Questions From Readers
● What is the meaning of Mark 9:49, 50 (NW): “For everyone must be salted with fire. Salt is fine; but if ever the salt loses its strength, with what will you mix it? Have salt in yourselves, and keep peace between one another”?—A. C., United States.
The Mosaic law required that sacrifices be seasoned with salt: “Every offering of your grain offering you will season with salt, and you must not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be missing upon your grain offering. Along with every offering of yours you will present salt.” Why? Salt is a preservative and prevents putrefaction. Two verses earlier the offering of anything fermented was forbidden. Salt with the sacrifice was to avoid any fermentation. Preventing change by decay, salt assured permanence, and was used in conjunction with a covenant to indicate the unchangeableness and permanence of the agreement, that the parties involved in the covenant were to be steadfast and faithful to its terms, not corrupting them: “All the holy contributions, which the sons of Israel will contribute to Jehovah, I have given to you and your sons and your daughters with you, as an allowance to time indefinite. It is a covenant of salt before Jehovah for you and your offering with you.” Also, “Ought ye not to know that Jehovah, the God of Israel, gave the kingdom over Israel to David for ever, even to him and to his sons by a covenant of salt?” So salt symbolizes permanence and incorruptibility, and was offered with grain and meat offerings.—Lev. 2:13, 11; Num. 18:19, NW; 2 Chron. 13:5, AS; Ezek. 43:24.
Among ancient peoples it was a sign of friendship to eat salt together, and denoted perpetual fidelity and loyalty. This ancient view is reflected at Ezra 4:14 (AT): “Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to behold the king’s dishonor, therefore we have sent and informed the king.” The one sacrificing on Jehovah’s altar was considered as a partaker with Jehovah; so the use of salt with the sacrifices indicated partaking of salt with him, which symbolized perpetual loyalty.
If the friendship was corrupted by disloyalty or impure conduct the symbolical salt was said to have lost its strength: “Salt, to be sure, is fine. But if even the salt loses its strength, with what will it be mixed? It is suitable neither for soil nor for manure. People throw it outside.” The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible says on page 525: “The impure salt of Syria, when exposed to the rain and sun or stored in damp houses, is apt to lose its taste and become useless. It cannot be used like much other refuse as a fertilizer, for it is good for nothing.” Because the true followers of Jesus, by example and by preaching, would be an influence to preserve from putrefaction and moral decay, Jesus called them “the salt of the earth.” He also called them “the light of the world.” Just as they were a light to dispel the darkness engulfing the world, so they were salt able to preserve the earth from corruption. But if they lost their spiritual strength they would be good for nothing and cast off: “If the salt loses its strength, how will its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown outside to be trampled on by men.”—Luke 14:34, 35; Matt. 5:13, 14, NW.
Having established that salt is a symbol of purity and incorruptibility, of permanence and steadfastness and loyalty, we now consider the text quoted in the question. “For everyone must be salted with fire.” Because of their erroneous belief in a fiery hell of torment, and because of the preceding verses, many Bible commentators say this means the wicked are permanently preserved in the fires of hell, though at the same time acknowledging the difficulties of such a view. Let us get the setting. Jesus is talking, not to the wicked, not to the general public, but privately to his disciples: “And if ever your hand makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go off into Gehenna, into the fire that cannot be put out. And if your foot makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be pitched into Gehenna. And if your eye makes you stumble, throw it away; it is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God, than with two eyes to be pitched into Gehenna, where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out. For everyone must be salted with fire. Salt is fine; but if ever the salt loses its strength, with what will you mix it? Have salt in yourselves, and keep peace between one another.”—Mark 9:43-50, NW.
Obviously this is figurative speech, not to be applied literally. Who will be so absurd as to say Jesus meant for his followers to chop off hands or feet or pluck out eyes? No hell-fire believer today applies this literally, cutting off his hand when it does something wrong or a foot when it strays or gouging out an eye if it looks in lust. We know the salt is symbolical. To be consistent, the fire must be also. In this figurative language Jesus was saying that if anything as dear as a hand or a foot or an eye interfered with faithful service, cut loose from it! Better to be without this dear thing and be pure and faithful and steadfast to Jehovah and enter the kingdom of heaven than to hold on to the cherished person or possession or practice and be destroyed, as symbolized by Gehenna, the valley outside Jerusalem where garbage and even bodies of criminals considered unworthy of a resurrection were thrown to be consumed by the fires kept burning there day and night, or to be disposed of by the maggots if out of reach of the flames. The fire symbolized everlasting destruction.
The fire Jesus’ followers are to be salted with is a destroying fire, a purging fire. Its application is spoken of as a salting to show that it results in preservation, purification, permanence and loyal endurance. Truth is sometimes hard to take. Like a fire it consumes ideas we once cherished but which are actually false. We are purified by ridding our minds of them, and we are preserved by stopping the wrongs we may have done through misunderstanding. Stabilized by truth with no admixture of falsehood, we can maintain permanence, loyalty and purity. The salting fire of truth preserves us from the corruption of lies and wrongdoing and delivers us from Jehovah’s destroying wrath. There are numerous scriptures that show that Jehovah’s Word is like fire, that it purifies by burning up falsehood and leaving a purged message of truth to preach, and that we can be saved, preserved and permanently established by its fire if we let it burn out of our lives erroneous works that would corrupt us and lead to our destruction.—Isa. 6:5-7; Jer. 23:29; Mal. 3:1-3; 1 Cor. 3:10-15.
Jesus’ followers are also salted with the fire of persecution. It tests and purifies their loyalty. It finds out whether they are willing to give up things as dear as a hand or a foot or an eye or not. Tribulation may require us to side with a loved one or with Jehovah, to choose material goods or Jehovah, or to cling to a wrong practice or give it up. If we endure this fire faithfully, making the right choice, it will be like salt for us in that it will establish us in loyalty and be to our preservation and show our incorruptibility. The apostle Peter refers to tribulation as a “burning among you which is happening to you for a trial,” and that it will show “the tested quality of your faith” which will “be found a cause for praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The apostle Paul shows that tribulation, like salt, produces steadfastness and permanence: “Let us exult while in tribulations, since we know that tribulation produces endurance.” It is a fiery trial that establishes faithful endurers in an everlasting glory: “Though the tribulation is momentary and light, it works out for us a glory which is of more and more surpassing weight and is everlasting.” So how fitting it is for the fire of truth and persecution to be likened to a salting that purifies and preserves permanently and symbolizes loyalty and steadfastness!—1 Pet. 4:12; 1:6, 7; Rom. 5:3; 2 Cor. 4:17, NW.
The next words of the text in question pertain to the salt losing its strength, which has already been explained. Then it says: “Have salt in yourselves, and keep peace between one another.” In other words, be sure to keep in yourselves what the salt symbolizes, namely, purity, integrity, steadfastness, loyalty, dependability and incorruptibility. And it is fitting in this connection to mention keeping “peace between one another,” since to eat salt with others meant perpetual friendship and fidelity.
One last text that uses salt with significance is Colossians 4:6 (NW): “Let your utterance be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt, so as to know how you ought to give an answer to each one.” Christians do not offer grain or meat sacrifices to Jehovah as the nation of Israel did, but they do offer a sacrifice of praise by the words of their lips, and these are likened to bulls and fruits. (Hos. 14:2, AS; Heb. 13:15) And as Israel’s material sacrifices were to be accompanied by salt, so the Christian’s words, the symbolic bulls of his lips, are to be seasoned with salt. This means the utterances are to be pure in truth, to have a preserving effect upon both the speaker and the hearer, and to be loyal and faithful to Jehovah. Also, the words will be appetizing to lovers of righteousness. Salt is an appetizing condiment in the food of both man and beast: “Is a tasteless thing eaten without salt?” “The oxen and young asses that till the soil will feed on salted fodder.” (Job 6:6; Isa. 30:24, AT) So the word sacrifices of Christians are to be seasoned with spiritual salt, not being tasteless, insipid and corrupt, but being appetizing and with preserving power.