Riddles were a type of word puzzle widely used in ancient times, both for entertainment and as a test of wisdom. Riddles allowed the speaker to obscure valuable information from the undeserving while simultaneously disclosing a vital truth to worthy listeners. Typically, the language of a riddle functioned on two levels: it conveyed a straightforward meaning and a symbolic or allegorical point that was understood only by discerning individuals.
Likely the best-known riddle in the Bible is the one Samson told at his wedding feast. Samson’s riddle was the amusement type often used at weddings, banquets, feasts, and intellectual gatherings of the ancient world. The groom, Samson, entertained and challenged his thirty male Philistine guests by asking them to solve a riddle within seven days. The prize Samson offered was thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothing to the deserving guest. If no one solved the riddle, the guests would have to give Samson an identical prize. Samson’s riddle consisted of a poetic couplet: “Out of the eater, something to eat; / out of the strong, something sweet” (Judges 14:12–14). Unable to solve the riddle, the thirty men threatened Samson’s Philistine bride for the answer, which came in the form of a riddle as well: “What is sweeter than honey? / What is stronger than a lion?” (verse 18). Samson’s anger over their “cheating” resulted in his slaying of thirty Philistine men (verse 19), which in turn led to escalating violence and the death of Samson’s bride (Judges 15:6).
The same word used for Samson’s riddle, ḥīdhāh, is translated as “hard questions” that the queen of Sheba put to King Solomon: “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the LORD, she came to test Solomon with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan, . . . she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her” (1 Kings 10:1–3). Someone who could solve riddles was considered a wise and discerning person. Like Solomon, Daniel was a skillful interpreter of riddles (Daniel 5:11–12).
Some proverbs such as those found in Proverbs 30:15–31 were initially considered riddles. These proverbs employed riddles as a way of teaching and testing wisdom (Proverbs 1:6) as well as exposing vices. In Ezekiel 17:1–10, a symbolic riddle compares King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to an eagle. And, in the New Testament, a mathematical riddle appears in the mysterious number of the beast, 666 (Revelation 13:18).
Jesus sometimes used riddles to outsmart His opponents, such as the case when He asked, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” in Mark 3:23. In another passage, Jesus made use of a riddle to silence the religious leaders when they challenged his authority in Matthew 21:23–27.
The predominant reason for the use of riddles in the Bible was to hide information from the hard-hearted who rejected the truth while revealing it to true believers. In Matthew 13:10, the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke to the people in parables. Jesus answered, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (verse 11). Then Jesus pointed to the book of Isaiah: “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (verse 15, quoting Isaiah 6:10).
Because of the condition of their hearts, the people who lacked faith were unable to comprehend the meaning in the parables. However, the people of faith had received God’s gracious favor and the ability to understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Unbelief will cause a person to hear the truth and yet become more and more shrouded by his choice to disbelieve. However, those who receive and respond to God’s Word with an open heart will discover ever-broadening insight and revelation into spiritual truth.
Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” God is glorified by concealing information because a certain level of mystery about spiritual matters increases our sense of wonder and quest for discovery. God hides some truth so that we must search it out. Like looking for seashells or panning for gold, rarely do we find the most valuable treasures scattered on the surface of God’s Word. God includes riddles in the Bible because treasured truth must be searched for as we rely on the Spirit of God.