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To understand the utterances of the prophets, Baha’u’llah wrote, requires a pure heart.
The Baha’i teachings say that the capacity to understand is actually more of a matter of spiritual attitude or purity of heart than it is the result of an intellectual exercise:
The understanding of His words and the comprehension of the utterances of the Birds of Heaven are in no wise dependent upon human learning. They depend solely upon purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit. This is evidenced by those who, today, though without a single letter of the accepted standards of learning, are occupying the loftiest seats of knowledge; and the garden of their hearts is adorned, through the showers of divine grace, with the roses of wisdom and the tulips of understanding. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 211.
But it is not only in the more poetic tablets that Baha’u’llah uses imagery. Even in his Most Holy Book, the primary repository of Baha’u’llah’s laws, there appears image upon image. Sometimes these figures may be a mere word or phrase, but often the figures are several lines in length. We need glimpse only a few of the numerous examples from the early passages of the Most Holy Book to appreciate the importance of figurative language in this work. In the following examples Baha’u’llah compares his laws to lamps, to keys, to choice wine, and to the sun:
Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power. – Ibid., p. 21.
Whenever My laws appear like the sun in the heaven of Mine utterance, they must be faithfully obeyed by all, though My decree be such as to cause the heaven of every religion to be cleft asunder. – Ibid.
Metaphor and Prophecy
Baha’u’llah particularly emphasized the importance of understanding metaphor and symbol in the language of prophecy in the utterances of the messengers of God.
Many Christians are still trying to discover the key to the symbols and figurative imagery in Christ’s allusions to his return, and speculation abounds regarding the intricate symbolism of the Book of Revelation. Likewise, many Muslim scholars have devoted themselves to interpreting the veiled traditions regarding the Promised Qa’im or the Mihdi, while many Jews still await the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies.
Perhaps because prophecy is such an important link from one revelation to the next, Baha’u’llah devoted a substantial portion of The Book of Certitude to discussing the nature of prophecy. More specifically, when Baha’u’llah explicated the passage from Matthew 24:29–31, he explained in great detail the meaning of symbolic vehicles such as sun, heaven, clouds, smoke, and angels. He also discussed some of the reasons for the intentional mystery, concealment and obfuscation this symbolic language creates.
For example, Baha’u’llah wrote that one reason the manifestation of God alludes to the time, place, and personhood of the succeeding manifestation in symbolic terms is to test the sincerity and spirituality of those who await the advent of the prophet. If people were allowed to discover that prophet by a name or physical sign only, they would not be required to understand or ascertain the spiritual nature of what it is they seek. Furthermore, some might turn to the manifestation of God to achieve fame or to use his power for their benefit. What is more, those who possess temporal power and authority might view the new prophet as a threat to their power and positions, and might attempt to destroy him, as did Herod with Christ, Haji Mirza Aqasi with the Bab, and Nasiri’d-Din Shah with Baha’u’llah.
But because the identity of the manifestation is concealed in prophecy, humankind must be spiritually aware to understand the inner meaning of prophetic allusions and discover the prophet’s identity and mission. For example, if we comprehend power and authority only in literal or physical terms, we will probably look for a physically impressive figure or someone who has achieved political power or importance. In short, we will be totally oblivious to the identity of the prophet:
Behold how the divine Touchstone hath, according to the explicit text of the Book, separated and distinguished the true from the false. Notwithstanding, they are still oblivious of this truth, and in the sleep of heedlessness, are pursuing the vanities of the world, and are occupied with thoughts of vain and earthly leadership. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 227.