Manger Painting

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. . . And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed wife, being great with child.
And it came to pass, that while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should bring forth; and she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling-clothes, and laid Him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ” (Luke 2:1-7)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not one thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.
And the Light appears in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. . . . He was the true Light, which enlightens every man who comes into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.
He came to His own, and His own took Him not in. . . .And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt in a tabernacle among us, and we observed His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-14)

I love how the deeper you go into the Lord’s Word, the more you find that it’s a continuous garment underneath, that can’t be divided or torn apart, even when the text is purposely obscure to protect against profanation. Over all the glory there is a covering, but for those who seek it earnestly, the glory shines through. I love how Nazareth and Galilee get mentioned with Zebulun and Naphtali, presaging the Lord’s ministry on earth. It’s also neat to see the progression between kings and governors riding on white donkeys, to Jesus prior to His glorification riding on a colt the son of a donkey (e.g. a mule), to riding on a white horse in His second coming.

“God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran.. . .And His brightness was as the light; He had horns from His hand; and there was His strength hidden away. . . .Was Jehovah incensed against the rivers? Was Thine anger against the rivers? Was Thy wrath against the sea? For Thou didst ride on Thy horses and Thy chariots of salvation. . . .Thou wentest forth for the salvation of Thy people, for the saving of Thine anointed. . . . Thou didst tread through the sea with Thy horses, through the clay of many waters.” (Habakkuk 3:3-15)

Apocalypse Revealed, a verse-by-verse in-depth study of Revelation, draws a connection between the Lord on the white horse in Revelation, and His birth in a stable, laid in a manger where horses eat. “A manger has this symbolism [of spiritual instruction from the intellect], like the manger where the newborn Lord lay, because a horse, which eats from it, symbolizes an understanding of the Word” (AR 255).  This makes sense to me when I think of what a horse is like: Understanding something is a lot like riding on a horse – instead of plodding along as before, you can suddenly fly over ground (horses were the fastest form of land transport for millennia til comparatively recently).  You can see and assess better on top of a horse, and you have the benefit of your mount’s highly alert field of vision, which becomes 360 degrees with just a shift of its head. There’s a reason that when we understand something, we say “I see.”  When we take in knowledge, we’re said to “ingest” it or “eat it up,” or “digest” it, so that image of a fast, powerful animal eating from a manger is like our intellect taking in and understanding truths – in the Lord’s case, the scriptures He got to know so well from an early age, that template of what His life on earth was to consist of.  He was Himself the Word interiorly, but He also had to learn the Word to fulfill it with His body and His life.

This idea of a horse meaning our understanding (either of God’s truth, or of our satisfaction in our own intelligence apart from God) can be found in a few places in the Bible, such as in Job 39:17-18 “Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath He imparted to her understanding. What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider.” In 1 Kings, when it’s describing how much wisdom King Solomon has, scripture makes a point of detailing that he had “forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen”, and also mentions their food and bedding (which reminds me of the manger in Bethlehem) continuing immediately: “And God gave wisdom to Solomon and an understanding exceedingly multiplied.” (I Kings 4:26-30). Horses are also used in the opposite sense to show stupidity and a lack of willingness to receive instruction from the Word: “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding” (Psalm 32:8-9).

Even donkeys are used to show an understanding higher than our stubbornness and self-will, as when Balaam’s donkey can see the danger before him and won’t budge as he kicks and beats her. She’s more obedient to God than he is, and has more understanding about the Word that Jehovah has given to Balaam than he does (Numbers 22:13-35). It occurs to me, as I’m reading this from the Word, that we’ve arrived back at the Christmas story: once chastened by the angel, Balaam spends two whole chapters making prophecies of the Lord’s birth that give me chills every time I hear them: “I shall see Him, but not now; I shall observe Him, but not near; there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel, and shall strike the corners of Moab, and topple all the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17). Yet again, that inner garment of scripture brings us back to the reminder that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word: there are so many layers within the richness of scripture – layers about the history of the church, layers about how to repent and live our lives – but deepest and fullest of all, the Word is a constant reflection of the Lord, of who He is, and of His purpose to redeem and save the human race.

I was first introduced to this idea of a manger being where horses eat eleven years ago, during a sermon in my hometown church. The priest made a connection between the baby Lord being laid in a manger right after birth, and His early instruction in the Word. I’d never seen a manger scene with horses, and was moved to make a pencil drawing depicting one. While I dearly love the cosy European tradition of adding farm animals that would be in a single family’s own barn in winter (with a donkey added to give it a Holy Land flavour), the location of a manger would’ve been in a stable full of the mounts of those travelling, presumably at the very inn at which there was no room.  Now, probably because of all the donkeys I’ve seen in Biblical pictures, I never even thought of horses as being a Biblical animal other than in the prophecies of Revelation, but in fact, horses are mentioned more times in the Bible than donkeys/asses or mules, and the very kind of horse that we think of as the most refined and most desirable, which has been used to improve just about every breed of European horse or pony, originated from the Arabian peninsula thousands of years ago.

“And I saw heaven opened; and behold a white horse; and He who sits upon him is called Faithful and True; and in justice He judges and makes war. . . .And He was arrayed with a garment dipped in blood; and His name is called, The Word of God. And the armies in heaven followed Him on white horses, wearing fine linen white and clean. And He has upon His garment and upon His thigh a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16)

One day a gentleman who was admiring my picture of The Manger said that it was really nice, but I should’ve made one of the horses white.  It hadn’t occurred to me when I was drawing, but I saw at once that he was right: after all, the risen Lord rides a white horse.  I told that gentleman that I would probably make a painted version some day, and when I did, one of the horses would be white. 

It took a decade to get to it, but finally this year it happened.  I struggled through a lot of sketches until the idea came for this view from above, with Mary adoring, and Joseph caring for Mary.  It was important to me that horses were shown eating from the manger, but I also wanted to show new baby Jesus taking in the world, specifically taking in that white horse, bringing together prophecies from the Old Testament (“For Thou didst ride on Thy horses and Thy chariots of salvation”), the Christmas story from Luke (“and laid Him in a manger; the Word was made flesh”), and the prophecies of His second coming: (“and behold a white horse; and He who sits upon him is called Faithful and True . . . and His name is called, The Word of God.”)  Contained within this tiny child was He who is, and was, and is to come.

It’s amazing beyond my finite mind’s ability to comprehend that Jehovah bowed the heavens and came down, taking on an earthly body for Himself in the same way a son is conceived, and fitting a Divine soul into the primitive flesh of a helpless infant, who had to learn and grow like any other man until He was so filled with Divine glory that His once-earthly body became fully Divine. We read that Jesus was precocious: the glimpse we get of His childhood is of Him amazing the learned men in the temple when He’s just twelve, when His instruction in the Word was already well underway. But compared to the Divinity of His soul, it’s an amazing ratio of infinite within the not-yet-glorified finite. Yet this awesome feat allowed Him to be accessible to us in new ways, so we could approach Him as a Man without being burnt to cinders by the heat of His Divine love.  It made Him accessible to attack by the hells, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for them to approach Him and tempt Him, and thus get judged and put back in their places.  Jehovah our Heavenly Father has always borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, but we wouldn’t have known this if He hadn’t come as a Man we could picture, whose suffering we could see and feel and sympathise with.  For us to feel any echo of His own yearning over us, and thereby be moved to love Him back, it had to be visceral for our fleshly hearts to understand.  Even before He came, He gave prophecies of Himself so that He could be known at least obscurely in advance, so that we would know He was a Man, but I think that there was something special that happened when He was conceived in Mary’s womb that forever shifted Humanity’s ability to know Him.

Perhaps one of the shifts was how uncomplicated an understanding is required to know Him as Himself: prior to His coming, the abstract idea of Him must have been hard to grasp, but any two-year-old can feel the reverence of a baby in a manger, or be comforted by an image of her Saviour next to her crib.  Just the simple knowledge of Jesus laying down His life for us has brought countless multitudes to His feet in worship. Yet there’s more to be known about the Lord than could fill a world full of books, so, knowing that we would struggle to understand His essence abstractly, He made use of our experience of the roles of father and son, and our idea of our spirits to conceptualise for us the relationship between His soul, His body, and His action in the world; that is, between His all-powerful Divine Love for the whole Human race, His all-knowing Divine Truth that is conceived from that love, by which He rules and judges, and His everywhere-present Holy Spirit moving through us, as the still, small voice in our consciences and as His Providence affecting the world.  He was even willing to break it to us gently, if, along with our polytheistic ancestors, we could accept Him first only as a mere son of God, or separated out into two or three different people. 

He doesn’t show up and announce Himself to us in the full force of His glory, but obscured and mantled, giving us just as much of Him as we can accept at a time. But the reality of Who He is, is there for us to see if we wish, in the prophets: (“Is it not I – Jehovah? And there is no other god besides Me, a God righteous and saving, there is none except Me”), in the Gospels (“Philip says to Him, Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us. Jesus says to him, Am I with thee so much time and hast thou not known Me, Philip?”), and even in His names, “Jah saves,” and “God with us,” demonstrating that He is Jehovah Himself, the Lord God Jesus Christ, the one God of heaven and earth, if we’re willing to listen and receive Him.

“For the obscurity shall not be such as was its oppression in the former time, when He reviled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but afterwards He will honor them by the way of the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; they who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, on them has the light given brightness. For a Child is born to us, a Son is given to us; and the sovereignty shall be on His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, God, Hero, Father Everlasting, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:1-6)

About Ayisha Synnestvedt

Ayisha Synnestvedt was born in Toronto, grew up in Caryndale, Canada, and moved to the Kempton New Church Society at the age of seven. She has enjoyed getting to take part in the life of several different church societies, including Phoenix for four months when she was ten, and a few summers and falls in Mitchellville, MD as a young adult. She moved to Bryn Athyn for college in 2004, where she still lives. She loves being active in the lives of her nieces and nephews, especially reading aloud to them. She paints, writes fiction, directs plays, and works on movie projects.

3 thoughts on “Manger Painting

  1. Love this picture!! I hadn’t thought about the horses either, but what a wonderful perspective that gives.

  2. Thank you, Ayisha, for all these connections and careful research. Beautiful stuff. Some of the connections between themes in the Word I had not seen.

  3. 🤯 …..Wow, Ayisha. Your article… bends my brain, pushes it to lengths that it isn’t used to stretching, if you know what I mean? Thanks for that challenge. And your painting! Oh, the expression on the little baby Lord’s face!! (and His little hands!) -and Mary’s expression! -and Joseph’s tender care, and the beautiful horses…… Thank you for this gift, Ayisha, for sharing that talent with us, as well as the talent of your deep insights. Belated merry Christmas wishes to you! -and may your new year be filled with blessings. ✨

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