INTERPRETATION, FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
other book of human history has been criticized and attacked as much as the
Bible. Enemies from without have attempted
to tear its pages to shreds with the barbed darts of satire and stinging
ridicule, while enemies from within – posing as scholars and exegetes – have
attacked more insidiously by emptying its contents of any real or significant
meaning. Liberal churchmen, having
abandoned the cardinal doctrine of inspiration, making the Bible a book about
God rather than a book from God, have now set about to determine if
possible “the spiritual contribution of the Bible to this modern age.” Any doctrine not considered “modern” they
have relegated in the process to their theological trash pile.
who are prone to drift in their Biblical interpretations from the sure
anchorage of the literal method would do well to consider the theological
company in which they have chosen to travel, and the strange destinations
arrived at by some who have unwittingly charted their course by the
allegorizing method of Origen. A
completely liberal theory is the natural and ultimate terminal of all who
approach the Scriptures unencumbered with convictions about verbal inspiration
and grammatical, literal interpretation.
That the shameful position of liberalism today is the logical result of
the denial of the literal method is evinced by Roehr, a higher critic. In describing Jesus as just another man, the
product of his age and nation, Roehr exclaims:
“Those who deny this are stupid, servile, and literal.”
of the allegorizing school, Farrar concludes:
Origen borrows from heathen Platonists and
from Jewish philosophers a method which converts the whole of Scripture, alike
the New and the Old Testament, into a series of clumsy, varying, and incredible
enigmas. Allegory helped him to get rid
of Chiliasm and superstitious literalism and the “antitheses” of the Gnostics,
but it opened the door for deadlier evils.
Origen, though not wantonly
liberal, could not avoid liberal conclusions once he affirmed the allegorizing
method. “No man, not altogether unsound
and hypocritical, ever injured the Church more than Origen did,”
is the conclusion of Milner, the great English historian of the past
century. The allegorizing method
fosters modernism. It is well know that
many of the leading Protestant denominations, avowedly amillennial, are now engaged
in a death struggle with liberalism. On
the other hand, it is practically impossible to find a liberal premillenarian.
second major departure from the literal school of interpretation is the
amillennial view of eschatology. This
view, which spiritualizes the reign of Christ and makes the millennial promises
to be fulfilled, if at all, in this present age, is found among three distinct
groups: (1) It is the eschatology of liberalism. Among the doctrines herein denied are those of literal resurrection
and literal judgment. (2) It is the
eschatology of the Roman Catholic system.
Significantly, The Catholic Encyclopedia, an authority on the
amillennialism of Rome, describes amillennial interpretations as “allegorical.” (3) It is the eschatology of a considerable
body of men of conservative Reformed faith, who as a whole accept the literal
method but feel that the rule is not valid for the interpretation of prophetic
portions, particularly the kingdom passages.
No one defends or employs the allegorizing
method of exegesis. Calvin and the
other great Bible students of the Reformation saw clearly that the method was
wrong and taught the now generally accepted “grammatical-historical” literal
interpretation, so far as the Scriptures in general are concerned. That they retain the spiritualizing method
in expounding many of the prophecies was because they found themselves forced
to do so in order to be faithful to the New Testament.
difference, then, between a premillennialists and a conservative
amillennialist is not, simply, that one is a literalist and the other is an
allegorizer. The conservative
amillennialist uses two systems of interpretation: the literal for most
areas of Biblical study, but the allegorical for all passages which, if taken
literally, would lead to a premillennial conclusion. Both groups are theologically harmonious wherever the literal
method is followed. It should be noted
that the basic doctrinal agreement amount premillennialists, even in respect to
the main outline of prophecy, argues strongly in favor of their interpretative
method. Conversely, the wide and basic
diversity of amillennial belief reveals the weak foundation of that
structure. Any system which at the same
time fosters liberalism, Roman Catholic eschatology, and a measure of
conservatism, is open to serious question.
has been demonstrated in chapter 7 that midtribulationalists and
posttribulationalists resort to the spiritualization of much of the Tribulation
period to sustain their respective theses.
It now remains to answer the amillennial contention that the presence of
figurative and symbolic language in Scripture is inharmonious with the literal
method and justifies a departure from it.
Cardinal Rules of Bible Interpretation
It is not the purpose here to enumerate and discuss the many
varied laws of Bible interpretation,
save to suggest, in brief, three of the most important. The last of these will lead directly to the
major problems at hand.
Interpret According to Context
In the words of Myles Coverdale:
It shall greatly helpe ye to understande
If thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten,
But of whom, and to who,
With what words, at what time,
to what intent, with what circumstances,
Considering what goeth before and what followeth.
There is nothing better, in
the interpretation of a difficult passage, than to have the author explain
himself. This explanation must take
precedence over any other interpretation.
Frequently, the author’s purpose may be discerned by careful attention
to “what goeth before, and what followeth” after. The general purpose and spirit of the book – indeed, of the
entire Bible – must also be taken into account, for that which is a problem in
one setting may well be restated and clarified elsewhere. Particularly should one guard against
snatching a phrase out of context and making it say something far removed from
the author’s original purpose.
Wilberforce once attended morning worship and heard a discourse on “Hear the
Church” (Matt. 18:17). The following
day the preacher asked the Bishop what he thought of the sermon which had been
along the lines: if in doubt, hear the Church; if in darkness, hear the Church,
etc. The Bishop admitted that the
matter, method, and delivery were all good, and concluded his comment with the
statement, “But, you know, my friend, I should have as much right to preach on
‘Hang all the law and the prophets.’ It
is imperative that we should consider ‘what goeth before’ and ‘what followeth
Interpret After Comparison With Other Scriptures
Bible is not a collection of good texts put together without any relation the
one to the other. Rarely does a
doctrine stand upon a single isolated text; the pattern is usually woven into
the entire warp and woof of the fabric of Scripture. It is therefore important to heed the role rule of comparing
Scripture with Scripture, rather than grasping at an isolated text which may
seem to support some preconceived opinion.
“A doctrine clearly supported by the Analogy of Faith, can not be
contradicted by a contrary and obscure passage.”
in an organism no member or part, however minute, can be fully understood aside
from its relation to the whole, so in Scripture every paragraph and sentence is
part of its totality and must be studied in relation to all the rest. The text will be illuminated by the context,
or scripture immediately preceding and following. Every occurrence and utterance should be studied in its
surroundings. How, why, when, a word
was spoken or an act done, helps to explain it, is its local coloring.
Interpret The Bible Literally
Bible should be interpreted, wherever possible, according to the usual,
ordinary meaning of the words of the text.
Grammatical and historical rules should be strictly observed, including
the use of lexicons to solve problems of translation and other helps to
determine the influence of local custom and historical setting. As Neil has said “A passage is to be taken
literally provided it is not limited by age conditions or local church customs.” According to Farrar “Scripture must be
interpreted in accordance with the ordinary rules of human language.” Verbal inspiration demands literal
interpretation, and basic to both is correct grammatical study from these
sources: the text itself, the context, parallel texts, and other pertinent
materials, though foreign to the text. Cellerier presents this fundamental rule as
The interpreter should begin his work by
studying the grammatical sense of the text, with the aid of Sacred
Philosophy. As in all other writings,
the grammatical sense must be made the starting point. The meaning of the words must be determined
according to the linguistic usage and the connection.
that the literal interpretation of the Bible includes within its scope the
right use of figurative language, for even types and figures were given to
convey some literal truth, what then is the rule for determining that which is
clearly literal? Allis cites H. Bonar,
“literal wherever possible,” and Govett, “literal unless absurd,” but cannot
accept these statements, lamenting “This literalistic emphasis has shown itself
most plainly in their insistence that Israel means Israel. ...” Clinton Lockhart states the issue more
Look carefully for a literal meaning before
accepting one that is figurative....
The literal or most usual meaning of a word, if consistent, should be
preferred to a figurative or less usual signification.
By literal interpretation is meant that which
should be interpreted word for word in its primitive or most fundamental
gives two tests for literal interpretation: sense, and usage,
explaining that “If the literal meaning of any word or expression makes good
sense in its connections, it is literal; but if the literal meaning does not
make good sense, it is figurative.”
Pascal expresses it this way: “Whoever
wishes to give the sense of Scripture, and does not take it from the
Scriptures, is the enemy of Scripture.” Further, “If plain sense makes good sense,
do not seek any other sense or you will find nonsense.” Cooper sums up the matter quite adequately:
Take every word at its primary, ordinary,
usual ... meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the
light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate
are many definitely and directly state truths,” Rogers writes, “by which God
says clearly what He means, and in which He means what He says, and which allow
for no tampering or spiritualizing.” This is clearly evident, but it would seem
that an exaggeration of this truth has been stated by Owen: “If the Scripture
has more than one meaning, it has no meaning at all.”
interpretation need not be this restrictive: it incorporates the recognition of
figurative language, and allows for a spiritual application of that which first
has been literally interpreted. Within
limits, it recognizes the double sense of certain passages, but this in
no wise permits and allegorized interpretation to enter and rob the words of
their literal meaning. For example, one
may sing “O, Zion, haste, thy mission high fulfilling,” and recognize that
“Zion” is used of the Church in a figurative sense, but this does not cancel
out the fact that Zion is a literal geographic location in Jerusalem, the
capital city and spiritual center of the nation Israel.
there may be problems attached to the right use of the literal method, it yet
remains that literal interpretation (rightly understood) is one of the golden
rules of Biblical hermeneutics. It
permits God to say what He means without straining it to fit some pre-conceived
notion, and holds in check the “spiritualization” of those passages which
should merely be classified as figurative.
The interpretation of Biblical types and figures has long been an
exegetical stumbling stone, and deserves more detailed analysis.
Problem of Interpreting Figurative Language
language used by man abounds in figures of speech, and the original languages
of the Bible are no exception. When a
word, which has been appropriated by usage to designate one thing, is
transferred to a new and different meaning, it is said to be used figuratively. When a word is used in its primitive, natural,
or usual sense, it is said to be used literally. Figurative language, then, is a departure or
deflection from the usual, primary meaning of the word. We speak of “stony ground”: this is
literal. We speak of a “stony heart”:
this is figurative. Christ in particular
was accustomed to clothe His thoughts in the figuration and popular language of
the day: “I am the vine,” “living water,” “destroy this temple,” “this is my
body which is given for you,” to mention a few instances.
The fact that such figures are in the Bible is a good indication
that they were meant to be understood, but the part must be in harmony with the
whole, and interpretation must not be allowed to give way to license.
Ten Practical Suggestions
following suggestions may not be exhaustive, but it is believed that they will
materially aid in the interpretation of Biblical figures:
When is language figurative? In the greater number of cases, the fact
that language is figurative appears in the very nature of the language itself,
or from the connection in which it stands.
Christ is the door to heaven, but not a literal door. Christians are the sheep of His pasture, and
the salt of the earth, but not literally sheep, nor salt.
figure is called a trope, from the Greek word στρέφω,
“I turn.” It is the turning of a word
from its common, ordinary meaning, as in the expression “so many head of
cattle,” generally on the principle of resemblance. If that which is said, when taken according to the letter, cannot
harmonize with the essential nature of the subject spoken of, the language must
be regarded as tropical. Or
conversely, if the language when taken literally would imply something
incongruous, or morally improper, the figurative sense is presumably the right
one. If the literal proves to be
absurd, or inconsistent with that which is being discussed, one may conclude
with at least tolerable certainty that the language is figurative.
The use and interpretation of figurative language
does not compromise literal interpretation, nor is it contrary to verbal inspiration. The interpreter should not limit himself to
the literal meaning of individual words comprising the figure, but seek the literal
sense intended and illustrated by the figure as a whole. This is no concession to the spiritualizing
or allegorizing method, for it enables the figure to yield its full and
obviously intended meaning.
also attacks the non-figurative portions of Scripture. It seeks to water down the text and robs it
of any true and significant meaning. It
is not bound by rules of speech or of reason, but solely by the fancy of the
interpreter. Paul says: “Let not the
sun go down upon your wrath” (Eph. 4:26), meaning, not that anger is
permissible for a time, but that should wrath arise, it should not be
continually harbored in the mind, but one should subdue it before the end of
the day. But see how fantastically
Thomas Fuller draws out the passage, making it the carrying of news to another
world of one’s revengeful nature, and saying that if understood literally, “men
in Greenland, where day lasts about a quarter of a year, have plentiful scope
The Premillenarian insists that
spiritualization is an element foreign to Scripture, to rhetoric, and to logic,
since it is a direct and immediate substitution of one idea for another,
arbitrary in hits method and often violent in its use.
The most dangerous form of “second-sense”
interpretation is that in which the interpreter supplies the proposed
connections from his own imagination.
Over this there is no control.
Double-sense interpretation is not an evil itself; but as a method it is
fraught with difficulties and dangers.
Therefore, to state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a
second-sense meaning, and that the principal method is “spiritualizing,” is to
open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination. For this reason we have insisted that the control
in interpretation is the literal method.
Therefore, the “literal” method of a word is
the basic, customary, social designation of that word. The spiritual, or mystical meaning of a word
or expression is one that arises after the literal designation and is dependent
upon it for its existence.
The literal meaning is preferred first. Since the literal is the customary usage of
a word, this sense occurs much more frequently than the figurative. Therefore the term will be regarded as
literal until there is a good and sufficient reason for regarding it otherwise.
Where there is doubt as to whether the language is literal
or figurative, the interpreter should endeavor to dissolve the doubt by
reference to the parallel passages (if there are any) which may treat the same
subject in more explicit terms.
There is a vital difference between interpretation
and application. The former shows the
one and only true meaning according to the laws of hermeneutics. The latter permits a greater degree of
freedom in applying it to the varied spiritual needs of men. Some may overwork this freedom, but if so,
it is an error of degree and not of kind.
Care should be taken to give the figure of speech, as
much as possible, a fair and natural meaning, in preference to a far-fetched or
fanciful interpretation. The Bible was
given to point men to God and to direct their steps on their earthly sojourn. It was not given to justify the curiosity or
to foster fanciful imaginations. This
rule can be applied to all Biblical interpretation, and those who are prone to
seek theological novelties, particularly in the field of prophecy, would do
well to heed it.
In connection with figurative language that refers to
the eternal order of things, to God, and to His Son, Jesus Christ, it must be
remembered that figures offer but a very inadequate expression of the perfect
reality. God is called Light, a Rock, a
Fortress, a Tower, a Sun and a Shield.
Christ is the Door, the Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God. It takes far more than one figure to express
the nature of God; therefore, such expressions should not be overly pressed,
but understood in the light of all other such figurative descriptions.
If in doubt as to the meaning of a figure, one can
test his insight into its meaning by attempting to express his interpretation
in literal language.
Discover the principle idea of the figure, without
placing too much importance on the attendant details. In figures of similitude or of analogy, very few points of
comparison are normally to be expected.
When extended figures based on similitude are being analyzed, the major
points should be interpreted first, from which the minor points should be
worked out reservedly. Any indications
of the interpretation suggested by the author should be carefully
followed. Doctrines must not be based
on details; in fact, the figure is to be interpreted by the doctrine, rather
than the doctrine by the figure.
Parables in particular emphasize one truth, or point out one
principle. When Christ’s coming is likened
unto that of a thief, it is obvious that the figure must not be pressed beyond
its intended purpose.
Since the figurative use of words is founded essentially
on resemblance or similarity, every effort should be made to have a clear
conception of the things on which the figure is based. Details must not be supplied from the
imagination, but from a historical study of the times and a geographical study
of the places. This is important, for
Biblical figures are so often drawn from the physical features of the Holy
Land, the religious institutions of Israel, the history of the Jews, and the
daily life and customs of the various people who occupy so prominent a place in
It is sincerely hoped that the ten principles set forth above
will be sufficiently comprehensive to aid the Bible student in his interpretation
of Biblical figures. May they help him
to select meanings which will open the Scriptures, and prevent him from
shutting them by idle speculation.
Recognizing Figures of Speech
In order to aid the recognition of Bible
figures, it may be helpful to give the general classifications into which most
of them will fall, together with (in briefest form) an illustration of each:
Figures of speech are divided into two great
classes: figures of words, and figures of thought. “The distinction is an easy one in that a figure of words is one
in which the image or resemblance is confined to a single word, whereas a
figure of thought may require for its expression a great many words and sentences.” Figures of words include metaphor and
metonymy, in which the comparison is reduced to a single expression (as
in Luke 13:32, “Go ye, and tell that fox”).
Figures of thought are seen in similes, allegories, and parables,
where no single word will convey the comparison intended.
is a figure in which a comparison is distinctly stated, marked by the words
“like” or “as.” “His countenance was
like lightning” (Matt. 28:3). “Is not
my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the
rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29; cf. Matt. 7:24; Ps. 2:9; 59:6; Prov.
10:26 Isaiah 55:10, 11 is a beautiful
example of a simile).
is a direct comparison much like the simile, but it is not set off by the words
“like” or “as.” Often more brief and
more forceful than the simile, one object is likened to another by the simple
expedient of asserting or implying that it is the other. “Judah is a lion’s whelp” (Gen. 49:9). “All flesh is grass” (Isa. 40:6). “Ye are the salt of the earth” (Matt.
5:13). “I am the vine, ye are the
branches” (John 15:5). What sorrow and
bloodshed could have been averted by a right understanding of Matthew 26:26,
28. “This is [represents] my
body.... This is[represents] my blood.”
If to take a statement of this kind, which occurs in
Scriptures, literally would involve an absurdity, be contrary to the evidence
of our senses, contrary to reason, and contrary to other statements of
Revelation, then we both may and must conclude that it is a metaphor.
(from the Greek μετά, denoting change, and δνομα, a name) is a figure of speech where
there is a change of name for another, in order to make an impression not otherwise
attainable. “At the mouth [word,
testimony] of two witnesses” (Deut. 17:6).
So also, when the part is used for the whole: “. . . then shall ye bring
down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave” (Gen. 42:38). It is also metonymy when an object is used
to represent something intimately connected with it, as in Isaiah 51:3: “For
the Lord shall comfort Zion,” and in Matthew 10:13: “And if the house be
worthy, let your peace come upon it.”
“Zion” is used for the people that dwell there, and “house” speaks figuratively
of its inhabitants (cf. Luke 16:29; Isa. 22:22).
is quite similar to a metonymy, except that it stresses a physical rather than
a mental resemblance. It is generally
found when a part is used for the whole, or the whole used for a part. In Luke 2:1, “all the world” is used for the
Roman Empire in its greatest extent. In
Acts 27:37, “two hundred threescore and sixteen souls” speaks, of course, of
two hundred seventy-six persons.
Personification, often found in Scripture, occurs whenever
objects of nature, inanimate things, or even abstract ideas, are spoken of as
if they were living creatures, or as if they were indued with the
characteristics of life. Both Numbers
16:32: “The earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up,” and Matthew 6:34:
“take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought
for the things of itself,” illustrate this particular figure.
Apostrophe occurs when a speaker turns from his immediate
hearers to address some absent person, either living or dead. David does this when he laments the death of
his son, crying as if the departed soul were present to hear: “O my son Absalom,
my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my
son!” (II Sam. 18:33). If an inanimate
object is addressed, the figures of apostrophe and personification combine in
the one passage. This is well
illustrated by Psalm 114:5-7: “What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest?
thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back? ... Tremble, thou earth, at the
presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.”
Hyperbole is a rhetorical figure which consists in the
exaggeration or the magnification of an object beyond true reality. “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes
a fountain of tears, and I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter
of my people” (Jer. 9:1; cf. Gen. 49:11; Psa. 6:6; John 21:25).
Irony is a figure of speech in which the speaker
says for effect the very opposite from that which is intended. The words of Elijah to the prophets of Baal:
“Cry aloud: for he is a god ...” (I Kings 18:27) is an example of irony. Words of scorn and derision, like the
mockery of the soldiers in Matthew 27:29: “Hail, King of the Jews!” might
better be considered as examples of sarcasm, rather than irony.
Passing now to the less common figures of
speech found in the Bible, one finds fables, riddles, enigmas, allegories,
parables, proverbs, types, and symbols,
only two or three of which need to be mentioned here.
is generally defined as an extended metaphor, bearing the same relation to the parable
as the metaphor does to the simile. The
important thing in the interpretation of an allegory is to seize the main truth
which it intends to set forth, interpreting the lesser details in harmony with
that truth. Psalm 80:8-15 is an example
of an allegory, but the most famous is that of Paul in Galatians 4:21-31.
It is constantly claimed by those who seek to
take liberties with the theology of the Bible that the presence of allegories
in Scripture is a confirmation of their allegorizing method of interpretation. Nothing could be further from the
truth! To interpret correctly a plain
allegorical figure of speech according to the laws of figurative language
offers no the most vague statements, wrests from them their obvious meaning,
and substitutes something entirely different, even opposite, in its place. Legitimate interpretation seeks to determine
the purpose of the author in giving the allegory, while allegorizers seek to
change the plain intent of the author. Returning to Paul’s allegory in Galatians,
the spiritual meaning is solidly based on a literal foundation, for the geographic
locations and the characters involved are all literal. Lightfoot expressed it well:
With St. Paul, on the other hand, Hagar’s career is
an allegory because it is history. The
symbol and the thing symbolized are the same in kind. This simple passage in patriarchal life represents in miniature
the workings of God’s providence hereafter to be exhibited in grander
proportions in the history of the Christian Church. With Philo the allegory is the whole substance of his teaching;
with St. Paul it is but an accessory.
He uses it rather as an illustration than an argument.
It seems evident that the occasional use of
allegories, along with other legitimate figures of speech, in no wise
constitutes a departure from the basic method of literal interpretation.
has been called “a short earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” The name is derived from the Greek verb παραβάλλω, “to throw,” or “place by the side of,” and
carries the idea of placing one thing by the side of another for the purpose of
comparison. It is, in a sense, an
extended simile, but unlike the simile, its imagery never departs from that
which is real and factual. Terry says:
“It moves in an element of sober earnestness, never transgressing in its
imagery the limits of probability, or of what might be actual fact.”
The general design of parables, as of all other kinds
of figurative language, is to embellish and set forth ideas and moral truths in
attractive and impressive forms. Many a
moral lesson, if spoken in naked, literal style, is soon forgotten; but clothed
in parabolic dress, it arouses attention, and fastens itself in the memory. Many rebukes and pungent warnings may be
couched in a parable, and thereby give less offense, and yet work better
effects than open plainness of speech could do. Nathan’s parable in 2 Sam. xii, 1-4) prepared the heart of David
to receive with profit the keen reproof he was about to administer.
Some of the Lord’s most pointed rebukes against the Jews were
clothed in parables. According to
Matthew 13:10-17, a parable has a two-fold use: to reveal divine truth to those
who are ready to receive it, and to conceal this same truth from those who
would meet plain precepts with derision.
Thus, Christ instructed his followers by means of the same instrument
that He used at other times to reprove those who had rejected His words.
The Typology of Scripture
While types and symbols,
strictly speaking, are not figures of speech , since their presence in the
Scriptures also has been used to excuse the spiritualizing method, they deserve
brief consideration at this point.
from the Greek τύπος, denotes the mark of a blow, an impression
made by a die, or an example or pattern.
“Types are the emblems which are designed by God to represent and prefigure
some great and good things to come.” Many New Testament verses sanction typology
(Luke 24:27; I Cor. 10:11; Matt. 12:40).
It has truthfully been said: “The typology of the Old Testament is the
very alphabet or the language in which the doctrine of the New Testament is
Types have three main characteristics: (1)
There must be a notable real point of resemblance between the type and its antitype. (2) The type must be designed by divine
appointment to bear a likeness to the antitype, although not necessarily so
designated in the New Testament. (3) A
type always prefigures something future, differing only in form from predictive
Five classes of types have been distinguished:
(1) persons: Adam, Abraham, Elijah, David, etc., (2) institutions:
Levitical rites, the sabbath, the passover, etc.; (3) offices: the
prophetic office, the high priest, Melchizedec, etc., (4) events: the
exodus, the smitten rock, the brazen serpent, etc.; (5) actions: the
ministry of the high priest on the day of atonement, etc.
The following rules should be observed in the
interpretation of types: (1) That which is evil cannot typify that which is
good. There must be congruity. (2) Old Testament types were also symbols of
spiritual truth to their own day. (3)
The type can be fully understood only in the light of its New Testament antitype. (4) Types are not of a complex nature, but
have one radical meaning. (5) The
antitype must be on a higher spiritual plane. Rome loses sight of this when she finds the
antitype of Old Testament sacrifice in the mass, Old Testament priesthood as
the type of apostolic succession of priests and bishops, and the high priest as
a type of the pope. (6) The historical,
literal meaning must be taken first, then the typical. In this way, the interpretation of Biblical
types falls within the framework of the literal method and in no wise
constitutes a departure from it.
It may be concluded, therefore,
that the stress of the premillennial fundamentalist upon the literal method of
Bible interpretation is a valid one, even in those areas which are most hotly
contested, namely, typology and figurative language. The literalist does not disparage the presence of types and
figures in the language of the Bible, for they have formulated orderly
principles and definitions to aid the interpreter both to recognize them and to
determine their contribution to the passage as whole. Figures of speech are a normal ingredient in any language, but
even a figure must be framed out of basic literal elements; moreover, it would
not be in the Sacred Text at all unless given to convey or illustrate a literal
Rules for the Interpretation of Prophecy
In these days of world unrest and confusion,
with nations in upheaval, with Israel unwittingly fulfilling ancient prophecy,
with voices in increasing number crying “Lo, here,” or “lo, there” (Matt.
24:23), Bible students have felt constrained to turn with a renewed interest to
the examination of the prophetic Scriptures.
Unfortunately, conclusions reached have differed so extensively that the
Church has appeared before the world as a trumpet of “uncertain sound” (I Cor.
14:8), unable to unite its testimony or utter persuasively its warnings. Since prophecy, like other Scripture, is
inspired of God and is profitable, and since God Himself is not the Author of
confusion, it is quite evident that most wrong interpretations stem from
incorrect principles and faulty exegesis.
Premillennialists are convinced that the basic
rule of literal interpretation still holds good for prophecy, even though its
peculiar problems may call for additional rules to govern interpretation. Amillennialists deny this, claiming that
prophecy calls for the forsaking of the literal principle and the adoption of a
new hermeneutical principle at least in this area. Terry says” “It is principally those portions of the prophetic
Scriptures which forecast the future that call for special hermeneutics.” Hamilton claims that a departure from the
literal sense is justified if that sense creates an apparent contradiction:
A good working rule is to follow is that the literal
interpretation of the prophecy is to be accepted unless (a) the passages
contain obviously figurative language, or (b) unless the New Testament gives
authority for interpreting them in other than a literal sense, or (c) unless a
literal interpretation would produce a contradiction with truths, principles,
or factual statements considered in the non-symbolic books of the New
This might be well,
were it not for the fact that the amillennialist heavily favors his own system
when he chooses that which is “obviously figurative” or that which would
“produce a contradiction” with other New Testament truth. Hamilton himself says” “Now we must frankly
admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament gives us just such a
picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialists pictures.” But rather than give up a favored theory, he
gives up his basic hermeneutical rule, and is illustrative of the fact that
conservative amillennialists reject literal interpretation, not only in the
area of eschatology, but wherever the Scriptures touch upon the millennial
While considerable difference of opinion exists among
amillennarians regarding the best method of disposing of the mass of Old
Testament prophecies which seem to indicate a future earthly kingdom for
Israel, they agree in the main principle, that is, that these promises will not
be fulfilled to Israel in a kingdom age to follow the present
dispensation. Whether cancelled because
of rejection of Christ as Messiah or spiritualized according to Calvin’s
formula, amillennialism with one voice condemns any literal fulfillment of
That such rejection of
the literal principle is considered unwarranted even by some amillennialists is
seen by the statement of Case:
Premillennialists are thoroughly justified in their
protest against those opponents who allegorize or spiritualize pertinent Biblical
passages, thus retaining scriptural phrases while utterly perverting their
Yet an allegorizing of
millennial passages is the only alternative open to men who reject a literal
earthly kingdom. It is a return to
allegory – a return to a method theologically unsound and historically
discredited – that is demanded by amillennialism. Literal for all else, but allegory when it comes to the
covenanted kingdom. To do otherwise
would be to concede the premillennial view.
This fact already has been seen in the admission of Pieters that the
Reformers could not defend the allegorizing method of exegesis so far as the
Scriptures in general were concerned, but that they retained the
spiritualizing method in expounding many of the prophecies.
One must not lose sight of the fact that a
great number of prophecies contained in the Bible already have been fulfilled,
and that in every case the fulfillment was literal rather than otherwise. Feinberg illustrates this point by recalling
the fivefold promise of the angel to Mary, as recorded in Luke 1:31, 32:
All the prophecies of the suffering Messiah were
literally fulfilled in the first advent of Christ. We have no reason to believe that the predictions of a glorified
and reigning Messiah will be brought to pass in any other manner. Take, for example, the words of Gabriel in
the first chapter of Luke where he foretells of the birth of Christ. According to the angel’s words Mary
literally conceived in her womb; literally brought forth a son; His name was
literally called Jesus; He was literally great; and He was literally called the
Son of the Highest. Will it not be as
literally fulfilled that God will yet give to Christ the throne of His father
David, that He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and that of His
glorious kingdom there shall be no end?
In the words of Todd: “If any prophecy which
is clearly known to have been fulfilled is examined, it will be found that the
fulfillment was literal.” The basic harmony of the Scriptures would
require, one might judge, that all future fulfillment must follow the same
One must also remember that although strict
literalism may not have led to harmony of opinion on every detail of prophecy,
yet the over-all pattern arrived at is harmonious, and all the Scriptures
involved have been treated. Those who
depart from literal procedures rarely attempt to treat all the Scriptures, and
have yet to produce a system which is basically harmonious.
When it comes to the actual rules for the
interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy, many and varied have been the
suggestions made. Ramm gives a digest
of the interpretative principles of a number of leading authorities: Oehler, Von Orelli, Meyrick, R. T. Chafer,
Terry, Angus and Green, and Davidson.
Since this summary is readily available,
there is little point in repeating the various rules here. Ramm himself has suggested the following
historical background of the prophet and the prophecy.
full meaning and significance of all proper names, geographical references,
references to customs or material culture, and references to flora and fauna.
Determine if the
passage is predictive or didactic.
determine if fulfilled, unfulfilled, or conditional.
Determine if the
same theme or concept is also treated elsewhere.
As a reminder,
keep vividly in mind the flow of the passage, i.e., pay attention to context.
element of the prophecy that is purely local or temporal.
Take the literal
interpretation of prophecy as the limiting guide in prophetic interpretation.
It has been seen that in the interpretation of
prophecy not yet fulfilled, those prophecies which have been fulfilled provide
the pattern. The literal fulfillment of
scores of Old Testament predictions concerning the first advent of Christ is a
familiar matter. W. E. Blackstone, Jesus
is Coming, lists some three dozen plain prophecies about many different
aspects of the second advent, and the presumption is that these will be
fulfilled after the same manner, that is, literally. It should not go unnoticed that it would have been easy for the
Old Testament Jew to spiritualize very many of the details which were minutely
fulfilled by Christ, such as the virgin of Isaiah 7:14; Bethlehem, of Micah
5:2, that tiny village which was called in derision “a mere weed-patch by a
Roman highway,” and so on throughout the life of the Suffering Servant to the
shame of the cross.
Perhaps it is not going too far to say that if
present amillennialists were transported back to the time when these predictions
were first uttered, they would have insisted on spiritualizing them away as “obviously
figurative.” Yet the fulfillment was
consistently literal, and as Walvoord tersely remarks: “A method that has
worked with such success in the past is certainly worthy of projection into the
The above rules for the interpretation of prophecy
are not exhaustive. Stress has been
given to the law of fulfillment, that in the interpretation of unfulfilled
prophecy, the pattern of those which have been fulfilled should be followed. There is also the law of time relationship,
that two events placed side by side in a prophecy will not necessarily be
fulfilled simultaneously, or even in immediate succession. There is the law of double reference, that
both an immediate and a future fulfillment of the same prediction may be
found. There is the principle that the
prophets often took in great periods of time in a single glance, called by Delitzsch
“the foreshortening of the prophet’s horizon.”
There is the principle that even when the language contains symbols, the
language is not necessarily symbolic throughout.
When Joel speaks of locusts, he means those
creatures. When he speaks of the sun,
moon and stars, he means those bodies.
When he says, “How do the beasts groan?” he means the beasts, and not as
Hengstenberg thinks, “the uncovenanted nations of the heathen world.”
These are, in the main, the principles which
govern the right interpretation of prophecy.
When coupled with the rules for the recognition and interpretation of
Biblical figures, they should enable the careful interpreter to steer his
course through the difficulties of predictive prophecy without sacrificing or
compromising the basic tenet of literal interpretation. To study the Book, and to face its
interpretative problems according to established rules and accepted methods – this
is the orderly, the God-honoring way of rightly interpreting the Word of
Truth. To read the Bible loosely,
spiritualizing whatever appears to be difficult or contrary to preconceived
theology – this is the way fraught with danger, the way which opens the door
for liberalism to spiritualizing the essential doctrines rather than the
secondary details of the Christian faith.
Special laws for the interpretation of
prophecy do not destroy literalism as the basic principle, but merely become a
part of its outworking. Payne has
summarized the situation adequately:
If there is to be a departure from the generally
accepted literal sense of language it must be positively justified. Then a new rule must be laid down to insure
uniformity and that rule in turn must be substantiated by evidence as to its
correctness. This is the only true and
scholarly approach to the problem of spiritualizing interpretation.
This is the crux of the prophetic problem, and a conclusion which
might well be heeded by all who apply to Scripture two different and opposing
principles of interpretation, whether they be Tribulationalists or
Amillennialists. To delete the literal
principle from the interpretation of prophecy is to admit the spiritualizing
method. Once admitted, spiritualizing
becomes exceedingly difficult to regulate, for it tends automatically to spread
to other areas of Christian doctrine.
When it does, it may destroy the very Book it once set out to interpret!
Symbolism of the Book of Revelation
To some, the Revelation is an obscure book,
full of deep mysteries and dark sayings, and so loaded with prophetic symbolism
that the possibility of a clear understanding of its meaning is most
doubtful. To the contrary, the very
title of the book reveals its true nature.
“It is not an obscuration but a revelation; it reveals, not
conceals. Its symbols are not to hide
the meaning but to illuminate it.
Symbols form part of its method of instruction, but they teach, not
confuse.” It is an unsealed book meant to be read and
understood, for it carries a promise of blessing for those who keep the sayings
of its prophecy (Rev. 22:7).
There have been a great many attempts made to
allegorize the Revelation in order to make its events appear as fulfilled during
some particular era of history. Those
who have so labored are called Preterists, time alone serving to reveal the
utter bankruptcy of their interpretive methods. In this connection, Walvoord remarks:
There are literally scores of interpretations of the
book of Revelation by the amillennarians who have attempted to interpret this
book by the historical setting which was contemporary to them. The history of interpretation is strewed
with the wreckage of multiplied schemes of interpretation which are every one
contradictory to all the others. This
writer has personally examined some fifty historical interpretations of
Revelation all of which would be rejected by any intelligent person today. The literal method which regards the bulk of
Revelation as future is the only consistent approach possible. The spiritualizing method of interpretation
is a blight upon the understanding of the Scriptures and constitutes an
important hindrance to Bible study.
Interpreters who believe the prophecies of
Revelation (particularly from the fourth chapter) are to be fulfilled at some
future date are designated simply as Futurists. Even among these there is considerable division of opinion over
the extent to which the literal method may be applied. It is not our purpose here to attempt a solution
of this phase of the problem but rather to demonstrate that the book of
Revelation, although known for its symbols, is not without a heavy literal
content, and that even in this book there is no need for departures from the
basic method of literal interpretation.
Some expositors have given so much emphasis to
apocalyptic symbolism that one wonders if they have not overlooked just how
much of a literal nature the book of Revelation contains. The chief personages involved are all
literal: God the Father, Christ, the
Holy Spirit, Michael the archangel, Satan, Antichrist, angels, men, and so
forth. So are the places literal: heaven, earth, the abyss, mountains,
islands, seas, Jerusalem, Babylon, and the seven cities of Asia Minor, to name
a few. Revelation 11:8 speaks of “the
great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt,” and in so doing
employs a metaphor, but the city is none the less literal, clearly identified
as that “where also our Lord was crucified.”
The twenty-four thrones and twenty-four elders of chapter four are
literal rather than symbolic, as many opponents of pretribulationalism insist,
for John records that one of the elders conversed with him (Rev. 7:13). It is far more sensible to understand the
elder to be a literal individual than it is to maintain that one-twenty-fourth
part of a symbolic group held conversation with the apostle. Similarly, the two witnesses of Revelation
11:3-12 evidently are literal. They do
not symbolize the Church, as the details of their ministry, death, and resurrection
indicate (although Lenski ignores such details and makes them the principle of
“competent legal testimony,”
whatever that may mean during torturous Tribulation days). Following the death of the witnesses there
is to be a great earthquake. The tenth
part of Jerusalem shall fall and seven thousand sinners will perish. Those who refused burial to God’s two
prophets now lie buried beneath the rubble of their own buildings. Of this incident, Lang has written:
“Attempts to ‘spiritualize’ such details are hopeless; their plain sense is
simple.” So also must the forty-two months be literal
rather than symbolic, for they comprise half the seven year period of Daniel’s
“seventieth week,” measured also in days and by the formula “a time, and times,
and half a time” (Rev. 11:3; 12:14). A
non-literal interpretation of such specific periods and events would introduce
much confusion, if not bring the entire book to chaos.
However, it is the twentieth chapter of the
Revelation, when interpreted literally, which come in for the lion’s share of
scorn and criticism. Charles R. Erdman,
speaking of this chapter and of the Millennium, writes:
This obscure and difficult passage of Scripture
contains a highly figurative description of a limited time during which Satan
is found, and the nations are at rest, and risen martyrs reign with Christ: but
after this “Thousand Years” Satan is loosed and leads the nations of the earth
against “the camp of the saints,” and “the beloved city”; but his hosts are
destroyed by fire from heaven and he is “cast into the lake of fire and
brimstone.” All this is full of
mystery. These symbols cannot be
interpreted with certainty or with confidence.
No prediction of such a limited period of peace and blessedness is found
elsewhere in the Bible.
The Scriptures challenge all such trembling
uncertainty. The Old Testament prophets
are full of predictions of Israel’s golden age, and whole handfuls of Scripture
can be cited to substantiate the kingdom reign of Christ of which Revelation 20
speaks. Note from a random selection
the promise of the land and of an everlasting seed (Gen. 26:2-4; 28:13-15;
Ezek. 37:24, 25); the final and permanent restoration to the land and the extent
of its boundaries (Amos 9:15; Hos. 3:4, 5; Gen. 15:18-21); the perpetuity of
the nation in spite of disobedience (Jer. 31:35-37; II Sam. 7:14, 15; Ps.
89:30-37); the time of Israel’s fullness and national conversion (Jer. 31:33,
34; Rom. 11:12, 23); the everlasting throne and kingdom (Isa. 9:7; II Sam.
7:12, 13; Luke 1:31-33); the period of safety under the Davidic King (Jer.
33:14-17, 20, 21; its peace and its blessedness (Jer. 23:5, 6; 30:8, 9) with
the curse largely removed from nature (Isa. 11:6-9). Other portions of the Revelation harmonize with its twentieth
chapter, as in Revelation 5:10, which records that the saints shall reign on
the earth, and as in Revelation 12:12, which intimates the binding of Satan by
saying that he knows his time is short.
This is the time of rest and peace upon earth
of which Revelation 20 specifically speaks.
In language which is neither obscure nor highly figurative, the length
of the period is set of a six-fold reference to a duration of one thousand
years. It is both interesting and
pathetic to behold how allegorizers dismiss the plain force of these Scriptures
in their effort to exchange what God has spoken for a meaning more in accord
with their own ideas. Auberlen gives
the following significant bit of “exegesis”:
Thousand symbolizes the world is perfectly pervaded by the
divine: Since thousand is ten, the number of the world, raised to
the third power, the number of God.
Another would make the
thousand years symbolize “potentiated ecumenicity”! In view of such trifling, it might be well
to ask: Suppose God actually meant one thousand years, how else would He, or
how else could He write it? This one
chapter of the Revelation repeats the figure six different times in as many
The binding of Satan, in this same chapter,
has become another center of confusion at the hands of those seeking an allegorized
interpretation of the event. Lenski
says: “The binding of Satan means that he shall not prevent this heralding of
the Gospel to all the nations.” Warfield, however, provides a more outstanding
example of how sane and sensible men can be led astray by parting company with
the principle of literal interpretation.
Concerning the binding and the loosing of Satan, Warfield writes:
. . . The element of time and chronological
succession belongs to the symbol, not to the thing symbolized. The “binding of Satan” is, therefore, in
reality, not for a season, but with reference to a sphere; and his “loosing”
again is not after a period but in another sphere; it is not subsequence but
exteriority that is suggested. There
is, indeed, no literal “binding of Satan” to be thought of at
all: what happens, happens not to Satan but to the saints, and is
only represented as happening to Satan for the purpose of the symbolical picture. What actually happens is that the saints
described are removed from the sphere of Satan’s assaults. The saints described are free from all access
of Satan – he is bound with respect to them: outside of their charmed circle
his horrid work goes on.
All of which serves to demonstrate that the
plain meaning of Scripture can be reversed completely the by the application of
an allegorizing principle. No wonder
havoc is made of the faith when this vicious method is applied to more cardinal
points of Christian doctrine. Peter has
stated plainly: “Be sober, be vigilant because your adversary the devil, as a
roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Pet. 5:8; cf. I
Cor. 7:5; II Cor. 4:3, 4; II Thess. 2:9; I Tim. 1:20; I John 3:8). Yet fundamentally, the modern amillennial
view still embraces this unscriptural Augustinian concept that Satan was bound
at the first advent of Christ. Judging
by present day Satanic activity, he must be tethered on a long chain!
The statement by Warfield is mot significant,
for it illustrates the power of the spiritualizing method, even in the hands of
an outstanding conservative theologian, to alter if not to reverse the plain
teaching of the Word of God. Also, it
shows how allegorizing may invade and enter other areas of theology (here, angelology)
in addition to eschatology.
As to the actual treatment of the symbols
contained in the book of Revelation, the writer makes the following five suggestions:
Revelation is a
message to the Church directly from the throne of God. Since it is evidently meant to be
understood, seek the interpretation of the book by careful study and prayerful
meditation. The deep things of God are
open only to those walking in full fellowship with God. Revelation is the great watershed of all
Biblical doctrine; therefore, a grasp of the teaching of the entire Bible is
essential, particularly the book of Daniel, the Olivet discourse, and other
major prophetic passages. Prophecy must
be studied with great dependence upon the teaching power of the Spirit of God,
who has come not only to guide His own into all truth but also to show them
“things to come” (John 16:13).
Not all of the
word-pictures of the Revelation are symbols.
Many are plain, everyday figures of speech, and should be identified and
interpreted by the special rules for figurative language – just as one would go
about interpreting a figure in the non-prophetical portions of the Word of
God. For example, Revelation 1:12
introduces a metonymy: “the voice that spake with me.” The book simply abounds with simile: “his hairs were white like wool ... his eyes
were as a flame of fire”; “the moon became as blood”; “the stars of heaven fell
... as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty
wind”; “the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together”; “the nations
of the earth ... the number of whom is as the sand of the sea” (Rev. 1:14;
6:12, 13; 20:8). Revelation 20:9 uses
the figure of personification: “fire came down from God out of heaven, and
devoured them.” Examples of figurative
language in the book might be extended almost indefinitely, but since every
legitimate figure is incorporated within the scope of the literal method of interpretation,
there is certainly no need for superimposing the many figures of the Revelation
over that which actually is symbolic.
In the study of
the apocalyptic visions of John, do not fail to distinguish between “things
seen and heard” in a vision and the facts evidently given John directly by God
or by His angel apart from the vision.
For instance, John might see an angel or elder, a heavenly city or a
shaft to the abyss, but even when transported to heaven he could not see
“a thousand years.” It is evident that
the duration of Satan’s binding and the length of the reign of the saints must
have been given to John by direct revelation.
As such, the thousand year figure cannot be treated to the hazards of
When a symbol or
sign does appear in the Revelation, it is often plainly designated as such in
the immediate context, together with what the symbol represents. Lange gives this rule:
Nothing could be symbolically interpreted which is
not proved to be symbolical in the Apocalypse itself or by Old Testament
visions. Nothing should be apprehended
literally which is demonstrated to be a symbol.
In Revelation 12:3
“there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon ...”
who is clearly identified in verse nine as “the great dragon ... called the
Devil, and Satan.” Another example is
Revelation 17:18, where the woman sitting upon a scarlet colored beast is
identified: “And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth
over the kings of the earth.” It is
religious Babylon wherein are seven mountains (verse nine), the place of
ecclesiastical scarlet and the blood of martyrs, evidently the city of Rome.
It must be
remembered that the book of Revelation is not independent of previous
prophecy. There are in the book some
three hundred allusions to some other part of the Bible, and the main roots of
the book are in Daniel. Some themes are
carried through the entire Scriptures, the book of the Revelation being the
final terminal. It is to be expected,
therefore, that much of the imagery of the Revelation is to be found, and to
some extent explained in some of the earlier books of the Bible. Such is indeed the case. As Ironside explains:
This book is a book of symbols. But the careful student of the Word need not
exercise his own ingenuity in order to think out the meaning of the
symbols. It may be laid down as a
principle of first importance that every symbol used in Revelation is explained
or alluded to somewhere else in the Bible.
Thus, the sharp sword of Revelation 19:15 may
well speak of judgment through the application of the Word of God, according to
Hebrews 4:12. The star which fell from
heaven unto the earth, in Revelation 9:1, is identified in its own context as a
person (verse two, “he opened”), but may well be an angel or heavenly ruler,
according to parallel passages such as Numbers 24:12, Isaiah 14:13, and
Revelation 12:4. Light is shed on the nature
of the four “living creatures” of Revelation 4:6-8 by a comparison with the
four “living creatures of Ezekiel 1:5-14.
Likewise must the “four and twenty elders” be interpreted in the light
of those called “elders” elsewhere in the Bible.
Especially is the vision of Christ in the
first chapter of the Revelation highly symbolic, but here also the key is in
the Scriptures. Daniel 7:9 speaks of
one called the Ancient of Days, with “the hair of his head like the pure
wool.” Isaiah 11:5 notes that
“righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins.” His voice “as the sound of many waters” is part of the imagery of
the twenty-ninth Psalm. John fell at
His feet as head, but so did Isaiah, Moses, Job, and others, when they beheld
His glory. Because the pattern is
plain, the conclusion is obvious. The
interpreter must be one who searches the rest of the Sacred Text rather than
his imagination for the interpretation of prophetic symbols. As it has so often been said, all of the
Scriptures are self-explanatory, and although the Revelation is not the easiest
book to understand, many of its basic problems yield to earnest, Spirit-led
These conclusions and suggestions, although a
bare introduction to the vast field of prophetic study, should be of value to
the student of prophecy because they are all in harmony with the principle of
literal interpretation. This method,
when applied to the book of Revelation, alone yields consistent answers to its
interpretive problems, unfolding a prophetic program in complete harmony with
the rest of Scripture.
interpretation, whether examined historically or in the laboratory of actual
exegesis, is the foundation principle of conservative Protestant theology. It needs not to be bolstered, or confounded,
or modified, by allegorizing or anything which resembles it. Literal interpretation, returning to the
wise words of Bonar, is “the only maxim that will carry you right through the
Word of God from Genesis to Revelation.”