The Bible contains both literal language and figurative language. Literal language is the use of a word, phrase, or sentence in its normal, usual sense. Figurative language is the use of a word, phrase, or sentence in a way which departs from its normal, usual sense (Clint Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation, p. 156, Wayne Jackson, Biblical Figures of Speech, p. 2). It is important that a Bible student be able to recognize when language is figurative language, and be able to interpret figurative language.
19. Recognizing Figurative Language
(1) Preference should be given to the literal.
Clint Lockhart explains, “Since the literal is the most usual signification of a word, and therefore occurs much more frequently than the figurative, any term will be regarded as literal until there is good reason for a different understanding” (Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation, p. 157).
(2) Consider the context.
Does the context suggest that the language should be understood as figurative? Nothing should be regarded as figurative unless there is good contextual reason to do so.
(3) A word or sentence may be figurative, if the literal meaning is impossible.
Some examples: The Canaanites’ literal hearts did not melt (Joshua 2:11). Jeremiah did not literally become a fortified city (Jeremiah 1:18). God is not a literal rock or fortress (Psalm 18:2). The literal dead cannot bury the dead (Matthew 8:22). Recording all the things Jesus did not earth would not literally require more space than this world has (John 21:25).
Roy H. Deaver warns, “Be careful with this rule – be certain the sentence really involves a literal impossibility before interpreting figuratively” (Deaver, Brown Trail class notes on Hermeneutics, p. 36).
(4) The language of scripture may be figurative, if the literal interpretation will cause one passage to contradict another.
Some examples: Was Lazarus literally asleep (John 11:11) or dead (John 11:14)? Did the people see the signs (John 6:2) or not (John 6:26-27)?
Wayne Jackson advises, “When… two passages seem to conflict, one must ask: Is it possible that the words of these verses, that appear to contradict one another, may be employed, in fact in different ways?” (Jackson, Biblical Figures of Speech, p. 11).
If the Bible is from God, then it must harmonize. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).
(5) If a literal understanding demands that which is wrong, then it may be figurative.
An example: Surely, we are not literally to hate our families (Luke 14:26 cf. Ephesians 5:25; Titus 2:4; Ephesians 6:2; Romans 1:31; 2 Timothy 3:3).
Note: This point is really much the same as the previous point.
(6) When a scripture is said to be figurative, it may be so regarded.
Some examples: Some of Jesus’ parables are identified as parables (e.g. Luke 15:3; Luke 18:1). Sometimes the writer informs the reader that the language was figurative (John 2:19-22).
(7) Sometimes the definite is put for the indefinite.
Some examples: I do not believe that the Israelite youths were literally quantified ten times better (Daniel 1:19-20). Forgiving seven times in a day should not be literally understood as seven times (Luke 17:3-4 cf. Matthew 18:22).
(8) Mockery is sometimes said in figurative language.
An example: Elijah did not literally think that Baal existed (1 Kings 18:27).
(9) Consider the type of literature.
Clint Lockhart has written, “Literature has many varieties. It is not all merely history, discourse, song, and dialogue. There are law, record, proverb, drama, description, story, psalm, parable, prophecy, epistle, elegy, rhapsody and many other kinds. It is evident that in all these forms of composition thought is expressed in many different ways, and that the interpreter should have same familiarity with each of them. He that does not understand the forms in which ideas are set forth will hardly be able to recognize the ideas when they appear” (Lockhart, p. 57).
Some types of literature are more prone to figurative language than others. Poetry, wisdom literature, and prophetic book are very likely to contain figurative language. Law, records, and history are much less likely to contain figurative language.
20. Interpreting Figurative Language
(1) Look for the author’s or the Bible’s own interpretation.
Sometimes the meaning is explained. Some examples: The LORD provided an explanation for Ezekiel’s vision of The Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:11-14 cf. 37:1-10). Jesus explained The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23 cf. 13:3-9), and The Parable of Tares (Matthew 13:36-43 cf. 13:24-30). John explained what Jesus meant when He said that He would raise up the temple in three days (John 2:21 cf. 2:19). Peter said: this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel (Acts 2:16-21 cf. Joel 2:28-32).
(2) The interpretation of a passage should be made according to the known purpose of the author and in light of the topic under consideration.
Some examples: Jesus told The Parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a question (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus told The Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son because of the Pharisees and Scribes (Luke 15:1-32). Jesus was teaching of prayer when He told The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). The reason for The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is that some trusted in themselves and despised others (Luke 18:9-14).
(3) Compare the figurative language with the literal account of the same things.
Some examples: Luke 14:26 should be compared with Matthew 10:37. Acts 10:9-16 should be compared with Acts 10:17-48.
D.R. Dungan adds, “In doing this (comparing the figurative with the literal – B.H.)… you can not make the figurative contradict the literal. It may add beauty and strength to the literal statement, but it cannot teach differently” (Dungan, Hermeneutics, pp. 206-207).
(4) Think about the resemblance of the thing compared.
Some examples: Jesus is referred to as a lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:18-19). Why? Jesus is referred to as a lion (Revelation 5:5). Why? The devil is referred to as a lion (1 Peter 5:8). Why?
(5) Be careful not to demand too many points of comparison.
The fact that something is being compared does not mean that everything is being compared. Roy H. Deaver has written, “Remember that when two items are compared, there must be some differences. Otherwise, the two items would be the same thing” (Deaver, Brown Trail class notes on Hermeneutics, p. 38). Usually, only one or two points of comparison are being made, no more than a few. Some details in a parable may be there for back-drop, to tell the story or paint the picture. Not every thing necessarily represents something else. Look for the obvious comparison(s); be careful not to demand more, without good reason. Wayne Jackson cautions, “A parable divorced from context, can often become fertile soil for speculators…The language of a parable must not be pressed beyond its intended design…No point of doctrine, that is not elsewhere clearly affirmed, may be derived from an incidental parabolic reference” (Jackson, The Parables In Profile, pp. 11-12). What he said about parables is also wise advise for other forms of comparison.
(6) Keep in mind that figures are not always used with the same meaning.
Consider the word “leaven.” Leaven may refer to evil influence (1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9) or good influence (Matthew 13:20-21).
D.R. Dungan has written, “A lion may not always symbolize the same thought, nor need a sheep, water, or fire always be employed for the purpose of expressing the same calamity or blessing” (Dungan, p. 216).
Roy H. Deaver gave these examples from everyday life: bear-hungry; bear-sleepy; mule-strong; mule-stubborn; dog-work like a dog; dog-lazy dog (Brown Trail class notes, p. 38).
(7) Parables may explain parables.
An example: John 10:1-6 compare with John 10:7-18.
(8) The type and anti-type are sometimes seen together.
An example: The flood (type) and baptism (anti-type) are seen together in 1 Peter 3:20-21.
(9) Facts of history and biography may be made to assist in the interpretation of figurative language.
Some examples: A knowledge of history may help one identify the four kingdoms mentioned in Daniel 2. A knowledge of the character of Herod Antipas may help one understand why he is called a fox in Luke 13:32. A knowledge if the customs of the day may add to one’s understanding of The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).
* I claim no originality for the information in this article. These points were gleaned from: D.R. Dungan’s Hermeneutics; Clint Lockhart’s Principles of Interpretation; Roy H. Deaver’s Brown Trail class notes on Hermeneutics; and Wayne Jackson’s Biblical Figures of Speech.