A close-up shot of a well-worn, open Bible showcasing the book of Psalms, with the color purple subtly highlighted through a delicate floral bookmark, symbolizing spiritual royalty and divine authority.

What Does The Color Purple Mean In The Bible?

The color purple has profound symbolic meaning in the Bible. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The color purple in the Bible represents royalty, wealth, and status due to the rarity and cost of purple dye in ancient times. It is also associated with penitence and mourning.

In this comprehensive article, we will explore the multifaceted symbolism of the color purple throughout the Bible. We’ll look at how purple was used in the tabernacle and priestly garments as a sign of royalty and holiness, its association with repentance and mourning, and the eschatological implications of the color purple in the New Jerusalem described in Revelation.

The Use of Purple Dye in Biblical Times

The Rarity and Cost of Purple Dye

In ancient times, purple dye was extremely rare and expensive to produce. The dye was extracted from a species of sea snail called Murex trunculus that was found in the Mediterranean Sea. It took thousands of these tiny snails to produce just a few grams of the precious purple dye, making it highly valued by royalty and the elite.

According to authoritative sources like the Biblical Archaeology Society, it often cost its weight in silver![1]

The Phoenicians were known as skilled craftsmen in producing purple dye. The process started by extracting the colorless secretion from the snail, which turned into an amazing, shimmering purple color when exposed to sunlight.

This extremely labor-intensive process added to the exorbitant cost of the dye. Only the most wealthy and noble citizens could afford fabrics dyed with purple in Biblical times.[2]

Purple Garments as a Sign of Royalty and Status

Because of its rarity and high cost, the color purple became associated with royalty and high status in Biblical times. The Bible references purple garments being worn by kings, emperors and other nobles.

For example, in the book of Esther (8:15), Mordecai left the king’s presence wearing royal garments of blue and purple.

Purple fabrics were mentioned as part of the decorations given to Solomon for the construction of the temple (2 Chronicles 2:7). Lydia, the first European convert to Christianity, was a wealthy tradeswoman selling expensive purple fabrics (Acts 16:14).

Purple dye was simply too expensive for common people in Biblical times. Wearing purple signified great wealth, prestige and high social standing.[3]

Biblical Reference Mention of Purple
Esther 8:15 Mordecai wore royal garments of blue and purple
Judges 8:26 Purple garments taken as plunder by Gideon’s army
Proverbs 31:22 Virtuous woman clothed in purple linens
Luke 16:19 Rich man clothed in purple garments

As these examples illustrate, purple fabrics in the Bible were consistently associated with privilege, high rank, and ceremony.

Purple in the Tabernacle and Priestly Garments

Purple in the Design of the Tabernacle

The tabernacle, the portable temple used by the Israelites during the Exodus, featured purple prominently in its construction. Exodus 26 describes how ten curtains were to be made of finely twisted linen and blue, purple, and scarlet yarn to cover the tabernacle structure.

The purple was symbolic of royalty and pointed to the presence of God dwelling in the tabernacle.

In addition, a purple cloth formed part of the screen for the entrance to the courtyard of the tabernacle (Exodus 27:16). This continued the theme of purple representing royalty and divinity.

The Ephod and Breastpiece

As part of the special garments made for the priests, particularly the high priest, purple again played an important symbolic role. The ephod, a vest-like garment worn by the high priest, was to be made of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarn along with finely twisted linen (Exodus 28:6-8).

Likewise, the breastpiece of judgment worn over the ephod was constructed using gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarn (Exodus 28:15). The purple once more pointed to the royal and divine nature of the office of the high priest who served as the mediator between God and the people.

Purple Tassels on Garments

In Numbers 15:38-40, God instructed Moses that the Israelites were to wear tassels on the corners of their garments with a cord of blue threaded through it. While purple is not specifically mentioned here, the tassels served as a reminder of the commandments and the calling to holiness.

The blue and purple dyes pointed to the royal priesthood of all believers.

Later in the New Testament, this background of tassels containing purple helped provide meaning for interesting events like the woman with bleeding being healed by touching Jesus’s garment (Matthew 9:20-22). The purple hem was a reminder of Jesus’s royal, priestly position.

Purple as a Symbol of Repentance and Mourning

Sackcloth and Ashes

In ancient Israel, people would often wear sackcloth and ashes as symbols of mourning, repentance, and grief. Sackcloth was a rough, uncomfortable material usually made of goat or camel hair. Ashes symbolized grief, mortality, and sorrow.

Covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes was a visible and tangible way for an individual or community to show heartfelt repentance before God.

There are numerous examples in the Old Testament of grieving Israelites wearing sackcloth and ashes. When the city of Nineveh heard the warning of the prophet Jonah, the king covered himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes as an act of repentance (Jonah 3:6).

Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews (Esther 4:1). Job repented in dust and ashes after God confronted him (Job 42:6).

This outward sign of mourning and repentance was often accompanied by fasting and prayer. The rough sackcloth likely induced discomfort, reflecting a contrite heart. Ashes reminded the wearer of human frailty and mortality.

Together, these symbols prompted humility, sorrow for sin, and utter dependence on God’s mercy.

Mourning Customs in Ancient Israel

In ancient Israel, mourning the death of a loved one took on great cultural and religious significance. There were specific mourning rituals and customs that reflected the deep sense of loss shared by the community.

When news arrived of a death, people would immediately tear their garments as a sign of grief. Sackcloth would often replace normal garb. Ashes or dust would be placed on the head. Fasting was common during the initial mourning period.

Hired mourners would join with family members in providing musical laments at the funeral.

After the burial, the family would formally grieve for a period of seven days, called shiva. This was a time of intense lamenting and shedding of tears. Friends and neighbors brought food and comforted the bereaved. Extended mourning would continue for a month or longer.

In a show of compassion, neighbors were called upon to mourn alongside the hurting family.

The customs of ancient Israel provided a way for communities to share in mourning. The visible displays of grief – sackcloth, ashes, tears – gave outlet to sorrow. Society stopped to weep with those who wept. In many ways, mourning reflected love and honor for the deceased.

And it testified to the hope of being reunited with lost loved ones.

Eschatological Implications in Revelation

The Great Harlot Dressed in Purple

In Revelation 17, John describes his vision of the “great prostitute” who is dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones and pearls. This harlot is symbolic of Babylon, the great city that ruled over the kings of the earth and was drunk on the blood of God’s holy people (Rev 17:5-6).

Babylon is depicted as a woman dressed extravagantly in royal purple robes, representing her wealth, power and materialism.

The color purple was associated with Roman emperors and higher magistrates, signifying imperial power, nobility and luxury. The harlot’s purple garments symbolize her association with worldly riches, pleasures and power structures that stand opposed to God.

Just as purple dye was extremely valuable in ancient times, the harlot flaunts her affluence attained through her spiritual immorality and compromise with pagan society. Her judgment is declared in Revelation 18 when her wealth and power are stripped away.

The New Jerusalem’s Foundations of Purple

In contrast to the harlot Babylon decked in fleeting purple finery, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven adorned with enduring purple gems. The twelve foundations of the city walls are made of precious stones, the second foundation being of sapphire (Rev 21:19), which in ancient times referred to the vibrant purple-blue hue of lapis lazuli.

This blue sapphire foundation signifies the beauty, glory and permanence of the holy city.

Whereas Babylon’s purple represents luxury leading to idolatry and destruction, the New Jerusalem’s sapphire foundations represent the majesty, righteousness and indestructibility of Christ’s kingdom.

As purple was considered the most noble color in the ancient world, the blue sapphire foundation conveys nobility and points to Christ’s majesty as supreme King over all (Rev 19:16).

Just as natural blue sapphires endure over millennia due to their durability, the sapphire foundation of the New Jerusalem signifies the permanency of Christ’s reign and the eternal dwelling place of the saints (John 14:2-3).

The royal purple hues ultimately reflect the beauty, glory and righteousness of the Lamb upon his eternal throne (Rev 22:1,3).


As we have seen, purple in the Bible is a rich and multifaceted symbol. It represented wealth, status and royalty – as seen in its use for the tabernacle and priestly vestments. It was also associated with repentance and mourning.

And it carries important eschatological implications in the book of Revelation regarding the defeat of Babylon and the coming of the New Jerusalem.

So next time you come across the color purple in Scripture, consider the depth of meaning found in this unique biblical symbol.

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