Both mesmerizing and mysterious, fire represents combustion, a chemical reaction that releases both heat and light. Today, fire seems to be at our fingertips-we just need to turn on the stove or light a match. Because we no longer have to work to get it, most of us take fire for granted. Yet we rely on fire for light, warmth, cooking, manufacturing, and refining. Fire figures into the Bible in numerous ways-in daily life, religious ceremony, and as an instrument of warfare. The ritual of animal sacrifice instituted by God in the Old Testament requited the use of fire to consume burnt offerings. The burning of sacrificial meat with fire is described as “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Lev 23:18; Num 28:13,24; 29:6, 13).
Other symbolic uses of fire in the Bible correspond to fire’s practical uses. For example, in Zechariah 13:9, God is a refiner who brings the Israelites “through the fire” in order to “refine them as silver is refined” (see also Mal 3:2). Fire is pictured as a purifying agent in people’s lives. Proverbs 17:3 clarifies the relationship of fire with spiritual refinement: “The crucible is for refining silver and the smelter of gold, but the one who purifies hearts by fire is the LORD.” Throughout the Bible, we see the presence of God physically manifested as fire. In Genesis 15:17, God sealed his covenant with Abram by passing through the animal sacrifice as “a smoking oven and a flaming torch.” During the Israelites’ exit from Egypt, the Lord appeared as a protective wall of fire at night: “So the LORD’S column stayed over the tent during the day, and there was fire in the smoke at night. In this way all the Israelites could see the column throughout their travels” (Exod 40:38; see also Exod 13:21; Ps 105:39; Zech 2:5). The fire symbolized the guiding presence of God among the people. God also appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush on Mount Sinai (Exod 3:2). For biblical authors, the theophany of fire portrayed God’s power, holiness, and protection over his people.
THE FIRES OF JUDGMENT
Fire also demonstrates God’s anger and righteous judgment over humanity. In Deuteronomy, God’s supremacy over false idols is demonstrated as fire: “The LORD your God is a raging fire, a God who does not tolerate rivals” (4:24). In stories such as the condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see fire used in God’s punishment for sin (Gen 19:24). In the last days, fire is pictured as a tool of judgment that both burns up the dross and purifies the holy: “The day will make what each one does clearly visible because fire will reveal it. That fire will determine what kind of work each person has done. If what a person has built survives, he will receive a reward. If his work is burned up, he will suffer the loss. However, he will be saved, though it will be like going through a fire” (1 Cor 3:13-15). Foreshadowing the fires of hell, John the Baptist explained Jesus’ work in the final days: “He will gather his wheat into a barn, but he will burn the husks in a fire that can never be put out” (Matt 3:12).
The Bible uses fire as a metaphor for the destructive capabilities of human action The tongue can be a fire, with words leaving a path of destruction through human hearts (James 3:5-6). Sometimes these destructive words are God’s tool of judgment (Jer 5:14). Jealousy can also be a fire that devours (Deut 4:24). So can lust (Prov 6:27), love (Song of Sol 8:6), or anger (Num 11:1; Ps 89:46).