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"Understanding the Bible" (Part 2 of 3; posted April 1, 2002)
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God ... rightly dividing the word of truth.
2 Timothy 2:15
Understanding Figurative Language
Much of the Bible is written in figurative language. It explains new and unknown things by comparing them with things that are well known. We must take figurative language in a figurative way. We must also be careful not to give figurative interpretations to that which is plain and literal. Above all, we must not contradict plain, doctrinal truth or morality on the basis of passages which are difficult to interpret.
Some main forms of figurative language with biblical examples:
Some rules for interpreting figurative language:
- Comparisons (similes and metaphors):
"And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass" (Revelation 21:21).
"As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13).
- Word pictures:
"You are ... built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19-20).
"The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them" (Judges 9:8).
- Parables (stories that illustrate a truth):
The Lord Jesus frequently used parables, such as the following--
"Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside, and the birds came and devoured them.... When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside" (Matthew 13:3,4,19).
- Types or symbols:
This refers to the presentation of a truth through the use of objects or events that represent that truth. For example, in Exodus 12 in the Old Testament, the Passover lambs that were killed typified and pointed on to the Lord Jesus. In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 5:7 says, "Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us;" and John 1:29 refers to Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."Clearly recognize figurative language and treat it accordingly. For example, the Bible speaks of "the devil ... as a roaring lion," (1 Peter 5:8), but this description is not intended to be taken literally.
Realize that it may require special study to understand what is symbolized. The book of Revelation is a prime example of this.
Never make a figurative interpretation the main basis of a doctrine or article of faith. The reality which it represents must exist elsewhere in Scripture.
Concentrate on the main truth illustrated by the figurative language. Don't be confused by incongruous details. For example, in the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16, it may seem like the Lord is commending dishonesty. Of course He is not.
Because the Bible is the Word of the all-knowing God, it describes future as well as past and present events. Its purpose is to make plain the ways of God to man. The fulfillment of Bible prophecy proves the faithfulness of the One who has declared the end from the beginning.
The outstanding example of biblical prophecy concerns our Lord Jesus Christ. Over 300 Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in His birth, life, death, and resurrection.
Simple rules for interpreting prophecy are:
- Seek first to appreciate each prophecy in its original setting and application.
- Realize the progressive nature of God's revelation. Although He is always the same, He acts in accordance with the purposes He is carrying out at a given time.
- Recognize the figurative use of names such as Bethel (house of God) and Philadelphia (brotherly love), and see how they support the text in which they appear.
- Don't study prophecy just to satisfy curiosity.
- Recognize the possibility of varying and mistaken interpretations. Don't claim to be infallible in your understanding.
- Recognize that the primary purposes of prophecy are to reveal Christ and to change the lives of those who read it. "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10).
Excerpted from the booklet "Growing in God's Word"
Published by Grace and Truth, Inc. - www.gtpress.org