Ever since Sodom and Gomorrah, fire was the key symbol for God’s judgement, among the Hebrews. When Yahweh appears to Moses in a bush of fire, it’s time for judgement to begin in Egypt. Throughout the wilderness wanderings, God is with the people as a fire. Sometimes that fire burns against the people, bringing calamity. For the Israelites, the presence of this fire was at times traumatic:
For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die.
The whole sacrificial system of burnt offerings is based on this reality of judgement: when offerings are made to God by fire, it expresses that
the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God. Deut. 4:24
Fire is also the image of Yahweh’s conquest over Israel’s enemies and his own:The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Deut. 7:25 Know then today that Yahweh your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you.
Fire is not described as merely a tool of Yahweh’s: he himself is the fire. This is of course a metaphor. While in ancient near eastern religions there were no doubt gods who were considered to inhabit fires, for the Hebrews fire is a sign or symbol with which Yahweh was closely identified, rather than containing or defining Him.
The Psalms continue this traditional metaphor: Yahweh is once again closely connected to the fire of judgement. He is even portrayed as a kind of dragon monster:Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him.
The prophets also found it natural to work with this core symbol of heaven’s judgement. They used fire imagery extensively, and developed it somewhat. The prophetess Hulda speaks of unquenched fire:
Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 2 Kings 22:17
In the passage this is drawn from, Jerusalem’s fate is contrasted with King Josiah’s: Yahweh will relent from his wrath against the king – but not from his anger against the city. That fire will not be quenched. Unquenchable here refers to the certainty of the coming judgement.
Isaiah sees the land of Edom devoured by this same fire:For the LORD has a day of vengeance… And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulphur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever.
Later in the chapter Edom, having been emptied of people, becomes the home of animals! It would be a mistake to ask how animals can live on permanently burning sulfur soil. The passage is full of the most vivid poetic imagery and is not intended as a literal description. Rather, the unquenchable burning pitch is a powerful symbol of the permanence of Edom’s overthrow.
‘Fire’ is often employed as an agricultural image: the people are like plants, and any that don’t bear good fruit will be burned up. This of course tapped into an everyday experience for a rural society such as Israel:When I expected my vineyard to yield good grapes, why did it yield bad grapes? …Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of hosts.
Isaiah 5:4, 24
The LORD once called you, “A green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit”; but with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed.
Jeremiah 11:16Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard… fruitful and full of branches But it was plucked up in fury, its fruit was stripped off, its strong stem was withered; the fire consumed it. Now it is transplanted into the wilderness, into a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its stem, has consumed its branches and fruit, so that there remains in it no strong stem, no scepter for ruling.
Here in Ezekiel, the image of fire is combined with that of violent transplant: a double image referring to Israel’s exile and loss of kingdom.
Isaiah also points out the implications for corrupt Israel of having having to deal with a fire-god such as Yahweh:The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: “Who among us can live with the devouring fire? Who among us can live with eternal flames?”
Here God himself is the fire, as in Deuteronomy. But now he is an eternal, or neverending fire. Who can live with such a God? It might be thought that this is a rhetorical question: no one can live in fire. But in fact Isaiah answers it: “Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly” (v.15). These ones can live with the devouring fire. Once again it is apparent that fire is being used in its traditional sense, as a metaphor for Yahweh the judge. He is the eternal fire. And only the upright can stand in the face of his judgement.
Isaiah extends the image in terrifying fashion: the wicked themselves are envisioned as the fire that burns unceasingly in Yahweh’s nostrils:Those who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.
This same image is then used again at the end of the vision, to close the whole book of Isaiah:
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched… Isaiah 66:24
Notice the conjunction ‘for’ here. It gives the clue to reading this vision. God’s people can have confidence that these enemies will end up like the dead bodies of the Egyptians on the seashore. This will certainly happen, because Yahweh’s fire will burn all day in his nostrils. It will not be quenched, it will burn until to the end and destroy them. Here ‘not quenched’ is used as it was in 2 Kings 22, above, regarding Jerusalem and Josiah: it speaks of the unrelenting nature of God’s judgement: he is not going to change his mind about this or let up, until they are destroyed.
Jeremiah uses the same image for Jerusalem: Yahweh tells him not to pray for the people, for God will not listen. The decree is firm. The people will not listen either, or turn; for their judgement is final:
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.
Inevitability – that’s what the unquenchable fire expresses here. That seems to be Jeremiah’s standard way of using this image (cf. 4:4; 15:14; 17:27)
Ezekiel prophesies against the forests of the Negeb:
Thus says the Lord GOD, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree; the blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.
Here the fire will not be quenched, but instead it will continue to devour until everything is scorched, from south to north. Completeness is the idea in view in Ezekiel.
Daniel pictures God’s throne of judgement as being made of fire:his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence… The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
The powerful beast oppressing God’s people is then given over to this judgement fire.
And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. (v.11)
What does this image mean, of the beast being burned in fire? Daniel doesn’t understand the vision, so it is later decoded for us. The literal explanation is this:Then the court shall sit in judgment, and his rule shall be taken away, to be consumed and totally destroyed. v.26
The burning of the beast represents the destruction of his authority and power. As always the fire image is just that: an image. And here it has this distinctive nuance not found in other occurances: referring to the overthrow of enemy rule.
Malachi picks up on Isaiah’s image of the unbearable presence of God’s fire.
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Malachi 4:2-3
Once again the fire is Yahweh himself. Here it is seen as deadly for some (represented by the dross or impurities) but a blessing to the nation as a whole, which will be purified. As before, there is the idea of the fire enduring until the refining process is complete: it will burn away all the dross. That idea is picked up in the next chapter – the last in the OT canon.
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
The wicked are compare to plant refuse thrown in the furnace. The fire will leave nothing behind: it will devour completely. None of the wicked can endure it. This aligns with Ezekiel’s usage of the ‘fire that will not be quenched’ – expressing total destruction.
It is interesting to notice that here the wicked seem to make a comeback after being burned to nothing. We thought they were gone forever, but now here they are, being trodden down under the feet of the faithful. How can this be? How can they be totally destroyed by fire, and also still be around to be trodden under foot? The prophetic imagery is flexible enough to allow for both of these images: now the wicked are the ashes left by the fire, and the righteous tread on the ash! The ideas of complete destruction and of ongoing defeat and humiliation are brought together with devastating effect.
Hopefully by now we’re getting the idea about metaphor. We are moving in a symbolic world in which imagery can be combined and stretched creatively to make nuanced theological points.
We have seen that the prophets make use of the traditional fire-imagery of Israel to put across their own various messages about God’s judgement. Fire can refer to the destruction of people, cities, nations, or the reign of rulers, or generally to exile. The prophets tend to use the metaphor in agricultural contexts. Their main contribution to the tradition was the addition of ‘unending’ or ‘unquenchable’ to the metaphor. The symbol of ‘fire that is not quenched’ is employed to speak variously of the inevitability, totality, or permanence of God’s judgement, and of the unrelenting constancy of his wrath against evildoers. In this symbolic territory, the images and language stay fairly stable, but their application to reality is flexible and nuanced.