Bible Study - The Dove & Raven: The personal & prophetic lessons

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Bible Study Series: Holy Spirit - Roles, Types and Imagery

The Dove & Raven: The personal and prophetic lessons!

by I Gordon

Welcome! We are in the fourth part of a series about the Holy Spirit and in this study I want to look at the imagery first used in the New Testament to describe the Holy Spirit. I'm sure you know what type of the Holy Spirit comes first in the New Testament. I'm mean, who doesn't right? Alright, for those not getting it here is a clue - um... it occurs at Jesus' baptism. And it has to do with a certain bird. And that bird is in the title of this study and sounds like love. In the entire world history of clues, has there ever been any kinder than that?   

Ok... you all know... it is a dove. 

While the Holy Spirit is mentioned earlier in Mathew's gospel in connection with the conception of Jesus, this is the first use of imagery to describe the Holy Spirit in the New Testament... and it's a bird... a heavenly creature, a dove. So we are going to explore that today. Specifically we'll look at:

  • How the dove is pictured in scripture and why it is used for the Holy Spirit. 
  • What the first mention of the dove is in the Old Testament
  • What are the personal and prophetic implications of the story of the dove in the Old Testament. 

I think you will find this interesting. I certainly do. Some would say I'm a little biased there (and they would obviously be right) but I am always amazed how God hides important truth in the Old Testament stories and the one before us today is no different. So we'll explore a story in Genesis that you would have heard many times in Sunday School class that has instruction for not only your own life but also prophetically for what is to come! Hopefully that lays some ground work and builds a bit of anticipation... on with the show (argh, study).

The Dove

So let's begin with the first image of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. At the baptism of Jesus we read:

Mat 3:16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.

So why use a dove to represent the Holy Spirit? Well the first mention of the Spirit in the Bible, which comes in the second verse, in Gen 1:2 where we read that '...the Spirit of God was moving (hovering, brooding) over the face of the waters'. This is a reference to a bird and, in the Jewish Talmud, pictures the dove. As the famous theologian Jonathon Edwards noted: 

“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The word translated moved... as Buxtorf says, the Hebrew note properly signifies to hover as a bird, or to brood as a bird over her young, or her eggs when sitting on them; and both Grotius and Buxtorf observe from the writers of the Talmud, properly signifies the brooding of a dove upon her eggs.
Works of Jonathon Edwards, Vol 2 

So what do you know about doves in general? Doves are white birds who are powerful flyers and can cover large areas in flight in a day. They tend to nest in dry and clean places, feeding primarily on seeds, grains, fruits and insects. To the Jewish mind, the dove was a 'clean' bird which could be used for an offering to the Lord (Lev 1:14).  So the dove reminds us of the heavenly and pure nature of the Holy Spirit. This is brought out further in the book of Mathew where Jesus said to His disciples:

Mat 10:16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Jesus associated doves with being 'innocent'. The Greek word here 'akeraios' means 'unmixed', 'without any mixture of deceit, without any defiling material'.1 So this also points to the character of the Holy Spirit. Apart from the money lenders selling doves in the temple, there are no other mentions of the dove in the New Testament. So let's turn to the Old. Here is a question for you... Where is the first mention in the Bible of the dove? Because if the dove is a type of the Holy Spirit it would be interesting to find the first mention and see if it teaches us anything about the Helper don't you think? So... do you know? This is where your extensive Sunday School upbringing comes into play (Or not... Pretty sure your Mum said don't skip that Sunday!) The first mention of the dove is in the story of Noah's Ark. I know you know that story but can you remember the part played by the dove there? Let's explore that part to see if the 'law of first mention' holds true for the dove and can shed some light upon the nature of the Holy Spirit.

The first mention of the dove (& the raven)

Gen 8:6-12 After forty days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark (7) and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. (8) Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. (9) But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. (10) He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. (11) When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. (12) He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Holy Spirit Bible Study - The dove and the raven Now this is obviously a well known story that you first heard when you were 4 years old but for the purpose of this study, I'll draw your attention to the following points to keep in the back of your mind as we move forward:

  • Both a raven and a dove were sent out by Noah. The first, an unclean dark bird, the second, a clean white bird. 
  • The raven never returned to Noah or the Ark but flew 'to and fro' over the earth until the water had receded.
  • In contrast, the dove was sent three times. The first time it just returned finding no place to rest. The second time it returned but this time with an olive leaf. The third time it found it's permeant home on the earth and did not return. 

Now we've spoken a little about the dove but what do you know about the raven? Let's recap a little and contrast these birds.  

Contrasting the Raven & the Dove

Unlike the dove, which is white, the raven is a black bird. It is said in scripture to be 'unclean':

Lev 11:13-15 'These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture,.. any kind of raven,

The raven is a scavenger and feeds mostly on the decaying flesh of dead creatures. So Noah sent this bird out first and it never returned even though the waters still covered the entire earth at this time. So how did it survive? Well it flew 'to and fro' over the earth and would have fed on the rotting carcasses of both man and beast. Apologies if you have just had breakfast... not the nicest picture I know but that is what it did... and does. 

The dove on the other hand was a clean bird as previously mentioned and didn't feed on flesh but on seeds, grains, fruits and insects.

Lev 1:14 'If the offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, he is to offer a dove or a young pigeon.

So on the first attempt the dove returned to Noah not finding any place to land or feed. On Noah's second attempt at sending out the dove, it returned but this time it had an olive leaf indicating that the waters had at least receded in some areas and trees were now visible. A sign of hope! So Noah waited 7 more days and released the dove a third time. This time the bird didn't return but found it's home upon the earth. Noah then knew that the waters of God's judgment had finally gone.  

So that's the story and more than likely (if you came from a Jewish or Christian upbringing at least) you've known it for as long as you can remember. "Come on", you say. "Tell me something I don't know!" Ok... I'll try! Let's proceed onto the personal and prophetic applications of this story.

The Personal Lesson 

The selection which Noah made of the birds may also be explained quite simply from the difference in their nature, with which Noah must have been acquainted; that is to say, from the fact that the raven in seeking its food settles upon every carcass that it sees, whereas the dove will only settle upon what is dry and clean.
Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament

I like what the Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament says here but I'm not sure they saw the spiritual and personal lesson that were within their words. The story is far more than Noah being the world's first bird-watcher! Great lessons lie within this story for each of us. Think about these words: "the raven in seeking its food settles upon every carcass that it sees, whereas the dove will only settle upon what is dry and clean." These two birds represent the two natures within the believer. There is the dark raven who is unclean and feeds on that which is dead. This represents humanities dark fallen nature that loves to feed on the unclean. The raven was more than happy and had a feast in a world of decay and didn't return to the Ark... and so also the fallen nature glories and feasts on sinful and unclean acts in the world. It loves it. The fallen nature loves a fallen world. It is at home here. Never forget that the believer still has this old nature and this nature gravitates towards sin!2 The dove on the other hand finds no rest amongst the waters of judgment and this unclean decaying world. It wants no part of it and returns to Noah and the Ark. It cannot and will not feed on the decay and unclean but only what is dry and clean. The dove represents the Holy Spirit and the believer's new nature, being indwelt by His Spirit. 

We should always remember that the Holy Spirit is Holy. Unmixed, undefiled, perfectly clean. What was that Greek word again that Jesus used to describe doves? It was 'akeraios' meaning 'without any mixture of deceit, without any defiling material' That is the Spirit and that is why James exhorts us (well rebukes! - in his straight forward manner!) when we starting loving the things of this world saying:

Jas 4:4-5 You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the Spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?

The Spirit God has given us envies intensely when we are finding our pleasure and meaning in the passing decaying desires of this world. I'm not sure what you think but I find that one of most convicting verses in the Bible. The Apostle John also says:  

1Jn 2:15-17 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (16) For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world. (17) The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

So again - The raven didn't return to the Ark because it was at home feasting on the results of this judged world. In like manner the flesh will always find its satisfaction with the decaying things of this world. There is no end to its appetite for unclean things. So there will always be this battle going on until the day that we are with the Lord. It is the contrast of the dove and the raven played out in the heart of believers. Paul sums it up well:

Gal 5:16-23 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (17) For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (18) But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (19) The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; (20) idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions (21) and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (22) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (23) gentleness and self- control. Against such things there is no law.

Let me ask you - what satisfies you? Do you love this world with it's passing pleasures and sin? Or like the dove do you find your home in the Ark, with the people of God, while this world is under the judgement of God? Or, to say it another way, have you been feeding on garbage like the raven or clean wholesome food like the dove? This world is currently under the judgement of God so eat and feed well. Eat clean and don't feed your old nature with the sinful dead junk of this world!

The Prophetic Lesson 

Now, there is actually more in this story. According to Shrek, 'Ogres are like onions, they have layers'. Well God always has layers in His word too and this story is no different. We've looked at a personal application but many years ago (like about 20) I read a prophetic application of this story which I found very interesting. It involves the coming and end of Satan (pictured in the Raven) and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit (pictured in the three-fold sending of the Dove). As I prepared this study I found that one of my favourite Bible teachers of days gone by, A.C Gaebelin, had written something very similar. In fact, this was such a good summary of the prophetic picture in this passage (better than I could do) that I will include his entire quote and then make a few comments.  

A.C Gaebelin on the prophetic aspect to the dove and the raven

"Especially instructive are Gen 8:6-12 in our chapter. Noah opened the window at the end of forty days, and he sent forth a raven. This bird flew to and fro until the waters were dried up from off the earth.

Then he sent forth a dove three times. The first time she found no resting place, and Noah took her back into the ark. The second time she returned with an olive leaf in her mouth, and the third time she did not return at all, and finds her abiding place in the earth.

That the dove is the type of the Holy Spirit needs hardly to be stated. In this outward symbolic form He came upon our Lord. But what does the black raven represent? The raven is the type of evil, a representative of the god of this age and the flesh as well. We may see in the raven flying to and fro until the waters were dried up, a type of the prince of the power in the air, the devil. His work and activity; the devil describes himself as “going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it” (Job 1:7; Job 2:2). He is doing this still, but there is a time coming when the black raven will stop his restless flight. When this present age ends with divine wrath revealed once more, and the waves of divine judgment have rolled over the earth, then Satan, the devil, that old serpent, will be bound a thousand years.

The dove and her threefold departure is a type of the coming and presence of the Holy Spirit in the earth sent forth from the Lord.

First, she comes forth and finds no resting place. This represents the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, where he was not present in the earth to find a rest, to abide. The second departure of the dove may be taken as a type of the Holy Spirit’s presence in this age. The dove found a resting place and still she did not stay, but came back to the ark with an olive leaf. This olive leaf was the witness that the judgment waters had passed and that new life had developed. It also signifies peace. So the Holy Spirit is present in this age as the result of the finished work of Christ. The third time the dove did not return. So there is an age in the future when the Holy Spirit will be poured upon all flesh. During the first and second sending forth of the dove, the raven was also present. Both flew over the earth. When the dove went forth the third time the waters were gone and there was no more raven."

I'm probably just re-stating the obvious here, but to summarise this in a few bullet points:

  • The Raven was sent forth first in our story just as Satan was upon the Earth right from the beginning, his fall occurring before the creation of man. (Ezek 28:12-15)
  • The Raven (Satan) continues to move 'to and fro' over the face of the earth in this age, feeding on the dead while the waters of judgement are still present. (Job 1:7) 
  • Once the waters of judgement are gone, so is the Raven and this points to the coming Messianic Kingdom age when God's judgement is over and Satan and his followers are bound in the pit, unable to influence mankind. (Rev 20:2)
  • The Dove (Holy Spirit) was sent three times. The first likely represents the Old Testament time in general but specifically pointing to the time of the flood I believe. Like the dove finding no rest the first time it was sent, so the divine announcement at the time of wickedness leading up to the flood was "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." (Gen 6:3) 
  • The second time the Dove (Holy Spirit) was sent out and came back with the olive leaf - the symbol of peace and hope! This is a pointer to the Spirit being upon Jesus and what His work accomplished on the cross - there was now certain hope for peace and a new life for those that believe! And the Church carries this message to the world that the cross has made a way for peace with God. (Col 1:19-20)
  • The third time Noah sent the Dove, it found it's home and rest upon the earth and didn't return to the Ark. The waters of God's judgement had receded and a new planet came forth through that judgement! So too we, as believers, look forward to that day when the judgement is over, the new world comes and this planet will be filled with His Spirit!3 Then 'the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.' (Isa 11:9)  


So what have we seen? The dove is used by Jesus to picture innocence, without any mixture of deceit or defiling influence. Being a clean heavenly creature it becomes a great picture of the Holy Spirit. In contrast, the Raven is an unclean dark bird which feeds on flesh. The two birds become a useful picture of the old and new natures within a believer. The believer is called to be innocent as a dove and undefiled by this world... something which can only be achieved through the power of the Holy Spirit within. The two birds also give a wonderful picture of the work and going forth of two different spirits within this world... the Holy Spirit and Satan. And do we not see both birds operating today? We see the chaos from the dark unclean raven who is stirring up trouble both in individual lives and also in global events. We see dictators rising even within Western countries. We see actual wars and rumors of wars. And yet, at the same time, we see the beauty and work of the white clean dove - the Holy Spirit. More people, even in the midst of the chaos, are getting drawn by the Spirit to a new hope - an eternal hope in Christ! Praise God for that. We want to play a part in that.

As believers we know about, and have accepted, the olive leaf that the dove came back with in its beak. It is offered to all and believers have accepted that offer of salvation and peace. And what's more, even in the midst of the darkness that surrounds the world, believers in Jesus have the hope of a new world coming when the waters of God's judgment has completely subsided and the dove will find it's home fully in this world. What a day to look forward to and live today in the light of that coming day! 

God Bless.           

  1. The word is only used in the New Testament in the following three verses:
    Only used in three verses: Mat 10:16, Phi 2:15, Rom 16:19

    Mat 10:16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
    Rom 16:19 Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
    Php 2:15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world,

    So you'll see that each of the three verses are directed to believers. We are to be as innocent (unmixed, undefiled) as doves, about what is evil and as children of God in a perverse generation.
    As we shall see, it takes the One who is the innocent dove, the Holy Spirit, to be able to do this!

  2. The believer is a new creation while still possessing an old fleshly nature. Therefore it is important to feed the right nature!
    John 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit
    2Cor 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
    Rom 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
    Eph 4:22-24 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

  3. We will explore this topic of the Holy Spirit in the age to come in a future study in this series. There are several promises of a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the return of Jesus and the Kingdom age to follow:

    Isa 44:2-5 Thus says the LORD who made you And formed you from the womb, who will help you, 'Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (3) 'For I will pour out water on the thirsty land And streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring And My blessing on your descendants; (4) And they will spring up among the grass Like poplars by streams of water.' (5) "This one will say, 'I am the LORD'S'; And that one will call on the name of Jacob; And another will write on his hand, 'Belonging to the LORD,' And will name Israel's name with honor.