Figurative language in the Bible can be very challenging. One of my favorite examples of this is in Genesis 49 – “Judah is a lion’s whelp…Issachar is a strong donkey…Dan shall be a serpent…Naphtali is a deer let loose…Benjamin is a ravenous wolf” (vs. 9, 14, 17, 21, 27). Are these just names given to animals or tribes of Israel?
What do we do with figurative language? What do we do with Psalm 1:3-4 that says, “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water…The ungodly are…like the chaff which the wind drives away.” Does this mean there are some people who are literal trees and others are like chaff from stalks of wheat? How do we know what this really means?
What do we do with Song of Solomon 2:9 that says, “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag”? Is he saying his wife is just like a mammal? Does she remind him of some deer?
How do we know when something is figurative or it is supposed to be literal? When trying to interpret figurative language, I suggest you keep the following interpretive principles in mind.
First, always use the literal sense unless there is some good reason not to. Literal sense means normal sense. There’s a saying that goes, “When Scripture makes sense, seek no other sense.” Always start with literal interpretation. An example of this is the Song of Solomon. Many people look at that book as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church, since it speaks about a couple’s love relationship. But this is impossible, because Christ hadn’t been around for centuries. What relation would the O.T. saints have to Song of Solomon if it were talking about the Messiah that hadn’t come yet? That book is nothing more than a description of all forms of love between a man and a woman. That is the literal sense.
Second, use the figurative sense when the passage tells you to do so. There will be times when a passage of Scripture informs you that the language you are reading is strictly figurative. For example, when Joseph tells his brothers about his dream (Genesis 37) or Pharaoh asks for an explanation of his dream (Genesis 41), these are example of figurative language. Why? They are dreams. Anytime dreams or visions (Daniel 7-12) are mentioned in the Bible, they are figurative and the “dreamers” knew there was a message behind the figures.
Third, use the figurative sense if a literal interpretation is impossible or absurd. If the literal meaning is ridiculous, take it as figurative. Hebrews 4:11 says, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword…” Is the Bible really shaped like this weapon? No, the Bible cuts to the chase like a sword. In fact, the explanation for this figurative language is given right after that statement in the same verse – “…Piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”.
Fourth, use the figurative sense if a literal interpretation goes contrary to the context and the scope of the passage. In Revelation 5:5, we read about the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Is John talking about a literal beast? If you look down at vs. 5 you will see this beast is also called a Lamb. Verse 6 says this Lamb had been slain. Verses 8-9 say the Lamb was being worshipped. Who is this Lion and Lamb? Jesus. You must use the figurative sense if the literal would contradict the rest of the passage.
Fifth, use the figurative sense if the literal interpretation involves a contradiction to other Scriptures. Mark 10:25 says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Is Jesus saying that the rich cannot be saved? No, that would contradict the rest of Scripture. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me” not “Anyone but the rich that come to me…”