Symbolism, allegory and metaphor can be found throughout the Bible. A symbol is a thing that represents or stands for something else. Both numbers and words can have symbolic meaning. Some parts of the Bible that use symbolism extensively are the prophetic writings, the parables of Jesus and the book of Revelation.
Sometimes the meaning and explanation of a symbol is given. For example in the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great image made of various metals; gold, silver, brass, iron and iron mixed with clay. Daniel explains that the metals symbolise or represent various kingdoms that would have authority over the nations of the earth.
In Daniel 2:36-41, Daniel says to the king,
“This is the dream. Now we will tell the interpretation of it before the king. You, O king, are a king of kings. For the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, strength, and glory; and wherever the children of men dwell, or the beasts of the field and the birds of the heaven, He has given them into your hand, and has made you ruler over them all—you are this head of gold. But after you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours; then another, a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And the fourth kingdom shall be as strong as iron, inasmuch as iron breaks in pieces and shatters everything; and like iron that crushes, that kingdom will break in pieces and crush all the others. Whereas you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; yet the strength of the iron shall be in it, just as you saw the iron mixed with ceramic clay."
At other times the symbolic meaning of a thing may not be explained or immediately obvious. In such cases a study of the scriptures may have to be made to determine, if at all possible, the actual meaning of the symbol.
On occasion the scriptures will use more than one symbol to represent a particular thing; a good example is the nation of Israel.
God’s people are clearly identified with the vine as we see in Psalm 80:8-11.
“You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. You prepared room for it, and caused it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with its shadow, and the mighty cedars with its boughs. She sent out her boughs to the Sea, and her branches to the River” (See also Isaiah 5:1-7 and Jeremiah 2:21).
Israel are also symbolised by the fig tree and the olive tree.
“He also spoke this parable: ‘A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?” But he answered and said to him, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down”” (Luke 13:6-9).
In the letter to the Romans Israel is compared to a natural olive tree and the gentiles are likened to the branches of a wild olive tree that are grafted into the natural. This is symbolic language which speaks of God temporarily casting off his people because of their unbelief, and the gentiles coming into a relationship with God through faith.
“And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you . . . For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature [Gentiles], and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree [Israel], how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:17-24)
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Quotations are from the New King James Version of the Bible