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Mystery of the Parable of Ten Virgins

A virgin in Scripture represents righteousness, which is without sin. So, have you ever wondered why five of the ten virgins were refused admission to the wedding with the bridegroom (Mat 25:1-13)? A wedding banquet in Scripture is a symbol for celebrating the end of time, and five virgins were not worthy to participate.

The parable begins, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” Note the beginning phrase, “The kingdom of heaven will be comparable to….” Immediately we are alerted to instruction about how to walk in righteousness so we can bring the Kingdom of Heaven into our lives TODAY, The Kingdom of Heaven is where God resides, and we desire to draw near to Him.

Next we have two more symbols that would have been recognized by the people of ancient Israel – lamps and a bridegroom. The bridegroom, who is God (represented by His son, Yeshua, in the New Testament), will marry His bride, who must be holy and pure, but only five of the virgins meet this qualification. Perhaps the answer to our puzzle is in the symbolism of the lamps, which is a dominant theme in the parable and is characterized by repetition.

The Greek word for lamps is λαμπάς (lampas). We can look in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint to find where λαμπάς is used there. The first usage appears in Genesis 15:17, which is the account of Abraham’s dream when he saw a “flaming torch” (λαμπάς) and a “burning oven” pass between the animals he had just sacrificed to God. Abraham’s vision came after God told him, “Do not fear, Abram [Abraham’s name before God changed it to Abraham], I am a shield to you. Your reward shall be very great” (Gen 15:1).

Those who first heard Yeshua teach the Parable of the Ten Virgins undoubtedly knew this important Genesis account. So we ask, “What is the deeper meaning in this passage in Genesis?” Scripture does not specifically tell us, but leaves the deeper sense of meaning for each person to uncover. How, then, do we discover a deeper meaning about the burning lamp in Abraham’s dream? I suggest we ask (and then answer) questions. What does the “burning lamp” represent? How is this symbol related to God’s being a shield to Abraham and giving him a great reward? The lamp certainly represents God, who created light and is in His created light. We can now identify with the people of ancient Israel, who would have related the “burning lamp” to God giving them the Law at Mount Sinai.

All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes [λαμπάς ] and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking [evocative of the ‘smoking oven’]; and when the people saw, they trembled and stood at a distance. (Ex 20:18)

God had manifested Himself in “the lightning flashes [λαμπάς] and also in the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking” [the smoking mountain suggests the “smoking oven”]. But how does this symbol of God as light relate to His being a shield and a reward to Abraham?

Keeping in mind that this parable is about walking in righteousness, what comes to my mind are two aspects of the remnant. First, God’s people are instructed to submit to God, who becomes their shield as they grow in their ability to walk in the ways of the Law so they can serve God in righteousness. Second, if they are worthy of God’s selection of the remnant, God will give them a “great reward”. Thus, the lamps in the Parable of the Ten Virgins are going to instruct us about the way God operates as a light in our lives, and may also explain the reward that we can expect. Our anticipation is growing as we continue to listen to the words of the parable.

Five of them [virgins] were foolish, and five were prudent.
For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them,
But the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. (Mat 25:3-4)

Did you hear the repetition, and did this appearance of two opposing words catch your attention? I trust you were drawn to “foolish” and “prudent”, and you were asking how people at the time of Yeshua would have understood these contrasting words from the Hebrew Scriptures. You can use a concordance to learn the Greek words, μωρός (moros), from which we get the English word “moron”, and φρόνιμος (phronimos), which means wise and sensible. You can find where these two Greek words are used in the Septuagint translation, or you can simply use the concordance to find where the English translations of “foolish” and “prudent” appear.

Since the concept of foolish and prudent are prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures, this should be an easy task. Take, for example, the first appearance of μωρός in what would have been a well-known passage in Deuteronomy 32:4-6. “Do you thus repay the Lord, O foolish [μωρός] and unwise people? Is not He your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you” (Dt 32:6). Those who do not know the Lord God are certainly foolish. They are “unwise,” that is, they are not prudent with wisdom in the knowledge of God.

Your search in a concordance for “foolish” and “prudent” may have led you to the Book of Proverbs where this contrast is prevalent. The foolish ones are walking in the ways of the world, but the prudent or wise ones are walking in righteousness.

“A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools  proclaims folly.” Proverbs 12:23

“Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” Proverbs 17:28

But wait! Are you startled by the parable? Isn’t there something strange about the Parable of the Ten Virgins? Are you troubled about the virgins, who are symbolic of being sinless, yet five are described as foolish “morons”? The answer to this disconcerting situation is in the way they handle their lamps. The light that shines from the lamp represents God, and lighting the lamps conveys putting knowledge of the Law into action, which leads to righteous behavior. The oil in the lamps is the fuel that causes the lamp to shine. As believers in Christ, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit in us, but to what extent are you operating the gift to walk in the ways of the Law to shine the light of God?

We learn that “when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps.” Five of the ten virgins were not lighting their lamps with oil. That is, they were not lighting their knowledge of the Law to walk with God in His presence.

However, we are still puzzled, because those who have no oil for their lamps are virgins. We need to continue listening to the words of Yeshua to understand about God’s choice of those who are worthy to be joined with the bridegroom at the wedding banquet.

Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep.
But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’
Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out’.
But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves. (Mat 25:5-9)

I suggest that the answer to our puzzle is in the context in which Yeshua was teaching. We learn that he had come to Jerusalem during the Passover, and he will soon be put to death by crucifixion. However, before that tragic event we find him teaching in the temple grounds where “the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority’” (Mat 21:23). What follows are numerous teachings and parables, and our Parable of the Ten Virgins is one of them. Thus, Yeshua was addressing the parables to both the unrighteous leaders of God’s people using stern words of correction, and to the people themselves to whom he directed words of instruction and encouragement.

The key to this context, which addresses both the unrighteous leaders and those who will respond with a desire to walk in the ways of the Law, is in the concept of the birthright. All the children of Israel are born to the birthright as God’s firstborn son (Ex 4:24). That is, the ten virgins in the parable are symbolic of all the children of Israel who have been born to the birthright. However, they have to prove themselves worthy of this special inheritance for God to select them to this leadership role. I have equated elsewhere the inheritance of the birthright with the remnant. Thus, Yeshua is suggesting that the “chief priests and elders of the people” consider themselves righteous because of their knowledge of the Law, yet they are unworthy of God’s selection of the remnant because they have not put their knowledge into action. Yeshua is accusing them of not lighting their knowledge of the Law that leads to a righteous walk with God in His Kingdom.

We can now understand the conclusion of the parable that instructs us about God’s judgment and the rewards that He will give to the remnant.

“And while they were going away to make the purchase [five virgins who had no oil in their lamps], the bridegroom came,
and those who were ready [those whose lamps were burning with light] went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut.
Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.”
But he answered, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.”
Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” (Mat 25:1-13)

Here is God’s choice of who He considers holy and righteous, those who will be joined together with the bridegroom. The wedding banquet is a common symbol for the celebration of this prophetic wedding.

A common interpretation in Christianity perceives God’s future judgment as selecting who will be “saved” and who will “not be saved.” Christians often conclude that believers in Christ are the ones who will be “saved.” By “saved” they mean the promise of a future rescue or deliverance from death, caused by sin, to a righteous condition that allows them to come into the presence of God. However, there are two aspects of salvation. One is to be rescued from the consequences of sin in our daily lives, which is pain and suffering, so we can draw near to God. The other is the more common understanding of a future deliverance from death to life. I suggest that God’s plan of redeeming mankind first involves His selection of a righteous remnant, who will have a future role to play that will ultimately lead to the redemption, or rescue, of all God’s people.

I have shown elsewhere that all the parables are a form of haggadic midrash, which expands on a verse, passage or concept in Scripture to apply a principle of righteous living to God’s people. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, we were drawn to two passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we then learned that God has given us His lamp. For Israel the lamp was the Law. For believers in Christ the lamp is the Law written on our hearts by the gift of the Holy Spirit (2 Co 1:21-22; 3:3). This gift is the promise of future eternal life with God. However, the parable is encouraging us to furnish this gift with oil. The gift is a lamp waiting to burn so it can shine forth the light of God into the world.. The oil represents much more than our “knowledge” of the Law. It symbolizes the way we walk in the ways of the Law. We  must light the gift of the Holy Spirit by a walk of love and faith in Christ, which might make us worthy of God’s selection of a remnant. To participate in the work of the remnant is God’s reward.

The parable goes on to warn us to be on the alert, that is, to have a consistent commitment to stand firm and strive for righteousness. We do not know the day or the hour when Christ will return to judge the people and God will select those who are worthy  of the leadership role of the remnant.

Do you have a fervent desire to be with Yeshua when he returns to gather the remnant? Are you lighting the fire of the Holy Spirit in you? Take a good look at yourself. Is your behavior holy and pure and righteous? In our current lives, we can never be completely without sin. However, I do believe that God only sees our hearts, and we can shine forth the light of God that is in us when we submit in humble obedience to our Lord Yeshua.

*For more detailed information on God’s selection of a righteous remnant, see Uncovering Mysteries in the Parables with Haggadic Midrash by Anne Kimball Davis.