“At the feast of Belshazzar and a thousand of his lords,
While they drank from golden vessels, as the Book of Truth records,
In the night as they reveled in the royal palace hall,
They were seized with consternation as the hand upon the wall.
See the brave captive Daniel as he stood before the throng,
And rebuked the haughty monarch for his mighty deeds of wrong;
As he read out the writing, “Twas doom of one and all,
For the kingdom now was finished said the hand upon the wall.”
See the faith, zeal and courage that would dare to do the right,
Which the Spirit gave to Daniel this the secret of his might.
In his home in Judea, a captive in its hall,
He still understood the writing of his God upon the wall.
So our deeds are recorded; there is a hand that’s writing now.
Sinner, give your heart to Jesus, to His royal mandate bow;
For the day is approaching, it must come to one and all,
When the sinner’s condemnation will be written on the wall.”
I may have bought this!
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…”
Read your Bible to grow. Anything that has been born must consume the right things to grow. No one grows without nutrients. I Peter 2:2 reads, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” To grow there must be a desire for the Word. What kind of Bible student are you? Howard Hendricks says there are three types of Bible students.
- Castor Oil Bible Students – These people see the Word as bitter and they only read it when something is ailing them. They see it as something to be studied when it is convenient or they are desperate for answers.
- Shredded Wheat Bible Students – These people see the Word as nourishing but dry.
- Strawberries and Cream Bible Students – These people can’t get enough of the Word. They acquire a taste for it by continuing to feed on it.
Read your Bible so you can help others. We are all counselors – on some level. Most of us are going to be asked questions like, “What do you think I should do when ______________?” What will you tell a teeanger who comes to you and says, “My mom and dad are getting a divorce. Why me?” Or what will you say when a family member calls you and says your uncle is dying of cancer and wants to know what to say to him? How will you encourage and counsel those types of people? What words of encouragement will you share with friend at school who loses their brother in a war overseas? Let me tell you that the words of encouragement that people cling to during times of difficulty like that aren’t your clever thoughts you come up with, but God’s perfect, divine Words. Peter reminds us, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). You must be able to articulate what you believe and the only way you do that is by reading the Bible.
Read your Bible to increase your joy. The happiest believers are the ones who spend time in the Word of God – “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). The Hebrew word for “blessed” can be translated “happy.” In other words, “Happy is the man who doesn’t listen the advice of evil men, but listens to what the Word of God tells him.” Happy is the man who meditates or studies the Word of God. And when believers are happy, they are content. They realize they need nothing else but God’s Word for satisfaction and joy. If you do not study the Bible, you will not be spiritually happy.
Read your Bible to enable you to have victory over sin. It has been rightly said that the Bible can keep you from sin or that sin will keep you from the Bible. One of the biggest reasons we don’t defeat sin is because we are using the wrong weapon – our own “strength.” What was the 1st thing that came to Jesus’ mind when He was tempted in the wilderness by Satan? Scripture. In the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-10), Jesus battled the temptation to sin by quoting Scripture to Himself. The psalmist reminds us, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9-11). How do you know something is sin? Because the Word of God says it is or isn’t. And how do you know if the Word of God says something is sin or not? By reading it.