What Are Some of the Examples of the Literal and Figurative Interpretations of Scripture?

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  • Author James Rondinone
  • Published February 8, 2024
  • Word count 3,322

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Examples of the Literal and Figurative Interpretations of Scripture

How can we determine whether Scripture is to be interpreted literally or figuratively? In most cases, this can be decided by analyzing certain words in context.

A literal interpretation means that a reference to a person or thing means exactly what it says.

A figurative interpretation means that a reference symbolizes someone or something else.

What if it’s difficult to determine whether something is meant to be taken literally or figuratively? I would suggest three things:

●First, use common sense.

●Second, compare Scripture with Scripture, i.e., finding other passages which speak about the same subject in order to see if there’s any clue as to the correct implication.

●And third, pray to God the Father in the name of Son that by means of the Holy Spirit, He’ll guide us in finding the correct understanding.

SOME EXAMPLES OF SCRIPTURE THAT SHOULD BE TAKEN LITERALLY.

Matthew 3:17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Matthew 5:35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

Luke 5:8 When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.

John 8:58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

Just because someone says something, which was meant to be taken literally, doesn’t mean that those who are listening will agree with the declaration. For example, in the verse mentioned above from the gospel of John,the Jews didn’t believe what Jesus said about His life preceding that of Abraham’s when He declared that before Abraham was, I am. However, this doesn’t nullify the truth of what He said.

SOME EXAMPLES OF SCRIPTURES THAT SHOULD BE TAKEN FIGURATIVELY.

Genesis 41:25-26 And Joseph said unto Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one: God hath shewed Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one.

The seven good kine are symbolic of seven years. Likewise, the seven good ears are symbolic of seven years.

John 15:1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

Jesus is symbolic of being like a true vine.

Matthew 12:50 For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.

Whosoever does God’s will is symbolic of being the brother, sister, or mother of Jesus.

Now that we’ve looked at some clear examples of Scriptures that could be interpreted literally or figuratively, let’s see if you can answer the following question.

Are the following examples to be interpreted figuratively or literally?

LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE VIEW?

Let’s begin by opening our Bibles to the book of Exodus.

Keep an eye on where the words this is, that is, or it is being used and whether what they refer to should be taken literally.

Suggested Reading: Exodus 12:1-12

Four hundred thirty years of Jewish captivity in Egypt were coming to a close. God told the people to sacrifice a lamb, apply its blood to the doorposts of their homes, and then eat it. That same night an angel of the Lord would pass by, and the houses marked with the animals’ blood were spared the death of the firstborn son and animal. Likewise, those houses without evidence of blood experienced the death of the firstborn son and animal. This event, called the 12th plague, caused Pharaoh to finally change his mind and allow God’s people to leave their bondage in Egypt.

Moses, the one whom God chose to lead God’s people out from Egypt to a distant land of promise, along with Aaron, his brother, who would soon become the first high priest of divine service, were told by Jehovah to continue observing this event, being newly designated as the Feast of Passover, on the tenth day of the same month in each successive year when both a sacrificial lamb and unleavened bread were to be eaten. This observance was to be continued during the time of Jesus’ incarnation on the earth. And by the way, when the Jews, who observed the Passover, would make a proclamation over the unleavened bread, they would say these words, "This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate when they came from Egypt."4 Are you ready to answer a question related to the unleavened bread? Well, here it is.

Should the statement about the unleavened bread that would be eaten in the future when observing the Passover being the bread of affliction that their ancestors ate when they came from Egypt be taken literally or figuratively?

Common sense would say that the unleavened bread they were about to eat is symbolic, i.e., it’s to be viewed as a representation of the bread of affliction their ancestors ate when they were in Egypt.

Exodus 12:1, 3, 11 And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house: And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord's passover.

As we continue to read about this story, there’s another figure of speech that appears which needs to be interpreted as being literal of figurative. The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and said that the lamb was to be eaten in haste: it is the Lord’s Passover. The word haste has two meanings. First, it pertains to devouring the lamb due to the circumstances. It can also mean to be properly dressed and ready to travel. As far as stating that the lamb to be eaten is the Lord’s Passover, do you think this expression should be taken as literal or figurative? What do you think?

I think you’d agree that common sense would say no; the lamb is figurative, i.e., it’s a representation of the Lord passing over the houses of the Israelites. It should also be noted that when we see the words it is, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the reference should be taken literally. Agree? By the way, this could also extend to whenever the remarks this is, or that is being used.

Another observation for us to consider is whether you’ve ever noticed that some churches recite particular words at certain times during their worship service, and I wonder if this practice was derived from the one mentioned here. For example, when the Passover lambs were slain, either in the temple or in a person’s home, it was believed that Psalms 113-118, the psalms of praise also known as the Hallel, were chanted. After eating the lamb and taking the 5th cup of wine (one above the amount allotted for the feast), [called] the Great Hallel, Psalm 136, would be read. After each verse, the response would be, "For His [lovingkindness] is everlasting."5

From here, let’s proceed to the book of Mark. Here’s the question to consider.

Should we physically harm ourselves, so that our members would be unable to inflict harm to someone?

Mark 9:43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched

The word offend could mean to cause someone to sin. Common sense would say that the word hand refers to a part of the body that is an instrument of an inward inclination. Would you say that the literal hand is causing a problem or that which provides the motive for the hand to do evil things, i.e., the depraved heart? Should we take what this verse is saying literally and sever the hand or symbolically in regard to addressing what is causing these inward inclinations, i.e., the thoughts of one’s heart?

The example that we’ll look at next is the one that has caused much contention as to whether the elements of the bread and wine are to be taken literally or figuratively. This is found in the book of John.

John 6:53-54 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s take another look at the verses from the gospel of John that pertain to Jesus’ response to the Jews when He said that He was the bread that came down from heaven and that whosoever ate of His flesh and drank of His blood will receive eternal life. What do you think? Was Jesus speaking literally or figuratively concerning eating His flesh and drinking His blood? I’m sure that depending on how the church you attend has expressed its views on such will determine your response.

Isn’t this the way most of us would operate? Leadership says this, and that ends all discussion. When I was a young believer, I’d respond similarly. Hopefully, after we’ve been in the Christian faith for a number of years, we’ll begin to question some of the pulpit’s doctrinal pronouncements and study whether the teachings are grounded in the full counsel of the Word.

From here, the book of John will provide another comparison. And here is the question to ponder.

When Jesus stood and declared loudly that whosoever believed in Him would have rivers of

living water flowing out of their belly, was this to be taken literally or figuratively?

Suggested Reading: John 7:2-53

37-39 In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)

Jesus attended the Feast of Tabernacles (Weeks), which lasted for eight days and was celebrated immediately after the harvest of corn, wine, and oil, near the end of September and the beginning of October. The name of the feast came from the time when their ancestors lived in the wilderness in booths (tents), according to Leviticus 23:43. To commemorate this, tents were erected around the temple, public places, courts, gardens, and on the flat roofs of houses.

When the feast began, all of the people would cut down branches from palm trees, willow, myrtle and tie them together. Then, they’d carry these arrangements with them when they entered the synagogue and pray.

On the 7th day of the feast, they’d walk around the altar seven times, singing Hosanna.

On the 8th day, a priest would draw water from the pool at Siloam, place it in a golden vessel that contained wine, and then pour it out over the morning sacrifice as the people sang.

On the final day of this feast, Jesus stood and declared loudly that whosoever believed in Him would have rivers of living water flowing out of their belly. If He said this was to be taken literally, it would have caused a stir. The listeners probably would have thought that He was mentally ill. What would have been your response?

If we read on, what Jesus was actually referring to was, the person of the Holy Spirit who would be received by anyone who repented and believed in Him following His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. This reality took place on the day of Pentecost (the Feast of Harvest, the day of first fruits, or the day of Shavuot). Therefore, the expression rivers of living water are figurative and refer to the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

We have one more correspondence to look at. The book of Luke is where this is found. The question we’ll consider is this.

Can some earthy object turn into something human?

Luke 22:19-20 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

Was Jesus saying that the bread would turn into His literal body and the cup His literal blood, or was what He said to be taken figuratively in that the bread was symbolic of His body (sufferings on the cross) and the wine symbolic of His blood (death on the cross) that signified the new testament (covenant) of a new kingdom that was to be ushered in, on the day of Pentecost, that would be resident within each person when they responded to the gospel of Christ thus receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit?

Hopefully, we’ll continue to present various reasons, pros, and cons, that will support either the literal or figurative interpretation of Scripture with respect to the elements of communion.

Did you know that some churches might use another unfamiliar approach to determine whether or not the elements of the bread and wine are to be taken literally or figuratively? How is that? by using Old Testament Scriptures. Huh? Whaaaat? I’m sure you’re thinking, this is ridiculous. How could verses from the Old Testament give any insight about this discussion since communion is something that was first mentioned in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Hopefully, you’ve calmed down enough to find out.

Before you turn the page, I’ve provided something for you to help you calm down. No, it’s not an exlax bar. It’s a brief article on this idea of determining whether a passage of Scripture is to be taken literally or figuratively.

LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE?

Speaking about the written Word of God, Jesus Christ said, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). When it comes to spiritual things beyond the realm of man’s five senses, the Word of God is the only credible witness. In stark contrast to the vague, groundless theories and speculations originating in the minds of men, God, the Author of life, presents clear, straightforward answers to man’s most pressing questions. [Thus,] we must diligently look into God’s Word, the literature of eternity, and let Him speak for Himself about the deep issues of life, such as evil, [sin,] and suffering.

The Bible is the standard of all literature, and God the Author of all authors. As literature, the Word of God contains a rich variety of linguistic thoughts, [expressions,] and usages. Like any author, God has the right to use language as He deems appropriate to His purposes. E.W. Bullinger, an eminent British Bible scholar (1837-1913), identified the use of more than 200 figures of speech in the Bible. These figures greatly enrich its literary [value but more importantly,] are vital to our understanding and application of God’s manual for living.

Each reader of God’s Word is entrusted with a certain degree of personal responsibility. Those who endeavor to study, understand and interpret the Bible must become very sensitive to the literary devices it [employs] because its study is not merely for cultural amusement. Our very lives, both temporal and eternal, depend on an accurate understanding of God’s words, which are the very “words of life.”

One’s concept of the Bible determines the attitude with which he approaches it. If you think of it as an impersonal “rulebook,” [you’ll] tend to consult it only in regard to [“infractions”] rather than be motivated to study it with the intent of establishing a personal relationship with its Author. If you think [it’s] only a history book, you may read it with a little more than a detached curiosity.

Some have simplistically attempted to reduce it to a strictly literal document, thus trapping themselves in a maze of contradictions they are forced to ignore or deny. Others have so divorced the words of Scripture from the normal linguistic constraints of grammar, semantics, [syntax,] and logic that the Author’s original intent is lost in a fog of personal speculation.

When God makes statements of [fact] or uses language in the way [it’s] normally used, we should surely take note. When He departs from customary usage of words, syntax, [grammar,] and statements true to fact, we must take double note, for such departures serve to communicate truth better [than literal] statements of fact. How can we tell when a biblical statement is literal or figurative? E.W. Bullinger asks and answers this most pertinent question:

It may be asked, “How are we to know then, when words are to be taken in their simple, original form (i.e., literally), and when they are to be taken in some other and peculiar form (i.e., as a Figure)? The answer is that, whenever and wherever [it’s] possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed [truth,] or seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed [Emphasis ours]. And as [it’s] employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, [we’re] at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized.6

One can easily see how [critical knowledge] of figures of speech is to understanding God’s written communication to man. Without such knowledge, the honest reader comes face to face with overwhelming contradictions that, if not resolved, cannot but undermine his confidence that the Scriptures are truly “God-breathed.” [It’s] our contention that Scripture being the Word of God presupposes its inherent accuracy and consistency. [Thus,] we must explore the figurative language pertinent to the subject of evil, [sin,] and suffering.

As the only credible witness of eternal and spiritual verities, the Bible gives testimony in a variety of ways — some literal, some figurative. Taking literal statements figuratively and figurative statements literally is a root cause of major doctrinal [errors] in the orthodox Christian Church. This has too often resulted in the Word of God being twisted, [distorted,] and misrepresented. If “God IS love” (1 John 4:8), then He cannot do anything that is not loving, and any verses that seem to indicate that He does cannot be taken literally. As [you’ll] see, understanding the figurative language in God’s Word is vital when it comes to reconciling the truth that God is love with the problem of evil, [sin,] and suffering.7

Endnotes

4IVP Bible Background Commentary Pc Study Bible version 5, 2005, 25 March 2009˂http://www.biblesoft.com>.

5The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary Pc Study Bible version 5, 2005, 26 March 2009˂http://www.biblesoft.com>.

6E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1978), page xv.

7“LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE,” Spirit & Truth 13 January 2023

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My name is James Rondinone. I am a husband, father, and spiritual leader.

I grew up in Massachusetts and began my own spiritual journey early on in life.

I attended Bible college, having completed a two-year Christian Leadership Course of Study and graduated as valedictorian (Summa Cum Laude).

Studying and teaching the Word of God has been a passion of mine for over 20 years.

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