Bonus: Temple Symbols and Their Meanings with Donald Parry
Right about now, we're probably all missing the temple. Never before has the need for the instant peace that comes from stepping into these sacred spaces been more keenly felt by so many members. But we can do more during this time than eagerly await the day when we can finally return to full temple worship. In this week’s bonus episode, we invite religious scholar Donald W. Parry to help us dig into the meaning behind temple symbols so that we can be ready to enter the Lord’s house with new perspective and greater understanding.
President Russell M. Nelson taught us that "each temple is a house of learning. There we are taught in the Master's way. His way differs from modes of others. His way is ancient and rich with symbolism. We can learn much by pondering the reality for which each symbol stands."
With 175 separate entries, this volume explores a variety of these rich symbols and truths regarding ancient and modern temples. Listed in alphabetical order for convenient references, the entries deal with a broad range of categories, including temple architecture, rituals and ordinances, sacred clothing, sacrificial offerings, geometric symbols, colors, heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars), prayer and revelation, sacred names, religious festivals, and more. This thorough yet accessible collection allows each of us to gain a greater understanding of valuable symbols, enriching our temple experience and giving each of us a clearer vision of the many ways our temple worship points us toward Jesus Christ.
A circle, which has no beginning and no ending, calls to mind eternity. Joseph Smith once referred to the ring he wore and taught that it had no beginning and no ending; he then spoke of “one eternal round.”53 One eternal round is also a scriptural phrase that refers to the Lord’s divine course; “Wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round” (1 Ne. 10:19; see also Alma 7:20; 37:12; D&C 3:2; 35:1) (Donald W. Parry, "Circle" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Squared circles, or circles located within a square, are architectural symbols that belong to many temples. Inasmuch as a circle expresses the idea of eternity (or heaven) and a square may be interpreted to signify the earth (and its inhabitants),286 then a squared circle seems to point the meeting of heaven and earth. A significant example of a squared circle is the molten sea of Solomon’s temple and also the baptismal font of our temples. The twelve oxen form a square, and the font that rests on their backs generally form a circle: The twelve oxen face outward to the four cardinal directions—east, south, west, and north—or to the four corners of the earth (hence, forming a square) (Donald W. Parry, "Squares and Squared Circle" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Alpha and Omega:
The words “I AM ALPHA AND OMEGA” (in capital letters) are set in gold lettering on a scroll that exists on the exterior of the Salt Lake Temple, above a representation of clasped hands. Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, are titles of Jesus Christ (see Rev. 1:8, 11; D&C 19:1; 35:1; 38:1). He is “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, whose course is one eternal round, the same today as yesterday, and forever” (D&C 35:1) (Donald W. Parry, "Alpha and Omega" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Meridian Idaho Temple: The syringa, Idaho’s state flower, is a common motif throughout the temple. Also, large murals present Idaho’s wilderness and mountains (Donald W. Parry, "Architectural Features, Various Temples" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Quote: The three higher eastern towers represent the First Presidency and the western towers the Presiding Bishopric, or presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood. Each tower has 12 spires—a number that represents priesthood—to draw our attention toward heaven (Gerald E. Hansen Jr., Sacred Walls: Learning from Temple Symbols, Deseret Book).
Idaho Falls Idaho Temple: Architect John Fetzer Sr. was inspired to design the temple to reflect his idea of an ancient Nephite temple (Donald W. Parry, "Architectural Features, Various Temples" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat:
The mercy seat was a focal point of atonement, grace, and revelation. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest took blood from the sacrificed bull and goat, entered through the veil into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat (see Lev. 16:14–15). The Hebrew underlying the English “mercy seat” is kapporet, which is derived from the Hebrew root kpr (“to atone”). Kapporet has the sense of “[throne of] atonement” or “instrument of atonement.”198 Regardless of the lid’s name, it is clear that it served as God’s throne: “He sits between the cherubs” (2 Sam. 6:2; Isa. 37:16) (Donald W. Parry, "Mercy Seat" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
God commanded Moses to construct the ark, and He provided him with detailed instructions for its construction (Ex. 25:1, 10–22). It was made of acacia wood, which was overlaid with gold; its measurements were two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits high and broad (length, 45"; width 27"; height 27") (see Ex. 37:1–2). The mercy seat and cherubs were made of pure gold (see Ex. 25:17–19). Two cherubs (guardians of sacred space) rested over the ark (see Ex. 25:19–20) (Donald W. Parry, "Ark of the Covenant" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
The ark of the covenant housed three items: the rod of Aaron that budded with almond buds and blossoms, the golden container with manna, and the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments (see Heb. 9:4); all three items are symbols of Jesus Christ (Donald W. Parry, "Ark of the Covenant" 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
White clothing symbolizes purity. President Russell M. Nelson explains, “Within the temple, all are dressed in spotless white to remind us that God is to have a pure people.”62 Becoming white is possible only through the Atonement of Christ. “For there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins” (Alma 5:21) (Donald W. Parry, "Colors—Blue, Gold, Silver, Scarlet, Crimson, Red, White," 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Silver: The structure of the tabernacle of Moses had a “silver foundation,”60 consisting of one hundred sockets made of the precious metal silver (Ex. 26:19–25; 38:27). Each socket weighed a talent (see Ex. 38:27). The sockets held up the posts that surrounded the holy place and the Holy of Holies. The tabernacle’s silver foundation reminded worshippers that the tabernacle was precious, exceptional, and unique (Donald W. Parry, "Colors—Blue, Gold, Silver, Scarlet, Crimson, Red, White," 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Quote: “Heavenly Father, when Thy people shall not have the opportunity of entering this holy house to offer their supplications unto Thee, and they are oppressed and in trouble, surrounded by difficulties or assailed by temptation and shall turn their faces towards this Thy holy house and ask Thee for deliverance, for help, for Thy power to be extended in their behalf.”244 (Wilford Woodruff, Salt Lake Temple Dedicatory Prayer, ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
Gestures of Approach:
“Gestures of approach” (or “threshold rituals”) refer to sacred gestures, movements, or actions conducted by worshippers as they approach God in the temple. These gestures facilitate the transition from a profane setting to a sacred place and prepare the individual for entrance into holy, more holy, and most holy spheres; they also serve to spiritually elevate those who participate in the gestures. But note that it is only after participating in these gestures that the worshipper is permitted to approach God in His perfect state of holiness. There are many biblical texts that deal with sacred gestures (Donald W. Parry, "Gestures of Approach," 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
The removal of profane items. For example, God commanded Moses to “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). Joshua also had a similar experience (see Josh. 5:15) (Donald W. Parry, "Gestures of Approach," 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Women and the Temple:
Surely Mary’s careful and continual obedience to God’s laws—including those that pertained to the temple—had a great impact on Jesus Christ, especially during His formative years. Her example, teachings, and temple-focused life no doubt prepared Him for His eternal and divine mission, that of being the Savior of the world (Donald W. Parry, "Hannah, Anna, and Mary," 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
In the temple, Hannah prayed to the Lord (1:10–12); in her prayer, she vowed to give her son as a Nazarite (v. 11). It was Hannah’s choice (not her husband’s) to make Samuel a Nazarite. She informed her husband, “I will [dedicate] him as a Nazarite forever” (v. 22). The priest Eli witnessed her prayer and then conversed with her (see vv. 12–17). Afterward, the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Bible) states that Hannah “entered her quarters,” which was located near the temple (v. 18). Significantly, Hannah and others also “worshipped” in the temple (v. 19) (Donald W. Parry, "Hannah, Anna, and Mary," 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
A female could become a Nazarite, one who made sacred vows and was consecrated (Hebrew: Nazarite, “consecrated one”) before the Lord (see Num. 6:1–21). A Nazarite vow permitted non-priests to become consecrated and to have a role that is somewhat similar to that of a priest. At the conclusion of the period of the vow, the Nazarite was presented at the tabernacle, where she or he offered burnt, sin, and peace offerings (under the direction of a priest) together with a basket of unleavened bread and other items. The Nazarite then shaved her or his head at the door of the tabernacle, and burned the hair in the sacrificial fire (Donald W. Parry, "Women and the Ancient Temple," 175 Temple Symbols and Their Meanings, Deseret Book).
Temple Patterns and Temple Worship:
Quote: "Temple patterns are as old as human life on earth. Actually, the plan for temples was established even before the foundation of the world, when provision was made for the redemption of those who might die without a knowledge of the gospel (see Doctrine and Covenants 124:33, 41; 128:5)" (President Russell M. Nelson, "Temples and Temple Work," Teachings of President Russell M. Nelson, Deseret Book).
Quote: "The antiquity and modernity of temple activity blend and bridge the gulf of time" (President Russell M. Nelson, "Temples and Temple Work," Teachings of President Russell M. Nelson, Deseret Book).
Quote: "I think I'm finally beginning to understand," (President David O. McKay, The Life and Ministry of David O. McKay, ChurchofJesusChrist.org ).