What is the symbolism of a dove in the Bible? Who or what does this represent?
The Dove in the Old Testament
The dove has long been a symbol of peace in the history of mankind but the dove has great symbolism in the Bible too and is mentioned 46 times in Scripture. The first occurrence we read about a dove is when Noah “sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground” (Gen 8:8) “but the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark” (Gen 8:9). That’s when Noah “waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark” and this time “When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth” (Gen 8:10-11). When Noah sent the dove out after another week, the dove didn’t return (Gen 8:12) indicating that the floodwaters had receded enough to now support life. Doves were also sometimes given as sin offerings for those who couldn’t afford lambs, rams, goats or heifers (Lev 5:7-11).
Doves as Symbolic of Beauty
In the Song of Solomon he often uses the images of doves as a symbol of beauty like in 1:15 “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are [like] doves.” He also writes “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (Song of Solomon 2:14) and “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are doves” (Song of Solomon 4:1) and in 5:2 he writes “Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one.” Even Hosea wrote concerning Israel “Ephraim is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless— now calling to Egypt, now turning to Assyria” (Hosea 7:11) and that “They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves. I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord” (11:11).
Symbolic of the Holy Spirit
Just prior to Jesus beginning His earthly ministry he went to John the Baptist to be baptized. We read this account in Luke 3:21-22 “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Matthew records the same thing from a different perspective “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matt 3:16) as does Mark in writing “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (1:10). John also records this event in his gospel as he wrote “Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him” (1:32). The dove then is a symbol of the Holy Spirit and like a dove He represents peace like when a believer receives the Holy Spirit and is born again and then they have the peace of God on them (Rom 5:1) and are then at peace with God. You might notice the language of these verses that the dove remained on Him (Jesus), which is the Spirit of God and Who remained on Jesus as He had the full measure of the Spirit of God.
Believers as a Dove
When Jesus was speaking about sending out the disciples to proclaim the gospel He told them “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). What did He mean by this? The dove is not a predator but wolves are. Those who will oppose us as they did the disciples will be like ravenous wolves that will be seeking out to destroy all who bring the good news of Jesus Christ. Believers, in sharing their faith, must be shrewd as snakes in the sense that they must be wise to the ways of the enemy who seeks to prevent this message of hope from being proclaimed. If we are to be innocent as doves, we are to be above reproach and live lives that are pleasing to God and doing harm to no one. A dove is a very sensitive bird. It flies away at the least bit of disturbance. It is exceedingly shy yet it is one of the most beautiful of all of God’s creatures.
The dove represents the Holy Spirit that also indwells every believer after they have repented and trusted in Christ. For the believer, they are to be as innocent as doves so that no one can make any accusation against us and bring shame to the cause of Christ. We can easily grieve the Holy Spirit but He will never leave us because we are sealed by Him (Eph 1). God is still sending out his “doves” today to bring the message of hope and peace to all who still have the wrath of God abiding on them for disbelieving in Christ (John 3:36b). I pray that is not you.
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon.