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Biblical Metaphors and Symbolism

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Question:  I would like to know where I can get the figurative and metaphorical meanings of different words or things in the Scriptures. For instances: Bronze or Brazen, Brass, Gold, Mountains, bells and pomegranates, the Cherubs on the mercy seat (what do they represent-I have been told they represent God's Righteousness and God's Justice?) Was also told bronze or brass = righteousness and justice? I've gone to several Bible Study sights and even Strong's does not help or Nave's Topical Bible (very limited). Is there a sight that gives this information or a book I can get?

Response:  Here are a couple of books you might try:

1) Bible dictionaries: Unger's Bible Dictionary by M.F. Unger has information on figurative and metaphorical uses. For example, under "Mountain" the entire entry deals with figurative uses. Smith's Dictionary of the Bible is also quite good, and, I believe, is now back in print.

2) Bible encyclopediae: The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible is pretty comprehensive. It tends to be quite far afield in its theological views, but from the standpoint of literary criticism can be of some use. Under "bell", for example, they quote Josephus' opinion that the "bells" symbolized lightning and the pomegranates "thunder" (as with all things in Josephus, I remain skeptical). The Anchor Bible Encyclopedia and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia also have good reputations, but I haven't used them enough to give a recommendation or a caveat.

3) Lexica: The various Greek and Hebrew lexica to the New and Old Testaments respectively (along with related tools) often list the clearly metaphorical uses of certain words. For example, Brown, Driver, Briggs edition of Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon has under "bronze" (i.e., nechosheth) a metaphorical use at Deut.28:23 ("bronze sky" = pitiless sky). Best Greek lexicon for such things is Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament.

These examples show that metaphor is often in the eye of the beholder. As your question indicates, some of things you are interested in are not so much metaphorical as they are deliberately symbolic. For example, if the brass of the altar represents judgment (as I believe), it is really a symbol of judgment (for the brass itself is real along with the altar). For determining such things, one is really involving oneself in biblical interpretation. Where the issue is one of overall theology (as in the typology of the temple rite, how and where the details of that rite represent Christ and His sacrifice), we always have to start (and hopefully end) with what the Bible actually has to say (and it says quite a lot: the book of Hebrews is the best place to start here). In terms of resources that have done this sort of thing already, I would suggest consulting a good set of commentaries and/or a good systematic theology. For my own money here, I would recommend for the former the concise but very good Unger's Commentary on the Old Testament by M.F. Unger, and for the latter L.S. Chafer's Systematic Theology. When one is talking about type and antitype, symbol and metaphor, one is really talking about particular biblical interpretation, so that the theological starting point of the interpreter makes a big difference. Put it this way. If the book/interpreter does not believe in the doctrine of propitiation through the work of Christ, that book/person is not going to find the blood of Christ in the blood of animal sacrifices in the Mosaic law.

If we are talking about pure figures or metaphors, it is a relatively easy matter to determine that they are there (e.g., the "bronze sky" cited above), and a somewhat more complicated issue to determine their precise and true application (the sky is hard and unyielding, but why? I would agree that the reason is divine displeasure and/or judgment).

Taking this information and then applying it to literal bronze, as I would do, is also a matter of interpretation. When I make such a connection in these studies, I try to make a point of drawing connections like this, but I have never seen it done systematically, Bible-wide, and from a true Bible-believing perspective.

A couple of things available at Ichthys you might want to look at in this regard are, in Coming Tribulation Part 2B:

        The Heavenly and Earthly Tabernacle (for the symbolism of the altar et al.).

and in Coming Tribulation Part 1:

        Typology and Sequence in Old Testament Prophecy (for type and antitype).

As far as the cherubs are concerned, there are, of course, four cherubs (cf. Is.6; Ezek.1; Rev.4). We only see two on the mercy seat because of the two-dimensional perspective. The four cherubs are the protectors of the sanctity and holiness of God (as well as the four conveyors of His battle-chariot which the ark of the covenant represents). For much more on the cherubs see in Angelology under "Cherubs".

I hope this is of some help in answering your question. Please feel free to write me back and I will be happy to try and help "fine tune" some of the specifics.

Yours in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

Bob Luginbill


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