Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
The Hebrew word שׁוֹשָׁן and the Greek κρίνον are generally translated lily. The white, sweet smelling, long trumpet-shaped flower of the modern Easter lily, Lilum longiflorum, is not what the Bible writers were talking about. Our Easter lily is a native of Japan and from the early 1900s to World War II, bulbs of these lilies were imported. Today, over twelve million bulbs are grown along the US Pacific coast to supply the annual demand for Easter decorations. These lilies are popular because they are beautiful, easy to grow, and hardy enough to withstand shipping.
Indigenous to remote wooded areas of some Bible lands is the similar but tenderer Madonna lily (L. candidum). According to many biblical-botanical scholars, this plant is not directly referred to in Scripture.
Often the Bible uses modifiers such as “of the field,” “of the valley,” or “among thorns” suggesting “lily” does not mean a single plant. In fact, it is likely that some Biblical lily references do not relate to plants in the genus Lilum at all. In His sermon illustration comparing the lily to Solomon’s glory, if Christ were referring to a nearby floral display, He may have been indicating a type of tulip, hyacinth, buttercup, anemone, iris, or other flower common to Palestinian hillsides (Matthew 6:28-9; Luke 12:27-8).
White Lily Traditions
White lilies symbolizing purity can be traced back to ancient pagan sources. “Christian” white lily legends probably sprouted from those stories. Supposedly, as Gabriel came to Mary, he recognized her purity by bringing her white lilies. In time, virtually all artistic depictions of Mary featured a white lily display.
In legends, white lilies also came to represent repentance. Eve shed tears of repentance as she left the Garden of Eden and supposedly each tear sprang up a white lily.
In “Christian” circles, white lily stories combined and grew as fast as lilies sprout. Christ’s sweat drops in Gethsemane and His blood drops at the base of the Cross (as well as Mary’s tears at the cross and the tomb) apparently sprouted lilies. They all bloomed white on resurrection day. Hence, Easter lilies and today’s multi-million-dollar horticultural business.
Many flowers spoken of in Scripture, like the almond and pomegranate blossoms, are on plants that have other values (food, building material). Allotting garden space for these plants was practical as well as beautiful. The lily and the rose, however, serve only to delight our senses. Scripture uses their ephemeral beauty and delightful fragrance to teach spiritual lessons.
The Song of Solomon is set in a garden and its flowers are repeatedly used to symbolize the relationship between the two lovers. In this love poem, the beauty, fragrance, freshness, and tenderness of lilies and roses describe both the Shulamite woman and her beloved.
Flower references in Scripture often speak of flourishing. For instance, Hosea compares the results of Israel’s repentance to watering a lily. But some flower references stress their brevity. Flowers fade, are cut off, and are even trampled. This often illustrates the temporary success of the unrighteous and their coming judgment. Lilies and roses, however, are not specifically used in these illustrations.
Images of flowers adorned the Mosaic Tabernacle and lily designs were used in the columns and the massive “brazen sea” of the Solomonic Temple. Scripturally there are no specific meanings for the floral ornaments of these worship centers. The floral and other ornamentations were to add beauty, sanctity, and a reflection of the divine (Hebrews 8:5) prompting a proper attitude for corporate worship.
In the most extended reference to lilies and their only New Testament mention, Christ teaches that God will meet our needs. After pointing out that “Solomon, in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,” Jesus says, “If then God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?”(Luke 12:28)
Solomon had to work at adorning himself. But the best he could do did not compare to the beauty of a common flower. The lily’s beauty was not something it worked to achieve. Its magnificence is given to it by God. What a beautiful picture of God’s grace adorning His children with the beauty of Christ, rather than our being clothed in our self-righteous “filthy rags.”
Most likely, white lilies will adorn the front of my church this Easter. Rather than being upset that these lilies can have extra-Biblical associations or that they are not native to Palestine, I will delight in their fragrance and admire their beauty. Considering them, I will thank God for His faithful, bountiful provision of my needs. I will also pray that the grace that Christ has shown me will be evident to those that consider me, just as the lilies’ God-given glory is visible to all who see them.
William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.