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
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
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
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
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
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.)
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
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."
An explicit comparison of two dissimilar
things using "like" or "as" ("He sleeps like a log"; "cheeks like
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
Matthew 25:32 - "He will separate them from one another, as the
shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."
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)
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."
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
John 10:1-16 - (the story of the good shepherd)
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
Psalm 114:3 - "The sea looked and fled"
Proverbs 9:1-3 - "Wisdom has built her house."
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."
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)
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"
1 Corinthians 15:6 - "Most of whom remain until now, but some have
Deliberate extreme overstatement and
excessive exaggeration ("She is centuries old").
Deuteronomy 1:28 - "The cities are large and fortified to
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."
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."
Substitution of an associated term for
the name itself ("The White House announced today"; "The kettle
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.'"
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
See Genesis 9:13 and Matthew 26:26-28 where the establishment
of the rainbow and the bread and cup as symbols is
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.)
- 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?"
- 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.)
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
|The literal interpretation of the figure of speech
||does not equal
but is related to
|The true meaning of the figure of speech
||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)
||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)
||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)
||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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