LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE?
by David Vaughn Elliott
Does the Bible mean what it says? Should we to take it at face value? Should we interpret it literally? Or, should we understand it figuratively? Few questions are more important for the study of Bible prophecy.
Is the Bible history, or poetry? Both! Do Bible laws apply to us today, or not? Both! Does the Bible contain the word of God, or the word of the devil? Both! (Not sound right? See Luke 4:6.) Is the Bible easy to understand, or hard? Both!
Many things in life cannot be forced into an "either-or" situation. So it is with Bible interpretation. Should we understand Bible prophecy literally or figuratively? The answer can be given in one word: both!
Much of the Bible is Literal
The Bible is a book of real people. Many of them are known to secular history: Ahab, Jehu, Hezekiah, Nebuchadnezzar, Pontius Pilate, the Herods, Caesar Augustus, John the Baptist, James the Lord's brother, to name a few.
The Bible is a book of real places. It tells of Babylon, Egypt, Samaria, Syria, Edom, Rome, and more. It takes us to the Euphrates and Jordan Rivers, the Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee.
Real people in real places: a true, literal history of God's dealings with mankind. Since the Bible is solidly set in history, Bible interpretation should begin with the literal meaning.
Many prophecies of the Bible are likewise to be literally understood. When Abraham's visitors told him that Sarah would shortly have a son, Sarah laughed. She laughed because it was impossible; she was past menopause. But with God all things are possible. He fulfilled it literally (Genesis 18:9-15; 21:1-7).
God foretold that if the children of Israel disobeyed him, they would experience miserable sieges of their cities. They would go to the extreme of eating their own children! That was literally fulfilled (Deuteronomy 28:45-57; 2 Kings 6:24-29).
Centuries before Christ, Isaiah prophesied that a voice would one day cry out in a wilderness. Such was the unusual literal location of John the Baptist's ministry (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:1-5). Zechariah prophesied that the King of the Jews would enter Jerusalem on a donkey. It was literally fulfilled (Zechariah 9:9; John 12:12-16).
Bible prophecy, like other portions of the Bible, should often be understood literally.
Much of the Bible is Figurative
The problem among Bible believers today is not if we should understand much of the Bible literally. Believers accept that. But some talk as if all the Bible should be taken literally. However, it takes little Bible reading to discover figurative language.
For a quick start, consider Jesus' parables. The sower, the net, the ten virgins, the vineyard, the pearl of great price. Who can doubt that they must all be interpreted figuratively?
The Psalms declare that God is our rock, our shield, our fortress. Who does not understand that these are figures of speech? Paul said: "I fed you with milk and not with solid food." "I planted, Apollos watered." No one believes that Paul was literally a nursemaid or a farmer.
The real question is not whether the Bible--and it's prophecy--should be taken literally or figuratively. The question is how much is literal and how much is figurative. The question for the believer is not whether or not we should start with the literal. We should! The question is this: How can we tell when certain words, phrases or verses are to be understood figuratively?
Why not start with every-day-common sense? Daily conversation is filled with figurative language. Dad says, "You kids quit raising the roof." What do you think would happen to the youngster who replied, "Dad, come take a look. The roof hasn't been raised one inch"?
"I'm up to my neck in debt." "Don't be a pig." "We were flying down the highway." "I had butterflies in my stomach." Common sense. No one has to explain these figures to anyone--except to a small child. Ever notice how often small children are confused because grown-ups speak figuratively and the child takes it literally? But as children grow up, they catch on.
What is "common sense," anyway? It's the sense you would expect common folk to have. A person of normal intelligence. A person with a reasonable amount of knowledge about life.
Then, what is "common sense" in relation to literal and figurative language? Take "raising the roof," for example. A person of common intelligence and experience knows that kids can not lift a roof by yelling. It is impossible. Therefore, the expression must be figurative. When words, taken literally, involve self-contradiction, absurdity or unreality, then it is time to consider a figurative meaning.
Common Sense and the Bible
Jesus spoke of two men, one with a speck in his eye, the other with a plank in his eye. But it is not literally possible to have a plank in the eye. Conclusion? Jesus was speaking figuratively.
"If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out," Jesus said (Matthew 5:29). Ever hear of anybody who sinned with just one eye? "I'll cover my left eye and lust on this woman with just my right eye." Absurd? Yes. It must be figurative language.
God's first command to man included figurative speech. God said of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17). However, Adam and Eve did not literally die the day they ate. Since God does not lie, we are forced to consider a figurative interpretation.
Common Sense and Prophecy
Turning to prophecy, it is important to note that nobody interprets all prophecy literally, not even the very people who claim it is all literal. Common sense is part of the reason.
Everybody agrees that the beasts of Revelation 13 and 17 are symbolic. With a big imagination, maybe a literal beast could have seven heads (13:1) and maybe even talk (13:5). But no adult imagination is big enough to accept 13:7 as referring to a literal beast. "It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation." Imagination fails. Common sense says the beasts represent some human power(s).
Prophecies often mention stars. For example, Revelation 6:13 says, "And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind." In verses 15 and 16, the earth and its people still exist. This is literally impossible. Stars are huge. If just one star collided with the earth, the earth would be obliterated but the star hardly affected. Thus, the student must look for a figurative explanation.
Common sense, of course, has its limits. It can often tell us something is not literal; but by itself it may not explain the figurative meaning.
THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO
"Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so." In like manner, many times we can say, "The text is figurative this I know, for the Bible tells me so." What surer ground than to let the Bible interpret itself!
Simile: "Like," "As"
Formal language classes sometimes explore figures of speech. Some of the examples already given are called "metaphors." In a metaphor something is said to be something else. It was more forceful for Jesus to say, "I am the door," than to say "I am like a door." This latter figure of speech is a "simile." A simile uses "like" and "as." To recognize a metaphor, one must use common sense. The simile, on the other hand, plainly declares itself to be a figure of speech.
Genesis 22:17: "I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which [is] on the seashore." As the stars; as the sand. Matthew 23:27 reads: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead [men]'s bones." Like whitewashed tombs.
Another figure of speech, the parable, may be defined as an "extended simile." "The kingdom of heaven is like... " The entire account that follows "like" is figurative language.
Often the Bible does more than simply say that certain language is figurative. It interprets the figure. Parables are like that. Some are only identified as parables, leaving it to the disciple to discern the meaning. In other cases, the meaning of the various figures is explained.
Matthew 13:37-38: "He answered and said to them: 'He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked [one].' "
God's first command to man includes a figure (Genesis 2:17); but the figure is not explained. The New Testament provides insight. "Let the dead bury their own dead" (Matthew 8:22). Common sense says the first "dead" is figurative; the second, literal. Ephesians 2:1-3 explains this figurative death: "dead in trespasses and sins... fulfilling the desires of the flesh." Dead while living! Dead in sin. With such insight, it is easy to conclude that Adam and Eve died spiritually on the day they ate.
Revelation opens with a vision of Christ. He is standing amidst seven lampstands and has seven stars in his hand. Literal or figurative? He himself answers in 1:20: "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches." The identity of these "angels" is not clear, but there is no question about the seven churches. They are identified in 1:11. The Bible has explained the figure.
THE BIBLE EXPLAINS PROPHETIC FIGURES
Figurative prophecy does not begin in Revelation. It begins in Genesis! Pharaoh had a dream that he did not understand. He summoned Joseph, who explained: "God has shown Pharaoh what He [is] about to do: 'The seven good cows [are] seven years... And the seven thin and ugly cows which came up after them [are] seven years, and the seven empty heads blighted by the east wind are seven years of famine" (Genesis 41:25-27). Prophecy in figurative language is in the first book of the Bible.
Common sense says that beasts in prophecy are figurative. But of what? An example is found in Daniel 8:20,21: "The ram which you saw, having the two horns--[they] [are] the kings of Media and Persia. And the male goat [is] the kingdom of Greece." Prophecy in figurative language. The Bible says so.
One time in the temple, Jesus foretold his resurrection. The Jews totally missed it. They thought He was speaking literally. John 2:19-21 explains: "Jesus answered and said to them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' Then the Jews said, 'It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?' But He was speaking of the temple of His body." This prophecy was not to be literally fulfilled as the Jews supposed. Jesus spoke of "this temple" in a figurative sense. The Bible says so.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter explains a prophecy which in part is figurative. He quotes Psalms 16 where David is speaking: "I... my... me." To be literally fulfilled, it would have to refer to David himself. Rather, Peter carefully shows that David was not speaking of himself, but rather of Jesus, his physical descendent (Acts 2:25-32). The prophecy seems to be literally speaking of David; however, it is figuratively speaking of Jesus. Peter explains and proves the figure.
"Stars" as Important People
Common sense has shown that stars in prophecy are, at least sometimes, figurative. But of what? All the way back in Genesis, Joseph's prophetic dreams included stars. His father, Jacob, clearly understood that the eleven stars were not literal, but rather symbolized Joseph's eleven brothers (Genesis 37:9,10).
The stars in Revelation 1:16,20 have already been seen to be angels (messengers). Whether they be heavenly angels or human messengers, the stars are living beings, as in Genesis. This figurative use of stars in the Bible agrees with the usage in daily life. We speak of movie stars and stars in sports--real people.
The Prophecy Concerning Elijah
Four hundred years before Christ, the Old Testament closes thus:
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.
And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:5,6).
Elijah is coming! Is this supposed to have a literal fulfillment--Elijah himself is coming? Or is this to be understood figuratively (symbolically, spiritually)--someone like Elijah is coming? There is nothing in the context to indicate one way or the other. Therefore, we might assume it is literal, unless--unless--God clearly tells us otherwise.
Matthew 17:10-13 is a key text: "And His disciples asked Him, saying, 'Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished'... Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist."
John the Baptist was Elijah. Not literally, of course (see John 1:21), but spiritually. Gabriel told Zacharias that John the Baptist "will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children' " (Luke 1:17). The last expression is a direct quotation of the Malachi prophecy. So Gabriel is saying that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy. Gabriel and Jesus agree: the prophecy was not fulfilled literally. It was fulfilled figuratively (spiritually). "The Bible tells me so."
It is a well-known fact that the Jews of Jesus' day were awaiting the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies regarding the King and his kingdom. It is also well known that they were expecting a literal, physical kingdom.
If Jesus had in mind setting up a literal kingdom, there was no better time than after the feeding of the 5,000. The Jews were so stirred up that "they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king (John 6:15). Far from seizing the opportunity, Jesus "departed again to the mountain by Himself alone." When the crowds found Him the next day, He preached a powerful sermon, contrasting the physical with the spiritual (6:26-65). The net result? "From that [time] many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." From what time? From the time Jesus refused to become a literal, physical king. From the time He declared to the multitudes the superiority of the spiritual over the physical.
Over and again, Jesus declared "The kingdom of heaven is like... " and followed with a parable that in no way relates to a literal, physical kingdom. Rather, these parables tell of such things as the seed, which is the Word of God, and the net gathering fish, which is the final day of judgment.
Before He was crucified, Jesus made it clear to Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews" (John 18:36). The Son of David would not have a kingdom like David. David fought for a physical kingdom. He slaughtered Goliath; he conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites; he greatly extended his earthly domains. But Jesus would not take up arms either to save his own life or rescue Jerusalem from the Romans. "My kingdom is not of this world."
Jesus did come to fulfill the kingdom prophecies. Listen to His words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Since the time was fulfilled and the kingdom was at hand, of necessity it had to be set up soon after Jesus spoke. However, all agree that no physical kingdom was set up in the first century. A spiritual kingdom, however, was set up!
Thus the King and kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament must not be interpreted literally. Rather, they must be interpreted figuratively. It is a spiritual kingdom with a spiritual message, a spiritual King and a spiritual hope.
LOOKING FOR FIGURATIVE KEYS
There is no escaping the conclusion: many Bible prophecies must be interpreted figuratively, symbolically, spiritually. Indeed, all these examples should alert us to the need to always consider the possibility of a figurative interpretation. When the Bible clearly declares a figure, it may be a key to open up the understanding of other prophecies.
In some prophecies, for example, stars must be interpreted figuratively, either by the rule of common sense or because the Bible tells us so. In other prophecies there may be a doubt. What then? The Bible sometimes shows stars to be important people. This can become a key. It can alert us to the possibility that unexplained stars in other prophecies may be important people.
A caution must be expressed about such "keys" to interpreting prophecy. It is just like keys to a literal lock: if the key fits--if it helps to make sense out of the prophecy--well and good; use it. If the key does not fit, does not make sense, reject it for that prophecy.
An important key to unlocking several "time" prophecies is found in Ezekiel 4:6: "a day for each year." Some "time" prophecies, indeed, must be taken literally, such as Jeremiah's prophecy of the 70-year captivity. The 70-week prophecy, on the other hand, simply was not fulfilled--if a literal interpretation is forced. But take it figuratively, as most believers do, apply the day-for-a-year rule, and it becomes one of the most powerful prophecies of Scripture. (See Daniel 9 for both prophecies.)
A QUESTION OF THE HEART
Many today are looking for the future literal fulfillment of prophecies that have already been fulfilled--figuratively. They seem to be like the woman at the well, who had a hard time grasping that Jesus was not talking about literal water. They do not comprehend that the same Jesus who is spiritually a door, spiritually a shepherd, and spiritually a lamb, is also spiritually a king. They do not comprehend that the same people who are spiritually the body of Christ, spiritually the family of God, and spiritually the temple of God, are also spiritually the kingdom of God.
Attitude may be involved. Willingness to believe Jesus' word may be involved. What did Jesus say? "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive [it], he is Elijah who is to come." (Matthew 11:13-15). If we are willing to receive it, many prophecies receive their true fulfillment figuratively.
Literal or figurative? It all depends. Clearly some prophecies should be interpreted literally. Just as clearly, other prophecies should be interpreted figuratively. One should not have a prejudice for either the literal or the figurative. It is not an "either-or" matter. The student of God's Word must have an open mind and a willing heart to accept what the evidence shows in each case.
(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)