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It has proved difficult to find an answer to this question

A quick concordance search of "horn" and you will find many different uses for the word. My center-column notes say "strength." But why? What is the Hebrew sense of this word?

Psalm 92:10 might give a clue:

But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Horns are strong, they are used for annointing, for calls to battle. I seem to be answering my own question, however, there seems to be a development of the horn in the Bible, especially in the beasts in Daniel 7 & 8.

The phrase "the son of my right hand" has several understandings, but they are more obvious since handedness is universal. I know what horn means, what does horn really mean?

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1  
LOL... Unicorn. –  user729 Oct 5 '11 at 1:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Hermann Gunkel's psalm commentary lets us know this: "The metaphor of the horn, originally used by God (cf. the Babylonian crown of horns) was then transferred to the king, and finally to the normal prayer."1

In the accompanying intruction to the psalms, he calls the horns a "symbol of God's power".2

Spurgeon basically says the same. I quote: "It pleased holy David more that God was his strength than that He gave him strength [...] that God was his fortress, his buckler, his horn, his hight tower" etc.3

You might be suprised, but: that's all that's known.


1: Hermann Gunkel, Die Psalmen (61986), p410
2: Hermann Gunkel, Einleitung in die Psalmen (41985), p148
3: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The treasury of David (2004), p78

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This is an interesting topic; there has been quite a bit written about it. A Hebrew Lexicon is a good place to start and will give you a basic idea of the range of meanings.1 The term is קרן , qeren. The lexicon is a little difficult to read, so I have reproduced a portion of it here with liberal excerpting, clarifying, expansion of abbreviations, etc. Words in brackets are translated from Hebrew.

horn (qeren)

  1. a. of a ram (so in Daniel’s vision)
    b. used as oil flask
    c. as wind instrument
    d. [ivory tusks] (from the curved shape of tusks)

  2. figuratively of a person, a symbol of strength

    • the LORD as deliverer, especially as lifted up, denoting an increase in might, dignity;
    • also haughtiness, arrogance;
    • opposite [cut down horns], i.e. reduce, humiliate;
    • [I will cause a horn to sprout up] (Ez 29:21) is an apparent restoration of might, [I will cause a horn to sprout up for David] (Ps 132:17) of raising an individual ruler of the Davidic line
      ...

The first sub-entry (1.a.-1.d.) shows a few uses of the term that involve actual animal horns. When reading the Psalms, though, the most interesting aspect is the figurative usage, sub-entry 2. The bullets are from a single sub-entry in the lexicon, outlining various aspects of qeren as a symbol of strength. The word appears a total of 17 times in the Psalms, most often metaphorically. These usages fall into three categories:

  • the psalmist’s reward from the LORD: you exalt my horn,
  • the LORD’s strength and succor as he bolsters and defends the psalmist,
  • the arrogance of the wicked.

The question provides a good example of the first category (Ps. 92:10[11]2). This usage is almost always accompanied by the verb rûm, “to exalt.” The second category is perhaps most famously exemplified in Ps. 18:2(3):

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
    my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

The third usage, denoting arrogance, can be seen, e.g., in Ps 75:5(6).

At times, the metaphorical “horn” is accompanied by a reference to an animal (rəʾēm - “bull” or “wild ox”; “unicorn” is from the LXX). The exact identity of the animal is unknown, but frequently in poetry it symbolizes power and ferocity.

In addition to the “power” motif deriving from 1.a., above (“of a ram”), some commentators have noted an aspect of the metaphor as oil, which was often poured from a horn (see 1.b.). This evokes imagery of oil as a token of divine provision and blessing.

A reasonably brief and interesting discussion of this (includes pictures!) can be found in The Horn Motifs of the Bible and the Ancient Near East.


1. Brown, Driver, and Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. See bottom of page 901 extending to the top of page 902. If you want to read it, a few notes: “fig.” indicates a figurative usage based on (“under”) the basic usage; the Greek letter ψ is used to refer to the Psalms; the word itself קרן is abbreviated within the entry as ק׳; the tetragrammaton is abbreviated י׳.
2. Parentheses refer to numbering in BHS.

Willem VanGemeren, Psalms (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Revised Edition; 5 ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

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@Susan has now provided a solid answer based on the Hebrew usages of the word for "horn," so there is no need no repeat that information. The general picture is that horns symbolize strength and power.

In this answer I will offer some excerpts from the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), covering his symbolic and spiritual interpretation of horns in the Bible, based on that Biblical use as a symbol or metaphor for strength and power.

These are rather old-fashioned translations from the original Latin, but they are the best currently in print for the works I am quoting. Note that "the Word" (Latin Verbum) was the standard Latin term for the Bible, and "the Apocalypse" (Latin: Apocalypsis) was the standard Latin term for the book of Revelation.

In the opening reference for each brief excerpt from Swedenborg's writings, I will provide a link to the original section of Swedenborg's works for those who wish to delve into his full interpretations of horns in the Bible. Swedenborg explains horns in many places in his theological works. The three I am quoting from are his three most extensive explanations of the spiritual symbolism of horns. In particular, in the first and third passages referenced he provides many pages of quotations and spiritual explanations of various passages in the Bible where horns are mentioned.

From Apocalypse Explained #316:

Horn and horns signify power, because the power of horned animals, as of oxen, rams, goats, and others, lies in their horns. That horn or horns signify the power of truth against falsity, and, in the highest sense, where said of the Lord, Omnipotence, and, in the opposite sense, the power of falsity against truth, is evident from many passages in the Word; and because it is thence evident what horns in the Word signify, of which mention is so often made in Daniel, and also in the Apocalypse, and because they are still in use in the coronation of kings, I wish to quote them.

From Apocalypse Revealed #270:

Having seven horns [Revelation 5:6]. This symbolizes the Lord's omnipotence.

The Word often mentions horns, and a horn everywhere symbolizes power. Consequently, when a horn is mentioned in connection with the Lord, it symbolizes omnipotence. Seven horns are specified, because seven symbolizes all (no. 10), thus all power or omnipotence.

From Arcana Coelestia #2832:

Horns are mentioned in various places in the Word, in which places they mean the power of truth which springs from good, and in the contrary sense the power of falsity which springs from evil.

In Swedenborg's interpretation of the spiritual symbolism of horns, then, they symbolize power, and specifically the power of divine and spiritual truth that comes from a good heart, or good intentions. And in an opposite sense (Swedenborg states that all symbols in the Bible have both a positive and a negative meaning), horns represent the power of falsity that comes from an evil heart, or evil intentions.

To put it in more human terms, when "horns of strength" are associated with a person, it means that the person is acting powerfully for the good of others using the strength of God's truth, in accordance with the Great Commandments articulated by Jesus: to love the Lord our God above all, and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40).

In the opposite sense, when "horns" are used of evil power, it means that the person associated with such horns is acting powerfully to oppress and destroy others using false principles, fallacious reasoning, lies, and slander.

To "cut off the horns" (a common expression in the Bible) means to deprive of strength and power, thus rendering something (such as the altar) or someone (such as a king) weak and powerless.

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