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How to Study the Bible

Figurative Language





1.    “Figurative language refers to any words that are used with a meaning other than their common literary sense.” [1]

a.    Phil.3:2 – a human being is spoken of as a “dog.”

b.    John 21:25 – is not intended to be a scientific estimate of all the available space in the world.

c.     Great errors occur when figurative language is taken literally, and when literal language is taken figuratively.


2.    The literal method acknowledges figurative language.

a.    One of the primary criticisms of the literal method is based on a misunderstanding of what is meant by literal.

                                                             i.      The critics charge of us a “blocky literalness”, in other words, interpreting every word and expression as literal.

                                                          ii.      That is not what we mean. By literal we mean that each word has “the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking.”

                                                        iii.      Some have suggested that we call it the “normal” method of interpretation.

b.    In normal conversation and writing figures of speech are often employed. The same is true in the Bible. We acknowledge those figures of speech. (see Bullingers)

c.     Often folks assume that the literal method is the opposite of figurative interpretation. That is not correct. IT is not an either/or situation. The literal method incorporates figures of speech… but those figures convey a literal meaning.


3.    Examples of figures of speech [2]


a.    Simile: A declaration that one thing resembles another, or a comparison by resemblance. (often using like or as)

                                                             i.      Luke 22:44 – “His sweat was as it were great drops of blood.”

                                                          ii.      I Pet. 2:25 – “Ye were as sheep going astray.”

                                                            iii.      I Pet. 5:8 – “The devil as a roaring lion, walketh about.”

                                                        iv.      Rev. 6:12: The sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.”

                                                           v.      Psalm 1:3 – He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water.”   (Cf. vs. 4)

                                                        vi.      What is the literal meaning in each of these?

b.    Metaphor: One is or represents another; comparison by representation.

                                                             i.      Psalm 23:1 – “The Lord is my Shepherd”

                                                          ii.      Psalm 18:2 – “The Lord is my Rock”

                                                        iii.      Matthew 24:26 – “This is my body”

                                                        iv.      John 8:12 – “I am the light of the world”

                                                           v.      What is the literal meaning conveyed by these figures of speech?

c.     Symbol: “A symbol is a representative and graphic delineation of an actual event, truth, or object. The thing that is depicted is not the real thing, but conveys a representative meaning.” (Paul Lee Tan)

                                                             i.      Rev. 12:9 – Satan is referred to as a dragon and a serpent

                                                          ii.      Daniel 7:2-7 – Four beasts coming up out of the sea.

                                                        iii.      The Bible is RICH in symbolic meaning.

                                                        iv.      The literal method of Bible interpretation acknowledges symbols.

                                                           v.      The symbols however were designed to teach a LITERAL truth.

                                                        vi.      Example: Ps. 18:2 – The Lord is not literally a rock or a fortress. However, this symbolic language is designed to convey a LITERAL truth. (What literal truth is being conveyed?)

                                                      vii.      John 1:29 – Behold the Lamb of God. (What literal truth is taught by this symbol?)

d.    Personification: Personification is a figure of speech in which inanimate entities are ascribed qualities of living things we have personification.

                                                             i.      Psalm 19: “The heavens declare . . . The skies proclaim. Their voice goes out.”

                                                          ii.      Proverbs: wisdom is personified as a lady

e.    Hyperbole: “When more is said than is literally meant”

                                                             i.      Gen. 2:24 – “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife.”  This does not mean that is to forsake and no longer to love or care for his parents. (Bullinger)

                                                          ii.      Deut. 1:28 – “The cities are great and walled up to heaven.”

                                                        iii.      Matt. 5:29 – “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…”

                                                        iv.      But a literal truth is taught by these expressions. What is taught in these passages?


f.      Synecdoche: The exchange of one idea for another associated idea.

                                                             i.      The WHOLE is put for a part or portion thereof:

1.    Matt. 3:5 – “Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan.”  (This does not mean every last human being in that part of the world, but those who came represented the whole.)

                                                          ii.      A PART is put for the whole:

1.    Rom. 12:1 – “Present your bodies a living sacrifice.” (Obviously offering one’s body is an expression that means offering one’s entire SELF – body, soul, and spirit – our all on the altar.)


g.    Euphemism:  an elegant or refined expression for a distasteful or coarse one, or a gentle and beautiful expression instead of the strictly literal one, which might offend the ear or the persons addressed. [3]

                                                             i.      Judges 3:24 —“Surely he covereth his feet in his summer chamber.”


                                                          ii.      A word or expression used to “soften” an uncomfortable subject.

                                                        iii.      Sleep = death

                                                        iv.      Bathroom = we don’t really take a bath when we say we are going there. (water closet in Canada)

                                                           v.      “Touch a woman” = sexual relationship (I Cor. 7:1)


h.    Be careful when you tell folks that you use the literal method of interpretation. This does NOT mean that we interpret every word and expression literally without acknowledging figures of speech. That WOULD be extremely foolish!

i.       A problem often arises in knowing when figurative language is being used.

                                                             i.      The problem of taking literally that which is obviously figurative:   (Matthew 24:26 – “This is my body”)

                                                          ii.      The problem of taking figuratively that which is literal. (The Second Coming; Resurrection; demons; miracles)

                                                        iii.      The problem of personal opinion. We might think it perfectly appropriate to use the figure of a shepherd or a door to speak of Christ, but not a thief. It is not up to us to determine what an appropriate figure might be.


Cooper’s Golden Rule of Interpretation: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”



4.    The purpose of using figurative language [4]

a.    To emphasize a point

                                                             i.      Luke13:33 – “Tell that old fox.”   This is much more forceful than to say, “Tell the king.”

b.    To exhort to action

                                                             i.      “Behold I stand at the door and knock” as opposed to I am ready for a response.

c.     To aid the memory

                                                             i.      “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.”

                                                          ii.      Be a “good Samaritan”

                                                        iii.      He is the “salt of the earth.”

                                                        iv.      He has “feet of clay”

d.    To effectively illustrate truth

                                                             i.      Jesus is the “Bread of life” and the “Light of the world”

                                                          ii.      The kingdom of heaven is like “leaven” (which speaks of slow, steady, corruption)

e.    To clarify

                                                             i.      Simple truths are used to teach more complicated truth.

                                                          ii.      The familiar can be used to teach the unfamiliar

                                                        iii.      God is spoken of as our Father or Husband

f.      As a “code”

                                                             i.      Matt.13:10-17 – these parables were given to reveal truth to those who trusted Him but to conceal truth from those who did not.

                                                          ii.      Also prophecy is revelation, but given in figurative language that may not be understood until the time of fulfillment. (John 2:19-22 – destroying and raising up the Temple of His body)


5.    The literal method acknowledges the use of allegory.

a.    Allegory: A continued representation or implication  (a lengthy metaphor, often in story form)

b.    The literal method of interpretation acknowledges the existence of allegory in the Bible. But great caution should be employed here.

c.     Gal. 4:22-24 – Here the Bible SAYS it is an allegory.

                                                             i.      But be careful. This does not mean that this story is not historical. It IS genuine history.

                                                          ii.      But it has an allegorical meaning – because God assigned it such!

d.    John 15:1-10 - The Vine and the branches – a picture of the relationship between Christ and the believer during His period of absence.

e.    A parable is also a form of an allegory. There are many parables in the Scriptures. They too convey a literal truth.


6.    Acknowledging the existence of allegories differs greatly from using the allegorical method (or spiritualizing method) of interpretation.

a.    In the third century, the church fathers abandoned the literal method of interpreting the Bible (which was adhered to relatively consistently during the first two centuries of the church) in favor of Origen's allegorical-spiritualized hermeneutic.

b.    Clement (an early leader of the Alexandrian school in AD 190) saw the literal meaning of Scripture as being a "starting point" for interpretation.

                                                             i.      He considered the literal interpretation to be "suitable for the mass of Christians," but that God revealed himself to the spiritual elites through a deeper meaning of Scripture.

                                                          ii.      Do you see the danger in this thinking? (Only the spiritually elite can understand the DEEPER meaning of the Bible.)

c.     “Allegorism is the method of interpreting a literary text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense.” [5]

                                                             i.      In an allegory, words are not understood in their literal, customary, or normal sense.

                                                          ii.      They are given a “spiritual” meaning which means that the interpreter looks beyond the literal meaning of the text for a spiritual, hidden, deeper and more profound meaning. (This is not unlike a fable that presents a moral truth.)

                                                        iii.      Examples:

1.    David cast five stones at Goliath: the stones of diligence, humility, faith, honesty, and ________ (whatever you want it to be!) You can conquer giants in your life too… would be the spiritual meaning.

2.    Thus, the story of Adam and Eve teaches us truth about the spiritual battle, but it is not necessary to believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures who actually existed.

3.    Apply this method to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and this results in outright heresy.

                                                        iv.      Origen, an early church father believed:

1.    That "Noah’s ark pictured the church and Noah represented Christ.

2.    Rebekah’s drawing water at the well for Abraham’s servant means we must daily come to the Scriptures to meet Christ.

3.    In Jesus triumphal entry the donkey represented the Old Testament, its colt depicted the New Testament and the two apostles pictured the moral and mystical senses of the Scriptures."

                                                           v.      In the allegorical or figurative method, the literal meaning is considered shallow and the hidden meaning is considered “deep.”

                                                        vi.      The literal meaning is either denied, ignored, or considered entirely secondary to the allegorical meaning.


d.    In the allegorical method, the authority for the interpretation lies within the imagination of the interpreter rather than the Scripture itself. In the final analysis, in the allegorical method one is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested. (Dwight Pentecost)

e.    The issue becomes not what God has spoken but what the interpreter thinks. In other words, the text becomes servant to the interpreter rather than the interpreter being subservient to the text.[6]

f.      Martin Luther was quite outspoken against the allegorizing of Scripture:

                                                             i.      “Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.”

                                                          ii.      “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.”

                                                        iii.      “To allegorize is to juggle the Scripture.”

                                                        iv.      “Allegorizing may degenerate into a mere monkey game.”


7.    Three dangers of the allegorical method of interpretation: [7]

                                                             i.      It does not interpret Scripture.

                                                          ii.      The mind of the interpreter is the final authority.

                                                        iii.      It provides no objective means by which the interpretation can be tested.

                                                        iv.       “To state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a second-sense meaning, and that the principle method of interpretation is spiritualizing, is to open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination.” [8]


8.    The literal method of interpretation allows for allegories, but does not employ an allegorical method of interpretation.

a.    Charles Ryrie wrote that a literal interpretation “does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.”

b.    Charles Ryrie also wrote that literal interpretation “…might also be called plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech.” [9]

c.      “It is a necessary basic assumption of biblical interpretation that attention to the plain meaning of the text is the door to healthy understanding of the Bible.” (Paul Karleen)


9.    The interpretation of parables [10]

a.    Begin with the immediate context


b.    Identify the central point


c.     Identify irrelevant details


d.    Identify the relevant details


e.    Compare parallel and contrasting passages



f.      Base doctrine on clear, literal passages




Some important distinctions:


1.    Literal interpretation does not exclude figurative language

a.    Literal, when describing hermeneutical approach, refers to interpretive method, not to the kind of language used.


2.    Literal interpretation does not exclude spiritual truth

a.    Critics of the literal method of interpretation assume that it is an either/or situation.

b.    They view the literal interpretation as being opposed to or against the spiritual element.

c.     They believe that the interpreter should (almost) ignore the literal meaning and concentrate on the deeper, hidden spiritual meaning beneath the surface.

d.    However, literal interpreters of the Bible DO recognize spiritual truths in the Scriptures.

e.    Consider the following examples which include both the literal and the spiritual truths.

                                                             i.      Jesus feeding 5000

1.    This was a literal, historical miracle

2.    On the surface, it spoke of His compassion to feed hungry people.

3.    But there was a deeper spiritual significance, relating to Christ as the Bread of Life; salvation; eternal security; etc.

                                                          ii.      Israel crossing the Red Sea,

1.    We acknowledge BOTH the literal, historical truth

2.    AND important spiritual lessons from that event.

3.    This pictures Moses as Christ the Redeemer

4.    This pictures salvation from the world

5.    This illustrates a poor, downtrodden people experiencing victory over the world - Egypt

6.    This has many other spiritual applications as well

                                                        iii.      The literal involves spiritual meaning.

                                                        iv.      But in every case, the spiritual truth and application arise from the literal meaning of the text.


3.    Literal interpretation is distinct from application

a.    There is ONE interpretation, but MANY applications. (The importance of this statement cannot be overstated.)

b.    An application is not the same as interpretation.

c.     One cannot properly make application until he has properly interpreted the passage.

d.    Avoid the error of reading the Word and instantly applying the passage. Interpret first, then apply.

e.    Recognize that interpretation is to be objective, while the application may be quite subjunctive.


4.    Literal interpretation is what sets Dispensationalism apart from other theological views.

a.    In fact, Dispensationalism really isn’t a theological system like Calvinism or Reformed Theology… or like Rome. Those systems START with their theology and then read their theology INTO the Bible.

b.    Dispensationalism does not start with a theological system. Rather, it starts with a method of interpretation: the literal, grammatical, historical method. This method always LEADS TO a dispensational theology. The method of interpretation leads to theology.

c.     The Reformers use the literal method just like we do. (Refer to quotes from Calvin and Luther). A debt of gratitude is owned to the Reformers in the area of hermeneutics as well as soteriology. They fought for the literal method against the abuses of Rome.

                                                             i.      Calvin called allegorical interpretations “frivolous games.”

                                                          ii.      Calvin wrote in the preface of his commentary on Romans “it is the first business of an interpreter to let the author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”


John Calvin: “It is the first business of the interpreter to let his author say what he does say; instead of attributing to him he ought to say.”


Martin Luther: “I have grounded my preaching upon the literal word; he that pleases may follow me, he that will not may stay.”


d.    However, the Reformers (and Reformed theologians today) do not use the literal method consistently.

                                                             i.      They interpret soteriology by this method, but not ecclesiology or eschatology.

                                                          ii.      They revert back to the figurative or spiritualizing method in those areas.

e.    But if you stick to the literal method consistently, you WILL BE a dispensationalist. Even our enemies agree:

                                                             i.      "We need to reaffirm Scripture as the unerring rule for faith and practice… but we must avoid the hermeneutics of biblical literalism, which leads us into both scientific creationism with its young earth theory, and
dispensationalism…” [11]



[1] McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, p. 137

[2] Bullinger, Figures of Speech in the Bible

[3]Bullinger, Ethelbert William: Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. London; New York : Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1898, S. 419

[4] Points a-f taken from J. Robertson McQuilkin’s Understanding and Applying the Bible

[5] Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretaton

[6] Woods , Andrew, Dispensational Hermeneutics

[7] Pentecost, Dwight, Things to Come

[8] Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretaton

[9] Ryrie, Charles, Dispensationalism Today

[10] McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, p.153-164

[11] Donald Bloesh, Holy Spcripture, from a seven volume set, Christian Foundations IV Press

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