God expects us to seek to understand His will and purpose for our lives; He has revealed such things in His Word (John 8:32, 2 Timothy 3:14-17). We therefore do well to study the Word of God. The first part of studying represents the reading of the text and attempting to gain the basic understanding of what the passage means. While reading is extremely important, there is more to studying than just reading: we must attempt to understand the message of the author and establish how we are to apply it to our own lives. This is how we are able to handle the word of truth properly (2 Timothy 2:15)!
It is necessary, therefore, for us to not just read but also interpret the Scriptures; another term for the guidelines and process of interpretation is “hermeneutics”. The process of interpretation is very old (cf. Nehemiah 8:8), and we cannot imagine that we can interpret at our own whims according to our own desires (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3-5). There are many recognized guidelines for interpretation; we do well to explore some of them.
1. Interpret the text literally unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. The most basic way to understand any given text is to accept it at face value. John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” is a good example of this: when we read this statement, we have no reason to doubt that Jesus actually and physically cried tears. Likewise, in Genesis 1:1, when the text indicates that God created the heavens and the earth, we are not given any good reason to doubt that God truly and literally did so. When the text is consistent on a literal basis and makes sense in a literal way, we should interpret it thus literally.
We must proceed carefully, however, and recognize that some parts of the Bible are not always supposed to be interpreted literally. There are many times when God speaks to mankind in figurative language; this does not mean that what God is communicating is any less true, but that God is trying to help us understand His will in a different way. When Jesus speaks about a man gaining the whole world in Matthew 16:26, we recognize that it is not possible for a man to have the whole world literally, and we understand that Jesus is exaggerating, using hyperbole, for effect. Likewise, Jesus is not literally a grapevine in John 15:5: He uses a metaphor, speaking of Himself in terms of the grapevine, to help the disciples understand their relationship to Him. Likewise, when Jesus speaks in parables (e.g. Matthew 13:3-8), He is speaking in metaphor about spiritual truths. What God says is no less true simply because it is in figurative language: we just have to recognize it and interpret it properly!
While we must be on the watch for specific examples of figurative language, as shown above, we must also be sensitive to other ways that God establishes that He speaks more figuratively. Many times a particular context demonstrates that God speaks in more figurative language, such as in Daniel 7:1-14 or in Revelation 4:1-22:6. These texts indicate that Daniel and John respectively have seen visions (Daniel 7:1, Revelation 9:17); while we do not deny that they actually see the things they record, we are to understand that what they see represent something else. Likewise, if reading a given passage literally makes it seem absurd or would contradict another teaching of God in another place, we must be open to the possibility that God is speaking figuratively. When Jesus speaks in Matthew 12:29 about binding and plundering strong men, we recognize that to understand this as a literal command would be absurd and contradictory; likewise, when Isaiah condemns the practices of the Jews in Isaiah 1:10-18, we understand that God is not condemning the Temple worship that He established per se but the immorality the Jews were practicing outside of the Temple.
Examples of figurative language include:
- Allegory (metaphor involving real persons/events): Which things contain an allegory: for these women are two covenants; one from mount Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar (Galatians 4:24; cf. Galatians 4:21-31).
- Hyperbole (exaggeration): Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5).
- Metaphor (understanding x in terms of y): Jesus said unto them, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
- Metonymy (using a part to stand for whole): In like manner also [He took] the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25).
- Parable (true-to-life story in metaphor): “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in the field; which a man found, and hid; and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field” (Matthew 13:44).
- Simile (comparison): As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God (Psalm 42:1).
The importance of proper discernment of literal and figurative language within the Scriptures can hardly be overstated; many have gone down the paths of error by interpreting literal truth figuratively and figurative truth literally. Let us strive to properly discern God’s Word, being workmen without need to be ashamed, properly handling God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15)!
Ethan R. Longhenry