Purple is a rare color in nature and traditionally, producing its dye was considered hard and costly. As such, the color was considered expensive and mostly used by the wealthy. However, the word purple appears 48 times in the Bible and this makes it one of the most commonly referenced colors in scriptures.
For the most part, the color purple signifies wealth. This is because the extraction of purple dye was not cheap. However, purple can also signify priesthood, kingship, and nobility. Additionally, purple was also used as a status symbol in society.
In Biblical times, Tyrian purple dye was extremely costly to make because it was extracted from a predator snail known as the murex mollusc. This snail mostly lives in the tropics where it can be found in the shallow ocean waters among rocks and corals. The technique of extracting purple dye was invented by the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre around 1500 BC. Producing one gram of purple dye (or purpura as was originally called) required the boiling of the sea snails for days in huge lead vats until the color intensified. The putrid smell that came from the process of boiling the snails added to the complexity and cost of the process.
Because of the costly process of making purple color, the purple garments were too costly for the ordinary person to afford. As such, purple garments were only won by those who had the means. One of the scriptural illustrations of this was the parable of Jesus on Lazarus and the rich man. In this parable, the rich man was always adorned in purple and fine linen.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores Luke 16:19-20
The parable was a contrast between a rich and a poor man and one of the main points of contrast was the dress code. The fact that the rich man was dressed in purple, unlike Lazarus who was covered in sores illustrates how purple was a status symbol in Bible time.
In the book of Revelation, purple is also mentioned as one of the colors associated with the great harlot, symbolizing her wealth and worldly extravagance (Revelation 17:4).
In Exodus 39:1, God instructs Israel to make purple garments for the high priests to wear when ministering in the sanctuary. There are two reasons for this. First, priests were considered noble. In the book of 1 Peter 2:9, priesthood and royalty are considered synonymous. Secondly, the priests were ministering before God’s presence who is the ruler of all and so they had to be in purple to symbolize His rulership and headship.
Most Old Testament kings were adorned in purple garments. For instance, Judges 8:26 reveals that the kings of Midian wore purple garments. The kings in Israel also wore purple as a status symbol. A good example is given in Song of Solomon 3:10 where Solomon’s chariot is described as being covered in a tapestry of purple. Another notable example of how purple was considered a royal color in Bible time is during the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bible narrates how the centurion servants put a purple robe on Jesus as a way of mocking his claim of being a king (Mark 15:17, Luke 19:2-5). This example illustrates that purple was considered a royal color in Israel – just as was the case in most kingdoms in biblical times.
There are several examples from scripture that reveal how the color purple was associated with Nobility. In most kingdoms, the kings would allow some of their leaders to wear purple as a way of honoring them. A good example of this is documented in the Book of Esther when the king honored Mordecai by dressing him in purple.
Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a large crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple; and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. Esther 8:15.
In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet also mentions how the nobles of the kingdom of Assyria were dressed in purple. These Nobles, as Ezekiel explains were governors and other state officials ( Ezekiel 23:6).
Another interesting example is found in the book of Daniel. The king was disturbed by the inscription and was looking for anyone who could interpret it. He offered the following reward for the person that would get the job done:
The king called aloud to bring in the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the diviners. The king spoke and said to the wise men of Babylon, “Any man who can read this inscription and explain its interpretation to me shall be clothed with purple and have a necklace of gold around his neck, and have authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.” Daniel 5:7
Status and Importance
The color purple also signifies status and importance in society. A good illustration of this is documented in the Book of Acts where an account of a woman by the name of Lydia is given. Lydia is described as a merchant of purple cloth and this woman became one of the early converts in Europe. Her occupation as a seller of purple cloth may signify her social and economic status (Acts 16:14-15). Another example is found in the book of Proverbs 31 which describes a woman of noble character. One of the qualities of this woman is that “she makes coverings for herself; Her clothing is fine linen and purple.” (Prov. 31:21). This not only signifies her nobility and industrious spirit but also her status in society.
To sum it up, Purple in the Bible symbolizes wealth, royalty, nobility, and even worldly extravagance. This is because making the color purple was a laborious and expensive undertaking. However, the significance of the color depends on the specific context in which it is mentioned.