by Al Maxey

Issue #360 ------- August 18, 2008
Language is the dress of thought.
Samuel Johnson {1709-1784}

Challenge of Figurative Language
The Rules and Guidelines for Interpreting
Figurative Language in the Scriptures

A month ago (July 17), in Reflections #356 --- Figures of Speech & Thought: Creative Communicative Building Blocks --- I provided a list of 22 different figures of speech and thought that are commonly employed within the writings of the inspired Scriptures. I began that particular study with the following thoughts --- The biblical writers (in both OT and NT documents) made extensive use of a good many figures of speech (sometimes called figures of words) and figures of thought. The former is when the image or resemblance is confined primarily to a single word, whereas the latter might require for its expression a great many words, phrases and sentences. A metaphor, just by way of example, would be a "figure of speech," whereas a parable would be regarded as a "figure of thought." To better assist us in our daily quest to correctly interpret Scripture (the art and science of biblical/sacred hermeneutics), we must be aware of the many figures of speech and thought utilized by the inspired writers. Failing to understand that a writer was speaking figuratively, and failing to understand what kind of figure he was employing, could lead the interpreter down the pathway of false understanding, and might eventually result in false teaching and practice. And yes, this does indeed occur with some degree of frequency among interpreters of the biblical text. Thus the need for hermeneutical awareness.

Though biblical scholars are quite aware of the fact that "the literal is the most usual signification of a word, and therefore occurs much more frequently than the figurative," [Dr. Clinton Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation, p. 157], one should never overlook the obvious fact that there is indeed a rather significant portion of the inspired Scriptures that is expressed in figurative language, with each one of "these portions calling for special care in their interpretation" [Dr. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, p. 243].

It is this "special care" that I wish to focus upon in this present issue of my weekly Reflections. Figurative language, just for the sake of clarification, is when words are not used in their original, usual, literal, exact or primary sense; i.e., one concept is represented in terms of another that may be thought of as being analogous with it. For example: You might refer to someone as a "teddy bear" because they're cute and cuddly, or as a "snake" because they're crafty and deceitful, or as a "dove" because they're gentle. Again, these terms are not used in their normal, literal sense, but rather are used to convey some concept which can be logically drawn from the normal usage or meaning of the word. One of the great hermeneutical questions has always been: How does one determine when a word or phrase is being used figuratively or literally? Some biblical scholars [Terry, p. 247] even suggest that it is "scarcely necessary, and, indeed, quite impracticable, to lay down specific rules for determining when language is used figuratively and when literally." Terry suggests that it should be left to "every man's rational judgment." To some degree this is true, however there are a few guidelines which, when followed, will assist one in making this rational determination. Note the following list of widely recognized and accepted interpretive rules:

  1. The literal or most usual meaning of a word should be preferred to a figurative or less usual signification.

  2. Nothing should be regarded as figurative unless such a demand is made by the meaning of the immediate context, or by the evident meaning of the passage as a whole. The book of Revelation is a perfect example of this. The context of a great portion of the book of Revelation, as well as the very nature of Jewish apocalyptic literature itself, demands that the language be understood figuratively (chapter 12 is a good illustration of how a literal interpretation of the figures would simply be ridiculous and irrational).

  3. A word or sentence should be regarded as figurative when the literal meaning would involve an impossibility. Psalm 18:2 speaks of God being a rock, a horn, and a tower. Matt. 8:22 speaks of the dead burying the dead. In Matt. 26:26-29 Jesus speaks of the bread and wine being His body and blood. Rev. 6:13 speaks of stars falling to earth. Clearly, these thoughts are figurative, and they are not intended to be taken literally.

  4. "It is an old and oft-repeated hermeneutical principle that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity" [Terry, p. 247].

  5. A passage should be regarded as figurative when a literal interpretation would demand that one perform an act that is wrong, or when it would forbid an act that is good. In Matt. 18:8-9 Jesus says that one should cut off his hands and feet, and pluck out his eyes. Some, taking this literally, have actually maimed and mutilated themselves "to the glory of God." Others have done the same thing by interpreting literally the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 9:27 -- "I beat (buffet, bruise) my body and make it my slave." By interpreting this phrase literally, one has a contradiction (see #4 above) with Paul's statement in Col. 2:23 -- "self-abasement and severe treatment of the body are of no value."

  6. A statement should be regarded as figurative when the Scriptures clearly state that it should be so regarded. For example: In John 2:19-21 Jesus spoke of destroying and raising the temple, yet went on to explain that He was referring to His physical body. John 7:37-39 is another example; this one concerning the Spirit and rivers of living water. In John 10:6, making reference to the Parable of the Good Shepherd, John commented, "This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them." This is the Greek word paroimia, which means "a figurative discourse." "In Johannine usage: 'a dark saying, a figure of speech,' in which especially lofty ideas are concealed" [Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 629]. John 16:25-29 is still another good example.

Recognizing figurative language whenever it is being employed by a speaker or writer is crucial to a correct interpretation of what is being spoken or written. Failing to recognize these figures for what they are can prove disastrous with respect to perceiving the true meaning of a passage or statement. The Samaritan woman who came to draw water at Jacob's well failed to understand what Jesus was saying to her because she didn't realize He was using a figure of speech [John 4:7-15]. She thought He was referring to literal water, and thus she missed His deeper spiritual meaning. Once a person has determined that the language of the text is figurative, however, there are a few special rules of interpretation that should be kept in mind. Consider the following:

  1. Allow the author to give his own interpretation. Many times when figurative language is employed, the author will explain the meaning, or perhaps give a key to understanding the meaning. Jesus Christ, by way of example, quite often explained the meaning of His parables. The Parable of the Sower [Matt. 13:3-8] is subsequently explained in vs. 18-23. The vision of the valley of dry bones [Ezekiel 37:1-10] is explained in vs. 11-14. "It's always safe to take the author's own definition. He certainly knows more than anyone else could know respecting his meaning. As simple as this rule is, it is still greatly neglected. Many have proceeded as if their 'calling' was to correct the blunders of the author. They show their 'ability as exegetes' by making out of these figures employed a great many things that the writers never even thought of" [D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, p. 204].

  2. Compare the truths gleaned from the figures to the truths conveyed in literal language. Since truth must harmonize with truth, this is a good way of checking to determine if one has correctly interpreted the figure. If your interpretation of the figure does not harmonize with literal statements of truth, then you need to go back and reinterpret the figure.

  3. The known facts of history, geography, biography, custom, etc. may all be brought to bear upon one's interpretation of figurative language. Jer. 1:13 speaks of a "boiling pot, facing away from the north." The hot contents of this pot would be poured out upon the south: Judah. It is a symbol of oppression coming from the north. It refers to Babylon. Babylon, however, is located to the east of Judah. A knowledge of the fact that invading armies from Asia customarily invaded Palestine from the north, because of the almost impassable Arabian desert, makes the figure understandable. Daniel's vision of four beasts [Daniel 7:1-14], even though it is somewhat interpreted for us in vs. 15-28, still can't be completely understood or appreciated unless the reader is familiar with the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman kings/emperors and kingdoms/empires. "In the interpretation of the figurative language of prophecy especially, it's of great importance to be well-acquainted with the facts of history. Without any knowledge of the historic facts in the case, we might form an incorrect view of the teaching" [Dungan, p. 213].

  4. In addition to #1 above, we should also allow any inspired writer within the Scriptures to give their interpretation of another passage. Their interpretation is also to be viewed as accurate and authoritative. In 1 Cor. 10:4, for example, the apostle Paul says that the rock in the wilderness from which the Israelites drew water represents Christ. In Gal. 4:21f, Paul speaks of Sarah and Hagar, and then he explains, "this is allegorically speaking: for these women are two covenants" [vs. 24].

  5. In the interpretation of figurative language one should be extremely careful not to demand too many points of analogy. Any time one uses a figure to represent some greater truth, that analogy will almost always break down at some point. Sometimes we are guilty of over-interpretation of a figure, and we lose sight of the simple message that the figure was intended to convey. "Perhaps the very purpose for which the figure was employed is lost sight of in the haste to identify small and unimportant features that act no part in the revelation of God to men" [Dungan, p. 215].

  6. It should be kept in mind that figures are not always used throughout Scripture with the same meaning. Just because fire is used to represent the Holy Spirit in one place, does not mean that it must always represent the Holy Spirit in every other instance. The meaning of figures can and does change. "There is a very grave error among an untaught class of exegetes in compelling every word that has, at any time, been used figuratively, to always represent the same thought as in that passage" [Dungan, p. 216]. Just because Jesus said He was the "bread" of life from out of heaven [John 6], does not mean that every reference to bread is a reference to Jesus.

  7. The type and the antitype are frequently both in view at the same time within a passage of Scripture. A "type" is something objective or materially real which typifies or represents a spiritual thought or fact. The sacrifice of the Passover lamb was a "type" of our Lord's own sacrifice --- "For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed" [1 Cor. 5:7]. Understanding that both type and antitype can appear together will prove helpful in interpreting some biblical passages. An example is Matthew 24, where both the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world are believed by most scholars to be in view.

I realize that the above has not been a "typical" issue of Reflections, in which some difficult passage of Scripture, or some challenge facing the disciples of our Lord, was examined in some depth. However, I pray it will serve as a useful companion study to the previous listing of the various figures of speech and thought, and that these insights and guidelines will prove beneficial in your own examination and exegesis of God's Holy Word. May God bless each of you with a wonderful week.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707
Reflections on the Holy Spirit
A Published Tract by Al Maxey
Order From: J. Elbert Peters:
The Maxey-Broking Debate
on the Doctrine of Patternism

{This debate is now in progress}
Readers' Reflections

Special Tribute --- I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to Bro. Russ Hicks in Michigan, as well as to his whole family. Russ has been a long-time reader of these Reflections, and he's a great Bible scholar who puts out some wonderful material on his Internet site. I have another connection with Russ through his uncle, Bro. Olan Hicks, who wrote the Foreword to my book Down, But Not Out. Russ was married for just a little over 36 years to a really wonderful Christian lady by the name of Carol Jean. On Saturday, August 9, Carol lost her battle with cancer and passed from this life. She was just two weeks short of her 55th birthday. Russ has prepared A Loving Tribute to this beloved daughter of our heavenly Father, and I would urge you all to read it. Carol was indeed that "worthy woman" of whom Scripture speaks. May God comfort you, Russ!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Bro. Al, In your last Reflections another TN preacher wrote, "They begin every discussion with the pre-formed conclusion that Churches of Christ are closer to the NT teachings than any other fellowship." I would disagree with this good brother. They do not begin every discussion with the conclusion that they are closer to the NT teachings than any other fellowship, they believe that the Churches of Christ are THE one and only TRUE church of Christ. Even today, with our 26+ divisions, each division feels that it alone is the TRUE church, and that all the rest are apostate. That's the attitude they enter debates with. I fear Broking has this same attitude ("We're right, and we can not be wrong!"). I think it is interesting in his third affirmative that he is using letters/emails from brethren who support him as part of his affirmative. I thought he was supposed to show us from the BIBLE that his affirmations were correct.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, I pray that you have a great Lord's Day! I started reading Broking's latest addition to the debate this morning (his third affirmative), but had to quit. I simply can't have that on my mind this morning as it will depress my thoughts!! Bro. Al, you are awesome, and a blessing to Christ on earth! Keep it up.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Dear Brother Al, I just finished reading your latest Reflections article ("Debate Between Disciples"), and I want to say to you that you are in my prayers daily and that I admire your strength and determination. This article lets me know in a small way how you've suffered for what you are trying to accomplish. As you continue to stand strong and proclaim God's Truths to all of us, please know that we are behind you, and that we appreciate so much your hard, hard work and dedication.

From a Reader in Oregon:

Dear Al, I must sadly request that you remove me from your Reflections mailing list. I've had reservations about you off and on, and you've generally managed to assuage my concerns. However, with your recent recommendation for readers to check out and read New Wineskins Magazine, and your promotion of Fred Peatross, whom I consider very "Emergent" (and, as a result, in error), I can no longer consider you to be a purveyor of unadulterated Truth.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Bro. Al, I think the sad thing in this debate is: Broking and his peers actually think they've proven their points. He will be applauded for his stand. And, based upon a faulty hermeneutic, they will dig even deeper into their cocoons while the walls of their boxes close in and their churches continue to deteriorate. And the spirit of isolationism will continue, where only a select few in the Churches of Christ are "faithful" enough, obedient enough, and "right" enough. This is nothing but a religion of men. It's an assault on our freedom in Christ. It's a "Jesus plus" religion. As for me, I guess I'll just stand before my Creator, realizing all of my insufficiencies and sins and weaknesses, amazed at His grace, and pleading my cause based on the blood of Jesus. No more religion in a box. Just give me Jesus. That's enough. Bro. Al, I really appreciate your scholarship, as well as the fact that you have not resorted to the tactics that those who try to defeat straw giants feel they must resort to. I also enjoy your Reflections very much. May the God who loves us "anyway/regardless," bless and strengthen you.

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, I am not a preacher, or an elder, or a deacon ... in fact, I'm not even a man. My voice never seemed to matter in any Church of Christ, but that's okay. God has blessed me with a decent amount of wisdom, and I am so thankful for that. I'm just so happy that I have the Truth. Poor Darrell ... I remember those days of living in fear, day after day ... always on the "hellivator," going down! It is so nice to finally realize that I don't have to be perfect; God isn't running some kind of impossible set-up. I love God and all that is good. And I have learned something else that was not often taught in the Church of Christ -- the heart DOES matter. My intentions matter; my integrity matters. No more hearing the words: "You can be sincere, but sincerely wrong!"

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, Your entire third rebuttal in your debate was great, but your following statement takes the prize! Thanks for your work in this debate!! --- You wrote: "Thus, if Jesus Christ has commanded 'as often as,' and Acts 20:7 shows a singular example of Troas assembling on a particular day for this observance, the latter example (and any inferences we may draw with respect to such) does not have the weight to forever restrict or regulate all future observances of the Lord's Supper. 'As often as' still trumps 'on the first day of the week.' And yet, although Darrell, by his responses, gives lip-service to this principle, in actual practice he denies it. Notice how Darrell responds to this statement of mine: 'Observing the Lord's Supper on any day other than Sunday is a sin. True or False? True' [2nd Affirmative, July 22]. And by what authority does Darrell declare such to be SIN? You guessed it: inferences drawn by fallible men from a single example, which is then given greater bearing on establishing 'the pattern' than the very words of the Son of God Himself."

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, I just finished reading your third rebuttal in the Patternism debate that you're having with Darrell Broking. How much more plain and simple could you have made it?! As you know, I have found my way out of the legalistic patternism "camp." I uncovered the man-made "laws" within the teachings of these ultra-conservative Churches of Christ several years ago through some very careful studying of the New Testament writings. Let me just say this -- if I had not yet made this discovery, I can guarantee you that after reading your postings in this debate so far, I would now be laughing at my own stupidity. Your arguments clearly would have brought me "into the light," and would have given me an understanding of the Bible that had been suppressed by a lifetime of listening to the clever manipulation of the Scriptures by such misguided brothers in Christ. It just absolutely amazes me that any rational thinking person can hear an explanation such as that which you have presented in this debate and still continue to believe it is acceptable to God to bind anyone's assumptions about His Word on their fellow man. Bro. Al, I may be just a foolish optimist, but I really do think that with the right words, at the right time, and from the right person, even someone like Darrell Broking himself could be convinced that assumptions (guessing) about something as serious as our path unto salvation is not something that God would ever expect of us. I pray for your success in your efforts to spread the Truth.

From a Minister in Florida:

Brother Al, I have been reading your debate with Darrell Broking. You are doing a great job, brother, and I thank God for you. I also thank God for this debate, because it has got to be taking up a lot of Darrell Broking's time, which is good because it keeps him off the streets and prevents him from polluting any more minds with the poison he is so pridefully full of. I'll keep praying that we can all stay the course with open minds, not empty ones!

From a Missionary in Peru:

Bro. Al, After reading your most recent rebuttal to Darrell Broking, it will be interesting to see how he can continue to hold to his views when, as you've shown, the Scriptures so clearly demolish and expose his false teaching. What a joyless and burdensome religion these people have!

From a Minister in California:

Brother Al, I've been reading along with your current debate on the issue of "patternism" -- a very interesting term, but appropriate. The other preacher I work with and I both believe that we are witnessing the rebirth of the Restoration Movement at this time. What I mean by that is: we are once again seeing large numbers of people who want to commit themselves to actually following the Bible, not just the opinions of brotherhood editors. So, your debate is interesting indeed. Like you, I frequently find people who really struggle with the idea that we can KNOW we are saved (in the 1 John 5:13 sense). The thing that seems to get them is the idea that they must be absolutely perfect in their keeping of the "patterns." Yet, as they grow in faith, their positions change and they're concerned that either they weren't saved before or they aren't saved now. It is discouraging to see such people, and yet it is a common sight. I have found it helpful to talk with such people about how Josiah "restored" the practice ("pattern") of the Passover in 2 Kings 23:21-23. In this passage it clearly states that no one observed the Passover in accordance with the law of God since the day of the Judges. Yikes! That means people like David, Elijah, Elisha and Nathan never, not even one single time, properly observed the Passover according to the pattern that God had established. Nevertheless, they were saved, and are said to have walked with God as faithful men. So, obviously, God did not require complete and perfect adherence to the "pattern" of the law in order to be saved. I wonder if you might bring this up in your current debate?

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, Sorry to bother you, but you're one of the few people I ever knew that considers himself "Church of Christ," and yet sees past the dogma. Thus, I love sharing my thoughts with you. I was reading over the third exchange in your debate again, more slowly this time, and one part of it sparked another thought with me. Feel free to share this with your readers if you like ... it is real life. I got remarried when I was 27 years old. I had had two small boys from my first marriage. My second "husband" was a robot -- very rule-oriented, which is why he loved it when I introduced him to the Church of Christ. My kids were terrified of him, with good reason. One day we were going to have a rare family moment and watch a funny movie. My four-year-old was perched up under my armpit (hiding), on the opposite side of his step-"dad," and he whispered to me, "Are we allowed to laugh?" That broke my heart right there. "Of course you're allowed to laugh!" When I had my first grandbaby, who was born with multiple handicaps, it was a good eight months before I could bring her to church (being outside was such a health risk). I brought her to church one day, and we stood up to sing. I was holding her precious little body, that couldn't even support itself, and in a moment of heartfelt love I began to sway with the song as I sang and rocked her. I then immediately caught myself -- and the words ran through my head, "We are not allowed." We are not allowed to move or clap or do anything other than stand there like robots. Looking back, I'll bet that broke God's heart in the same way my little boy's needless fears broke mine. How wrong is that, Al? Seriously! May our Father be merciful to those legalists, like Darrell Broking, who cause His little ones to stumble!!

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Brother Al, I just thought I would chip in a few thoughts (for what they may be worth) on your debate with Darrell Broking. Perhaps it would do him some good if you could expound something of how Jesus approached Scripture -- He did so as a Jew who was faithful to God's purpose in the Old Testament writings and not as one who was primarily affected by post-Enlightenment Modernism as in today's Churches of Christ. By that I mean the way we were taught to read Scripture was according to the scientific, inductive-deductive (Baconian) reasoning method (thus the CENI hermeneutic), and not as the story of God revealing Himself as the faithful Covenant God through Jesus who is in control of all things now as Lord and King. I think it is high time that these self-confessed "conservatives" be identified as the true Modernists. The true conservative is one who is willing for the Scriptures to say what God meant for them to say to the first century disciples, and then bring ourselves into the picture to find how we are to be integrated into the overall story.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, I am sorry, but I just can not keep my mouth shut with regard to this debate! I must point to Luke where the lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus asked him what the law said -- "how do you read it?" The lawyer said you must love God with all your heart, mind, spirit and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. To which Jesus said, "Do this and you shall live." From the lips of the Master -- "Do this and you shall live!" Seems to me that everything after this is just based on love. And I believe God will judge everything else we do, say and think in life based on this love we are to have for Him and others. Why can the patternists not perceive that the "pattern" is NOT as important as LOVE?!! Al, all this talk about patternistic details is no better than arguing over the length of a person's ear hair! It all diverts our attention from what God considers to be most important: Loving Him and each other! Instead, the patternists bite and devour one another over petty personal/party differences. God has allowed us the space to have preferences, and you're not going to hell because your preferences differ from mine. He simply commands us to LOVE, and everything after that is just demonstration of love. Sorry to bother you, but I just could NOT keep quiet. I promise to try to sit through the rest of this debate. I do appreciate your work, and love you, brother (and not just because I have to).

From a Reader in South Carolina:

Bro. Al, I am afraid that your opponent in this debate is not worthy. Is he the only one you could find to debate with? His material is extremely difficult to read and he does not explain his points well. When I can actually understand what he says, his logic makes very little sense. In fact, his thinking actually makes me angry with him. Also, he says, "It is wonderful to be able to discuss matters...," but then he goes on to belittle and condemn you. In fairness, you are taunting too, but at least you are clear and logical. Perhaps this is just the nature of the game. I do like the way you set him up with your questions to him, however! Like a golf ball on a tee ready to be whacked into the sunset.

From a Reader in South Africa:

Brother Maxey, I am a student at a Christian college here in Cape Town, South Africa. I have to write an exegesis paper on the prophet Amos dealing with social justice. I noticed your extensive work on The Minor Prophets, and I would like to ask you for your permission to quote from your writings for my essay. Thank you for your work!

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