As I said in my last post, much of the Bible is written to conceal God’s Truths from those who would take it lightly. Jesus told us not to cast our pearls before swine. Well, by teaching in parables, He did just that. In the same way, by giving their prophecies in symbolic language, the prophets ensured that only those who truly seek to understand the Lord’s Word will learn the symbolic language in which much of prophecy is written. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, especially believers. Scripture tells us that what is given freely or comes too easily is not held in high regard. But those things for which we must work and work hard: those things are cherished. The blessing here is that the symbolic language used by the prophets is all defined in Scripture, you just have to put in the time to read and understand it. And because Scripture is learned precept upon precept, you will have to read and re-read until the Lord can teach you what you need to know to understand His prophecies. When you get there, not only will you understand His prophecies better, you will also discover that you have built an intimate relationship with Him along the way. So now, about that symbolic language.
The first place we should start is with Genesis, then go forward. There is symbolic language in every book of Scripture, especially so in Psalms. We must learn to look for it and to recognize it when we see it.
As for the prophets, they will often explain their symbolic language themselves. If we read closely, we will usually find that the prophet defines the symbolism in his own prophecy. However, there are exceptions. Luckily, the prophet usually makes this clear, as well. For example: when the prophet tells us he was told to “seal up” a piece of what he saw in his vision, the prophet is telling us that part of his prophecy is meant for a later generation. Most times, if he tells us anything about this part of his vision, the prophet does not explain the symbolism he uses to do so. This has to be learned later. Luckily for us, we are very far down the Lord’s story-line, so we have access to a great deal of later prophecy that the ancient prophet may not have had in his day. We must teach ourselves to look for it.
The perfect example here is found in Ezekiel 4:6 when the Lord tells the prophet he is given ‘a day for a year.’ The definition, itself, is symbolic, but when we read the passage, the context tells us that the prophet was told to lay one day for every year of history that will pass in the fulfillment of this particular prophecy. There are two things we must take away from this. First, and most immediate, the number of days the prophet was told to lay equal a number of years in the fulfillment of this prophecy. These are real-time years in the lives of men; in the history of the Hebrew people. But the second thing is just as important. That is, once the Lord defines a symbolic meaning, unless He changes it at a latter date, we do not have the authority to change that meaning!
Understand, the prophets knew the Scriptures. There is a great deal of symbolism in Psalms, and the Psalms define the meanings. So the prophets would just assume their audience knew these meanings. But the prophets also paid attention to and studied each other. This is because they wanted to know and understand the Lord’s prophetic language as much as any other. So, after Ezekiel shared that a day is a year, all prophets after Ezekiel who mention a day in a prophetic timeline should be assumed to be using the day in like manner. The perfect example here is Daniel’s many prophecies which count days (just to be clear here: not Daniel’s 70 weeks, but his ‘days’ prophecies).
So, we must learn to look for things in Scripture that are used and defined as symbolic in nature. Once we find a clearly defined symbol, we must not change its meaning in our mind unless and until we find a latter point in Scripture where the Lord changes it. Outside of this, we simply do not have the authority to change the meaning of something the Lord’s Word has defined. Finally, we must build all of this upon itself until we can read passages such as this and understand it in this way:
Psalm 1:3 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
3 He will be like [this indicates symbolic language] a tree [one who stands upright, who is righteous] firmly planted by [a]streams of water, [who stands in grace, the Lord’s Word]
Which yields its fruit [good character] in its season
And its [b]leaf does not wither; [is not destroyed; prospers]
And [c]in whatever he does, he prospers.
We should not try to learn all the symbolic terms in Scripture in one bite. That would only lead to frustration. The symbolic language in Scripture is very deep, and it can take a lifetime to learn it well. As Scripture says, precept upon precept. Just focus on learning a little here and a little there. The Lord will guide you. The keys are to just make sure the Scripture clearly defines the meaning of a word, then hold to that meaning until the Lord changes it. If He does not do so, or add to it, then we do not have the authority to change that meaning. We must use it every time we encounter it thereafter. Just make sure the Scriptures are speaking in symbolic terms and not plain language. Look for the indicators.
Below are a couple links that will help you get started. My next post will touch on one last aspect of symbolic language we must address before we finally dive into the prophets. Next post, we look at the meaning of numbers in Scripture.
SOME HELPFUL LINKS
Symbol Meanings in the Bible