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Color, Symbolic Meaning of

Color, Symbolic Meaning of

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 ( Lam 4:8 ; Micah 3:6 ; Zechariah 6:2 Zechariah 6:6 ; Revelation 6:5 Revelation 6:12 ). Its image is often one of dense, impenetrable darkness ( Job 3:5 ; Isa 50:3 ). The terms "darkness" and "night" parallel this usage ( Job 3:3-7 ; Joel 2:2 ; Zeph 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. Jer 30:6 ; Dan 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 ; Est 8:15 ; Daniel 5:7 Daniel 5:16 Daniel 5:29 ; Luke 16:19 ); for this reason, idols were attired in purple ( Jer 10:9 ). The purple dress of the harlot symbolized Roman imperial rank ( Rev 17:4 ; Revelation 18:12 Revelation 18:16 ). Before his crucifixion, Jesus was robed in purple in mockery of him as "king of the Jews" ( Mark 15:17 Mark 15:20 ; John 19:2 John 19:5 ; cf. Matt 27:28, ; "scarlet robe"). Garments of purple suitably clothe a wife of noble character ( Prov 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 Isaiah 1:18 ). The images of red, blood-soaked garments of God as an avenging warrior ( Isa 63:1-6 ) and the fiery red horse bringing slaughter through warfare ( Zech 6:2 ; Rev 6:4 ) describe divine retribution against evildoers (see also Joel 2:31 ; Rev 6:12 ). The red color of the dragon ( Rev 12:3 ) and beast (17:3) symbolizes the shedding of innocent blood ( 11:7 ; 16:6 ). The red heifer ( Nu 19:1-10 ) and scarlet wool ( Heb 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 Revelation 7:13-14 ; 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 ; Isa 1:18 ). It represents the absolute moral purity of God ( Da 7:9 ), Christ ( Rev 1:14 ; Mark 9:3 ; pars.), angels ( Mark 16:5 ; pars. Acts 1:10 ), and believers ( Rev 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 Zechariah 6:6 ; Rev 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.

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, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Color, Symbolic Meaning of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.