Figures of speech express an idea more forcefully. The use of a figure of speech and allegory is always interesting. Usually colourful, and generally interesting in scriptural interpretation.
Picture yourself on a plane flying at a steady cruising speed above the clouds. As long as the plane flies on at a steady place, you read, talk, or gaze out the window, but the moment the flight pattern changes, you are arrested. The plane suddenly banks, or hits an air pocket, or the pilot opens the throttle. Instantly you are alert and possibly alarmed. That is how it is with language. As long as words are processed smoothly our attention tends to drop but introduces a deviation, a sudden departure from the norm, and at once attention is aroused.
The spirit of God uses figures of speech with precision. E.W. Bullinger in his monumental figures of speech in the Bible has listed over 200 of them, several with a number of varieties within themselves. The Bible interpreter must determine when to take words literally or figuratively. Normally we take words literally, at their face value, unless doing so confronts us with a statement that is contrary to experience, to the known fact, to reveal the truth, or to the general tenor or teaching of scripture.
It is not my purpose here to explore all the figures of speech used in the Bible but to examine only some of the most common ones.
First, there is the simile, the most common of all the figures of speech used in the Bible. We use a simile when we use a connecting word such as like or as to state equivalence between two things. “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (psalm 1:3). Ye was as sheep going astray” (1peter 2:25).
The second most common figure of speech is the metaphor. When we employ a metaphor we do not use a connecting word; we say that one thing is something else: “all flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6) is a metaphor.” all flesh is grass” (1 peter 1:24) is a simile.” The Lord is my shepherd” (psalm 23:1); “Ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13); “this is My blood” (Matthew 26:26); “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). All are metaphors.
The importance of recognizing metaphor is illustrated in a well-known historical incident. Martin Luther, confronted by one of his dissenting colleagues, entered into a heated debate over an issue of Bible doctrine. The subject under discussion was the real presence of the Lord in “the host,” the communion bread it ceases to be bread and becomes the body, blood, soul, and divinity of the Lord Jesus.
Martin Luther did not wholly free himself from that dogma and, like the Catholics; he supported his view with the verse, “this is My body,” Luther’s opponent, Zwingli, said, “He stubbornly insisted on taking this literally and at face value; if it says, “this is My body,” then that is what it means,“ This…is…My…body.” The bread becomes His body. After arguing with Luther in vain and pointing out that this was purely and simply a metaphor, Zwingli said at last, “very well, Martin, and do you propose to do with the text, ‘I am the door’?”
The Bible contains a few examples of allegory. Like the simile and the metaphor, the allegory draws its strength from the comparison. A parable is an extended simile; it presents physical circumstances (for example, a sower going forth to sow) as spiritual truth-namely, the gospel being sent forth. Similarly, an allegory is an extended metaphor. It is more complex than a metaphor, however, because it continually represents one thing as another. John Bunyan’s pilgrim’s progress is the most famous allegory in the English Language. An allegory may be a fictitious narrative with a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface, or, as in Galatians 4, it may be based on historical events. One of the purposes of allegory is to bring out teaching from past events. Psalm 80, Isaiah 5, and Matthew 12:43-45 are examples of such allegory.
Great caution needs to be exercised in reading allegory into a passage of scripture since the most fanciful interpretations can easily result. Just because the Bible uses this figure of speech is no justification for allegorizing whole segments of scripture. More is said about this in chapter 5.
Another figure of speech found in the scripture is the paradox, a seeming contradiction. When we say for instance, that we have to be cruel to be kind, we are employing paradox. Because God’s wisdom often seems fool to human beings, there are numerous uses of paradox in the Bible: “whosoever shall save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).” She that liveth in pleasures is dead while she liveth” (1Timothy 5:6). Both of those descriptions employ paradox.
There is also irony in the Bible. An ironical expression is one that expresses a thought in such a way that it naturally conveys the opposite meaning. Sarcasm, a form of irony, is often used, not to conceal the true meaning of a statement, but to add greater force to it. Elijah’s comments to the false prophets of Baal are sarcastic, or ironical (1kings 18:27). Lob used sarcasm on his critics “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you” (Jobs 12:2); Jesus used irony in Luke 13:33: “I must walk today, and tomorrow and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet Persian out of Jerusalem.”
One of the most interesting and prolific figures of speech in the Bible is personification. It is employed when things are given the characteristics of persons. It is easily recognized: “Neither shall thine eye pity him” (Deuteronomy 13:8); “Let not thy left hand know” (Matthew 6:3); “the land mourneth” (Joel 1:10); “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera” (Judges 5:20); “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (psalm 85:10); “When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin” (James 1:15). The way we speak and write would be impoverished without such figurative language.
Then there is anthropomorphism. This figure of speech ascribes physical characteristics to God. Walter Martin, a writer on the cults, tells how he challenges Mormons to come to his meetings. At the end of his lecture on Mormonism, he gives an opportunity for them to question him. On one such occasion, a young Morman asked Dr Martin if he would acknowledge Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to be prophets of God if he, the Mormon, could demonstrate from the Bible that God has a body of flesh and bones (one of Mormonism’s heretical doctrines). Dr Martin agreed that he would certainly be impressed if such an idea could be improved from the Bible. Thereupon the Mormon began to reel off a number of verses such as Exodus 33:11,20, Job 34:21, James 5:4, and Isaiah 30:27-verses that speak of God’s face, eyes, ears, and lips. “There,” the Mormon cried, “God has a nose, God has eyes, God has feet-God is an exalted man. mow acknowledge that we are right. God has a body.”
Walter Martin said to the young man, “And now will you please turn to another verse and read it just as quickly as you have read all the others? Read me psalm 91:4.” The Mormon turned to it and read, “He shall cover thee with thee with His feathers and under His wings shalt thou trust.” “There,” said Dr Martin, “Now He’s a big chicken! The same reasoning that makes Him a chicken.” The young man sat down in confusion.
“Can’t you see?” said Dr Martin, capitalizing on the moment, “the verses you have been quoting are anthropomorphisms. God is not an exalted man. God is a spirit. Jesus said so, and He also said, ‘A spirit hath not flesh and bones.’ God is not a man; He says so Himself. Look at Numbers 23:19. ‘God is not a man that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent.’ “How careful we must be in recognizing figures of speech in the Bible and in understanding them correctly.
Similarly to anthropomorphisms is the figure known as anthropopathy, which ascribes human feelings and passions to God. It is not that God necessarily has such feelings, but He has spoken of them to enable us to comprehend Him. Sorrow, grief, rejoicing, repentance, anger, hatred, vengeance, displeasure, zeal, and pity are all ascribed to Him under this figure of speech: “It repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth” (Genesis 6:6); “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). When we read of the Lord forgetting or thinking or laughing or begetting or seeing or smelling or riding and all such activities, we are dealing with these two figures, anthropomorphism, and anthropopathy.
The Bible also uses hyperbole, which means to say more than is literally meant in order to heighten the sense. This figure of speech is fairly common in scripture: “All the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:17); “the cities are great and walled up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28); “Everyone could sling stones at a hair-breadth, and not miss” (Judges 20:16). These are all examples of hyperbole.
One of the most common figures of speech in the Bible is metonymy. In this figure, a related thing stands for the thing itself. Metonymy is founded not on resemblance but on some direct relationship. For instance, when we say that a person writes a good hand the word handstands for the person’s actual writing.
There are several kinds of metonymy. There is metonymy relating to the cause, used when the cause is put for the effect: “Neither shall the sword go through your land.” Her sword is substituted for war. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (psalm 51:7). Hyssop was a small shrub used in ceremonial sprinklings. Hyssop is here substituted for the atoning blood connected with it. The same figure is used in Genesis 40:19, Galatians 3:13, and 1 peter 2:24, where “tree” is substituted for gallows.
There is metonymy relating to effect, used when the effect is used for the cause. “Two nations are in thy womb” (Genesis 25:23). The word nation is substituted for the two infants whose descendants would become those nations. “Master, I have brought unto Thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit” (Mark 9:17, 25). The spirit itself was not dumb, but it produced dumbness in the person it possessed. “Lord, now latest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation” (Luke 2:29-30). Old Simeon meant that he had seen Christ, the one who was the saviour and who wrought salvation.
There is metonymy relating to the subject, used when, for example, the name of a place is used for what is in the place, or when a vessel is used for what is in it: “This day is salvation come to this house” (Luke 19:9). The word house is used for what the house contained: Zaccheus and his family; “As often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup” (1Corinthians 11:26). The cup stands for what it contains. (How many arguments as to whether or not grape juice or wine should be used in the communion service could be avoided by noting this figure of speech.)
It may sound complicated, but it really is not. We use these figures of speech in everyday conversation and never give a thought to their technical nature. In studying and interpreting the Bible, however, we need to know and recognize these figures, because failure to do so can sometimes lead to error.
Another figure of speech is synecdoche, used where a part of a thing is substituted for the whole thing: “Then shall ye bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave” (Genesis 42:38). Here “grey hairs” stand for Jacob himself in his old age.
Ellipsis, while not technically a figure of speech, can be conveniently discussed here. It occurs when a gap is purposely left in a sentence through the omission of one or more words. The omitted words are grammatically necessary but can be left out without altering the sense. The device is used when a writer does not wish his reader to spend time on what is omitted but rather would have them dwell on the words emphasized by the use of the ellipsis in Matthew 14:19 we read that Jesus “gave the loaves to his disciples and the disciples to the multitude. Obviously, the sentence does not mean that Jesus gave his disciples to the multitude.” The phrase “gave the loaves” is omitted from the sentence by an ellipsis. If we supply the missing words we read that Jesus “gave the loaves to His disciples and disciples [gave the loaves] to the multitudes. “The ellipsis shows that the important thing is not that the disciples gave the loaves-they were only the instruments. The Lord was the Giver.
The polysyndeton is another figure of speech. It is used to slow us down and draw particular attention to each item in a sequence. This figure of speech reveals itself by the constant repetition of the word and. The first chapter can be detected in such famous passages as Genesis 22 and Luke 15. Although it pervades the whole Bible, most modern translations eliminate it and in so doing rob the reader of an instructive figure of speech.
The opposite figure of speech is the asyndeton, where a succession of clauses is found, each important but coming one after the other to hurry the reader to the climax at the end. For instance, we read the words of Jesus. “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours….. but when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14). The list (“the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”) is hurried over to focus attention on the blessing promised at the end of the sentence.
The Lord then told the story of the man who made a great supper and invited many. All made their excuses. The man, infuriated by the cavalier way his invitation was treated, sent his servants to fill his banqueting hall with a more responsive guest. Note what Jesus said. We have the same listing but this time with the polysyndeton. “Go quickly…..bring in hither the poor AND the maimed [the crippled]. AND the halt [the lame…..the same Greek word as in verse 13] AND the blind” (Luke 14:21).
The question arises, Why the polysyndeton here, in this list, but not in the previous, identical list? Here the purpose is to draw attention to each, separate kind of person. The asyndeton hurried us to the climax at the end of the sentence, the list being important but less so than the climax. The polysyndeton draws attention to the items in the list. The Holy Spirit in using this figure of speech is saying to us: “Slow down. Think of this, now think of this now think of this.”
Look at the list of the polysyndeton here. Examine the context. You will see at once why the figure is used.
“Bring in hither the POOR [those unable to make the excuse of verses 18-19: “I have bought…..so I cannot come]; and the MAIMED [those least likely to make the excuse of verse 20: “I have married……so I cannot come]: and the LAME [those unable to make the excuse of verse 19: “I have bought five yokes of oxen and I go to prove them………..so I cannot come”] and the BLIND [those unable to make the excuse of verse 18: “I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee, have me excused”].
The word and is such a short word. In our everyday speech, we do not use it to link up many items or units of thought, to the extent that the Bible does. A general rule in English grammar is that we normally use only one conjunction in a sentence. But examine your King James Bible. Observe how lavishly the Holy Spirit uses this word. We hardly notice it in ordinary reading because of the beauty and majesty of the language in which the surrounding text is couched, but it is there-everywhere. Often a new chapter begins with the word and (as, for instance, Genesis 22). Sometimes even a new book of the Bible begins with this significant connective (Leviticus, for instance). Translations that eliminate this figure of speech do a disservice to the Bible reading public by robbing them of a holy Spirit-designed emphasis.
One more form of speech might also mention here, the euphemism. We employ this figure whenever we wish to exchange a harsh word for a more pleasant one. People use euphemisms to cover up sin. Hence to call a drunkard “an alcoholic” or to speak of a case of adultery as “an affair” or to speak of a Sodomist as “gay” is to use euphemism to cover sin. To call a garbage collector a “sanitary engineer” is a kind of vanity; it uses this figure of speech to upgrade the corruption.
In the Bible, euphemism is generally used to help when delicate feelings or sentiments are involved. When David asked, “Is the young man Absolom safe?” Cushi answered, “The enemies of my lord the king and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is” (2Samuel 18:32). Cushi used two euphemisms to remind David gently of Absolom’s treason and to intimate that he was dead. “Spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid, “said Ruth to Boaz (Ruth 3:9) it was a delicate way of suggesting that he marry her.
Here, then, are some of the more important figures of speech in the Bible. When someone says, “Oh that’s only figurative” the implication is that its meaning is weak. Not so. A figure of speech may be a strong form of expression. The Holy Spirit never uses such devices without adding power and force to what is said.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE
We cannot overlook the importance of life and times, the culture and conditions, the background of code and custom, against which the Bible was written. Some knowledge of the way people lived is invaluable in interpreting all parts of the written word. Never was this more so than in our modern, western world, so alien and different from the world of Abraham and the patriarchs and of Christ and His apostles.
This chapter will show the value of having some understanding of Bible times in grasping Bible truth.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” He was grossly misunderstood, the statement infuriated His enemies and was used against Him at His mock trial.
Solomon built the original Temple in seven years. It was built around a rough slab of virgin rock, an outcropping from Mount Moriah that had been used as a threshing floor by Araunah the Jebusite. But centuries before that it had been used by Abraham as the site on which he was ready to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering to God.
In due course, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and was eventually replaced with another one by the Jews repatriated from the Babylonian exile. The new Temple was a much humbler structure.
Then came Herod the Great, with his ambitious idea of ingratiating himself to the Jews by restoring the Temple to even greater glory than it had before. The Jews were suspicious of the Edomite tyrant. To pacify their fear that he might somehow desecrate their place of worship, he promised not to move a single stone of the existing building until he was ready to begin work on the new one. Moreover, he had a thousand priests trained as carpenters and masons so that no unconsecrated hands might defile the Holy Place. Work began in the winter of 20 B.C. it took just a year and a half to rebuild the Holy of Holies, but work in the courts and cloisters went on until long after Herod’s death. It was continued through the reign of Herod Antipas.
Every time the Lord Jesus visited the Temple He saw men at work on its reconstruction. When He made His famous statement about rebuilding the destroyed Temple (meaning His own body) in three days, the Jews, thinking He was referring to Herod’s Temple, protested that already the work had consumed no less than forty-six years.
Just before He went to Calvary, the Lord made another prediction about the destruction of the Temple, this time referring to Herod’s Temple. He told His disciples that it would be utterly destroyed. Nothing seemed more unlikely. Work continued on the Temple until thirty-four years after the Crucifixion. Just eight years after it was finished, it was completely destroyed. The Roman soldiers besieging Jerusalem were given strict instructions by Titus to spare this architectural wonder. But the word of a Roman general, the son of a Caesar, no matter how powerful, could not countermand the Word of the son of God. In the fierce fighting the Temple
It itself became a battle ground. The fire broke out and, in the consuming flames; the gold embellishments melted and ran down between the stones. To get at that treasure the victorious Romans pried the stones apart until, indeed, as Jesus had said, there was no stone left standing on another that was not thrown down.
Both Matthew and Zaccheus were publicans. In Jesus’ day, the name publicans was an epithet of loathing and hatred among the Jews. The publican was a tax collector in the pay of the Romans and their client kings. No worse appellation could cling to a man than to be named a publican. The Romans farmed out the hatred office of the tax collector. The sum to be collected was set for a certain amount and the publican was responsible to turn that amount over to the authorities. Whatever else he could collect in the process was up to him. That was his reward. The publicans became very rich on the added revenues they squeezed out of the people over and above the stated sum. Thus the publicans were hated as traitors, tax collectors, and tyrants.
When the Lord called Matthew to be one of His disciples, he was “sitting at the receipt of custom.” The custom-house occupied by Matthew seems to have been near the lake of Galilee, probably on the wharf. There Matthew collected taxes on all goods landed, including customs on all fish caught in the lake.
The whole area around the lake must have been infested with Matthew’s colleagues, the other revenues officers. Since caravan routes converged there, tolls and duties were collected at this strategic spot. Matthew was likely employed by Herod Antipas to collect revenues from that district. There seem to have been at least two kinds of publicans, the general tax-gatherer and the custom-house official.
Jesus was scorned by many Jews because He was “a friend of publicans and sinners.” No self-respecting Jew would befriend a publican. Dr Alfred Edersheim, an authority on the life and times of Jesus, pictures the call of Matthew. He says:
We take it, long before the eventual day that forever decided his life, Matthew had, in heart, become a disciple of Jesus. Only he dared not, could not, have hoped for personal recognition-far less for the call to discipleship. But when it came…it needed not a moment’s thought or consideration. When He spake it, “Follow Me;” the past seemed all swallowed up in the present heaven of bliss. He said not a word, for his soul was in the speechless surprise of unexpected love and grace; but he rose up, left the customhouse, and followed Him.
Much the same could probably be said for Zaccheus.
One of the Lord’s potential disciples was willing enough-on his own terms, that is. He replied: “Suffer me first to go and bury my father.”
Among the Jews, this was a duty that took precedence over all others. Moreover, funerals then (as now) were ruinously expensive and the bereaved were expected by the stern law of custom to raise the money to pay for them somehow. Families could be reduced to poverty by funerals.
Crowds of relatives, friends, and acquaintances would assemble. Refreshments had to be provided. Guests and mourners who came from a distance had to be housed and fed. These gatherings and feasts for the dead could extend over a period of forty days. The priests and religious functionaries employed for the funeral had to be well paid.
In Bible times, one who thus paid proper honour to the memory of a departed loved one was regarded as a person of integrity. Conversely, a man who neglected these duties, demanded by custom, would be regarded as an unnatural son and one not to be trusted. This would be a disciple then stated his case on what he considered to be the very highest, most sacred, and unchallengeable of grounds.
Jesus, however, did not accept the excuse of this man who wanted to delay becoming a disciple until his father had died. The call of custom, no matter how time-honoured or socially sacred, must not be allowed to interfere with the call of Christ.
GRINDING AT THE MILL
The Lord Jesus spoke of His coming being swift and divisive, dividing even “two Women at the mill” (Matthew 24:41).
The mill was a hand mill made of two circular stones, one on top of the other. The gain was put into a hole in the centre of the upper stone. This stone also had a handle by which it could be turned. The ground grain ran out from between the upper and lower millstones. The hand-mill was operated by two women sitting facing each other with the millstones between them. Both women grasped the handle, one woman holding it with both hands, the other keeping one hand free to throw in more grain as required. Both women retained their hold as the handle went round and round, either toward them or away from them. This was a woman’s work. A man would never do it. It was tedious and fatiguing and only slaves or the lowest servants were normally set to it. Grinding at the mill was a task often imposed on captives taken in war. The Philistines took great sport in setting mighty, fallen Samson to do this work.
The Lord’s picture of two women grinding at the mill and one being taken at the rapture and the other left is a vivid one. The two women at the mill had their hands together on the handle as they faced each other across the stone, working steadily in unison and rhythm. Suddenly one is gone. The other sits there startled, alone.
ELIJAH RUNNING BEFORE AHAB
After the great battle with the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah did an extraordinary thing. “He girded up his loins and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel” (1kings 18:46). Why would Elijah do a thing like that?
On Mount Carmel, as God’s avenging agent against the idolatries sponsored in Israel by King Ahab and his wicked consort Jezebel, the prophet overwhelmed Ahab with shame and defeat in the presence of his subjects. The natural result would be so to lower the king in the estimation of his subjects that rebellion and insurrection might have followed. This was no part of the divine plan. “The powers that be are ordained of God.” What God wanted was to bring about repentance, not rebellion.
The prophet was therefore directed by God to restore to the king a measure of his self-respected and self-esteem and to warn the people that it was not up to them to overthrow constituted authority. That would come in God’s own time and way. In the meantime, the king must be given space to let the lesson of Carmel sink in.
The prophet chose a typically eastern way of restoring a measure of respect for the thoroughly humiliated monarch. He girded his loins and ran before the king’s chariot. This was a method of doing honour to Ahab’s office quite in keeping with the customs of that day and age. Great officials always employed runners to go before them, running ahead of the horses no matter how furiously they were ridden. In other to run with greater ease they not only “girded their loins” but also tucked up their flowing robes under the girdle lest they should stumble or get entangled in them.
The distance from the foot of Carmel across the plain of Jezreel was at least twelve miles. The august prophet ran across that expanse in the blinding rain, probably doing the distance in about two hours. No wonder it says that the hand of the Lord was upon the prophet. Otherwise, he could never have done it.
THE WISDOM OF ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR
W.M. Thomson tells of being in Tiberius one evening when droves of cattle and donkeys were brought down from the green hills where they were pastured during the daylight hours. There were large numbers of these animals. Thomson was curious to see if Isaiah 1:3-4 were true.
No sooner did the droves get inside the city gate than they began to disperse. Every ox, he said, knew perfectly well its owner, its house, and the way to it. Nor did a single animal get lost or bewildered by the maze of crooked, winding, and intersecting lanes and alleys. Every ass, too, went straight to his master’s “crib.” He followed one all the way to its owner’s house and saw it take its appropriate stall and begin its evening meal.
Isaiah 1:3-4 was true, and the lesson forceful and sad. The animals were wiser than their owners, who neither knew nor considered the Lord but forsook Him and provoked Him with their rebellious ways.
Studying Bible culture and customs not only sheds light on difficult and sometimes obscure statements, but it also provides a sense that our Lord lived in a real-time and place among people in many ways like ourselves.
As was mentioned earlier in passing, one school of Biblical interpretation allegorizes much of the Old Testament, especially its prophecies relating to Israel. This peculiar approach to the Bible that of covenant theology one suspects stems originally from a desire to justify the unscriptural practice of infant baptism, a practice common to a major segment of the professing church.
When God entered into His covenant relationship with Abraham and his seed, the covenant sign was circumcision. Every male had to be circumcised when he was eight days old in order to be brought into that covenant relationship. Failure to have the ordinance of circumcision administered exposed the uncircumcised one to the peril of being “cut off” from God’s people. A male Gentile who felt the attraction of Israel’s religious faith and who wished to become a proselyte likewise had to e circumcised. Normally, however, the rite was administered to male infants on their eighth days of life.
The covenant theologian tends to equate Christian baptism with Jewish circumcision but broadens it to include girl babies as well. Infant baptism is supposed to bring the baptized child into the good of God’s covenant just as circumcision brought the Jewish male child into the Abrahamic fold. To bolster that kind of thinking, the Church is seen as “spiritual Israel”.
It is claimed that the promises made to Israel under the Old Covenant are now being ratified in the Church under the New Covenant. To make a stronger case for this theory, many Old Testament prophecies are treated allegorically. Instead of the glorious prophecies concerning the millennial reign of Christ being taken literally, they are spiritualized. Thus, the spiritual blessings of the Church are supposed to be a present-day realization of the promises made by the prophets to the nation of Israel. This method of Bible interpretation does away with any future for the nation of Israel and with the millennial reign of Christ. The rebirth of the state of Israel in our day confronts the covenant theologian with a rebuttal of that position. It proves that those who interpret the prophecies of the Old Testament literally are right. Israel is not the Church and the Church is not Israel.
So much, then, for that kind of allegorizing of the Old Testament, It postulates two false propositions. One is the proposition that infant baptism brings babies into a covenant relationship with God (with the resultant tragedy that millions of lost people think they are going to heaven by virtue of their baptism, in infancy, into the Church-a Romish error from which much of Protestantism has never freed itself). The second is the proposition that, since the Church is Israel there is no future for the Jewish people as a people or for Israel as a nation (thus doing away with the reign of Christ on earth over a reconstituted and redeemed the Hebrew nation, and robbing Christ of His exaltation in what was once the scene of His humiliation).
We recoil from such allegorizing but we must not abandon all allegorical interpretations of Scripture simply because the method has been abused. There are allegories in the Bible. Passages of Scripture do have deeper meanings, as Paul, for example, demonstrates in his handling of the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar triangle (Galatians 4:29-31). But those deeper meanings are secondary. They are not the primary interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures on which they are based.
It is evident that Paul used the Genesis incident in an allegorical way to illustrate to justified believers, influenced by legalistic teachers, the folly of desiring to be under the law. Paul’s use of allegory, on that occasion, actually raises, for the fifth time in this epistle, the question: Is the Christian believer under the Mosaic law? (See Galatians 2:19-21; 3:1-3; 3:25-26; 4:4-6; 4:9-31). The allegorical illustration was one more way of dealing with the issue.
Paul’s use of allegory helps us understand its primary function. By taking the factual, historical narrative of Genesis 16:15 and 21:2 as an allegory, Paul was by no means undermining the grammatical-literal interpretation of a passage, He was finding a secondary, deeper meaning in the passage. Above all, his use of the passage as an allegory was purely illustrative.
This, then, is the value of an allegorical interpretation of a passage of Scripture. It can be used to illustrate clear teaching of Scripture, a teaching that is well supported elsewhere in the Bible: plain doctrinal statements. Bearing that in mind, we can most certainly dig down beneath the surface of a passage of Scripture for deeper meanings-as long as we realize that what we are doing is illustrating truth that is clearly taught elsewhere in the Bible.
Here we have legitimate handling of allegory, as can be demonstrated from numerous Old Testament passages. Genesis 1, for instance, deals with God’s activity in creation. The plain, obvious, literal interpretation of the passage will bring out God’s curatorial activity. Beneath the surface, however, is a built-in allegory. On the secondary level, the passage can be taken to illustrate God’s dealings in salvation with a human soul. It shows how the Holy Spirit moves on the darkness of the human heart, how He commands light to shine out of darkness, how He brings light, life, and loveliness to a realm where, before there were darkness and chaos. Paul himself hints at this allegory in 2 Corinthians 4:6.
We can know when we have discovered such a hidden allegory because “things fit”. The emerging illustration is not artificial and does not need to be forced. Rather, it is satisfying to complete.
A good way to illustrate this is to show the hidden allegory in the book of Esther.
The literal interpretation of the book of Esther lies on the surface. The setting of the book is Persia during the days of Xerxes. It shows how the king was influenced by Haman, his prime minister, to order the extermination of all the Jews in his realm. Through the activities of Mordecai, a Jew, and Esther, his beautiful young cousin, the schemes of the Jew-hating Haman were foiled. The book demonstrates God’s providential activity on behalf of His people. There were no mighty miracles, as in the days of Moses and Pharaoh (indeed God is not mentioned in the book, through His name is hidden in the acoustical form in the Hebrew text). God simply overruled natural events to affect a spectacular deliverance for the Jewish people. The story is told in graphic prose to show that “behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face”.
But there is more to the book than that. Beneath the surface lies an awe-inspiring allegory of God’s plan of salvation for lost and ruined human beings.
The story revolves around four people. First, there is Ahasuerus, by far the most important character in the book he is named about 180 times. He represents the sinner. Then there is Mordecai, the Jew. In the book, he is represented as the one who brings salvation. That is his role. He represents the Savior. There is Haman. He, clearly, is the enemy and represents Satan. Finally, there is Esther, the one who knows and loves Mordecai, the Savior.
With this key to the allegory in hand, the door to the second interpretation of the book opens easily.
In the opening chapter, Ahasuerus is seen ruled by pride, pleasure, passion, and worldly policy. He is an individual who thinks only of himself and of what will enhance his ambitions, vanity, and enjoyment. Through circumstances beyond her control, Esther, who has been brought into Mordecai’s family by adoption, finds herself married to the king. She tells her husband of salvation provided for him by Mordecai-only to have her tidings ignored.
Having turned from the message of salvation, the king comes completely under the influence of Haman and stoops to acts wickedly. Haman has two chiefs who hate the person of Mordecai and the people of Mordecai, both of whom he attacks through his personal domination of the king.
At that point, Mordecai begins to deal with Esther about her understandable but inexcusable silence. She has long since ceased to speak to her husband about the salvation provided for him and the influence of the enemy in his life, sensing her lack of influence over him, Mordecai convicts Esther of her negligence. She promises to witness again to the king as long as all God’s people support her with prayer and fasting.
Now God steps in and personally deals with the king. One night, because of his insomnia, the king summons the court librarian picks a book, opens it at random, and begins to read to the king about the salvation Mordecai had provided him. Mordecai’s great work had not been forgotten. It had been written into a book. Thus, we have two unsaved men, sitting together in a bedroom in the middle of the night, the one reading to the other the story of salvation.
The king is convicted. He is ashamed that he has never acknowledged this saviour of his. But who should turn up just then but the enemy Haman? He is too late, however, because the king has already made up his mind. He has made his decision for the saviour and the very next morning he lets it be known that he intends to honour Mordecai and give him his rightful place.
Esther now has the delightful task of instructing her husband in what has really been happening. She exposes the enemy (wicked Haman) who is forthwith hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. The king then gives his ring to Mordecai (the saviour) who henceforth is allowed to control all his affairs.
The change of management in the king’s life is soon felt far and near. Salvation is now extended to the Jews by Mordecai, and revival breaks out. It affects the Gentiles too: “The Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.
The book of Esther ends with the institution of a feast of remembrance so that Mordecai’s great work might never be forgotten.
Such is the allegory, a picture of God’s dealings with the unregenerate. The Song of Solomon lends itself to a similar treatment incident that is quite different from allegorical cheating the Jewish nation out of the inheritance guaranteed to it by the covenant with Abraham.
THE APPLICATION RULE
We sometimes sing a chorus that is popular because of the sentiment it expresses and because it has a catchy tune. Regrettably, it teaches an untruth. It shows us not to take our theology from our hymnbook:
Every promise in the book is mine.
Every chapter, every verse, and every line;
All the blessings of His love divine,
Every promise in the Book is mine.
The chorus says twice that “every promise in the Bible is mine”. It sounds good, but it isn’t true. Every promise in the book is not mine. God made commitments to Abraham and to David, for instance, which He never made to us. He has not promised to make us a great nation, nor has He promised that we shall found dynasties that will never pass away. Obviously, we must distinguish between the meaning of a passage and its possible application in other connections.
The interpretation of a passage must be sought in the occasion that caused it to be written and in relation to the persons to whom it was originally addressed. Only after that interpretation has been settled can we legitimately make application of the passage to ourselves. Even then we should be careful that the application we made does not conflict with other passages of Scripture. Applications of a passage can be rich and varied and, when made in harmony with scriptural teaching given elsewhere, such applications not only prove true but reveal unsuspected depths in the passage.
Making applications in this way is quite different from spiritualizing and allegorizing a passage by wrestling it out of context and importing into it all kinds of fanciful ideas. We would not dream of treating other books in that way.
Imagine “spiritualizing” or allegorizing, for instance, a passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Let us handle the way some people handle the Bible to see the folly of it. The great conspiracy was successful and Julius Caesar was dead. His close friend, Mark Anthony, given permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral, makes one of the greatest speeches in English literature. He begins: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. Praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar”. To “spiritualize” that passage, as some expositors do with passages in the Bible, might produce something like the following interpretation.
Anthony was speaking of the death of the Roman Republic and the birth of the glorious, new, imperial form of government.
The expression “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” is a reference to three forms of government: “Friends” refers to the paternal form of government which existed at the time of the founding of Rome.” Romans” refers to the patricians’ form of government that followed. “Countrymen” refers to the plebian form of government, to democracy, the Roman ideal. Brutus is democracy in its purest form; Cassius is the political expediency that so often characterizes a democracy, Caesar is the state, and Antony the establishment.
It would be nonsense to handle the speech in such a way, Shakespeare was writing drama, based on historical incidents drawn monthly from Plutarch, and he had no thought of preaching a political sermon or of hiding secret meanings in his text. It would be silly to read things into his play. Anyone handling Julius Caesar-like that would be ridiculed.
Evidence J.R.R. Tolkien feared that people might read all kinds of nonsense into his trilogy. The Lord of the Rings. He tried to safeguard against any such attempt in his Forward: “Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestation, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” He repudiates any suggestion that the trilogy is allegorical.
If we cannot take liberties with secular writings, still less can we take liberties with the sacred text. Unquestionably there are hidden depths in the Bible because God is its author. Many passages yield secondary and wonderfully consistent lines of truths, initially hidden and unsuspected. Because of that, the expositor is frequently faced with the temptation to go mining for this buried truth, such delving can be profitable. But let us not mistake such a burrowing for interpretation.
Many an excellent salvation message has been preached from the story of Rehab and her scarlet cord, from the story of Naaman and his cleansing from leprosy; from the story of the lost Axe head; or from the story of David and Jonathan, Great people messages have been preached from Revelation 3:20 or from Lamentations 1:12 or Joshua 24”15. Such handling of the text is valid, but only as long as the lesson is drawn does not violate the basic, underlying rules of interpretation.
A passage of Scripture has only one basic interpretation. Those who would handle the Word of truth honestly must seek to find that before making any other use of the passage. The application of a passage of Scripture must be governed by the same rules of interpretation that apply in all handling of the Scriptures.
When studying an Old Testament Bible character, for instance, the thing to look for is not some unsuspected “type” but the principles inherent in the story. Commands should be interpreted in the light of the cultural context. Promises may be applied to us only if they are addressed to us or are of a universal character. David’s plea that God’s Spirit not be taken away from him (Psalm 51:11) could obviously not be employed by a believer today, as is clear from John 14:16. To teach from Acts 1:4 that we should “tarry” for the Holy Spirit is to miss the point of 1Corithians 12:13. Sound principles of interpretation will keep us free from drawing wrong conclusions from the sacred text. Just because a text is seemingly suitable to a present need does not give us the right to use it out of context as a convenient cloak for our own ideas without regard to its original intent.
Sometimes a passage does have several applications. The parable of the potter (Jeremiah 18) illustrates this. The parable has been used to depict God’s remaking of the ear after the millennium, to describe our resurrection bodies, to show how God can overrule in our lives and bring something beautiful and useful out of even our failures, and so on. Those and similar uses of the text are applications. The interpretation of the potter scenario is given by God Himself and clearly has to do with the nation of Israel. We have no right to spiritualize the passage without first recognizing that basic fact of interpretation.
The use of symbolism is common in any form of communication. Many students of the Word believe that the Bible contains many symbols. Literally, things such as the sun, moon, or stars are given a secondary meaning and are made to represent or symbolize something else. Symbols are forceful. Usually, they communicate very quickly. Stars and stripes are a symbol of the United States of America a maple leaf is a symbol of Canada; a bulldog is a symbol of Britain. In the heyday of its empire, Britain; was often symbolized by a lion.
Sometimes a symbol can stand for more than one thing. An eagle, for instance, might be a symbol of the United States, but it might also stand for Germany, So, obviously, the context in which a symbol is used is of prime importance in deciding exactly what the symbol represents.
The rule for interpreting Bible symbols is simple: God is His own interpreter. We do not have to go outside the pages of the Bible to get an explanation of its symbols. We must likewise avoid the extremes of either ignoring symbol is explained in the immediate context. For instance, in Revelation 1, John, having seen the Lord walking between the lampstands holding seven stars in His hand, is told that the lampstands symbolized seven churches in Asia and the stars the angels of these churches. Sometimes the symbols are explained elsewhere in the Biblical book in which they occur. Certainly, they are explained somewhere in the Bible.
In Revelation 8:8 we read, “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea.” Here again, the Bible explains its own symbols, only this time not in the immediate context but elsewhere in the Word. Thus in Jeremiah 51:25, we read, “Behold, I am against thee, O destroying mountains, saith the LORD.” The context makes it clear that the reference is to Babylon. Hence, a mountain is used symbolically of a great, expansionist world kingdom. In Isaiah 57:20-21, we read, “But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith, my God, to the wicked.” In Jeremiah 50:41-42, we read. “Behold, a people shall come from the north, and a great nation and many kings shall……roar like the sea.” Thus the sea is a symbol of the restless, warring, heaving nations of mankind.
With these clues, it is easy to interpret the symbolism of Revelation 8:8. In the coming day a great nation, burning with destructive energy like a volcano will be violently hurled into the sea of mankind. The resulting upheaval, as “the sea” tries to subdue the volcano, can well be imagined. The symbolism gives a vivid picture of a, particularly widespread and violent war.
So, in handling Bible symbols we must always interpret them in the light of the Bible itself, not in terms of modern life. For example, a bear I often used these days to represent Russia. In the Bible, it is used to depict Persia. The idea of the Russian bear was completely unknown to Bible writers.
Not only do symbols communicate quickly, but they also communicate accurately. Words sometimes become obsolete with the passing of time or sometimes they change their meanings altogether. For instance, when the King James Version of the Bible was first published, the word leasing was in common use. Thus we read in Psalm 4:2, “How long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing?” As it stands, the statement makes very little sense to twentieth-century readers because the word leasing (as it was used in the seventeenth century) is obsolete. When it was part of the current coinage of the English language, it meant “falsehood.”
Similarly, the word prevents as it is used in 1Thessalonians 4:15 has changed its meaning entirely since 1611. We read: “For this, we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” In current usage, the word prevent means “to hinder.” In the seventeenth century, it meant, “to precede.” Thus the entire meaning of the passage is altered by the change in the meaning of the word in the course of time. There are not too many such drastic changes in word meanings, however, and such as there are have been corrected in revised versions of the King James text.
Now while words can and sometimes do change their meanings or drop out of circulation altogether, symbols tend to remain constant. Once the meaning or meanings are associated with it; usually some characteristic inherent in the symbol preserves its meaning. For instance, the sun is a symbol of power, authority, rule. These ideas are inherent in the sun itself which is the source of power in our solar system. God, Himself uses the sun as a symbol of the rule in the very first mention of it in the Bible. In Genesis 1:15-16 we read that God appointed the sun and that moon to rule (“the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night”). The sun and the moon are thus valid symbols of ruling powers, the sun representing supreme authority and the moon representing subordinate authority. Or, as may be received in some contexts, the sun may represent political power and the moon religious power.
A given symbol may sometimes stand for more than one concept. Water, for instance, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but it is also used to symbolize baptism, cleaning, and the Word of God. in speaking of the instability of his oldest son, Jacob said of Reuben that he was as weak as water. In this case, water symbolizes weakness, that which always seeks its lowest level. Another symbol that stands for various concepts is the lion. It represents the Babylonian empire, Satan, and Christ.
Conversely, any given thing may be represented by more than one symbol. Satan is a lion, serpent, angel of light, dragon. The Holy Spirit is a dove, fire, water, wind, and oil.
We can take the guesswork out of interpreting Bible symbols by determining how the Bible itself employs them. This is the safe way. Giving heed to Bible clues will save the expositor from making foolish and unsupported statements which tend to bring the Bible into disrepute. In Job 41:1-34, for instance, we have a highly symbolic and poetical description of a fierce aquatic animal (probably a crocodile). Job is asked by God if he can fish this monster (leviathan) out of the deep with a hook. The whole passage is part of a long exposure of Job’s ignorance, limitations, and weakness. Some sensationalists have turned this passage into a description of a modern submarine to give it some sort of prophetic significance. Such handling of the Bible is not a sound exposition.
Similarly, one popular author sees helicopters in Revelation 9, where we have a highly symbolic description of certain demonic and angelic powers which are to be let loose on mankind in the coming day. Such far-fetched “interpretations” may sell books but they certainly are not good exposition. The context makes clear that, whatever else these things are, they cannot be helicopters. They come out of the abyss-one of God’s prisons for the incarnation of evil spirits.
Before leaving this subject, let us follow one trial of symbols through the Scriptures—those depicting the Holy Spirit have used various symbols to depict His own person and work. A study of these will teach us much about the various operations of the Holy Spirit.
The following list does not exhaust the subject. For instance, the Holy Spirit is sometimes symbolized by an unnamed servant. We find this in Genesis 24, where Abraham sent his servant out to find a bride for his son Isaac. If we regard this passage in its typical significance, then Abraham represents the Holy Spirit. Looked at in this way, the passage teaches us a significant lesson about the Holy Spirit, mission, and method in the world today. He is here to seek a bride for Christ, sent here by the Father. The way the unnamed servant went about his task, his unobtrusiveness, and his success all highlight the Holy Spirit’s way with people.
1. The Wind: His Regenerating Power
We first meet the Holy Spirit in the Bible in Genesis 1:2. “And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The New English Bible commits treason against the Word of God on the very first page and paragraph by translating that: “The earth was without form and void with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.”
The same Hebrew word Ruach can be translated as either wind or spirit. The context always determines which the correct word to use is. In actual fact the word Ruach, which occurs 389 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, is rendered spirit in 237 passages and, in the remaining 152 places where it occurs, it is translated in 22 different ways in the King James Version.
It is no accident that the Hebrew word for spirit and for wind should be the same. The wind symbolizes the Holy Spirit as the mighty, invisible, omnipresent God who manifests Himself in power and might, who goes where He wants, does what He wants, is subservient to no one, who is absolutely sovereign in His freedom of action. It was a a mighty rushing wind that the Spirit of God came at Pentecost, to blow away the dust and cobwebs of the ages and to inaugurate a new and mighty movement in human history.
So the Holy Spirit is likened to the wind, His very name being the same word in the Hebrew tongue in which first He began to speak to the man. Like the wind, the Holy Spirit supremely sets forth His regenerating power. Nowhere is this more pointedly stated than in our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a trained rabbi; a Bible scholar; a religious, good, moral, decent man. Jesus shook him out of his complacency by telling him he needed to be regenerated, needed to be born again. Moreover, apart from such a new birth he had no hope whatever of seeing the kingdom of God. it is noteworthy that the man did not argue. He did not say “Why? He said “How”? he knew that all the years he had spent studying the rules and rites of religion had not brought the breath of divine life to his soul. In telling Nicodemus how the Lord Jesus referred to the work of salvation by likening it first to water and then to wind.
“The wind,” He said, “blows where it likes. You hear the sound of it but you cannot tell where it came from nor where it is going. So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus had experienced a physical birth—he needed to experience a spiritual birth. The physical birth resulted from fixed laws; the spiritual birth resulted from fixed laws. He had nothing to do with the circumstances of his physical birth; he would have nothing to do with the circumstances of his spiritual birth. Just as he had some general knowledge of the laws of physical birth, so he could have some general knowledge of the law of spiritual birth. But there was no way he could control those laws. He could take advantage of the movement of the wind, but he could not command or control the wind.
That is why it is imperative to respond to the convincing, converting power of the Holy Spirit. He is moving now. So now is the time to respond.
We know very little about the laws by which the Holy Spirit operates in regeneration, whether in the life of an individual or in the life of a nation. we do know that He passes through a meeting, and this one is saved, but that one makes no response. We know that at times He brings revival to a nation, but we cannot command a revival.
Now let us go back to Genesis 1:2. There we shall see illustrated for us the movement of the Holy Spirit as the wind. “The Spirit of God.” we read, “moved upon the face of the waters.” He brooded over the face of the deep and over the prevailing darkness jus as He broods over the darkness of a human heart.
Then He spoke. God’s word was introduced to deal with the darkness. And the entrance of God’s word brought to light. Light shone upon the scene. “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, “says Paul, “hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2Corinthians 4:6).
The Spirit of God dealt first with the darkness and then with the deadness of that primaeval world, just as He now deals with the darkness and deadness of a human soul.
2. The Water: His Reviving Power
Water is used symbolically in two ways in the Bible. Water for cleansing is a symbol of the Word of God. Water for drinking is a symbol of the Spirit of God.
The Spirit of God is like water to a thirsty man—it revives him. Thus we find water as a symbol of the Spirit appearing early in Israel’s wilderness journey. First, the Rock was smitten. “That Rock was Christ,” Paul says. There could be no blessing apart from that. The Rock of Ages, the Lord Jesus, was smitten of God and afflicted. “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him” (Isaiah 53:5). As the hymn writer says:
Jehovah lifted up His rod;
O Christ, it fell in Thee
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God
There’s not one stroke for me;
Thy blood beneath that rod has flowed;
Thy bruising healeth me.
But, once that Rock was smitten, the rivers of water flowed. The people of God were revived. When Amalek came, they were able to smite him with the edge of the sword—Amalek representing the flesh, and the sword representing the Word of God.
The classic New Testament passage on the Holy Spirit as water is found in John 7:37-39. It was the last day of the feast and Jesus stood and cried. “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believed on Me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of water. (But this spake He of the Spirit……)” The feast referred to was the Feast of Tabernacles, which closed the religious calendar for the year. It was the last and greatest of the feast and, in its typology, it looked forward to the millennial reign.
In Jesus’ day, an interesting ritual had grown up around the feast and was always observed in Jerusalem. For seven days a procession of the priests went to the pool of Siloam or to the brook Kedron. The priests carried empty golden vessels. These they filled with water and came back to the Temple chanting parts of the Great Hallel. The Great Hallel (Isreal’s “Hallelujah Chorus”) was made up of Psalm 113-118. Actually, the psalms were sung at Pentecost, Passover, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
So the priests came back with their golden vessels filled with water. Then within the Temple courts, they poured out this water in a crystal stream. It was something not commanded in the Old Testament but it was a tradition of great interest and significance. The pouring out of that water signifies:
(1) that God had supplied Israel’s needs for water during the wilderness wanderings.
(2) that in a coming day the deserts will blossom as the rose and that rivers of water will transform the barren lands of earth into gorgeous gardens of Eden.
On the eighth day, no water was poured out. On the last day, the great day of the feast, there were no golden vessels, no procession, no rivers of water. The omission was intended to show:
(1) that Israel was now in the land and there was no need for the supernatural supplies of water.
(2) that the promise of spiritual refreshment symbolized also by the outpoured water, had not yet been fulfilled.
That was the background. On that very day, whit Calvary before Him, Jesus stood and offered rivers of living water to those who would come to Him. And the Holy Spirit leaves us in no doubt about what Jesus means. “The spake He of the Spirit,” He says.
In the Bible, God the Father is likened to a fountain of living water, God the Son is likened to a well of living water; God the Holy Spirit is likened to a river of living water. The river speaks of the power of the Spirit of God to bring revival blessing when people turn to Christ.
(3) The Fire His Refining Power
It is significant that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came as of cloven tongues of fire. Those mysterious flames sat upon each of the apostles. They have changed men from that moment. They were refined. Peter was no longer a coward. Thomas no longer doubted. Philip no longer demanded, “ Show us the Father and it sufficeth us”. Those men went out to set the world on fire.
One of the commonest types of the Holy Spirit in the Bible is oil.
Oil was used in the anointing of prophets, priests, and kings to symbolise the new life-transforming Holy Spirit power that was now theirs.
A great passage on the oil as a symbol of the holy spirit in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25). In many ways the wise and foolish virgins were alike. They were all virgins; they all had lamps; they all had oil in their lamps to begin with; they all went to sleep. The diffident was that the foolish virgins took no extra oil. We have no trouble identifying the lamps. Psalm 119:105 says: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path”. A lamp is used without oil. Apart from the energizing power of the holy spirit, the word of God does not shine. The word of God must be illuminated by the spirit of God. that is why the Bible is a dead book to most. “The natural men receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned”, (1corinth 2:14) that is they have so many cults, all appealing to the bible. Unenlightened people are seeking to get light from the bible without the Holy Spirit.
The vessels represent the individual’s life. David said, “I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I’m like a broken vessel”, (psalm 31:12) Saul of Tarsus is described as a chosen vessel unto God (Acts 9:15) husband are to give honour to their wives “as unto the weaker vessel” (1peter 3:7). Concerning God’s work in our lives, we are told the “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the Excellency of the power might be of God and not of us” (2 corinthians 4:7). The virgins, with the extra oil in their vessels, could rekindle their lamps. That is what makes the difference between those who profess to be believers and those who really are believers: True believers have oil in the vessel; they have the Holy Spirit in their lives. And therefore the word of God, the lamp, can always be rekindled, even when it has been neglected.
(5) The Dove: His Redirecting Power
The dove, too, in scripture is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The sacred dove of God descended from heaven and alighted on the Son of God. now, the Holy Spirit’s work in the world is to draw men and women to Jesus.
When I was a boy I used to spend an occasional hour or two on the station platform in my home town. It was a busy place, on the mainline from London to South Wales and an important junction for the valleys. It was fascinating to watch the trains, the rush and bustle, the constant ebb and flow of traffic. Fast express trains thundered past, along with long, lumbering freights. Fussy little trains left for the valleys.
One day I saw some wicker baskets at one end of the platform. The porter explained that they contained pigeons with a well-developed homing instinct. Those birds, he said, would be put on trains going to various places, all the same distance away. At a set time the baskets would be opened and the pigeons set free. They would circle around a time or two and then head straight for home. That is what the Holy Spirit does for us. He turns us in the direction of home.
thanks for joining this intense study. I shall stop here for now till the next update.
From this part of the world, It is all thanks and be rupturable, from pastor Godstrong.
8 thoughts on “Interpreting The Scripture Through Figures OF Speech And Allegory.”
This is another excellent piece of work.
Your knowledge is commendable.
You really have a great skill of being able to show the minefield of the bible can be clearly understood when we take time to really read what is there. We cannot just read words, but we need to look much deeper to understand.
God did this deliberately of course. He didn’t want to give us a book that would be read, instantly understand and therefore left down again and ignore. Instead he gave us a book that man will never fully understand and will have things which are only revealed as time goes on.
I love your explanation of Luke 14 and how those that were invited the second time were deliberately named to compare with those who had refused.
An excellent piece of work. I hope that God blesses you richly for doing this.
thanks once more Geoff for stopping by. I know that God rewards all that diligently and faithfully served Him in any way, but our top priority now is to see if we shall use this available grace to do his will. thanks, sir as we keep doing our best.
Thank you so much for this post! I am a very devote Catholic, so I have so many things I want to point out about the figure of speeches in Scripture. I recognize that Scripture has different types of speech within it, but who gets to decide which type of speech is being used? Why should I accept one type of speech over another? Would not my Catholic interpretation, which I come to with honesty and a desire to learn and know with faith in Christ, not also be as valid as any Protestant interpretation?
thanks, Jessie for the comments.
it might interest you here that we are not dealing with denominationalism and their ways of interpretations, but modern biblical interpretation so that untrained ministers can study online for free and stop the art of eisegesis. there are standards set theologically to give exegetic biblical interpretations and only our ministers who took their time to be trained theologically know and apply those rules of interpretation to avoid God’s wrath.
thanks for your comments though.
Very interesting. I must admit that this is something I never thought I would be in countering on the Internet. Such in-depth article on literature on a godly website. I must admit I like your website from the start because it is very godly but this article really takes away for me by providing some other type of information that I didn’t anticipate. I really like it a lot I must admit it is amazing and your website is phenomenal. Thank you so much for this article and this website
Your are highly welcome Mussel. All we do here is teach people the principles of Biblical interpretation so we don’t fall into the sin of eisegesis.
Thanks this article was helpful to you.
This is a very interesting post on interpreting the scripture through figures of speech and allegory. Figures of speech are a way of bringing things to life and of course it does mean that different people do interpret it in different ways.
I am a Protestant, but I do not think that my interpretation should be more important than a Catholic. But who decides if one is more important than the other?
My dear, in interpretation, the rules are thesame and that’s why pastors go to theological seminaries and bible schools to be trained. What we write here are for those that really want to know about biblical interpretation respective of your denominations.
we use figures of speech for biblical interpretation and the simile is the most common of all the figures of speech used in the Bible. We use a simile when we use a connecting word such as like or as to state equivalence between two things. eg “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (psalm 1:3). Ye was as sheep going astray” (1peter 2:25).
The second most common figure of speech is the metaphor. When we employ a metaphor we do not use a connecting word; we say that one thing is something else: “all flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6) is a metaphor.”
” The Lord is my shepherd” (psalm 23:1); “Ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13); “this is My blood” (Matthew 26:26); “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). All are metaphors. The preachers,and biblical interpreters know these because they are trained. they don’t just lift a word and dish it out raw unless the literal view made clear sense and needs no interpretation. and needs no interpretation.