Ring-shaped ornaments of various kinds, worn by both men and women, were common among the Hebrews, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and other peoples of antiquity. These were worn on the nose, the ears and the fingers. Materials used included gold, silver, brass, bronze, glass, iron and ivory, some rings being set with stones. Egyptians particularly favored rings bearing images of the scarab beetle, which was to them a symbol of eternal life. Among the many pieces of jewelry recovered from the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen was a ring with a triple band that bore three scarabs, one of lapis lazuli and two of gold. Some rings of the Romans were engraved with mythological designs or even representations of their ancestors or friends.
A principal Hebrew word used to designate a ring is tab·baʹʽath, from a root meaning “to sink.” This term may be linked with a chief use of some ancient rings, that is, to make an impression on clay or wax by being ‘sunk’ or pressed into it. Rings of this kind were of gold, silver or bronze, some being set with an engraved stone bearing the owner’s name or symbol, such as the cartouche of an Egyptian pharaoh. Such rings were mounted in set fashion or were of the swivel or roller type. Some were hung, probably from the neck, on an ornamental cord. (Gen. 38:18, 25) Some years ago an ancient signet ring was discovered that belonged to Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops (Khufu), the builder of the great pyramid of Gizeh.
The signet ring of a ruler or official was a symbol of his authority. (Gen. 41:41, 42) Official documents or things not to be tampered with or altered were sealed with them, similar to the manner in which official seals or signatures are used in modern times.—Esther 3:10-13; 8:2, 8-12; Dan. 6:16, 17.
In Jesus’ illustration of the prodigal son, he represented the forgiving father as ordering that a ring be put on the hand of the returning prodigal. (Luke 15:22) This act bespoke the favor and affection of the father and the dignity, honor and status accorded this restored son. Jesus’ half-brother James counseled Christians against showing favoritism to those splendidly clothed and wearing gold rings on their fingers (indicating wealth and social status). (Jas. 2:1-9) In similar vein, the apostle Peter, while not condemning the wearing of such ornaments, pointed out that spiritual adornment is far more important.—1 Pet. 3:1-5.
In ancient times a signet ring seems to have become proverbial of a valued object or person. Judean King Coniah (Jehoiachin) was compared to a ‘seal ring on Jehovah’s right hand,’ which ring He would pull off. Jehoiachin was dethroned after a very brief rule. (Jer. 22:24; 2 Ki. 24:8-15) Also, Jehovah said with respect to faithful Zerubbabel: “I shall take you, . . . and I shall certainly set you as a seal ring, because you are the one whom I have chosen.” Zerubbabel was a prince of the line of David. The promise therefore apparently meant that, as a signet ring is safeguarded as something of value, so the sovereignty of the line of David would be preserved in Zerubbabel. At the time, that royal line was in a humiliated position under Gentile domination (Neh. 9:36, 37), but God’s covenant with David was sure. (Ezek. 21:25-27) The real Heir of the throne of David, Jesus Christ, did come through Zerubbabel’s line of descent.—Hag. 2:23; Matt. 1:12, 13; Luke 3:27.