The Rule of Interpreting Symbols (Guest Post from James Quiggle)

The Rule of Interpreting Symbols (Guest Post from James Quiggle)

This article from James Quiggle, ThM will prove most helpful in our study of Revelation…

Here is the rule concerning figures of speech, symbols, idioms, and slang terms: they are based in something real and literal and they are intended to communicate something real and literal.

The corollary is: a figure of speech, symbol, idiom, or slang term is not intended to communicate the literal thing on which it is based.

First, a worldly example. “It is raining cats and dogs.” This figure of speech is thought to have come from one of five historical circumstances. Of those possibilities, here are two that illustrate the point figures of speech are based in something literal. One, in the days before modern sanitation a heavy rain would wash the carcasses of dogs and cats down the streets. Two, a heavy rain would wash out cats and dogs hiding in thatched roofs or cause them to jump out of the thatch, thus giving the appearance of raining cats and dogs. Whichever is correct, the figurative meaning is a heavy rain. The figure of speech, “raining cats and dogs” is not intended to communicate literal cats and dogs are falling from the sky

An biblical example. Marriage is used as an Old Testament symbol. The marriage symbol communicates the spiritual fidelity and loyalty expected in marriage teaches the spiritual fidelity and loyalty expected in the believers’ relationship with God—no idolatry. Israel the “wife” of YHWH, does not teach YHWH is married to Israel.

(And the NT corollary: the figure “bride” is not intended to communicate a literal betrothal or marriage to Christ. The NT church is not the “bride of Christ,” but the marriage figure is intended to communicate certain spiritual realities of the church’s relationship with Christ by using certain aspects of a literal betrothal and marriage.)

Another biblical example, literal fire used as a symbol communicates literal destruction (Isaiah 5:24), judgment (Isaiah 66:16; Revelation 20:15), or cleansing (Isaiah 6:6–7). Fire used as a symbol does not communicate a literal fire.

Another biblical example. At Revelation 1:16, a sharp two-edged sword comes out of Christ’s mouth. Are John and the Holy Spirit teaching Christology? No. Does that description mean Christ walks around with a sword coming out of his mouth? No. Does it mean Christ’s tongue is metaphorically razor sharp like a sword and metaphorically cuts the listener? No. The two edged sword is a figure of speech used as an illustration of the Word of God at work in the believer and the world, Hebrews 4:12, revealing and convicting. This figure of speech as used in Revelation represents the Word of God in the mouth of God accomplishing the will of God.

Jesus said if your eye offends you, pluck it out, Matthew 5:29. A woodenly literal interpretation requires the believer to physically remove the offending eye. Is Jesus recommending blindness to avoid moral defilement? Or is there a meaning which recognizes a figure of speech in the passage? The answer will be found by understanding “pluck it out” as a figure of speech. The figure means the believer should remove him or herself from those avenues by which improper sexual thoughts enter into the soul and grow into immoral lust. In the same passage, Jesus said to cut off your right hand if it offends you. Again, this is a figure of speech, not a command to cut off one’s hand. The figure communicated something literal to those listening. The right hand was viewed as the dominant hand, therefore symbolically it indicates the action of one’s will; more simply, one should not make the choices that lead to lust and sin.

One must exercise discernment. One context may require a literal fire, Exodus 12:8, roasting the Passover lamb in the fire. Other contexts may use fire as a symbol of something literal, e.g., Jude 23, “some save with fear, snatching them out of the fire.” The use of “fire” in Jude 23 is a symbol meant by the author to communicate the literal punishment due the unsaved sinner. The word “snatching” in Jude 23 is also a figure of speech in this context, a metaphor for the passionate proclamation of the evangelizing gospel message that when believed saves the soul from endless punishment.

At Revelation 1:14 Jesus’ eyes are “as a flame of fire.” The grammatical value of “as” signifies a simile, which in turn indicates the use of “fire” has a symbolic value, which in turn is meant to communicate something literal. The eyes “speak of penetrating discernment; nothing in the inmost depths of our being can escape the scrutiny of those eyes” [Coates, Revelation, 11]. The meaning is intensified by the descriptive “flame.” Fire is associated with cleansing and with judgment. Believers are cleansed by judgment (e.g., Revelation 2:18), but unbelievers are punished (e.g., Revelation 19:11–12).

The issue with interpreting language is how to recognize the non-literal use of a word. When is fire, or a sword, or some other word, being used symbolically and when is its use literal? The identification of a person, event, or thing as a symbol is critical. For example, if Moses had not understood the rock in the wilderness as a literal and nearby rock (Exodus 17:6), Israel would have died of dehydration. On the other hand, for Paul the literal rock in the wilderness was a symbol of Christ, 2 Corinthians 10:4.

Virkler (“Hermeneutics,” 172) gives six indicators that will help identify when an author does not intend his words to be taken literally:

— The author makes an explicit statement to that end.

— A literal interpretation is impossible.

— A low degree of correspondence exists.

— The imagery is highly developed.

— The author piles up multiple images.

— The author uses original imagery.

To this list I add two other indicators. One, the immediate context will help establish the author’s intent. Two, the use of certain words throughout Scripture establishes a pattern of use, e.g., the use of “fire” in both literal and symbolic contexts. These eight indicators are the best general guides in making decisions concerning use within a specific passage.

So, when interpreting figures of speech, symbols, idioms, or slang terms, keep in mind these two rules.

1. Figures of speech, symbols, idioms, and slang terms used in the Bible are based in something real and literal and are intended to communicate something real and literal.

2. Figures of speech, symbols, idioms, or slang terms are not intended to communicate the literal thing on which it is based.

(This essay is from my work, “The Literal Hermeneutic, Explained and Illustrated.”)

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