sel (substantive chotham, "seal," "signet," Tabba`ath, "signet-ring"; Aramaic `izqa'; sphragis; verb chatham, (Aramaic chatham); (sphragizo), (katasphragizomai, "to seal"):
I. Literal Sense.
A seal is an instrument of stone, metal or other hard substance (sometimes set in a ring), on which is engraved some device or figure, and is used for making an impression on some soft substance, as clay or wax, affixed to a document or other object, in token of authenticity.
1. Prevalence in Antiquity:
The use of seals goes back to a very remote antiquity, especially in Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus (i.195) records the Babylonian custom of wearing signets. In Babylonia the seal generally took the form of a cylinder cut in crystal or some hard stone, which was bored through from end to end and a cord passed through it. The design, often accompanied by the owner's name, was engraved on the curved part. The signet was then suspended by the cord round the neck or waist (compare the Revised Version (British and American) "cord" in Ge 38:18; "upon thy heart .... upon thine arm," i.e. one seal hanging down from the neck and another round the waist; Song 8:6). In Egypt, too, as in Babylonia, the cylinder was the earliest form used for the purpose of a seal; but this form was in Egypt gradually superseded by the scarab (= beetle-shaped) as the prevailing type. Other forms, such as the cone-shaped, were also in use. From the earliest period of civilization the finger-ring on which some distinguishing badge was engraved was in use as a convenient way of carrying the signet, the earliest extant rings being those found in Egyptian tombs. Other ancient peoples, such as the Phoenicians, also used seals. From the East the custom passed into Greece and other western countries. Devices of a variety of sorts were in use at Rome, both by the emperors and by private individuals. In ancient times, almost every variety of precious stones was used for seals, as well as cheaper material, such as limestone or terra-cotta. In the West wax came early into use as the material for receiving the impression of the seal, but in the ancient East clay was the medium used (compare Job 38:14). Pigment and ink also came into use.
2. Seals among the Hebrews:
That the Israelites were acquainted with the use in Egypt of signets set in rings is seen in the statement that Pharaoh delivered to Joseph his royal signet as a token of deputed authority (Ge 41:41 f). They were also acquainted with the use of seals among the Persians and Medes (Es 3:12; 8:8-10; Da 6:17). The Hebrews themselves used them at an early period, the first recorded instance being Ge 38:18,25, where the patriarch Judah is said to have pledged his word to Tamar by leaving her his signet, cord and staff. We have evidence of engraved signets being in important use among them in early times in the description of the two stones on the high priest's ephod (Ex 28:11; 39:6), of his golden plate (Ex 28:36; 39:30), and breastplate (Ex 39:14). Ben-Sirach mentions as a distinct occupation the work of engraving on signets (Sirach 38:27). From the case of Judah and the common usage in other countries, we may infer that every Hebrew of any standing wore a seal. In the case of the signet ring, it was usual to wear it on one of the fingers of the right hand (Jer 22:24). The Hebrews do not seem to have developed an original type of signets. The seals so far discovered in Palestine go to prove that the predominating type was the Egyptian, and to a less degree the Babylonian.
3. Uses of Sealing:
(1) One of the most important uses of sealing in antiquity was to give a proof of authenticity and authority to letters, royal commands, etc. It served the purposes of a modern signature at a time when the art of writing was known to only a few. Thus Jezebel "wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal" (1Ki 21:8); the written commands of Ahasuerus were "sealed with the king's ring," "for the writing which is written in the king's name, and sealed with the king's ring, may no man reverse" (Es 8:8,10; 3:12). (2) Allied to this is the formal ratification of a transaction or covenant. Jeremiah sealed the deeds of the field which he bought from Hanamel (Jer 32:10-14; compare Jer 32:44); Nehemiah and many others affixed their seal to the written covenant between God and His people (Ne 9:38-10:1 ff). (3) An additional use was the preservation of books in security. A roll or other document intended for preservation was sealed up before it was deposited in a place of safety (Jer 32:14; compare the "book .... close sealed with seven seals," Re 5:1). In sealing the roll, it was wrapped round with flaxen thread or string, then a lump of clay was attached to it impressed with a seal. The seal would have to be broken by an authorized person before the book could be read (Re 5:2,5,9; 6:1,3, etc.). (4) Sealing was a badge of deputed authority and power, as when a king handed over his signet ring to one of his officers (Ge 41:42; Es 3:10; 8:2; 1 Macc 6:15). (5) Closed doors were often sealed to prevent the entrance of any unauthorized person. So the door of the lion's den (Da 6:17; compare Bel and the Dragon verse 14). Herodotus mentions the custom of sealing tombs (ii.121). So we read of the chief priests and Pharisees sealing the stone at the mouth of our Lord's tomb in order to "make the sepulchre sure" against the intrusion of the disciples (Mt 27:66). Compare the sealing of the abyss to prevent Satan's escape Re 20:3). A door was sealed by stretching a cord over the stone which blocked the entrance, spreading clay or wax on the cord, and then impressing it with a seal. (6) To any other object might a seal be affixed, as an official mark of ownership; e.g. a large number of clay stoppers of wine jars are still preserved, on which seal impressions of the cylinder type were stamped, by rolling the cylinder along the surface of the clay when it was still soft (compare Job 38:14).
II. Metaphorical Use of the Term.
The word "seal," both substantive and verb, is often used figuratively for the act or token of authentication, confirmation, proof, security or possession. Sin is said not to be forgotten by God, but treasured and stored up with Him against the sinner, under a seal (De 32:34; Job 14:17). A lover's signet is the emblem of love as an inalienable possession (Song 8:6); an unresponsive maiden is "a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" (Song 4:12). The seal is sometimes a metaphor for secrecy. That which is beyond the comprehension of the uninitiated is said to be as "a book that is sealed" (Isa 29:11 f; compare the book with seven seals, Re 5:1 ff). Daniel is bidden to "shut up the words" of his prophecy "and seal the book, even to the time of the end," i.e. to keep his prophecy a secret till it shall be revealed (Da 12:4,9; compare Re 10:4). Elsewhere it stands for the ratification of prophecy (Da 9:24). The exact meaning of the figure is sometimes ambiguous (as in Job 33:16; Eze 28:12). In the New Testament the main ideas in the figure are those of authentication, ratification, and security. The believer in Christ is said to "set his seal to this, that God is true" (Joh 3:33), i.e. to attest the veracity of God, to stamp it with the believer's own endorsement and confirmation. The Father has sealed the Son, i.e. authenticated Him as the bestower of life-giving bread (Joh 6:27). The circumcision of Abraham was a "sign" and "seal," an outward ratification, of the righteousness of faith which he had already received while uncircumcised (Ro 4:11; compare the prayer offered at the circumcision of a child, "Blessed be He who sanctified His beloved from the womb, and put His ordinance upon his flesh, and sealed His offering with the sign of a holy covenant"; also Targum Song 38: "The seal of circumcision is in your flesh as it was sealed in the flesh of Abraham"). Paul describes his act in making over to the saints at Jerusalem the contribution of the Gentiles as having "sealed to them this fruit" (Ro 15:28); the meaning of the phrase is doubtful, but the figure seems to be based on sealing as ratifying a commercial transaction, expressing Paul's intention formally to hand over to them the fruit (of his own labors, or of spiritual blessings which through him the Gentiles had enjoyed), and to mark it as their own property. Paul's converts are the "seal," the authentic confirmation, of his apostleship (1Co 9:2). God by His Spirit indicates who are His, as the owner sets his seal on his property; and just as documents are sealed up until the proper time for opening them, so Christians are sealed up by the Holy Spirit "unto the day of redemption" (Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2Co 1:22). Ownership, security and authentication are implied in the words, "The firm foundation of God standeth, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2Ti 2:19). The seal of God on the foreheads of His servants (Re 7:2-4) marks them off as His own, and guarantees their eternal security, whereas those that "have not the seal of God on their foreheads" (Re 9:4) have no such guaranty.
On the analogy of the rite of circumcision (see above), the term "seal" (sphragis) was at a very early period applied to Christian baptism. But there is no sufficient ground for referring such passages as Eph 1:13; 4:30; 2Co 1:22 to the rite of baptism (as some do). The use of the metaphor in connection with baptism came after New Testament times (early instances are given in Gebhardt and Lightfoot on 2 Clem 7:6). Harnack and Hatch maintain that the name "seal" for baptism was taken from the Greek mysteries, but Anrich and Sanday-Headlam hold that it was borrowed from the Jewish view of circumcision as a seal.
D. Miall Edwards