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What is the Biblical significance of oil lamps and how were they used in ancient times in the holy land?

Clay oil lamp Jesus timeIn one of His parables, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells of wise and foolish virgins. In the parable, five of the virgins are wise and five are foolish. The wise virgins bring enough oil for their lamps for the watch through the night but the foolish virgins neglect this important task. When the bridegroom approaches, the foolish virgins realize that they have allowed their lights to go out. Too late, they run to try to find someone to sell them more oil for their lamps. When they return, the door to the feast is shut and they cannot enter.

In his important work on the cultural background of the Bible, Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey recounts times that he has seen similar events happen. In the parts of the Arab world where he served as a minister, it was not uncommon for the bridegroom to go about the village visiting different houses until late into the night or early in the morning. A few would even ride about the whole town on a long circuit so that everyone could see the bridegroom. Some people would wait at the house for his arrival, which is when the feast would begin. Bailey believes that Jesus may have been referencing a similar custom from the Holy Land in Biblical times in His parable.

Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take along any extra oil. But the wise ones took oil in flasks along with their lamps... (Matthew 25:2-4)

Whatever the case, the meaning of the parable is probably to do with the end times. We are commanded to watch and be ready for Jesus’ return. We do not know the hour nor the day that He will return. In the meantime, we are to be like the wise virgins and keep our oil lamps full of oil in preparation for His arrival. If not, we will be like the foolish virgins and running about at the last minute seeking someone to sell to us. Once the bridegroom arrives and goes into the feast, it will be too late, just as it was for the virgins with the empty oil lamps in Jesus’ parable.

Zak's Jerusalem Gifts has many replica oil lamps based on lamps found during archeologoical excavations in Israel. To buy authentic ancient clay lamps please visit our antiquities store at Zak's Antiquities.

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