Biblical vocabulary: נֵר (lamp)

Last updated on March 3, 2022

oil lamp

The Bible regularly mentions objects of common use in daily life. These objects include the lamp that played a central role in the domestic circle and was an important part of the household goods in biblical times. In addition, the lamp is mentioned in the Scriptures with symbolic meaning. Because one or more lamps were used in every household, the meaning of these texts could be understood.

This is also true for us today, although some data will elude the current Bible reader because the lamp used in biblical times differs from our current lamps. The lamp is indicated in the Hebrew Bible by the word נֵר, pronounced “ner” or “nyr” which means: lamp, light.

Oil lamp

By “ner” (or “nyr”)/lamp predominantly a small pottery oil lamp is meant. Often, they were simple lamps, but sometimes they also were lamps with artful, graceful shapes. Olive oil was used to light the “ner”/lamp (Exodus 25:6; 27:20; compare Matthew 25:3-4). Thanks to many archaeological finds of pottery oil lamps, we know what they looked like in biblical times and it is possible to follow their design development from the time of Abraham and afterwards.

Initially, the lamp was a pottery open dish with a spout shape in the rim that contained the wick that floated in the oil. This was of course very inconvenient and dangerous to move. Therefore, the lamp shape developed into an increasingly closed form, with the top only having an opening to pour the oil in. This is the type of oil lamp from Jesus’ time.

Continuous maintenance was required to keep a lamp burning. Oil had to be refilled and the wick cut regularly to prevent smoldering and eventual extinguishing. The image of the “faintly burning wick” (Isaiah 42:3) was significant in Isaiah’s day, and it was understood that such a wick would extinguish if there was no intervention from God.

A lamp usually contained enough oil to burn through the night, but it was necessary to shorten the wick a few times. This means that the skillful, hardworking woman (Proverbs 31:18) could not sleep through the night if she wanted to keep her lamp burning: “… her ner/lamp does not go out at night.” That allowed her to start the fire early in the morning!

“Ner”/lamp as an image of life and guidance

A burning “ner”/lamp is an image of abundant life, joy and well-being given by God. That is what Job missed in his misery (Job 29:3). God is the source of light that illuminates man (1 John 1:5) and only He gives the human lamp of life His true, quickening light: “For it is You who light my ner”/lamp…” (Psalm 18:28). David also said: “For you are my ner/lamp, O Lord” (2 Samuel 22:29).

Those who know and fear the Lord, sing this along with David! In this way we may turn to the Lord and give praise thankfully because He Himself is our lamp in whatever situation we find ourselves in. He remains unchanged our Divine, comforting life-giving lamp. The “ner”/lamp is also an image of the guidance and instruction that God gives to believers through His Spirit and Word: “Your word is a ner/lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105). Let’s never let go of this great confession of faith about the Word!

The extinguished lamp

The absence of a burning “ner”/lamp is a sign of misfortune and disaster. When God, through the prophet Jeremiah, warns the people of Judah and Jerusalem that their unfaithfulness leads to terrible punishment, He says “I will banish from them the light of the ner/lamp.” (Jeremiah 25:10). The Scriptures teach us that life without God is unfulfilled and difficult. Apart from God one lives in permanent darkness, without sight and hope.

In Proverbs, the life of the godless is described as a burden, unfulfilled, languishing: “… the ner/lamp of the wicked will be put out” (Proverbs 13:9; 24:20; compare 20:20). The “ner”/lamp of the godless will go out because they lack the life-giving light of God. What a contrast to this is the joyful “light of the righteous” who seek and fear the Lord God!

In the New Testament, the image of the lamp is mainly used to encourage believers not to hide God’s light, but to let it shine (Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 8:16). “… God is light…” (1 John 1:5-7). As light bearers we can witness of this!

A “ner”/lamp in Jerusalem

The “ner”/lamp is also a symbol of offspring in the Old Testament. Thus the Lord God promises that David will always have a “ner”/lamp in Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:36). Despite all the unfaithfulness and apostasy among David’s descendants, God would keep that promise. “Nevertheless, for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him a ner/lamp in Jerusalem…” (1 Kings 15:4). “Yet the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah, for the sake of David His servant, since He promised to give a ner/lamp to him and to his sons forever.” (2 Kings 8:19).

David himself is also referred to by his men as the “ner”/lamp of Israel (2 Samuel 21:17). God had chosen Jerusalem, also referred to as Zion, to put His Name there and said, “There I have prepared a ner/lamp for my anointed.” (Psalm 132:17).

God is faithful and has kept His promise to successors to David. But the richest and most exalted fulfillment occurred when He sent His own Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth as the coming Messiah to shine mankind with His God-light. And we may look forward to the new Jerusalem where God’s glory will illuminate everything and where the Lamb who carried away our sins (Isaiah 53: 7) Himself will be the lamp (Revelation 21:23).

you are my lamp, O Lord…” (2 Samuel 22:29)

© Copyright dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk

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