In our everyday language we frequently use symbols to convey
more complex deeper ideas in simple words. For example we might say that someone
is “as cunning as a fox” because the way in which a fox moves to capture its
prey brilliantly describes the way some people get what they want by very
careful and devious actions.
So it is not perhaps surprising that symbols, symbolism and
correspondences form a very important part of the language of many ancient
sacred scriptures and especially the Bible. In these writings symbols of deeper
spiritual ideas can be found not just in the words used but also in the people
and events described. Three examples of word symbols in the Bible now follow.
Water is essential for daily life. We drink it when we are
thirsty and need refreshing and we wash ourselves with it when we are dirty. But
it can also be dangerous. Water that is contaminated is not safe to drink and
flood waters and tidal waves can damage and kill. All these different uses of water occur in some way in the
Bible but what is the deeper and spiritual symbolism of water?
To answer this we need to think about our inner spiritual
world and what can refresh and cleanse us. And the simple answer is ‘truth’
because, when we take in new true ideas our minds are refreshed and when we
apply these ideas in our daily living our inner being is cleansed.
In John’s gospel there is an account of Jesus being offered
water at a well by a woman from Samaria but Jesus instead offers her water that
brings eternal life – the ‘truth’.
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be
thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never
be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring
of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:13-14
Trees occur in the Bible right from the beginning with the
‘Tree of Life’ in the Garden of Eden described in Genesis and again in the Holy
City New Jerusalem described in Revelation. And in between all sorts of trees
are described including olive, cedar, palm, poplar, apple, oak, pine, willow,
bay, fir, juniper, myrtle and almond - so many different trees of varying height
and shape and use.
In the world around us trees are a beautiful part of our
landscape whether in new leaf in Spring, or in the wonderful colours of Autumn,
or in the silhouettes of Winter. Whatever the shape or size or spread of a tree
it always grows upwards towards the light and away from the earth. Some trees
like oak are incredibly strong and resist high winds without bending. Others
like the silver birch are extremely flexible and move gracefully as the wind
blows. And all trees bring forth some form of fruit.
What a wonderful symbol trees provide of how our perception
and understanding of what is good and true can grow from being very down to
earth to reaching lofty heights of spiritual insight. Sometimes our
understanding of truth is tremendously strong and able to resist any wind of
change that surrounds us. And at other times our understanding is more flexible
and changes to some extent as we reflect on and respond to the world around us.
Picture a field in early spring with sheep grazing on the
grass and tiny new born lambs struggling to their feet with the help of their
mothers. It is a beautiful and inspiring scene and one which is drawn upon
repeatedly in the Bible. Right from the earliest times Biblical characters like
Abraham look after flocks of sheep. Later David grows from being a shepherd who
takes great care of his sheep to becoming King. The most well known Psalm 23
starts with the words – “The Lord is my shepherd…”. John the Baptist describes
Jesus as “the Lamb of God” and Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd”.
Finally in Revelation there are repeated visions of the Lamb.
From all this there can be no doubt that something more than
just an animal is being described by the word ‘lamb’ – surely it is also a
The peaceful pastoral picture of new born lambs presents a
wonderful image and symbol of how true innocence can be born and grow in our
inner spiritual life. But this innocence needs protection otherwise it can be
easily lost or killed – so we need to also act as a shepherd and ensure that
other more dangerous parts of our inner character do not destroy it. Then
innocence, pictured by the lamb, can take centre stage in our spiritual life.
introduction to the symbolism of animals click here: Animal Symbols
Water, Trees, Lambs are just three of the many word symbols
or correspondences in the Bible but events can also be symbolic. Flood waters
can damage and destroy and this is pictured in the very well known story of Noah
and the Flood. Spiritual symbols can have both positive and negative meanings.
So although water symbolises truth this is only its positive meaning. Negatively
it pictures the opposite of truth - falsity. So we can see the story of Noah as
being about what happens spiritually when falsity gains such a hold that it acts
like a flood destroying nearly all in its path. Although this story is a part of
the early chapters of the Bible it also appears in similar form in other sacred
scripture notably in the Epic of Gilgamesh, probably the oldest written story on
Although some people may see the ‘flood’ story appearing in
different texts as evidence that a real flood occurred thousands of years ago it
is surely more important to see the common story as arising from the spiritual
symbolism being used.
Another very popular story in the Bible, full of spiritual
meaning, is the account of how the boy David defeats the giant Goliath and
ultimately becomes the second king of Israel. To discover more about symbolism
and personal meaning in the story of David click here: Discovering David
Emanuel Swedenborg wrote:
"The knowledge of the ancients was a
knowledge of symbols and images, through which they led themselves into a
familiarity with spiritual matters; but at the present time this knowledge has
been totally lost".