The Figurative Language of the Bible

ONE evening after I had finished preaching on "Heaven" a man came up to me with the challenge, "Apparently you are not aware that there is no such place as a heaven, and the texts you have just finished reading are nothing more than mere figurative expressions."

ONE evening after I had finished preaching on "Heaven" a man came up to me with the challenge, "Apparently you are not aware that there is no such place as a heaven, and the texts you have just finished reading are nothing more than mere figurative expressions."

The Bible does use figurative language, for humanly speaking, the ancient eastern Book was, in the wisdom of God, a product of the times in which it was written. But it reaches far beyond those times with a lasting relevance greater than its own back ground, for in the Bible there are contained principles that far transcend culture and time.

Figurative language is a very common feature of the Scriptures and needs to be clearly understood in order that we may more effectively rightly divide "the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). God said that He would reveal Himself in a way less distinct and clear to the prophets than He had communed with Moses (Num. 12:1-8). Hence, often, as in Isaiah, chapters 24-27, and Joel 3:9-17, God uses symbolic revelations that, if interpreted literally in every detail, would result in absurdity.

In Bible times people did not separate the literal from the symbolic as precisely as we do today. We live in a scientific age with emphasis upon departmentalizing every thing. This scientific precision has affected many areas, including the literary realms. For example, today the word Sodom means a country that was situated in the Dead Sea area. But to the prophet Ezekiel the word could mean that same country or it could just as easily be a synonym for all that is evil and sinful. In Ezekiel 16:46 "Sodom" in one place means the land and then it is used again to mean the essence of sin. The prophet was, of course, warning the people of God about following a course similar to that of Sodom. In a similar style notice the use of Sodom, Egypt, and Babylon in the book of Revelation.

Literal or Symbolic

This illustrates the principle that to the Bible writers "literal" and "symbolic" were not as distinctly divided in their minds as we might separate them today. If the lesson could be taught by symbolism or figurative language, that was the literary form to use.

Such imagery is not peculiar to the Bible. It is a feature of nearly every language and mode of thought. Men tend to think of the abstract in terms of the known. This is the basis of teaching to describe the new and the unfamiliar by comparison with the well-known.

So it is with the great "Textbook"; many things divinely revealed are unseen and spiritual out of the realm of man's experience. The only way for their meaning to be understood by man is by the use of some figure familiar to all. Thus, when Jesus wanted to call His disciples to become great evangelists and preachers, He did not use theological language that would be unfamiliar to rough fishermen. Instead, He found His imagery and figure as He saw them fishing. "Come," He said, "and I will make you . . . fishers of men." Then He met a woman at a well and suggested she drink of the water that He could give and she would never thirst again.

The Bible teaches that there is a close link between the things natural and the things spiritual. Often, one is but a reflection of the other. "All created things, in their original perfection, were an expression of the thought of God," but because of sin this has been marred. Yet "nature still speaks of her Creator." --Education, pp. 16, 17. Therefore, the use of natural figures to illuminate a great eternal truth is the mode of expression the Creator Him self used. This helps us to better understand why "the Word was made flesh." God chose to express the eternal, spiritual, and divine in terms of the temporal, natural, and the human.

Six Basic Principles

Now, perhaps we can look at a few basic principles of interpreting figurative language.

1. Figurative Language Needs to Be Recognized and Treated as Such.

When language is purely figurative it is not to be taken literally, for this will lead to gross error. The prophet in symbolic prophecy sees "representations of the actual and not the actual itself. These representations may be like the actual; often they are not. Frequently the actors in a prophetic drama have an appearance vastly different from the beings or movements they represent." SDA Bible Commentary, on Eze. 1:10, p. 576.

It would be wrong either to expect to see or hear the devil literally as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) or to see a lamb with a bleeding knife wound and with seven horns and seven eyes (Rev. 5:6). In the interpretation of symbolic prophecy it is important to allow the same Spirit who inspired the writing to identify its symbols.

2. Special Study Must Be Given to This Type of Language.

A casual reader of the New Testament might be mystified by the number of references in its pages to Old Testament places and incidents, such as Babylon. Special study must be given to these references.

Babylon arose in rebellion. It was founded by Nimrod, whose name means "rebellion." From Genesis, chapter 10, are traced the beginnings of the city of Babylon until she comes to her destruction in the last days. As the human race grew larger Satan inspired men to establish a worldly empire that would rebel against God's commandment, to be scattered abroad (Gen. 11:1-9).

Genesis is known as the seed plot of the Bible because themes introduced here are developed in the rest of Scripture until they reach a climax in the book of Revelation. Hence, Babylon in the New Testament stands for that pride and rebellion that sets itself against God. Thus the same principles that inspired the original Babel-builders and also Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:30) will motivate modern Babylon. As God's judgments fell upon the ancient Babylonians for cherishing Satan's principles, so will God's judgments in the last days fall upon spiritual Babylon for her evil ways.

3. Study Scriptural Usage.

The Lord emphasized the value of "spiritual" interpretations when He had the experience of Israel recorded in the Old Testament to be spiritually applied to the church. "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were writ ten for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have lope" (Rom. 15:4). He adds further that they were "types" (margin) of what is to happen to those living at the time of the end. (1 Cor. 10:11). The literal manna, the literal rock, and the literal water have "spiritual" counterparts in the kingdom of Christ, for Christ is the manna---the "Bread of Life," and the smitten Rock out of which flows the "water of life."

It is very often the special study of the thought forms and imagery of the Old Testament that gives added meaning to the New Testament usage of the figure. Some such words are: "the seed of Abra ham," "The Passover," "the blood of the covenant," "the sanctuary and its services," "ransom," et cetera. Before we preach on these subjects we should make a special study of them to get their full thought forms with which to express and interpret the gospel.

4. Recognize the Literary Form.

Closely allied to figurative language is the much wider subject of literary forms. We read, "It is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated" (Rom. 9:13). This is a Hebrew way of stating a comparison, Jacob was loved in preference to Esau. The same principle is shown in our Lord's warning that a man must be prepared to "hate" even his own family (Luke 14:26). Our Lord used here the typical Hebrew mode of thought, as did Paul concerning Esau and Jacob.

If this principle is borne in mind it will help in many of the so-called "problems" of the Bible. As A. M. Stibbs states, "In Hebrew there are no greys; everything is either black or white." --Understanding God's Word, p. 19. When David numbered his people one Bible writer attributed this to Satan (1 Chron. 21:1), while another writer goes right to the prime cause and sees God as the one who is in final control (2 Sam. 24:1).

These different explanations are not contradictory of one another as many Western writers would argue, but are simply using a typical He brew literary form.

5. Avoid Extremes.

In all our study of the Word we need to guard against extremes. Extreme literalism can lead to a legality such as practiced by the Pharisees, while overemphasis upon the symbolic can lead to excessive allegorizing, for which the early church in Alexandria was noted. A number of writers have fallen into the trap of extreme allegorizing, perhaps the most famous being Origen (A.D. c. 184-254). Illustrations of the extreme lengths to which such methods tend are the following from the Song of Solomon:

The 80 wives of Solomon--the admission of the Gentile nations to Christianity;

The navel of the Shulamite--the cup from which the church refreshes those that thirst for salvation;

The two breasts--the Old and New Testaments.

The Song of Solomon, taken literally, refers only and wholly to human love be tween a man and a woman. The name of God is not mentioned. There are no words of explicit religious sentiment whatever. Yet both the Jewish and the Christian communities have included the book in the Canon because the Son is pointing out the relationship of love between man and woman as the high est illustration of the love that exists between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22, 23).

Many illustrations could be given where the literal and symbolic merge in Scripture. For example, Jerusalem is a geographic center, but it is also a figure of the place where God is going to dwell with man (Rev. 21:2). The Passover is a ritual sacrifice that points forward to Christ, who is the Lamb of God sacrificed for us (1 Cor. 5:7). Abraham is the father of the tribes of Israel, whereas in the New Testament he is the father of them that believe (Rom. 4:11-18).

6. Applying the Symbols.

There is a legitimate way to deal with Scripture, Scripture itself being the guideline. We have already referred to 1 Corinthians, chapter 10, where the incidents of the Exodus are shown to have spiritual significance as a type of believer. There is only one safe rule to follow, and that is this: When an inspired writer uses the incident and applies it in a New Testament setting, then it is safe to give that application to the scripture involved. Seventh-day Adventists have the very wonderful Spirit of Prophecy writings to aid them here, as well.

As The SDA Bible Commentary says, "A safe rule of exegesis is to allow only inspired writers to interpret the symbolisms of prophecy, the features of a parable, . . . the spiritual significance of visual aids in teaching, such as the sanctuary and its services. Only when a Bible writer or the Spirit of prophecy specifically points out the significance of a symbol can we know with certainty its meaning. All other interpretations should be held with the qualification that they are private interpretations with no 'Thus saith the Lord.' " --Volume 3, p. 1111. (Italics supplied.)

As a general rule do not at tempt to find a spiritual significance in every detail. A parable requires many details to complete the narrative, details that have no particular reference to the spiritual interpretation. Occasionally Jesus did apply the whole parable as in the case of the sower, the wheat, and the tares (Matt. 13). But in the parable of the good Samaritan, He told the story simply to enforce one lesson, i.e., how to fulfill the commandment to love one's neighbor as one self. Jesus applied it, not by a lot of details, but by the words "Go, and do thou likewise."

The Spirit of Prophecy comments on the parable of the debtors. "This parable presents details which are needed for the filling out of the picture but which have no counterpart in its spiritual significance. The attention should not be diverted to them. Certain great truths are illustrated, and to these our thought should be given." Christ's Object Lessons, p. 244.

Remember the words of Paul to Timothy. "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). And the Word of truth is given in many ways in historic incidents in which spiritual principles are demonstrated; through actual lives of men and women who failed, as well as succeeded, and whose lives are recorded to challenge and warn us; in symbolism and figure that help us to interpret new dimensions of truth. In these and in other ways, the Spirit of truth Himself glorifies Christ the living truth through the pages of God's written Word of truth.


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October 1971

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