Garments are used as biblical symbols in almost as many ways as there are styles of clothing. Clothes are used as expression of socioeconomics status, spiritual well-being, and emotional state. They can protect, conceal, or display an inner reality of the wearer. They can last for a long time or wear out quickly (Neh 9:21; Matt 6:19). They can consist of leaves (Gen 3:7), animal skin (Gen 3:21; Matt 3:4), rags (Isa 64:6), pure white linen (Dan 7:9; Rev 19:14), or anything in between. They can be literal or figurative. Yet despite al this variety, the use of clothing as a symbol falls into a few set patterns that yield a wealth of insight.
CLOTHING AS SYMBOL IN SCRIPTURE
Clothing is first of all a symbol for provision important for daily life (Gen 28:20; Isa 23:18). We are perhaps the only creatures born without the necessary bodily covering to survive very long. Our remarkable skin can only adapt to a relatively narrow temperature fluctuation without needing additional protection. One of God’s first acts after Adam and Eve sinned was to provide clothing for them as an act of care and mercy (Gen 3:21). During the exodus he showed care by causing the Israelites’ clothes not to wear our (Deut 8:4; 29:5; Neh 9:21). Hannah gave Samuel clothes to express her love (1 Sam 2:19). The importance of clothing in a less affluent society was expressed in the fact that conquering kings would take clothes as part of their plunder (Exod 3:22; 2 Kings 7:8; 2 Chron 20:25), and being without clothes was viewed as a curse (Job 13:28; Isa 50:9; 51:8). A person’s social status was symbolized by how fancy their clothes were-whether they were provided with the barest necessities of life or with abundant riches. For instance, Isaac gave Joseph a fancy coat to show his importance in the family (Gen 37:3), and purple cloth was a sign of power (Ezek 27:24).
Certain types of clothes in the Bible were worn as an expression of the inner emotional state of the wearer. Festive garments, such as for a wedding, connoted joy (Matt 22:11-22). The Bible also mentions prison garment (Deut 21:13; 2 Kings 25:29; Jer 52:33) and lepers garments (Lev 13:45), which showed the wearers to be outcast. Widows would wear clothes or mourning (Gen 38:14, 19). And sackcloth was a well-known symbol of repentance or sorrow (Gen 37:34; 1 Kings 20:31; Esther 4:1-2; Psa 69:11; Isa 37:1). Those in an extreme state of grief, fear, or anger would tear their clothes (Gen 37:29; Isa 37:1). God himself is said to be clothed with splendor and victory (Isa 63:1) or with vengeance (Isa 59:17).
Sometimes clothing was used as a disguise with the intent to deceive. False prophets come as wolves in sheeps’ clothing (Matt 7:15). Jacob tricked his father and stole Esau’ blessing through the use of a disguise (Gen 27:15, 27). Saul disguised himself when he visited the witch of Endor (1 Sam 28:8). And the men of Gibeon dressed in worn-out clothes to trick the Israelites into making a treaty with them (Josh 9:4-5). In these cases, clothes were used to conceal something about a person rather than to display his or her status.
CLOTHING AND SPIRITUAL STATE
The act of putting on and taking off clothes becomes a symbol of a person’s spiritual state. Old Testament priests would don linen garments to perform their religious duties (Exod 29:1-9; 40:12-15; Lev 16:1-4). Their white garments symbolized the purity of God and the purification rites they gone through to be worthy to approach him. But evil people also would put on garments, in this case garments of violence (Ps 73:6) or prostitution (Ezek 16:16). Even the priests sometimes would wear defiled clothes (Lam 4:13-14). In the New Testament, we read of putting off the deeds of darkness that belong to our old nature and putting on righteousness (Rom 13:12; Eph 4:22; Col 3:9-10). Believers should be clothed in actions and attitudes that reflect the work of the Holy Spirit within them. Ultimately, believers will put on their eternal body like a garment (2 Cor 5:2-4).
taken together, the Bible’s symbolic use of clothing provides a records of salvation history. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve did not have any need for clothing-they were naked and unashamed (Gen 2:25). After they sinned, they were ashamed and sought clothing as a way to hide their guilt (Gen 3:7). God provided literal clothing for them (Gen 3:21), which served their need temporarily, but they needed a permanent solution to their shame. Eventually God provided the promise of garments of salvation (Isa 61:3; 10). He vowed to cover Israel’s nakedness (Ezek 16:8; Rev 3:18). Salvation is portrayed symbolically as the changing of our filthy clothes for white robes-an action that only God can do (Isa 64:6; Zech 3:3-5; Rev 7:14). The culmination of salvation is when the believer stands before God as a bride adorned for her husband (Isa 61:10; Rev 21:2)