THE SYMBOLISM OF OIL
© 2008 John H Mattox
Oil, when used symbolically in the Bible, is usually explained as representing the Holy Spirit. The writer does not deny this symbolic meaning of oil, but would point out that it should not be limited to the Holy Spirit. Rather, it appears that oil is symbolic of spirit, whether it be the Holy Spirit, or man's own spirit. Moreover, since the spirit is a life-giving, or life-producing agency, oil stands by extension for life itself.
That the spirit (both of God and of man) is a life-giving entity is clearly seen from the words of James:
"For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."
When the spirit is joined with the body in a vital union, the condition which we call life results. Note the following passages in which spirit and life are taken to be virtually identical:
"It is the Spirit that quickeneth (makes alive); the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life."
"For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death."
"And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness."
"For the letter killeth, but the spirit maketh alive."
II Cor. 3:6b.
"And after three days the spirit of life from God entered into them and they stood upon their feet."
Rev. 11:11 a.
"And he had power to give life (lit. spirit) unto the image of the beast."
Oil was used in Biblical times not only as a staple of diet, but also as a light-producing agency, and in this fact lies the connection between oil and spirit. Light is a symbol of life. See John 1:4, 8:12. And, as oil produces light, so the spirit produces life. It was easy for the people of that day to perceive that an empty or broken lamp was very similar to the dead body of a man. In the one case the oil was missing, in the other the spirit had departed. Thus the writer of Ecclesiastes, figuratively portraying the scenes of death, speaks of the silver cord being loosed, and the golden bowl (lamp) being broken, etc. See Ecclesiastes 12:6.
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Let us now apply this symbolic meaning of oil to some of the passages where the word is used symbolically, and note how meaningful such passages become when oil is not restricted in its symbolism to the Holy Spirit, but is regarded as a figure of spirit in general, and by extension, as a symbol of life itself.
The first mention of oil (Heb. shemen) is in Genesis 28:18, where Jacob, after his marvelous dream at Bethel, set up a stone for a pillar and poured oil upon it. The Pulpit Commentary, in its commentary on Jacob's action, is careful to assure us that Jacob set up the stone as a memorial, not as an object of worship, and that he poured oil upon it to consecrate it. However, this explanation does not explain very much; it leaves us in the dark as to why Jacob felt it was necessary to set up a stone, and why, having set it up, he poured oil thereon. In other words, if Jacob's actions did not have a symbolic meaning, consistent with the rest of the Bible, then they smack of idolatry, for the making and setting up of objects of wood, stone, etc., as religious objects for adoration were strictly forbidden later by the law. The writer believes that there is a more satisfactory explanation for Jacob's actions, which must be sought for in the symbolic import of the materials used. It is reasonable to assume that Jacob was acquainted with the divine prophecy that the arch-enemy of man would be destroyed by the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and that God's blessings upon the human race would flow through that same seed. Let us remember, however, that the name of the woman was Eve, which in its Hebrew form, means life. So then, it was through the seed or son of life that God was to bless man, and it therefore appears that Jacob's actions in setting up and anointing this stone was intended to portray his acknowledgment of this fact. Stone (eben) and son (ben) are related ideas in Hebrew, and a stone often symbolizes a son. See Matthew 21:33-46. Oil, as we have seen, is a symbol of spirit, and of the life which is the result of the spirit's union with the body. Thus Jacob's actions may be taken as an expression of his faith that God's blessings upon him would come through the medium of an anointed son, or son of life. That Jacob's vision at Bethel did include a revelation of Christ is unquestionable. Jesus himself, in his conversation with Nathanael, an Israelite indeed, identified himself as the ladder which Jacob saw in his dream:
"Hereafter ye shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man."
Cf. Gen. 28:12:
"And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it."
Let us now consider the fact that the Israelites were commanded to bring oil for the light - the seven-branched lampstand in the Holy Place of the tabernacle. In the light of our interpretation of the oil as a symbol of life, what is the symbolic import of these instructions as far as Christians are concerned? The writer believes that the bringing of the oil by the people was intended to foreshadow the presentation of our bodies as living sacrifices which is urged upon us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1:
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service."
To the disciples, Jesus said:
"Ye are the light of the world... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
The oil of our lives ought to support a light that will be a continual testimony to the glory of God.
A rather unusual use of oil was employed in the cleansing of a leper, as described in Leviticus 14:14-18:
"And the priest shall take some of the blood of the trespass offering, and the priest shall put it upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot: and the priest shall take some of the log of oil, and pour it into the palm of his own left hand: And the priest shall dip his right fmger in the oil that is in his left hand, and shall sprinkle of the oil with his fmger seven times before the LORD: and the rest of the oil that is in his hand shall the priest put upon the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot, upon the blood of the trespass offering: and the remnant of the oil that is in the priest's hand he shall pour upon the head of him that is to be cleansed; and the priest shall make an atonement for him before the LORD."
Notice that in cleansing the leper, blood was placed upon his right ear (representing the hearing, or obedience), upon his right thumb (representing his works), and upon the great toe of his right foot (representing his walk) then oil was applied to these same members. In seeking the meaning of this ritual, let us remember that leprosy was a picture of sin, and the leper himself was regarded as one dead. See Numbers 12:12. The cleansing of the leper, therefore, should furnish us with a picture of the healing, or cleansing, of a sinner, and this is indeed the case. The law demands the death of the sinner; not of a mere substitute:
"The soul that sinneth, it (he) shall die."
Therefore, the plan of salvation must involve someone dying as the sinner's substitute, with whom the sinner can identify himself, so that in a legal sense, it is the sinner who dies. This substitutionary identification is pictured, in the cleansing of the leper, by the two birds. One bird is killed and his blood is caught in an earthen vessel. Then the second bird is dipped in the blood and then allowed to go free. By being dipped in the blood, the living bird is identified with the one that was slain thus giving us a beautiful picture of the way of salvation. We (like the living bird) are allowed to go free because we have become identified (through faith) with the one who died for us - we have, as it were, been dipped in his blood, so that his death becomes our death - thus satisfying the law's demands against us. Now the leper was legally cleansed from the defilement of his leprosy through his identification with his trespass offering, his sin offering and his burnt offering. Then by means of the application of the blood and oil, his death to leprosy and resurrection to a newness of life apart from leprosy are pictured. Blood, of course, speaks of death, and portrays the fact that the leper has become dead to his old life under the domination of his leprosy; while the oil, symbol of the spirit, or life, portrays the impartation to him of a new life in which he is free from the uncleanness of leprosy. Thus the application of the blood and oil to the leper answers to the two-fold act of baptism: the being plunged beneath the water to symbolize our death and burial with Christ, and being raised out of the water to picture our resurrection with him to walk in a newness of life.
To test our interpretation of the symbolic meaning of oil more thoroughly, let us consider a passage in the New Testament where the symbolic use of oil poses a real problem if we insist on limiting its symbolism to the Holy Spirit. That passage is the first thirteen verses of the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, known as the parable of the ten virgins. It will be recalled that this parable tells of ten virgins who were waiting to meet the bridegroom. All had lamps, but five had brought an additional supply of oil, while the other five had only the oil within their lamps. Now if we restrict the symbolic meaning of oil to the Holy Spirit, we are faced with an embarrassing problem of exegesis. How could the foolish virgins' supply of the Holy Spirit become exhausted? Possession of the Holy Spirit is in this age equivalent to salvation, and once a person has this salvation (or possesses the Spirit) he has it forever! There seems to be no explanation of the parable possible (if we allow the oil to symbolize the Holy Spirit) which is consistent with the rest of the Bible's teaching on salvation. Let us consider the oil as a symbol of life. Now the teaching of the parable becomes clear. The wise virgins not only had the oil which was then burning in their lamps (i.e. physical life), they also had an additional supply of oil (i.e. eternal life). This eternal life which they possessed could not be imparted to the five foolish virgins. Therefore the latter must go and seek it for themselves; for they had only the oil which was then burning in their lamps (physical life) and this supply of oil was exhausted just at the moment of the bridegroom's appearing. The ten virgins represent those who will be on earth at the second coming of Christ. Some are saved and some are unsaved. All have physical life, but some have additional (eternal) life. The fact that the lamps of the foolish virgins go out when the bridegroom comes does not mean that the unsaved will die when Jesus comes to receive his saints. It does mean, however, that their prospect of salvation has been extinguished; for the New Testament indicates that those who have rejected the gospel during this age, and are still alive when the rapture takes place, will have no further opportunity to be saved:
"Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they might all be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness."
II Thess. 2:9-12.
John H Mattox