Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew, “Indeed, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows because he tried to lay his hand on the Jews. You yourselves write a decree concerning the Jews, as you please, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for whatever is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet ring no one can revoke.”
So the king’s scribes were called at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and it was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one hundred and twenty-seven provinces in all, to every province in its own script, to every people in their own language, and to the Jews in their own script and language. And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed it with the king’s signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horseback, riding on royal horses bred from swift steeds. (Esther 8:7-10)
One of the most powerful pieces of ornamentation mentioned in the Bible is a ring—particularly the signet ring. It was worn not as an accessory, but rather the wearing of it represented the personal legal signature or status of the owner. For Mordecai to have access to the king’s own signet ring indicates the trust and power he had been afforded, and his badge of office.
A signet could be shaped as a ring to be worn usually on the right finger, or as a cylinder or rod of metal suspended from a cord worn around the neck. Exodus 28:9-14 indicates that signets were engraved, in this case, on stone. Cylinder seals were incised on many hard surfaces, from baked clay to lapis lazuli, gold, silver, carnelian, blue chalcedony, rock crystal, pink marble, jasper, shell-core, ivory, and glazed pottery.
When an ancient letter-writer had finished his message on a clay tablet, “he had the sender and any witnesses remove from around their necks their own small cylinder seals and roll them over the still-wet clay to make their signatures.” Often these were written by professional letter-writers—some of whom were women—who stationed themselves at the city gates.
Signed, sealed, and delivered
The Babylonians used cylinder-seals to insure safe shipment of valuable papers or commodities to distant destinations. Items were inserted into a jar which was then covered with cloth and tied with cord at the neck. The sender covered the binding cord with soft clay and rolled his cylinder-seal across the wet mud. If the jar arrived with the seal intact, its contents had arrived secure.
Hundreds of such cylinders have been found at various archaeological sites, and it seems that T. E. Laurence was himself an avid “seal-hunter,” searching for these small treasures to send back to his friends in England.
Matters of state
The principle uses for the signet ring were to provide legal signatures, and/or proof of authority. A hard, flat substance associated with the ring—perhaps a precious stone, a bit of marble, or the metal of the ring itself—was engraved with its owner’s unique symbol or signature. The resulting inscription could then be pressed into wax or clay as needed, leaving an impression which amounted to a seal of authorship or authority.
When Joseph was appointed vizier or governor in Egypt, Pharaoh took off his signet ring and put it on Joseph’s finger (Genesis 43:42), clothed him in fine linen (court dress), and further rewarded him with a gold chain. In effect Joseph was awarded the accouterments to signal him as the second in command.
Used for good …
One of the most-loved of Christ’s parables concerns the return of the prodigal son to his ever-watchful, ever-hopeful father. After an emotional reunion and period of reconciliation, the father called for the best robe and put it on his beloved son. Then he put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. The celebration culminated with music, dancing, and the killing of a fatted calf. (See Luke 15:20-24.) The Woman’s Study Bible, in a note on Luke 15:17-24, comments that “the best robe was a sign of position; the ‘ring’ indicated authority, the ‘sandals’ [a sign of freedom and luxury] put on his bare feet set him apart from the barefoot slaves.”
When authority is wrested by evil hands, wickedness is sure to follow. Jezebel well understood power, and she was not afraid to use it, especially when her husband Ahab was in a funk. A prophet of God had given him terrible news. Because he failed to obey God’s instructions concerning Ben-Hadad, the prophet said: “”Thus says the LORD: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people'” So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased, and came to Samaria” (1 Kings 20:41-43).
As if that weren’t enough, the petulant king coveted a piece of property that belonged to his neighbor Naboth. It had been passed down as an inheritance in his family for generations, and Naboth stubbornly refused to sell.
Ahab did not handle rejection well. The scripture says, “And he [Ahab] lay down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food” (21:4).
Tiring of her husband’s fit of depression, Jezebel took matters into her own hands. She wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent them out. The missives contained orders that eventually led to the death of innocent Naboth. But as an unintended consequence, her actions also sealed the fate of the despicable pair—ignominious deaths.
Its power endures
Alan King, in his Ezine article, “Signet Rings Have Significance Today,” comments that “in Europe the rings were commissioned by nobility and created by artists. Therefore, they were works of art, often made of gold and very much valued for their beauty as well as for their material value. Sometimes they were even embellished with designs and calligraphy on the side to add to the appearance. The rings were guarded and treasured by the owner, and passed on to successive generations in much the same way that a crown would be passed on to a prince or princess. They were a symbol of authority and power, indicating that the owner had the right to bear arms (the crest or shield) in medieval Europe. The Pope’s ring was kissed to honor the supreme authority of the position, and when a Pope died, his ring was destroyed to symbolize the clearing of the way for a new Pope.”
He further explains that the tradition surrounding the signet ring continues to this day. In Europe, each country (and its nobility) has its own preferences as to how the ring is to be worn, on which finger and on which hand. “French, German, and some Spanish nobles wear it on the ring finger of their left hands. The Swiss wear signets on the right hand, and nobles of the United Kingdom wear them on the little finger of the left hand. Of course, it is worn with the impressing outward to enable the wearer to turn his hand over and press it into the wax.”
From ancient times to modern day, the signet ring has endured and continues to symbolize power and authority.
For further study, the following scriptures may be of interest concerning this topic. Some contain historical references; others are viewed metaphorically.
Genesis 38:18 Tamar requests Judah’s signet and his bracelets and his staff.
Exodus 28:11, 21, 36 engravings of a signet
Isaiah 3:18-23 jewelry worn by the haughty daughters of Babylon
Song of Solomon 8:6 Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm.
Haggai 2:23 God’s statement to Zerubbabel: ” . . .will make you like a signet ring: for I have chosen you. . . .”
Revelation 7:3-4 servants of God sealed in their foreheads