Bible images – How to understand?

Sacred writing is also full of story, parable, prophetic vision and poetry, much of which is rich in imagery expressing, many would say, a sublime message. For example would you accept that the creation legend and its Bible images about the world being made in seven days is really allegory and not meant to be taken literally? The same might be said concerning the visions reported with all their bizarre figures and scenes.

It is widely assumed that the interpretation of metaphor is an individual matter and that one person will understand the significance of a visual picture in a different way from another. That what is true for you is not true for me.

Furthermore, it is also thought that the meaning of an image say in one book of the Bible is not likely to be the same as its use elsewhere: that where Bible images are used, their symbolic meaning appears to differ from passage to passage.

Swedenborg’s idea about Bible images

I would like to offer you for your consideration an alternative idea. This comes from the 18th century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg who held that all the content of divine revelation including images and stories in the Bible, not only reflect a deeper significance – one that is relevant to our personal daily life – but that across all the books of the Word of God there is actually a consistent symbolic language. In other words that each literally understood thing that appears in the Word corresponds in a consistent way to something spiritual.

There is only time now to give one example. However, in my reading of the biblical content, I have experienced a consistency in the deeper meaning of each of a wide range of things such as types of animal, mineral, plant, astronomical feature etc. I would like to illustrate this consistency in relation to images of height.

Bible images of height

Bible images

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help!” (Psalm 121:1)

Our source of inspiration is said to be the hills above us.

Bible images“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

The space above the earth is associated with God’s manner of living and ideas that are said to be above mere mortal ones.

Bible images“Whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 57:13)

Again what is high denotes what is holy

Apparent inconsistent Bible images

It might be objected that sometimes a mountain or hill doesn’t suggest what is our source of inspiration, higher thought, or holiness at all.

“Every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Isaiah 40:4) Are the mountains to be made low? Yes I would say so. But only if we recognise that what is being exalted is not God and the presence of the divine within us but rather its opposite. What is the opposite? Is it not the pride of ego, exalting oneself?

I would say this interpretation becomes more apparent when we consider the valleys which will be raised up high. These might be said to stand for those people who are humble in heart and so who are not too proud to acknowledge the source of what is good and true as coming from outside of themselves.

Bible images

“You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.” (Psalm 88:6)

If what is low is distant from what is high and thus from what is Divine, then why would God put me so low as to be beneath the ground? From one perspective to be so low is to turn away from a divinely inspired way of living, as when one feels dissatisfied with life from being self-centred. But in an opposite sense I’m thinking of the pit of despair when one focuses on the hope of divine rescue – sadly a necessary attitude which we need to work through when we lose our moral and spiritual way in life. We sometimes need to learn that trusting mainly in one’s own strength or the things of the world is to no avail and that all that is good really comes from the Divine. This is a painful lesson for many but one God sees we may need if we are to find salvation.

Bible images – summary

I would suggest that sacred writing will not give glib answers and superficial understanding. In his idea of correspondences, Swedenborg claims that the significance of a biblical image can have one of two opposite meanings according to the passage in question. There is still a consistency here – just one that is not apparent until we recognise which sense is being revealed.

Positive sense Opposite negative sense
Elevation of mountain or hill Inspiration of higher thought Pride of self-exaltation
Lowness of valley or pit Humble acknowledgement of Divine Source Dissatisfaction arising from self-centredness

 

Considering whether the imagery is to be understood in a positive or negative sense will stretch our minds and require reading in a deeply reflective manner.

The doctrine of correspondences is no easy cook-book of symbol interpretation. Whether a positive or negative meaning is present, still requires our effort to find the truth.

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on12th February 2015CategoriesLatest post, Meaning of life, SymbolismTags, , , ,

3 thoughts on “Bible images – How to understand?

  1. Yes no coincidence that the two main neo-Familist groups in London in the early seventeenth century appear to have been called ‘of the Mountain’ and ‘Of the Valley’

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