“Seal” entry for Lexham B.D.

February 7, 2011

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*Seal (Heb chotham, “seal, signet [ring]”; Gk sphragis, “seal, mark, imprint”). A small engraved object used to make an image in soft clay or wax, indicating ownership (much like a signature), authority or authenticity. Seals have been dated back to well before 3,000 B.C. and were of several types. There are literal, figurative, and apocalyptic uses of “seal” in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.*

!! Seal in the Ancient Near East. The art of engraving seals on gemstones was common in the Ancient Near East from early recorded history. The earliest known type was the stamp seal. It consisted of a flat gem, which was pressed into soft clay. It was replaced around 3,000 B.C. by the cylinder seal, which was rolled over soft clay to leave the entire design of the seal. However, before 500 B.C., the stamp seal was not only used again, but replaced the cylinder seal completely. In Egypt, the scarab form of stamp seal was popular, because it worked better in sealing papyrus documents, made from the very common papyrus plant. Jar handle seals were variously used as either evidence of ownership (including by kings), as a trademark or to prove that merchandise had not been tampered with before arrival to its purchaser.

!! Literal Usage in the Old Testament. Historical examples of seals symbolizing ownership, authority and authenticity are clearly seen in Old Testament narratives. For example, Judah gave his signet ring to Tamar in Gen 38:18, to hold as a pledge for her service as a presumed prostitute. Jezebel sealed letters with Ahab’s signet in order to seize Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:8). The post-Exilic leaders in Judea sealed a vow of faithfulness to authenticate it as a binding document (Neh 9:38).

!! Figurative Usage in the Old Testament. Wisdom Literature and the Prophets sometimes employ “seal” in a figurative manner. In Job 38:14, God compares His power to act to the way clay is changed by a seal. In Song 8:6, the Shulamite maiden passionately urges her lover to “set me like a seal on your heart, on your arm” (HCSB). In Isa 8:16, the prophet’s “disciples” are told to securely “seal up the instruction” (HCSB).

!! Apocalyptic Usage in the Old Testament. Two of the visions in Daniel include the idea of “sealing,” one of the whole book. In Daniel 8:26, the prophet is told to seal up (i.e., secure) the vision in that chapter of the desecrating of the sanctuary of the Temple by the beast of the Greek Empire. That is because its fulfillment would be almost 400 years in the future. Even broader is the later angelic explanation to Daniel related to the sealing of the entire Book of Daniel “until the time of the end” (12:4, 9, HCSB).

!! Literal Usage in the New Testament. There is only one literal usage in the entire New Testament: sealing Jesus’ tomb in Matt 27:66. After Jesus’ death, the paranoia of the chief priests and Pharisees caused them to go to Pontius Pilate and demand for him to make the tomb as secure as possible. The two things that were done were to deploy a guard detail there and to further secure it by “sealing the stone” (HCSB) rolled across the face of the tomb. The seal was an imprint in wax of an official Roman seal and indicated that the full authority of the Empire was behind it. Anyone who tampered with that seal could be punished by death.  That, of course, did not deter God at all from bringing forth from that tomb in resurrection power.

!! Figurative Usage in the New Testament. Several figurative uses of “seal” are found in the Epistles, with the various nuances of meaning all represented. Rom 4:11 describes circumcision as a “seal” of righteousness (i.e., outwardly symbolizing authentication) related to Abraham’s faith. In 1 Cor 9:2, Paul refers to his readers as the “seal” (i.e., authentication) of his apostleship. The most well-known use of the figure of “sealing” in Paul’s letters is the “sealing of the Spirit” (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13, 4:30). The “seal” in this case speaks of God’s ownership, and authority over, the life of the Christian.

!! Apocalyptic Usage in the New Testament. The Book of Revelation employs the concept of “sealing” in five contexts, twice related to existing scrolls, once closing off a revelation from being recorded, once in regard to protecting God’s people and once in securing Satan in the abyss. In Rev 5:1, a seven-sealed “scroll” (Gk biblion, not a codex/book)—perhaps the same scroll sealed in Dan 12:4, 9—is introduced. Only Christ, the Lamb, is worthy to open that secured scroll (i.e., remove the seven seals). Since scrolls are not open for viewing until all the seals are removed, that means the unsealing sequence in Rev 6 is a preliminary judgment to the so-called Tribulation period. That understanding is strengthened by the elaborate parallelism of the seals in Rev 6 to the “beginning of birth pains” (i.e., early or false labor/Braxton-Hicks contractions) portion of the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:4-14). Just before the removal of the seventh seal on the scroll, the 144,000 Jewish servants of God are sealed on their foreheads (Rev 7:3-4), reflecting the Lord’s ownership and protection over them. In Rev 10:4, John is forbidden to write down what “seven thunders” had spoken, because it was sealed (i.e., secured from view) by “a voice from heaven” (HCSB). In Rev 20:3, the Devil is imprisoned in the abyss for 1,000 years.  God’s seal is affixed upon it and, unlike the seal on Jesus’ tomb in Matt 27:66, Satan is unable to escape, because god’s power is far greater. At the end of the Apocalypse, in direct contrast to Dan 12:4, 9, the Apostle is commanded, “Don’t seal the prophetic words of this book, because the time is near” (Rev 22:10, HCSB).

–A. Boyd Luter

!! Bibliography 

Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992.

Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. New Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 

Beagley, Alan J. “Scrolls, Seals,” in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Eds. R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997: 1084-86.

Dearman, J. Andrew. “Seal,” in the Harper’s Bible Dictionary. Gen. Ed. P.J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

Gibson, McGuire and Robert D. Biggs, Eds. Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 6. Malibu: Undena Publications, 1977. 

Hays, J. Daniel, J. Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate. “Seal Judgments,” in the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. 

Luter, A. Boyd. “Interpreting the Book of Revelation,” in Interpreting the New Testament. Eds. D.A. Black and D.S. Dockery. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001. 

Luter, A. Boyd and Emily K. Hunter. “The ‘Earth-Dwellers’ and the ‘Heaven-Dwellers’: An Overlooked Interpretive Key to the Apocalypse.” Faith and Mission 20/1 (Fall 2003): 3-18.

Magness-Gardiner, Bonnie S. “Seals, Mesopotamian,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Gen. Ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992, V: 1064-66.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. Interpreting the New Testament. Guides to New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Westenholz, Joan G., Ed. Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns/Bible Lands Museum, 1995.


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