Is there anything better than a book in the mail?
The A to Z Guide to Bible Signs and Symbols landed in my mailbox last Saturday, and I was immediately drawn by its glossy weight. Everything about the book, particularly its colorful images, said “quality.” Opening to the introduction, I learned that a symbol’s job is to represent while a sign points. Symbols are pictures that denote an object while signs are clues. The authors, Neil Wilson and Nancy Ryken Taylor, urge their readers to enjoy the book beside an open Bible. As I read through the Table of Contents, I thought, “Yes, I could use this book,” and thus began a week of signs and symbols in which I challenged myself to be conscious of the presence of biblical signs and symbols in my regular study — not simply to go looking for items from the table of contents, but, instead, to bring an awareness of these clues and pictures, pointers and representations to my regular encounters with the Scriptures. I began immediately:
Saturday – Last minute details of preparation for my Sunday school class on Nehemiah led me to examine the entry for gate. All of Nehemiah chapter three is devoted to the rebuilding of the wall around the city of Jerusalem with special emphasis on its gates; and there on page 110 was a picture of the Eastern Gate. Jesus spoke of metaphorical gates, and described Himself as a Gate, the entrance to the heavenly city. Obviously, for Nehemiah and his stalwart crew of builders, gates represented a secure future for their nation-state.
Sunday – In the mini-van, on the way to church, I heard a re-broadcast of a 1987 sermon from Matthew 12 by Billy Graham. Ironically, the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, and He gives them only the sign of Jonah. I also noted the use of three and was pleased to find it also had an entry. I learned that there are other parallels between Jonah and Jesus besides the “three days and three nights” which spell the believer’s deliverance. Here I also noted the presence of a significant quote in each entry that sheds further light on the sign or symbol. Philip Graham Ryken gave further clarification: “Jonah was the illustration; Jesus is the resurrected reality.”
Monday – My devotional reading of the Psalms of Ascent took me to Psalm 120 where the disgruntled and alienated psalmist informs the liars who have harmed him that their reward will be burning coals from the juniper tree. It turns out that the image of a tree being cut down is bad enough (being felled), but in this case the tree is reduced to charcoal.
Tuesday – Pulling my notes together for an evening Bible study on the life of Lydia (Acts 16), I found two symbolic items. Lydia was baptized in water, and, sure enough, there was a section on baptism in the entry for water. I learned that the symbolism of baptism “harks back to the ancient thought of water as the abyss, a symbol of death.” which certainly enhanced my understanding of the act of coming up out of the water being equated with new life. Paul and his team encountered Lydia and the other ladies worshiping on the Jewish Sabbath, fitting because the day was set apart to call to mind the “promise God had made to preserve and save his people.” Ironically, it was a Gentile woman who responded to Paul that day, entering into the promised rest of Jesus’ New Covenant.
Wednesday – Reading a book in preparation for Lent (A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda), my focus was on Friday, the day of the cross. It was not until the 4th century that the cross became a symbol of Christianity. Each entry in the book also has a key verse, and I Peter 2:24 serves to remind the reader that the cross frees us from our sins. “His wounds have healed you.” It is a symbol of death, but also a powerful symbol of radical discipleship and a surrendered life.
Thursday – To enhance my understanding of the Psalms of Ascent, I turned to Isaiah 2:3 and 30:29 and found mountain in both verses. The presence of the mountains, “visible for miles around, . . . reminded [Israel] of God’s presence among them and above them.” The pilgrims ascending to worship on Mount Zion direct our minds to the future, where the mountain symbolizes redemption and communion with God.
Friday – Having mined all my teaching passages, my devotional reading, and even the radio, I wondered if I would find a sign or symbol for this last day in my Week of Signs and Symbols. At 5:30 a.m. I flipped the page in my 20+ year old daily calendar of Elisabeth Elliot wisdom, and knew that I was ready to finish the week. Featuring Proverbs 18:10, which is also the passage that the authors used for the key verse, Elisabeth delightfully fleshed out the symbolism of the tower: “He is our Refuge when we are afraid, our Strength when we are weak, our Helper when we cannot cope.” A tower offers protection and security here, but is also used in Scripture to symbolize careful planning, design, or even arrogance as in the Tower of Babel.)
Having convinced myself of the usefulness of The A to Z Guide to Bible Signs and Symbols, I was further encouraged by the authors’ humble spirit of caution in approaching the topic. Each of the biblical signs and symbols in the book (over 125 in all) are arrows to point out where God is at work and images to promote a greater intimacy with God and His unique Book.
This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group in exchange for my unbiased review.