3:7).
Genesis 13:16; 15:5; 26:4; 28:14; 32:12; Exodus 32:13; Isaiah 48:19; Jeremiah 33:22; Hebrews 11:12
Flowing with milk and honey: God often referred to Canaan as "a land flowing with milk and honey." An abundance of milk and honey was symbolic of lush, fertile farmland, plenty of water, and rich grass for dairy animals and flowers for bees. Milk and honey were two of the most prized foods in Old Testament times, and a land "flowing" with them would be very desirable.
Exodus 3:8; 17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27; 14:8; 16:13, 14; Deuteronomy 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; 31:20; Josh. 5:6; Song of Solomon 4:11; 5:1; Isaiah 7:22; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; Ezekiel 20:6, 15
Circumcised hearts: Physical circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and His chosen people, the Jews. It was, of course, an external alteration. What God really wanted, though, was an internal alteration—a spiritual circumcision, as it were. To have one's heart circumcised was to fully identify with Him. It is not enough to obey His Word on the outside; we must be characterized by His Word on the inside.
Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 2:28-29
Cedars of Lebanon: In Israel, large trees were hard to come by and very valuable. The cedars in Lebanon grow up to 130 feet tall with trunks up to eight feet in diameter. They were valued for their resin, which Egyptians used in mummification, and wood, which was used to build ships. The cedars are used symbolically in the Bible to represent strength and stature or pride.
Judges 9:15; 2 Kings 19:23; Psalm 29:5; 72:16; 104:16; Song of Solomon 5:15; Isaiah 2:13; 14:8; 37:24; Hosea 14:5-6; Zechariah 11:1
Hearts of stone or flesh: A heart of stone is emblematic of a spiritually dead heart that cannot respond to God's grace. God promises to remove our heart of stone and replace it with a living, loving heart that can follow Him.
Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26
Ephraim and Judah: In the divided kingdom, the ten tribes in the north were many times collectively called “Ephraim” after the most prominent tribe living there. The tribes in the south were often referred to as “Judah” after the most prominent southern tribe. This particular figure of speech, in which a part is substituted for the whole, is called metonymy.
Isaiah 7:9, 17; 9:21
Ramah and Rachel: Ramah was a small town about five miles from Jerusalem. Rachel was one of Jacob’s wives buried near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19). Ramah mourning and Rachel weeping in the book of Jeremiah are symbols of the sadness experienced when Judah was conquered by Babylon and sent into exile. Matthew quotes Jeremiah and furthers the metaphor, applying it to Herod’s massacre of the babies in Bethlehem. Ramah becomes a symbol of Bethlehem, and Rachel becomes a symbol of the grieving mothers there.
Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18
Shaking the dust off one’s feet: In New Testament times, a devout Jew would shake the dust off his feet when he left a Gentile city to symbolically cleanse himself of ungodly practices. Jesus told His disciples to do the same if a Jewish household or village rejected the message of the Messiah.
Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5
Whitewashed tombs: A whitewashed tomb is a stone crypt that is clean and well kept on the outside but filled with bones and death. Jesus used this image as a symbol to represent hypocrites—religious people who do not follow God in their hearts.
Matthew 23:27; Luke 11:44
Capstone: A capstone is one of the top stones on a wall. Metaphorically, it is the finishing touch or the crowning achievement. Jesus used this symbol of Himself.
Mark 12:10; 1 Peter 2:6-7
Slave/servant of Christ: The New Testament writers use the idea of being a slave or servant of Christ to symbolize our responsibility to do the will of Christ and not be self-serving. It is sometimes juxtaposed with its alternative of being a slave to sin; a believer is set free from sin and is now led by the Spirit. An indentured servant, after fulfilling his obligation to his master, could volunteer to stay and serve his master for life—a picture of how we serve Christ willingly.
Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Colossians 1:7; 1 Timothy 4:6; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1; Revelation 1:1
Serpent: Snakes are mentioned many times in the Bible, and never in a positive light. In Genesis and Revelation, the serpent symbolizes Satan. The serpent of Eden is described as crafty—an idea Jesus reiterates in Matthew 10. In Hebrew, the noun for “serpent” is related to the verb for “divining and fortune-telling.”
Genesis 3:1, 14; 49:17; Numbers 21:6; Deuteronomy 32:33; Job 26:13; Psalm 58:4; 91:13; 140:3; Proverbs 23:32; 30:19; Isaiah 14:29; 65:25; Matthew 10:16; 23:33; Luke 10:19; Revelation 12:9, 14, 15; 20:2
Lion: Lions in the Bible can represent power. A lion devours prey and lies down without fear. The Bible compares God (Hosea 5:14), Jesus (Revelation 5:5), and even Satan (1 Peter 5:8) to a lion.
Genesis 49:9; Numbers 23:24; 24:9; Deuteronomy 33:20, 22; 1 Chronicles 12:8; Job 4:10, 11; 10:16; 28:8; 38:39; Psalm 10:9; 91:13; 104:21; Proverbs 19:12; Ecclesiastes 9:4; Isaiah 5:29; 11:6, 7; Jeremiah 2:15, 30; 4:7; 12:8; Ezekiel 1:10; 19:2, 3; 19:6; Daniel 7:4; 2 Timothy 4:17; Revelation 4:7; 9:17; 10:3
Dog: Dogs in Bible times were not cherished family pets. They were mongrels who ran wild and scavenged. Jews often referred to Gentiles as "dogs"—not a complimentary epithet. Jesus' interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15 shows how He ministered to the "dogs" and the children, both.
Exodus 11:7; Deuteronomy 23:18; 1 Samuel 17:43; 24:14; 2 Samuel 16:9; Job 30:1; Psalm 22:20, 16; 59:6; 68:23; Proverbs 26:11; 26:17; Ecclesiastes 9:4; Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 15:3; Matthew 7:6; 15:27; Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15
Sheep: Sheep are herd animals who are amazingly dependent on a shepherd for their well-being. And they are the animal most used by God to symbolize His followers. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are the sheep who recognize His voice, follow Him, and rely on Him for our safety and provision.
Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Psalm 23:1; 44:11, 22; 49:14; 74:1; 78:52; 95:7; 119:176; Isaiah 53:6, 7; Jeremiah 23:1; 50:6; Ezekiel 34:11, 12; 34:17; Matthew 9:36; 10:6; 26:31; John 10:11, 16, 26
We interpret the Bible literally, but this this does not mean we ignore symbols and metaphorical language. God’s written communication to the world is a richly textured literary masterpiece and makes full use of the tools of language, including symbolism, metaphor, simile, and motif.