In cases where a literal lamp is involved, it is most frequently a small saucer or bowl-like holder for oil and a wick that is being discussed (Job 18:62, 2 Kings 4:10), though the large and elaborate seven-branched menorah lamp that illuminated the tabernacle and the temple (Exodus 25:31-37) is simply called a “lamp” in many instances. But we also find a number of figurative or symbolic uses of the word, especially in the Old Testament, as we see in the following scriptures:
Inner Illumination: “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord that sheds light on one's inmost being” (Proverbs 20:27).
Instruction: “For this command is a lamp, this teaching is a light, and correction and instruction are the way to life” (Proverbs 6:23).
These two meanings are fairly obvious ones, but sometimes the connotation of “lamp” is not so obvious unless we look closely at the context in which it appears. For example:
Protection: “How I long for the … days when God watched over me, when his lamp shone on my head and by his light I walked through darkness!” (Job 29:2-3).
Life: “The lamp of a wicked man is snuffed out; the flame of his fire stops burning” (Job 18:5).
Once we think about them, it is not difficult to see how “lamp” is being used in these examples, although the connection between the word and its intended meaning may sometimes be even more symbolic:
Descendants: “Nevertheless, for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem by raising up a son to succeed him and by making Jerusalem strong” (1 Kings 15:4).
Hope: “But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue; he struck the Philistine down and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, saying, “Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished” (2 Samuel 21:17).
Once we become aware of these different meanings of “lamp” in the Scriptures, we begin to see that the meaning of the word is often not what it first appears to be. Take for example a passage we find in 1 Samuel: “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was” (1 Samuel 3:3). We might naturally presume that this verse is speaking of the menorah light in the tabernacle, but the Law of Moses made it clear that that lamp was never to be allowed to burn out and that it had to be kept burning all night from twilight to the light of the following day (Exodus 27:21, Leviticus 24:3-4). So if this verse is not speaking of a literal lamp, what is the “lamp of God” to which it refers?
When we look at the possible meanings given above, the answer is that “lamp” in 1 Samuel 3:3 most probably refers figuratively to Israel’s “hope” in God. Similar expressions are used in 2 Samuel 21:17 (the lamp of Israel), 1 Kings 11:36 (the lamp of David), and 2 Kings 8: 19 (the lamp of David and his descendants). The meaning of “hope” is made even more likely when we look at the immediate context of 1 Samuel 3:3, which tells us:
“One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel” (1 Samuel 3:2-3).
In this case, “lamp” seems to refer to the fact that, despite Eli’s decline, hope was present regarding the boy Samuel whom God was about to call. Similarly, when Samuel records the words of David: “You, Lord, are my lamp; the Lord turns my darkness into light” (2 Samuel 22:29), it is hope, not literal light, that is in mind.
These are small examples, but in many cases in the Old Testament we should pause to think a moment when we read the word “lamp.” While context may make it clear that a literal lamp is involved, on the other hand, it may sometimes show that another, more symbolic, meaning is intended.