As today, so also in Bible times fire played an important role in man’s life. The refining, forging, and casting of metals, along with the preparing of food and the heating of homes, as well as the offering of sacrifices and the burning of incense, are among the things specifically mentioned in the Bible as requiring the use of fire. However, because of the destructiveness of uncontrolled fire, it is described as one of the four things that have not said: “Enough!” (Pr 30:15, 16) For the same reason James compared the tongue when used wrongly to a fire.—Jas 3:5-8; compare Pr 16:27.
The first man and woman were acquainted with fire, for Jehovah, upon expelling them from the garden of Eden, posted at the E of the garden “the cherubs and the flaming blade of a sword that was turning itself continually.” (Ge 3:24) Cain and Abel may have brought their offerings to Jehovah before the cherubs and, though it is not directly stated in the Scriptures, likely they used fire in presenting them, or they may have expected fire to come from the cherubs to consume the sacrifices. (Ge 4:3, 4) Tubal-cain, in forging tools of copper and iron, must have employed the heat of intense fires, especially since the melting of iron requires a temperature of 1,535° C. (2,795° F.). (Ge 4:22) After the Flood, bricks were baked with “a burning process,” although some were merely sun dried. (Ge 11:3) In view of the difficulty faced in kindling a fire anew, it was evidently a frequent practice to transfer fire from one place to another.—Ge 22:6; Isa 30:14.
In Connection With God’s Purposes. Jehovah’s angel appeared to Moses in a flame of fire in a burning thornbush that was not consumed. (Ex 3:2) A pillar of fire by night guided the Israelites through the wilderness, which pillar later rested over the tabernacle, signifying Jehovah’s presence. (Ex 13:21; 40:38) The manifestation of Jehovah’s glory in fire at the giving of the Law to Israel caused Mount Sinai to smoke.—Ex 19:18; 24:17.
As relates to the tabernacle and the temple. Fire figured in the worship carried on at the tabernacle and then later at the temple. Each morning and between the two evenings, the high priest was to burn incense on the altar of incense. (Ex 30:7, 8) God’s law required that the fire on the altar of burnt offering be kept burning continually. (Le 6:12, 13) The traditional Jewish view that the altar fire was originally kindled miraculously by God, though widely accepted, is not actually supported by the Scriptures. According to Jehovah’s initial instructions to Moses, the sons of Aaron were to “put fire on the altar and set wood in order on the fire” before placing the sacrifice on the altar. (Le 1:7, 8) It was after the installation of the Aaronic priesthood, and therefore after the installation sacrifices had been offered, that fire from Jehovah, probably proceeding from the cloud over the tabernacle, consumed the offering then upon the altar. In view of this, the miraculous fire manifested itself, not in kindling the wood on the altar, but in “consuming the burnt offering and the fatty pieces upon the altar.” The fire that then continued to burn on the altar, of course, was likely a result of the mixture of the fire from God and the fire already on the altar. (Le 8:14–9:24) Likewise, miraculous fire from Jehovah consumed the sacrifices right after Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple.—2Ch 7:1; see also Jg 6:21; 1Ki 18:21-39; 1Ch 21:26 for other examples of Jehovah’s use of miraculous fire when accepting the offerings of his servants.
Legal provisions, and use in executions. The Mosaic Law prohibited lighting a fire on the Sabbath. (Ex 35:3) According to the Law, if a fire got out of hand and caused a conflagration in the field of another, the one starting the fire had to make compensation. (Ex 22:6) Garments or articles of skin in which a plague of leprosy developed and persisted were to be burned. (Le 13:53-58) In the case of certain violations of God’s law, the individuals were stoned to death and then their bodies were burned with fire. (Le 20:14; 21:9; Jos 7:15, 25) If an Israelite city turned to apostasy, its inhabitants were to be struck down with the sword, and the city and its spoil were to be burned in the fire.—De 13:12-16.
In carrying out war operations against their enemies, the Israelites consigned certain cities to the fire. (Nu 31:10; Jos 6:24; 11:11-13) Also, the graven images and sacred poles were burned. (De 7:5, 25; 12:3) In taking spoil, the Israelites passed metals through the fire, in effect sterilizing them.—Nu 31:22, 23.
On numerous occasions Jehovah used literal fire in executing his judgments against wrongdoers. (Nu 11:1; 16:35; 2Ki 1:10-12; Jude 7) At the destruction of apostate Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 607 B.C.E., Jehovah’s anger was figuratively poured out “just like fire.” This expression of anger was accompanied by literal fire. (2Ki 25:9; La 2:3, 4) John the Baptizer warned the religious leaders of his day of a baptism with fire, which came upon Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when the Roman armies destroyed the city and burned its temple.—Mt 3:7-12.
Use by Opposers of God’s Will. Fire was also used by opposers of God’s will in threats, cruel executions, and sacrifices. Angered Ephraimites threatened Jephthah: “Your very house we shall burn over you with fire.” Similarly, Samson’s 30 Philistine groomsmen threatened to burn his betrothed and her father’s house if she did not get Samson to tell her the solution to a riddle and then advise them accordingly. After Samson sent 300 foxes with lighted torches into the standing grain of the pagan Philistines, the Philistines did burn her and her father with fire. (Jg 12:1; 14:15; 15:4-6) Satan the Devil employed fire “from the heavens” by God’s permission in the special test allowed on Job.—Job 1:12, 16.
The nations residing in Canaan actually burned their children in the fire as an offering to their false gods. Although specifically commanded by Jehovah not to do this, a violation of this command calling for the death penalty, apostate Israelites sacrificed their own children in the Valley of Hinnom. (Le 20:2-5; De 12:31; 2Ch 28:1-3; Jer 7:31; 19:5) However, faithful King Josiah put an end to this gruesome practice by making Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom unfit for worship.—2Ki 23:10; see MOLECH.
Figurative Usage. Fire or expressions having the thought of burning, or flaming, are figuratively associated with love (Ca 8:6), passion (Ro 1:27; 1Co 7:9), anger and judgment (Zep 2:2; Mal 4:1), or strong emotion (Lu 24:32; 2Co 11:29). When Jeremiah wanted to refrain from speaking Jehovah’s word, he found this impossible, for it proved to be like a burning fire shut up in his bones. (Jer 20:9) The Scriptures refer to Jehovah as a consuming fire because of his cleanness, purity, and insistence on exclusive devotion, as well as the fact that he annihilates those who set themselves in opposition to him. (De 4:24; 9:3) His ardor and rage burn like fire, and his “tongue” and word are like a fire. (Ps 79:5; 89:46; Isa 30:27; Jer 23:29) Moreover, Jehovah makes his angelic ministers a devouring fire, and by the fire of his zeal “the earth” will be devoured.—Ps 104:1, 4; Zep 3:8; see also Da 7:9, 10.
Testing, refining, purging. “The messenger of the covenant” is compared to a refiner’s fire, a fire used in purifying gold and silver. Hence, Jehovah’s fiery testing of “the sons of Levi” by the messenger of the covenant brings about their cleansing. (Mal 3:1-3; see REFINE, REFINER.) A test by fire also reveals the quality of a material, as pointed out by the apostle Paul when emphasizing the importance of building on Jesus Christ with fire-resistant materials.—1Co 3:10-15.
Fire and salt were associated with the sacrifices offered at the temple. (Le 2:9, 13; Eze 43:24) Salt represented freedom from corruption and was a symbol of enduring loyalty, as found in the expression “covenant of salt.” (2Ch 13:5) Of what, then, is the fire symbolic?
The apostle Peter refers to trials or sufferings as a “fire” that proves the quality of the Christian’s faith. (1Pe 1:6, 7) Later, he likens suffering for righteousness to a burning when he tells his fellow Christians: “Do not be puzzled at the burning among you, which is happening to you for a trial, . . . you are sharers in the sufferings of the Christ, that you may rejoice and be overjoyed also during the revelation of his glory.” (1Pe 4:12, 13) That such suffering for righteousness has a beneficial effect is pointed out by the apostle Paul when he says: “Tribulation produces endurance.” (Ro 5:3) A person who faithfully and successfully passes through a difficult “burning” trial is stronger and more solidly established as a result of his endurance.—Ac 14:22; Ro 12:12.
Destruction. In Bible times the most thorough means of destruction in use was fire. (Jos 6:24; De 13:16) Hence Jesus at times used the term “fire” in an illustrative way to denote the complete destruction of the wicked. (Mt 13:40-42, 49, 50; compare Isa 66:24; Mt 25:41.) On one occasion Jesus warned his disciples against letting their hand, foot, or eye stumble them so that they would be pitched into Gehenna. Then he went on to say: “Everyone must be salted with fire.” He must have meant that “everyone” who did what he had just warned against would be salted with the “fire” of Gehenna, or eternal destruction.—Mr 9:43-49; see GEHENNA.
Peter wrote that “the heavens and the earth that are now are stored up for fire.” From the context and in the light of other scriptures, it is evident that this is not a literal fire but signifies everlasting destruction. As the Flood of Noah’s day did not destroy the literal heavens and earth, but only the ungodly persons, so also the revelation of Jesus Christ with his powerful angels in a flaming fire will result in permanent destruction only for the ungodly and the wicked system of things of which they are a part.—2Pe 3:5-7, 10-13; 2Th 1:6-10; compare Isa 66:15, 16, 22, 24.
Further examples of the use of fire to represent eternal destruction are found in Revelation and Ezekiel. There we are told that “the ten horns” and “the wild beast” will turn upon Babylon the Great and burn her with fire. (Re 17:16, 17) The attack of Gog and his hordes against God’s people arouses Jehovah’s anger, and fire and sulfur will rain down upon them. The remaining war implements of the attackers will be used to light fires for seven years. (Eze 38:19, 22; 39:6, 9, 10) Those nations who become rebellious when Satan is released at the end of the Thousand Year Reign of Christ will be devoured by fire, and the Devil and all those not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire, representing the second death.—Re 20:7-10, 15; 21:8; see HINNOM, VALLEY OF; LAKE OF FIRE.