Why is it important for us to understand symbolism?
Because understanding symbolism is central to an understanding of the gospel. Indeed Elder Orson F Whitney wrote:
‘The Universe is built on symbols, lifting our thoughts from man to God, from earth to heaven, from time to eternity…God teaches with symbols; it is His favourite way of teaching.’ (Orson F Whitney, Latter Day Saint Ideals and Institutions, Improvement Era, 30 August 1927)
Latter-Day Saints are used to interpreting symbolism in the scriptures. We recognise that in scripture words, objects, images and people can represent something beyond their surface meaning and that a symbol may be interpreted on several levels. In particular, we believe that all things testify of Christ.
‘And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me.’ (Moses 6:63)
However, despite this, many Saints are less comfortable with ceremonial symbolism. As a rule, apart from baptism and the sacrament, our Church services are not symbolically rich. Many find that the temple ordinances with their many levels of symbolism are, at first, confusing and hard to understand. However, with continued temple attendance and through the Spirit we begin to find meanings within the symbols and this enriches our temple experience:
‘In the temple the Spirit is the teacher. It instructs us, most frequently, through the symbols that comprise the endowment. We must be alert and pay attention to all that we see and hear, thus allowing the Spirit to teach us and to bring us understanding. If we go to the temple and just sit, without making an effort to learn, we will miss some of the greatest blessings the temple has to offer.’ (S Michael Wilcox, House of Glory.)
Through study, pondering and the inspiration of the Spirit we can discover and interpret these symbols for ourselves and that this understanding can also enrich our temple experience. The Apostle Paul taught:
‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.’ (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).
One of the purposes of symbolism is to enable the teaching of spiritual truths in a way that enters the heart of man yet protects them from the ‘natural man’.
The temples of the Old Testament were rich in symbolism. The scriptures tell us that the design and decoration of Solomon’s temple were given by direct revelation from God. Just as the Lord revealed details about the construction of the Tabernacle to Moses and of Solomon’s temple to David, so Joseph Smith received precise instructions from the Lord about the Nauvoo temple, including the external ornamentation. While discussing some of the details of the building with William Weeks, the temple architect, he stated,
‘I wish you to carry out my designs, I have seen in vision the splendid vision of that building illuminated, and will have it built according to the pattern shown me.” (History of the Church 6:196-97.)
On 15 May 1844 while Josiah Quincey visited the Nauvoo temple site in company with the Prophet, and recorded the following:
‘Near the entrance of the temple we passed a workman who was labouring on a huge sun which had been chiselled from the solid rock….’General Smith’, said the man, looking up from his task, ‘is this the face you saw in vision?’ ‘Very near it’, answered the prophet. ‘(Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals)
After the laying of the cornerstone for the Salt Lake Temple, Brigham Young said:
‘I scarcely ever say much about revelations, or visions, but suffice it to say, five years ago last July I was here, and saw in Spirit the Temple not ten feet away from where we have laid the Chief Corner Stone. I have not inquired what kind of Temple we should build. Why? Because it was represented before me. I have never looked upon that ground, but the vision of it was there. I see it as plainly as if it were in reality before me.’ (Discourses of Brigham Young, page 410)
So it seems that the overall design and even the details, including the symbols, of the early temples was given by God. For these temples, the use of symbols was not just a matter of ornamentation but also a statement about the symbolic nature of the temple experience.