“All Things Testify of Him: Understanding Symbolism in the Scriptures,” Ensign, Jan. 1981, 5
When I was a young girl I loved to read. Motivated by titles I had come across in a game called Authors, I often went to the library and chose books for which I had little guidance in reading. Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter—I loved them because of the adventure, the intrigue, and the beautiful language they contained.
As years passed and I studied these works again in school with a teacher as a guide, I learned that I had, on my own, missed much of the impact and meaning of these books. Many of the people, items, and events in them were used as symbols to portray perspectives or truths about life. Each book became much richer to me when I began to explore its full depth of symbolic meaning.
Symbols are a vital tool in communication. In fact, all our forms of communication are made up of symbols—figures, words, sounds, gestures, which of themselves have no meaning but stand for something that does have meaning.
The Lord himself, the Master Teacher, knew the value of symbols and used them to teach the most important truths of his gospel, including his mission as Savior. His parables, for example, illustrate how symbolism can be used effectively. They also illustrate the fact that symbols are not always easily recognized or understood.
Sometimes we assume that when Christ taught in parables, the symbolism he used was clearly understood. The truth is, his disciples were often confused by his parables, asking later in private for an explanation. It was only after Christ identified each symbol and explained its significance that the disciples began to understand the richness of his teachings. He explained that he used parables both to clarify truth and to keep it hidden. That is, to those who really desired to know it for the right reasons, the key to the symbol was given and they understood truth more clearly; but to others, for various reasons, the meaning of the symbol escaped them and they remained in darkness (see Luke 8:9–10). One important key for our understanding of symbols is the Holy Ghost. If we are in tune with the Spirit, and if we understand how symbols work, the Spirit does enlighten our minds to see things we’ve never seen before. That is why the Lord often said, after giving one of his parables, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).
Another key to understanding symbols is to recognize the kinds of symbols that the Lord and his prophets have used to express truth. Scriptural references are made to similitudes, types, shadows, and patterns of heavenly things. The Old Testament is particularly rich in symbolism. Being a record of God’s dealings with men from the beginning of earthtime and of the preparation of man for the coming of Christ, it contains many witnesses of the Savior’s mission—witnesses that can often be sensed and found in the use of certain imagery.
It must be stressed that the real purpose of any symbol in the written word is to enlarge our understanding and to help us see relationships more clearly. It is meant to strengthen the impact of the truth.
Symbols can, of course, be misleading. Interpretations can be wrong, or the symbol itself misunderstood. However, in dealing with scriptural symbols, we have been given a guide. The Savior proclaimed that “all things bear record of me” (Moses 6:63). That is, all symbols teach of Christ, of his mission and relationship to us. When we comprehend this about symbols we can proceed in safety. Symbolism, once understood, will give greater impact to that which we already know to be true, and it will make clear a greater unity among teaching and events found in Old Testament, the New Testament, and latter-day revelation.
For many reasons, scriptural symbolism can and should be generally self-discovered. All we need is an awareness of the presence of symbolism, a desire to comprehend it, a willingness to study, and perhaps a few examples to get us started. Then, as we study the symbols, the Holy Ghost will help us discover what meaning each symbol has for us. Following are some symbols that have come to hold great meaning for me:
After Adam and Eve’s introduction to the knowledge of good and evil, they began to realize the consequences of their own transgression. Before, they had dared to stand in God’s presence without fear or shame, for they knew no sin. Now, physically and spiritually, they felt exposed and naked before him, and they longed to hide from his all-seeing eye. Their first reaction was to cover themselves and hide (see Gen. 3:7–8). The Father understood their fear of appearing before him, and in mercy he provided for each of them a garment—a covering of skins (see Gen. 3:21).
Presumably, such skins could not be obtained unless an animal was sacrificed. Was this covering of skins, given by God to man from the beginning of the earth, a typifying of Christ? Might it have been a witness that God himself would provide a covering for his children, all of whom would experience spiritual nakedness—that is, being exposed to his judgmental eye? For through the sacrifice made by Christ, our sins may be covered, if we repent.
Looked at this way, the symbolism of Adam and Eve’s coats of skins teaches of Christ and helps us prepare spiritually, that eventually we may once again dare to stand in the presence of God unashamed.
The scriptures make a great deal of the wilderness. Adam and Eve were cast out into the wilderness; Israelite groups wandered in the wilderness, were tempted in the wilderness, worshipped false images in the wilderness, and were fed and watered in the wilderness; while throughout, prophets cried repentance out of wildernesses.
These events are history, but they are also similitudes. They illuminate the reality of man’s mortal experience as a true wilderness, and of his relationship to the Savior.
We can grasp more dearly the concept of mortality as a wilderness when we contrast it to the Garden of Eden. The garden was the epitome of flourishing growth. But its special luxuriance was both physical and spiritual. Though abundant in fruit and beauty, its real lushness came from the presence of the Father. And the true barrenness of mortality comes from the absence of the Father, with only intermittent blessings sent by his unseen power.
When we comprehend mortality as a spiritual wilderness, we are in a better position to understand the messages the Lord is trying to give us through his prophets today. For example, as we read of the Israelites worshipping false gods in their wilderness, we are less inclined to judge the Israelites and more inclined to wonder about the idols we may worship in our own wilderness. We are not as puzzled about the apparent futility of ancient prophets crying out in a wilderness where no one would hear. We are more anxious to make certain that our ears are sensitive to the prophets crying in our own wilderness, where again very few will hear.
It is apparent that in the scriptures Babylon, a city that really did exist historically, is also a symbol. The warning given through Jeremiah to “flee out of the midst of Babylon” (Jer. 51:6) before destruction was brought upon the wicked of that city sets a pattern for our day. The responsive are warned, “Go ye out from among the nations, even from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon” (D&C 133:14), for “I will not spare any that remain in Babylon” (D&C 64:24). The book of Revelation also prophesies the fall of a great Babylon in the latter days (see Rev. 14:8; Rev. 18:21).
Why, of all cities, does Babylon deserve the distinction of symbolizing wickedness? No doubt it is because Babylon was anciently associated with acts that aroused God’s displeasure. For the beginning of Babylon was Babel. After the attempted construction of the tower of Babel, the unity of mankind was severed; many tongues arose, and communication among men became as “babble.”
But was this dispersion of the people the point at which the proliferation of false philosophies also fully began? After all, Babel marks the time when confusion once more came upon the earth after the cleansing of the Flood, and only a select few remained knowledgeable of God’s word from then on. To the Lord, the source of truth, he who comprehends all language, would not these false philosophies, which have multiplied and spread confusion, be the true “babble”?
If this is true, then to be called out of Babylon, or Babel, is to be called back to the original and pure truth, away from philosophies that lead to faulty judgment and therefore to evil. According to prophecies, Babylon, the multiplication of confusion and false philosophies, will indeed suffer a great fall, and unity of correct knowledge will finally return.
Water is used symbolically many times in the scriptures to teach of Christ. But understanding the full impact of the symbol requires some reflection on our part.
It is only when we envision life as wilderness and water as the most vital element in sustaining life that we really sense the power of the image. How can the desert “blossom as a rose” unless water is brought to its parched and thirsty expanse?
It is no wonder then that the Lord constantly used water to symbolize our dependence upon him for physical and spiritual life. In fact, wells of water as symbols of spiritual nourishment is established early in the scriptures.
For example, Jacob, a forerunner and type of Christ, is portrayed as a bridegroom seeking his bride from among his own brethren. (See Gen. 29. We learn later that Christ is the ultimate Bridegroom; his church, the ultimate bride.) The eventual union of bride and bridegroom begins when Jacob rolls away the stone that covers the mouth of the well and so brings water to the sheep of his brethren. As the account continues, Jacob earns his bride by caring for the sheep for seven years. Significantly, his eventual inheritance of sheep consists of the lame and spotted.
Although all these elements in Jacob’s life can be thought of as similitudes that teach of Christ, the most repetitive and clear is that pertaining to the well. Is it simply by chance that centuries later Christ appears at a well identified with Jacob? After asking for a drink from a woman at the well, Christ teaches, “If thou knewest … who it is that saith to thee, Give me drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” And in reply to the question. “Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well?” he answers, “The water that I shall give … shall be … a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:6–14). Just as water preserves life and makes it possible, so Christ’s atonement makes possible our eternal life. Symbolically, the Savior becomes a well of living water to us, preserving our everlasting life and makes it possible to live the kind of life he prepares for us.
From earliest times, stones have been employed in symbolic use in various ways to testify of Christ and his earthly work. Anciently, offerings to God were made on altars built of stones “not hewn” (that is, uncut) by tools or human hands (see Ex. 20:25). Jacob, after an encounter with the Lord at Bethel where eternal promises were made, set up a stone for a pillar, signifying the presence of the Lord in that place (see Gen. 28:10–22). Daniel saw the kingdom of God as a stone “cut out without hands” that “became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:34–35). Under Mosaic law, stones symbolized judgment and justice, stoning being the means by which those who committed the most serious crimes were put to death.
Interestingly, stones were also of ceremonial importance as symbols of judgment in the tabernacle and temple. It was commanded that the priest (a type of Christ, the true High Priest), when he “goeth in before the Lord,” should wear a breastplate set with twelve precious stones. The breastplate was called the “breastplate of judgment,” and the priest was to wear it that he might “bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart” (Ex. 28:30).
The use of precious stones to symbolize an atoning for the judgment of sins assumes greater implications when we consider Christ’s mortal mission. As our Savior, Jesus would remove the judgment against all who would acknowledge his atoning act and accept his command to “go, and sin no more.” In other words, Christ, the precious “living stone” (1 Pet. 2:4), the “head stone of the corner” of Israel (Ps. 118:22; Matt. 21:42), would “bear the judgment of Israel upon his heart.”
Symbols, then, pervade the holy scriptures. The Lord uses them to enrich our understanding, and we can use them to enhance our comprehension of his teachings.
But there should be cautions in searching for symbolic usage. Like all things, symbols can be misused. One form of misuse is when men come to worship the symbol itself rather than what it stands for. Unwise men worshipped the sun. Wise men understood that the sun is a symbol of the Son, the true light of the world.
Another error, made by many, is to assume that scriptural symbolism replaces reality—that events are only allegories. The Latter-day Saint position is that scriptural events are both real and symbolic.
Furthermore, in searching for scriptural symbols, we must be careful to remember that correct interpretations will always enrich our understanding of truths already revealed in clarity by the prophets.
With these cautions clearly in mind, we may be prepared to understand and appreciate symbolism as a way of learning eternal truths from the Eternal Master Teacher.