Holy Spirit Interactive
Monday, December 11, 2017
Inside Holy Spirit Interactive

Direct Bible Discovery

Chapter 11 - Literary Interpretation

The Bible is literature. Indeed, it is a special class of literature, but it is still literature. Thus our interpretation of the Bible must be literary (as it would be with other literature) including both literal and figurative interpretation.

Thus, the term "literary" is used to indicate that our interpretation of the words and sentences in the Bible must be according to their literal and grammatical sense with proper place given to figurative elements in the text.

Some statements in the Bible are to be interpreted literally. Some are to be interpreted figuratively. It is dangerous to interpret figuratively what should be interpreted literally. It is just as dangerous to interpret literally what should be interpreted figuratively. In the vast majority of cases the text does not explicitly tell the reader which type of interpretation should be used. However, in certain cases (John 10:6; 16:25-29) John explicitly labels Jesus’ sayings as figures of speech (Greek: paroimia, meaning parable, figure of speech, or proverb). In addition, there are the numerous stories of Jesus, such as those in Matthew 13, which are labelled parables (Greek: parabolé, meaning parable, proverb, figure, or symbol; see also Hebrews 9:9; 11:19). And there are certain other statements of Jesus which, according to John's own explanation, are to be interpreted figuratively (John 2:19-21; 7:38-39; 11:11-14; Revelation 1:12-13, 16, 20).

The literal interpretation of figurative statements caused confusion in Jesus' day (John 2:19-21; 6:51-52), and it will do the same for you. Thus, one of the interpreter's basic responsibilities is to sort out the literal statements and the figurative statements in the Bible. Always begin by understanding each word in its literal, normal, natural, straightforward, ordinary, plain sense according to the grammatical structure of the sentence, and then make whatever adjustments are called for by the figurative elements in the passage and the underlying intent of the writer. Make such adjustments only when they are called for by the text itself, which occurs when the figurative interpretation makes better sense in the immediate context than the literal interpretation. Only by (1) starting with the literal, and then (2) making the adjustments called for by the figurative, can you arrive at the correct interpretation of the Bible.

What is called "literary" interpretation here is often referred to as "literal" interpretation by others. But the term "literal" is misunderstood and misused if it is employed to describe one's interpretation of every word and sentence in the Bible. Those who say you should consistently follow a literal approach are not saying that you must interpret everything in the Bible literally. For example, a person may say that he understands the "thousand years" of Revelation 20:1-7 to mean one thousand actual years. Furthermore, he claims that he believes in a literal one thousand years because he believes in using literal interpretation consistently throughout the Bible. However, he certainly should not believe that Satan is a literal "dragon" or "serpent," or that Satan will be imprisoned in a literal "abyss" by a literal "key" and "chain," as though such physical objects could imprison a nonphysical spirit. Thus, even the person who claims to use a consistent literal approach to the Bible must incorporate both literal and figurative interpretation, often within the same passage. It is an oversimplification to think that one's approach to the Bible is either literal or nonliteral. In actuality, our approach must start with the literal but then include both the literal and the figurative whenever the figurative is called for by the immediate context. Remember, however, that you should always begin with a literal approach and retain that understanding of the passage unless there is good reason in the passage or its context to employ a figurative understanding.

Figures of speech vary in their degree of literalness. At one extreme there are figures such as litotes, simile, and parable whose meanings are nearly identical to their literal interpretations. At the other extreme there are figures such as hypothetical conjecture and irony whose meanings are contrary to their literal interpretation. Some of the common figures of speech are defined and illustrated below. (Italics have been placed in the Scripture quotations for clarity.)

  1. Litotes:
    An understatement in which a point is made by stating the negative of the opposite point ("It won't be long now"; "That's not a bad idea").

    John 6:37 - "The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out."

    Galatians 5:23 - "Against such things there is no law."

    1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 - "The Jews, . . . killed the Lord Jesus. . . . They are not pleasing to God."

  2. Simile:
    An explicit comparison of two dissimilar things using "like" or "as" ("He sleeps like a log"; "cheeks like roses").
    Isaiah 53:6 - "All of us like sheep have gone astray."

    Jeremiah 23:29 - "'Is not my word like fire,' declares the LORD, 'and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?'"

    Psalm 1:3 - "He will be like a tree."

    1 Peter 5:8 - "The devil, prowls about like a roaring lion."

    Matthew 7:24 - "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock."

    Matthew 25:32 - "He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."

  3. Parable:
    An extended simile; a story about everyday things that illustrates a single truth or principle.
    Matthew 13:3-52 - (parables of the four soils, tares, mustard seed, leaven, hidden treasure, merchant, and drag-net)
  4. Metaphor:
    An implied comparison in which one thing is spoken of as if it were another ("Mr. Smith is a pillar in the church"; "Bill dived into his studies.")
    Psalm 119:105 - "Thy word is a lamp to my feet."

    2 Corinthians 5:4 - "While we are in this tent."

    1 Corinthians 13:1 - "I have become a noisy gong."

    Philippians 3:2 - "Beware of the dogs."

    Luke 13:32 - "Go and tell that fox."

    John 6:35 - "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst."

    Matthew 5:13 - "You are the salt of the earth."

    Psalm 18:2 - "The Lord is my rock."

    1 Thessalonians 5:19 - "Do not quench the spirit."

  5. Allegory:
    An extended metaphor; a story or fable about symbolic and often fictional characters or events that expresses a more complex truth or principle.
    Daniel 2:31-45 - (Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue, interpreted by Daniel)

    John 10:1-16 - (the story of the good shepherd)

  6. Personification:
    A type of metaphor; speaking about something as if it were a person ("duty commands"; "the long arm of the law").
    Numbers 16:32 - "The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up."

    Psalm 114:3 - "The sea looked and fled"

    Proverbs 9:1-3 - "Wisdom has built her house."

  7. Apostrophe:
    Addressing something as if it were a person, or addressing an absent or dead person as if he were present or alive ("O Liberty, what things are done in thy name!").
    1 Kings 13:2 - "O altar, altar."

    2 Samuel 18:33 - "O my son Absalom."

  8. Anthropomorphism:
    A type of metaphor; speaking about God in terms of human characteristics.
    Deuteronomy 11:2 - "The Lord . . . His mighty hand, and His outstretched arm."

    2 Timothy 3:16 - "All scripture is God-breathed" (marginal reading)

  9. Euphemism:
    An understatement using a mild or more agreeable expression instead of a blunt expression of an unpleasant or sensitive idea ("the departed" referring to the dead).
    Genesis 4:1 - "Now the man knew his wife; and she conceived" (marginal reading).

    1 Corinthians 15:6 - "Most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep."

  10. Hyperbole:
    Deliberate extreme overstatement and excessive exaggeration ("She is centuries old").
    Deuteronomy 1:28 - "The cities are large and fortified to heaven."

    John 21:25 - "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

  11. Synecdoche:
    Substitution of a part for the whole or vice versa, an individual for a class or vice versa, singular for plural or vice versa, genus for species or vice versa, abstract for concrete or vice versa, absolute for relative or vice versa, or the material components for the thing made of them, etc. ("The Millers live three doors up the street"; "the creature" referring to man).
    2 Samuel 16:21 - "The hands . . . will . . . be strengthened."

    Galatians 1:16 - "Consult with flesh and blood."

    Luke 2:1 - "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth." (NASB, compare NIV "the entire Roman world")

    Psalm 51:4 - "Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned."

  12. Metonymy:
    Substitution of an associated term for the name itself ("The White House announced today"; "The kettle is boiling").
    Psalm 23:5 - "Thou dost prepare a table before me."

    Hosea 1:2 - "the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord"

    Matthew 3:5 - "Jerusalem was going out to him."

    Matthew 18:16 - "By the mouth of two or three witnesses."

    Luke 16:29 - "Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'"

  13. Symbol:
    Something that, besides standing for itself, stands for something else because of relationship or convention, especially the repeated use of a visible sign for something invisible or a natural sign for something supernatural (for example, the oak as a symbol of strength).
    See Genesis 9:13 and Matthew 26:26-28 where the establishment of the rainbow and the bread and cup as symbols is discussed.

    Matthew 27:51 - "The veil of the temple was torn in two."

    Hebrews 9:14 - "How much more will the blood of Christ, . . . cleanse your conscience."

    Isaiah 1:18 - "Though your sins be as scarlet, They will be as white as snow."

    See Acts 10:9-35.

    (Beware of thinking that every symbol has a consistent meaning throughout the Bible. For instance, compare the serpent in John 3:14 and Revelation 20:2, and the lion in Revelation 5:5 and 1 Peter 5:8. Also, the "little horn" of Daniel 7:8, which is part of the fourth empire, is not the same king as the one represented by the "rather small horn" of Daniel 8:9, which is part of the third empire.)

  14. Exclamatory rhetorical question (or interrogation):
    A point is made by asking, but not answering, a question with an obvious or implied answer.
    Isaiah 40:13 - "Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, Or as His counselor has informed Him?"

    Romans 8:35 - "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"

    James 3:11 - "Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?"

  15. Hypothetical conjecture:
    A fictional or impossible case cited for the purpose of portraying the logical outcomes of a false premise and not meant to describe an actual situation.
    1 Corinthians 15:29 - "What will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?"

    (Matthew 5:29-30 may also be understood to be a hypothetical conjecture in light of Matthew 5:20; 15:19; 23:25-28.)

  16. Irony:
    An expression which means the opposite of its literal interpretation, often sarcastic.
    1 Kings 18:27 - "Elijah began to taunt them. 'Shout louder!' he said. 'Surely he is a god!'"

    Job 12:2 - "With you wisdom will die."

    Matthew 27:29 - "They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said."

    1 Corinthians 4:10 - "We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!"


These and other types of figures of speech demonstrate the abundance and variety of figurative material in the Bible, as in all of human language. Figurative elements are especially common in such literary molds as poetic, apocalyptic, and parabolic passages. Knowing the technical name for each type of figure is not as important as being able to discern the developing thought and the intent of the writer in any given passage. It is the meaning of a figure of speech, not the figure's technical label, which should be your main concern.

As you attempt to interpret a figure of speech which you find in the Bible, remember that the two primary determinants of the meaning of the figure are (1) the literal interpretation of the figure, and (2) the immediate context surrounding the figure. In all figures of speech, the real meaning of the figure is related in some way to (determined in the light of) the literal interpretation of the figure. Always begin with the figure's literal interpretation. With the exception of litotes, simile, and parable, the literal interpretation of the figure gives a more or less distorted meaning in the sense that the literal interpretation does not fully harmonize with the immediate context. This, of course, is what helps you identify the fact that you are dealing with a figure of speech in the first place. In many cases, a knowledge of the various types of figures of speech will then help you move from the literal interpretation of the figure to the real meaning of the figure. When you feel that you have arrived at the true meaning of the figure of speech, write out a literal statement of that exact same idea without using any figurative expressions at all. Then substitute your literal restatement in place of the figure in the text to see if the context is satisfied by your literal restatement.

The literal interpretation of the figure of speech does not equal

but is related to
The true meaning of the figure of speech should equal
Your literal restatement of the same idea

For example, a metaphor:

While we are inside and actual tent does not equal

but is related to
"While we are in this tent" (2 Cor. 5:4) equals
While our souls or spirits remain in our physical bodies

For example, a anthropomorphism:

His muscular hand with five fingers does not equal

but is related to
"His mighty hand" (Deut. 11:2) equals
His great ability to do things

For example, a euphemism:

A number are actually sleeping (and will awaken later) does not equal

but is related to
"A number sleep" (1 Cor 11:30) equals
A number are dead

Some people deny much of the figurative element in the Bible because they have a misunderstanding about figurative language. They mistakenly equate the literal with the material or physical and the figurative with the spiritual. However, such an equation is invalid since something that is material can be described figuratively (for example, "the cities are large and fortified to heaven," Deuteronomy 1:28), and something that is spiritual can be stated literally (for example, "God is spirit," John 4:24). Likewise, they might equate the literal with the true, the factual, and the historical, and the figurative with the mystical, the ethereal, the unhistorical (or suprahistorical). Again, such an equation is invalid, since that which is true can just as easily be spoken of in either literal or figurative terms. When you interpret a passage figuratively you are not necessarily saying that what it describes is not actually true or concrete.

Also, some people deny much of the figurative element in the Bible because they mistakenly equate figurative interpretation with extreme allegorical interpretation. In literary interpretation, whether a specific element in the text is being interpreted literally or figuratively, the meaning is derived from the text. However, in extreme allegorical interpretation (which is not the same as interpreting an allegory) meaning is arbitrarily added to the text, and this added meaning is considered to be the real or preferred meaning of the passage. For example, one might arbitrarily interpret "heaven" to mean the mind, "sea" to mean the present age, or the "four rivers" of Genesis 2:10 to mean the four virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Such allegorizing is deductive rather than inductive. While extreme allegorical interpretation certainly is invalid and should be avoided, it does not follow that figurative interpretation is invalid or should be avoided. In other words, even though extreme allegorical interpretation should be given no place at all, figurative interpretation should still be given its proper place as part of literary interpretation.

Suggested passages for studying figurative language: Psalm 1, John 3:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3, Isaiah 53:4-7, 1 Corinthians 13:1-7, Ephesians 6:10-18, Proverbs 1:8-33, Matthew 13.

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