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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Color, Symbolic Meaning of

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Although the Bible contains relatively few references to individual colors, their symbolic associations are theologically significant. Colors usually symbolize redemptive and eschatological themes. The Bible is, however, silent on whether the colors used in the tabernacle, temple, and priestly garments held symbolic meaning.

Black signifies gloom, mourning, evil, judgment, and death (Lamentations 4:8 ; Micah 3:6 ; Zechariah 6:2,6 ; Revelation 6:5,12 ). Its image is often one of dense, impenetrable darkness (Job 3:5 ; Isaiah 50:3 ). The terms "darkness" and "night" parallel this usage (Job 3:3-7 ; Joel 2:2 ; Zephaniah 1:15 ). Hell is the place of "blackest darkness" reserved for the godless (2 Peter 2:17 ; Jude 13 ).

The pale horse of Revelation 6:8 resembles the color of the terror-stricken and corpses (cf. Jeremiah 30:6 ; Daniel 10:8 ). The horse's color matches the work of its rider. Its rider is called Death, who, with Hades, goes forth to kill a fourth of humankind.

An expensive dye, purple represents wealth and royalty (Judges 8:26 ; Esther 8:15 ; Daniel 5:7,16 , 29 ; Luke 16:19 ); for this reason, idols were attired in purple (Jeremiah 10:9 ). The purple dress of the harlot symbolized Roman imperial rank (Revelation 17:4 ; 18:12,16 ). Before his crucifixion, Jesus was robed in purple in mockery of him as "king of the Jews" (Mark 15:17,20 ; John 19:2,5 ; cf. Matthew 27:28 , ; "scarlet robe"). Garments of purple suitably clothe a wife of noble character (Proverbs 31:22 ).

Red symbolizes blood. Israel's sin as brilliant scarlet and deep-red crimson is analogous to the bloodstained hands of murderers (Isaiah 1:15,18 ). The images of red, blood-soaked garments of God as an avenging warrior (Isaiah 63:1-6 ) and the fiery red horse bringing slaughter through warfare (Zechariah 6:2 ; Revelation 6:4 ) describe divine retribution against evildoers (see also Joel 2:31 ; Revelation 6:12 ). The red color of the dragon (Revelation 12:3 ) and beast (17:3) symbolizes the shedding of innocent blood (11:7; 16:6). The red heifer (Numbers 19:1-10 ) and scarlet wool (Hebrews 9:19 ) symbolize the Old Testament means of purification through blood; the New Testament powerfully expresses the fullness of Christ's atoning work through a contradictory color image: believers' robes are washed pure white through the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9,13-14 ; 19:13-14 ).

White signifies purity and holiness. It depicts complete forgiveness of sin. David and Israel's bloodguilt would be fully removed, leaving them whiter than snow/wool (Psalm 51:7 ; Isaiah 1:18 ). It represents the absolute moral purity of God (Daniel 7:9 ), Christ (Revelation 1:14 ; Mark 9:3 ; pars.), angels (Mark 16:5 ; pars. Acts 1:10 ), and believers (Revelation 2:17 ; 3:4-5 ; 4:4 ), and thus of the divine judgment of God (20:11) and Christ (14:14). It indicates the certainty of God's conquest and victory over evil (Zechariah 6:3,6 ; Revelation 6:2 ; 19:11 ).

H. Douglas Buckwalter

Bibliography . G. W. Thatcher, Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, 1:456-58; P. L. Garber, ISBE, 1:729-32; A. Brenner, Colour Terms in the Old Testament ; "Color, " BEB, 1:494-96.


Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Color, Symbolic Meaning of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bed/c/color-symbolic-meaning-of.html. 1996.

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