There is reason to believe that fire is used in the Bible
as a symbol of life, and this symbolic meaning of fire makes
several passages of Scripture more meaningful to us. First of
all, the philological evidence strongly indicates that there was,
to the Hebrew mind, a close connection between these two
ideas. The Hebrew word for fire is esh, while one of the
Hebrew words for man is ish. There is also a Hebrew word
which means is or are, and therefore denotes existence or being.
That word is ish, which is spelled in Hebrew exactly the same
as the word esh, or fire, except for the vowel points (which were
not written in Biblical Hebrew.) The Hebrew word for an
offering made by fire, is isheh. This word, in Hebrew, is written
exactly the same as the word for woman - ishah. Again, only
the vowel points are different, and these do not form any part
of the alphabetic spelling of a word.
These is also a natural analogy between fire and life,
which should not be overlooked. Both fire and the living
process which we call life are forms of combustion. Food taken
into our bodies is oxidized; a process which is recognized as a
form of combustion, or burning. To carry on this process, our
bodies require fuel (food) and air, or more specifically, oxygen.
These are precisely the requirements of fire. Both fire and life
are not so much physical entities as they are states of being. By
meeting certain requirements, man can kindle fire; as by
meeting other requirements, he can cause a new living being to
be brought into existence. But man cannot create either fire or
life; nor can he destroy them, though he can extinguish them in
individual cases. Both fire and life are temporary states of
being in nature, and require certain environmental conditions
in order to thrive. It might be added that, according to science,
all physical life on earth is dependent upon fire - the fire of the
sun which provides the light and heat energy which is essential
to plant and animal life.
Many passages of Scripture seem to assume a symbolic connection between fire and life, and such passages become more meaningful to us when this symbolic relationship is kept in mind. For example. God's revelation of himself to Moses in the form of a burning bush was evidently intended to impress Moses with the fact that not only was he the God of the living, he is also the living God. In referring to this incident Jesus said in Matthew 22:32:
"God is not the God of the dead but of the living."
It must also follow that if he had been the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were long since dead; and was now, centuries later, speaking to Moses, he must, indeed, be the living God. In the New Testament, also, we find the concepts of fire and life placed side by side. Consider, for example, Hebrews 12:18 and 22:
"For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched and that burned with fire, nor to blackness, and darkness, and tempest... But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels..."
Note also these passages in the same book:
"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
"For our God is a consuming fire."
In Biblical times fire was used not only for heat, but also for light. Consequently, we find life and light closely associated in several passages. An example is John 1:4:
"In him was life, and the life was the light of men."
Also John 8:12:
"Then spake Jesus again unto them saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."
In Deuteronomy 5:26, the living God is associated with fire:
"For who is there, of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God, speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?"
It is also worthy of note that the cherubim which Ezekiel saw in his vision, and which he called the living creatures, or living ones, are associated with fire:
"And I looked, and behold, a whirlwind came out of the
north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a
brightness was round about it, and out of the midst thereof
as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also
out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living
If there is, indeed, a symbolic connection between life and fire (including light), then many passages of Scripture take on an added and significant meaning. Thus the sacrifice burning on the altar would not only speak of the sacrifice which Christ made, but also of the living sacrifice which we are exhorted to make:
"I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God,
that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable
unto God, which is your reasonable service."
Rom. 12: 1.
Likewise, the fire which came down from heaven to kindle the
altar fires may well speak of the life, or Living One, who came
down from heaven.
The sun of righteousness mentioned by Malachi would denote the Burning, or Living One of righteousness. The connection between life and fire may also explain why the Israelites could be so easily led off into the worship of such idols as Baal and Moloch. These idols were worshipped by rites of fire; and the Israelites may have felt that in worshipping these idols, they were, in fact, worshipping the Living One.
John H Mattox