A seal, in biblical times as today, is used to guarantee security or indicate ownership. Ancient seals were often made of wax, embedded with the personalized imprint of their guarantor. The Roman authorities used such a seal to secure Jesus' tomb ( Matt 27:66 ). A signet ring was also called a seal. It was valued among Israel's booty ( Num 31:50 ).
The significance of the act of sealing is dependent on the importance of the one doing the sealing. This is why Jezebel falsely authenticated letters she wrote in Ahab's name by affixing them with his seal ( 1 Kings 21:8 ). Ahasuerus's solemn decree to annihilate the Jews ( Es 3:12 ) and then to bless them (8:8, 10) was sealed with his signet ring.
The word "seal" often is used figuratively in the Bible. The divine origin of prophet "books" solemnizes the opening of the seals with which they are securely fastened. They are opened at God's discretion, often announcing doom ( Isa 29:11-12 ; Dan 9:24 ; 12 Rev 5:1 ). Also, the Book of Job speaks of the great God who "seals off the light of the stars" ( 9:7 ). God providentially uses clouds to block out the otherwise helpful presence of stars. He also seals up transgressions, disposing of them as he wills ( Job 14:17 ; Hosea 13:12 ). The bridegroom refers to his bride as a sealed (chaste) garden spring ( So 4:12 ). Pledging fidelity, the bridegroom asks his beloved to seal him to herself on the heart and on the arm ( 8:6 ). The psalmist asks God to seal his lips to prevent sinful speech ( 141:3 ).
The New Testament continues the mostly metaphorical use of "seal." For example, Satan's ineffectiveness is secured by God's sealing of the abyss ( Rev 20:3 ). Paul sealed a generous offering collected from believers in Macedonia and Achaia by delivering it to the needy church in Jerusalem ( Rom 15:28 ). Paul described his Corinthian converts as the seal of his apostleship ( 1 Cor 9:2 ). Those who dogged him could not refute his effective ministry in transforming lives (see also 2 Cor 3:1-3 ). Testimonies to the truth are sealed to indicate the certainty of the one making the claim ( John 3:33 ). God the Father has staked such a claim on his son, rendering the words of Jesus equivalent in authority to those of the Father ( John 6:27-29 ).
Paul described Abraham's circumcision as a seal, or guarantee, that Abraham was reckoned righteous by God ( Rom 4:11 ). By commanding this outward observance of the old covenant, God indicated how human beings could demonstrably consecrate themselves by faith to him. The covenant was bilateral in the sense that it needed to be ratified (i.e., sealed) by each individual. God takes covenant-keeping signs and vows seriously. The seal has no effect unless accompanied by faith. A God-ordained sign entered into by faith makes certain the grace that it signifies ( Rom 4:16 ). "The Lord knows those who are his" and "Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness" ( 2 Tim 2:19 ), the insignias etched into the seal placed on "God's firm foundation, " are at the same time a blessing and a warning. The tribulation saints have a seal with God's name protecting them from judgment ( Rev 9:4 ; 14:1 ). Throughout eternity all of God's people will bear this mark of identification ( Rev 22:4 ).
The Holy Spirit seals those who trust in Christ. The Spirit's presence is God's guarantee that believers are owned by him and secure in him. Since the Holy Spirit's task is to apply Christ's work to God's people, he anoints believers "in Christ" the moment they believe ( 2 Cor 1:21-22 ; Eph 1:13 ). The Father anointed Christ with the Spirit at his baptism, the inauguration of his messianic ministry ( Luke 3:22 ; 4:18 ). Similarly, a believer's baptism marks him or her out as God's. A believer is a secure member of God's family, not because he or she is "holding on, " but because the Spirit is applying the promises about Christ. His sealing merely comprises the initial down payment that anticipates the future, full redemption of God's "marked possession" ( Eph 1:14 ; cf. 2 Cor 5:5 ). In the meantime, Paul commands Christians not to grieve the Holy Spirit in light of the coming day of redemption ( Eph 4:30 ). The Christian is marked as a "new self, " a "re-creation" of God ( Eph 4:24 ), indwelt by the Holy Spirit. His work of sealing believers, therefore, implies a moral responsibility. His name, "Holy" Spirit, is not without significance. His sealing separates the believer from the world and from his or her unholy past. It is incongruous for a sealed believer to ignore God's present sanctifying work through the Spirit resulting in practical godliness ( Eph 4:14-6:9 ).
Bradford A. Mullen
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commonly a ring engraved with some device ( Genesis 38:18 Genesis 38:25 ). Jezebel "wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal" ( 1 Kings 21:8 ). Seals are frequently mentioned in Jewish history ( Deuteronomy 32:34 ; Nehemiah 9:38 ; 10:1 ; Esther 3:12 ; Cant 8:6 ; Isaiah 8:16 ; Jeremiah 22:24 ; 32:44 , etc.). Sealing a document was equivalent to the signature of the owner of the seal. "The use of a signet-ring by the monarch has recently received a remarkable illustration by the discovery of an impression of such a signet on fine clay at Koyunjik, the site of the ancient Nineveh. This seal appears to have been impressed from the bezel of a metallic finger-ring. It is an oval, 2 inches in length by 1 inch wide, and bears the image, name, and titles of the Egyptian king Sabaco" (Rawlinson's Hist. Illus. of the O.T., p. 46). The actual signet-rings of two Egyptian kings (Cheops and Horus) have been discovered. (See SIGNET .)
The use of seals is mentioned in the New Testament only in connection with the record of our Lord's burial ( Matthew 27:66 ). The tomb was sealed by the Pharisees and chief priests for the purpose of making sure that the disciples would not come and steal the body away (ver. 63,64). The mode of doing this was probably by stretching a cord across the stone and sealing it at both ends with sealing-clay. When God is said to have sealed the Redeemer, the meaning is, that he has attested his divine mission ( John 6:27 ). Circumcision is a seal, an attestation of the covenant ( Romans 4:11 ). Believers are sealed with the Spirit, as God's mark put upon them ( Ephesians 1:13 ; 4:30 ). Converts are by Paul styled the seal of his apostleship, i.e., they are its attestation ( 1 Corinthians 9:2 ). Seals and sealing are frequently mentioned in the book of ( Revelation 5:1 ; 6:1 ; 7:3 ; 10:4 ; 22:10 ).
The importance attached to seals in the East is so great that without one no document is regarded as authentic. Among the methods of sealing used in Egypt at a very early period were engraved stones, graved stones, pierced through their length and hung by a string or chain from the arm or neck, or set in rings for the finger. The most ancient form used for this purpose was the scarabaeus, formed of precious or common stone, or even of blue pottery or porcelain, on the flat side of which the inscription or device was engraved. In many cases the seal consisted of a lump of clay, impressed with the seal and attached to the document, whether of papyrus or other material, by strings. In other cases wax was used. In sealing a sepulchre or box, the fastening was covered with clay or wax, and the impression from a seal of one in authority was stamped upon it, so that it could not be broken open without discovery. The signet-ring was an ordinary part of a mans equipment. ( Genesis 38:18 ) The ring or the seal as an emblem of authority in Egypt, Persia and elsewhere is mentioned in ( Genesis 41:42 ; 1 Kings 21:8 ; Esther 3:10 Esther 3:12 ; 8:2 ; Daniel 6:17 ) and as an evidence of a covenant, in ( Jeremiah 32:10 Jeremiah 32:44 ; Nehemiah 9:38 ; 10:1 ; Haggai 2:23 ) Engraved signets were in use among the Hebrews in early times. ( Exodus 28:11 Exodus 28:36 ; 39:6 )
sel (substantive chotham, "seal," "signet," Tabba`ath, "signet-ring"; Aramaic `izqa'; sphragis; verb chatham, (Aramaic chatham); (sphragizo), (katasphragizomai, "to seal"):
I. Literal Sense.
A seal is an instrument of stone, metal or other hard substance (sometimes set in a ring), on which is engraved some device or figure, and is used for making an impression on some soft substance, as clay or wax, affixed to a document or other object, in token of authenticity.
1. Prevalence in Antiquity:
The use of seals goes back to a very remote antiquity, especially in Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus (i.195) records the Babylonian custom of wearing signets. In Babylonia the seal generally took the form of a cylinder cut in crystal or some hard stone, which was bored through from end to end and a cord passed through it. The design, often accompanied by the owner's name, was engraved on the curved part. The signet was then suspended by the cord round the neck or waist (compare the Revised Version (British and American) "cord" in Genesis 38:18; "upon thy heart .... upon thine arm," i.e. one seal hanging down from the neck and another round the waist; Song of Solomon 8:6). In Egypt, too, as in Babylonia, the cylinder was the earliest form used for the purpose of a seal; but this form was in Egypt gradually superseded by the scarab (= beetle-shaped) as the prevailing type. Other forms, such as the cone-shaped, were also in use. From the earliest period of civilization the finger-ring on which some distinguishing badge was engraved was in use as a convenient way of carrying the signet, the earliest extant rings being those found in Egyptian tombs. Other ancient peoples, such as the Phoenicians, also used seals. From the East the custom passed into Greece and other western countries. Devices of a variety of sorts were in use at Rome, both by the emperors and by private individuals. In ancient times, almost every variety of precious stones was used for seals, as well as cheaper material, such as limestone or terra-cotta. In the West wax came early into use as the material for receiving the impression of the seal, but in the ancient East clay was the medium used (compare Job 38:14). Pigment and ink also came into use.
2. Seals among the Hebrews:
That the Israelites were acquainted with the use in Egypt of signets set in rings is seen in the statement that Pharaoh delivered to Joseph his royal signet as a token of deputed authority (Genesis 41:41). They were also acquainted with the use of seals among the Persians and Medes (Esther 3:12; 8:8-10; Daniel 6:17). The Hebrews themselves used them at an early period, the first recorded instance being Genesis 38:18,25, where the patriarch Judah is said to have pledged his word to Tamar by leaving her his signet, cord and staff. We have evidence of engraved signets being in important use among them in early times in the description of the two stones on the high priest's ephod (Exodus 28:11; 39:6), of his golden plate (Exodus 28:36; 39:30), and breastplate (Exodus 39:14). Ben-Sirach mentions as a distinct occupation the work of engraving on signets (Sirach 38:27). From the case of Judah and the common usage in other countries, we may infer that every Hebrew of any standing wore a seal. In the case of the signet ring, it was usual to wear it on one of the fingers of the right hand (Jeremiah 22:24). The Hebrews do not seem to have developed an original type of signets. The seals so far discovered in Palestine go to prove that the predominating type was the Egyptian, and to a less degree the Babylonian.
3. Uses of Sealing:
(1) One of the most important uses of sealing in antiquity was to give a proof of authenticity and authority to letters, royal commands, etc. It served the purposes of a modern signature at a time when the art of writing was known to only a few. Thus Jezebel "wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal" (1 Kings 21:8); the written commands of Ahasuerus were "sealed with the king's ring," "for the writing which is written in the king's name, and sealed with the king's ring, may no man reverse" (Esther 8:8,10; 3:12).
(2) Allied to this is the formal ratification of a transaction or covenant. Jeremiah sealed the deeds of the field which he bought from Hanamel (Jeremiah 32:10-14; compare Jeremiah 32:44); Nehemiah and many others affixed their seal to the written covenant between God and His people (Nehemiah 9:38; 10:1).
(3) An additional use was the preservation of books in security. A roll or other document intended for preservation was sealed up before it was deposited in a place of safety (Jeremiah 32:14; compare the "book .... close sealed with seven seals," Revelation 5:1). In sealing the roll, it was wrapped round with flaxen thread or string, then a lump of clay was attached to it impressed with a seal. The seal would have to be broken by an authorized person before the book could be read (Revelation 5:2,5,9; 6:1,3, etc.).
(5) Closed doors were often sealed to prevent the entrance of any unauthorized person. So the door of the lion's den (Daniel 6:17; compare Bel and the Dragon verse 6:14). Herodotus mentions the custom of sealing tombs (ii.121). So we read of the chief priests and Pharisees sealing the stone at the mouth of our Lord's tomb in order to "make the sepulchre sure" against the intrusion of the disciples (Matthew 27:66). Compare the sealing of the abyss to prevent Satan's escape Revelation 20:3). A door was sealed by stretching a cord over the stone which blocked the entrance, spreading clay or wax on the cord, and then impressing it with a seal.
(6) To any other object might a seal be affixed, as an official mark of ownership; e.g. a large number of clay stoppers of wine jars are still preserved, on which seal impressions of the cylinder type were stamped, by rolling the cylinder along the surface of the clay when it was still soft (compare Job 38:14).
II. Metaphorical Use of the Term.
The word "seal," both substantive and verb, is often used figuratively for the act or token of authentication, confirmation, proof, security or possession. Sin is said not to be forgotten by God, but treasured and stored up with Him against the sinner, under a seal (Deuteronomy 32:34; Job 14:17). A lover's signet is the emblem of love as an inalienable possession (Song of Solomon 8:6); an unresponsive maiden is "a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" (Song of Solomon 4:12). The seal is sometimes a metaphor for secrecy. That which is beyond the comprehension of the uninitiated is said to be as "a book that is sealed" (Isaiah 29:11; compare the book with seven seals, Revelation 5:1). Daniel is bidden to "shut up the words" of his prophecy "and seal the book, even to the time of the end," i.e. to keep his prophecy a secret till it shall be revealed (Daniel 12:4,9; compare Revelation 10:4). Elsewhere it stands for the ratification of prophecy (Daniel 9:24). The exact meaning of the figure is sometimes ambiguous (as in Job 33:16; Ezekiel 28:12). In the New Testament the main ideas in the figure are those of authentication, ratification, and security. The believer in Christ is said to "set his seal to this, that God is true" (John 3:33), i.e. to attest the veracity of God, to stamp it with the believer's own endorsement and confirmation. The Father has sealed the Son, i.e. authenticated Him as the bestower of life-giving bread (John 6:27). The circumcision of Abraham was a "sign" and "seal," an outward ratification, of the righteousness of faith which he had already received while uncircumcised (Romans 4:11; compare the prayer offered at the circumcision of a child, "Blessed be He who sanctified His beloved from the womb, and put His ordinance upon his flesh, and sealed His offering with the sign of a holy covenant"; also Targum So 38:
"The seal of circumcision is in your flesh as it was sealed in the flesh of Abraham"). Paul describes his act in making over to the saints at Jerusalem the contribution of the Gentiles as having "sealed to them this fruit" (Romans 15:28); the meaning of the phrase is doubtful, but the figure seems to be based on sealing as ratifying a commercial transaction, expressing Paul's intention formally to hand over to them the fruit (of his own labors, or of spiritual blessings which through him the Gentiles had enjoyed), and to mark it as their own property. Paul's converts are the "seal," the authentic confirmation, of his apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:2). God by His Spirit indicates who are His, as the owner sets his seal on his property; and just as documents are sealed up until the proper time for opening them, so Christians are sealed up by the Holy Spirit "unto the day of redemption" (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30; 2 Corinthians 1:22). Ownership, security and authentication are implied in the words, "The firm foundation of God standeth, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Timothy 2:19). The seal of God on the foreheads of His servants (Revelation 7:2-4) marks them off as His own, and guarantees their eternal security, whereas those that "have not the seal of God on their foreheads" (Revelation 9:4) have no such guaranty.
On the analogy of the rite of circumcision (see above), the term "seal" (sphragis) was at a very early period applied to Christian baptism. But there is no sufficient ground for referring such passages as Ephesians 1:13; 4:30; 2 Corinthians 1:22 to the rite of baptism (as some do). The use of the metaphor in connection with baptism came after New Testament times (early instances are given in Gebhardt and Lightfoot on 2 Clem 7:6). Harnack and Hatch maintain that the name "seal" for baptism was taken from the Greek mysteries, but Anrich and Sanday-Headlam hold that it was borrowed from the Jewish view of circumcision as a seal.
D. Miall Edwards
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