AS A PERSON studies the Scriptures or any other writings, he is to assume that everything is to be taken literally unless there is some indication that there is a departure from the normal, usual, literal meaning. The principle stated in full is as follows;
When the plain, sense of Scripture makes common, sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.
Whenever this rule is ignored, confusion and misunderstandings always arise.
The early church was plagued with the allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures. While this principle does not exactly come under the head of symbolism, yet it is close akin to it and has done untold damage to the cause of true Christianity. It still causes a blight wherever resort is made to its principles. The allegorical interpreters sought to find running alongside the usual sense of a passage a hidden, spiritual, or allegorical meaning. Whenever they thought they had found this mysterious significance, they usually lost sight of the plain historical record and engaged in the most fanciful interpretations. Thus in a way the historical records of the scriptures stood for great and mysterious principles and facts. Assumed deep spiritual meanings were read into the narratives, for they were not put there by the inspiration of the sacred writers. The Scriptures mean what they say and say what they mean. Of coarse there are various kinds of language found in the Sacred Oracles. We are to recognize the different types that depart from the literal meaning and to interpret them accordingly.
I. Determining Symbolic Language
How may I determine whether or not a certain citation is symbolic? Fundamentally I am not to assume that a passage is symbolic unless there are indications which point in that direction. Whenever such positive evidence is apparent, I am to look at the facts as they appear in the text. As an illustration of this type or language note the follow passage:
"And Joseph said unto Pharaoh, The dream of Pharaoh is one: what God is about to do he hath declared unto Pharaoh. 26 The seven good kine are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dream is one. 27 And the seven lean and ill favored kine that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine" (Gen. 41:25-37). Pharaoh, king of Egypt, had dream in which he saw seven fat, well-fleshed well-favored cows coming up out of the river. Following them came seven poor and ill-fed ones, which devoured the seven fat ones. He likewise saw seven well-filled ears of grain and after them, seven blasted ones. The latter swallowed up the former. Joseph by the Spirit of God interpreted this language and said to Pharaoh that the seven good cows were seven years. We know that this was not literally true. The seven fat cattle represented seven full and abundant years and the seven lean ones signified seven years of famine; It is clear, then, that this is symbolic language.
In Ezekiel: 37:1-14 we have a description of a vision which was granted that prophet. In this vision he saw a valley covered with dry bones. When he prophesied, the bones came together. Then sinews connected them. Flesh appeared on the skeletons, and then skin covered the bodies. Finally the Spirit of God breathed life into them and they arose, a mighty army of the Lord. If the record had stopped with the narration of these events, no one would have been able to determine the significance of that which was revealed. But in verse eleven the Lord declared that the dry bones are the whole house of Israel: "Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off" (Ezek. 37:11). This cannot be literally true. Obviously the bones represent the whole house of Israel at a certain stage in the history of the nation. Thus these bones are symbols of the scattered nation.
In Daniel, chapter 2, we have a description of the metallic image which was shown to Nebushadnezzar in a vision. Daniel by inspiration reproduced the vision and interpreted it to the monarch. In indicating its meaning he declared: "Thou, 0 King, art King of Kings unto whom the God of heaven hath given the kingdom, the power, and the strength, and the glory; 38 wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beast of the field and the birds of the heavens hath he given into thy hand, and hath made thee to rule over them all; thou art the head of gold" (Dan. 2:37,38). The head of gold of the image was not literally Nebuchadnezzar; but in this instance it symbolized him and his government. Likewise the chest and arms of silver represented the Medo-Persian Empire. In like manner the belly of brass was an emblem of the Grecian government, whereas the legs of iron and feet and toes of iron and miry clay were symbols of the Roman Empire. This interpretation is forced upon us in the light of all the facts that are involved in the revelation.
Frequently we are told that the Book of Revelation is a book of symbols. This is an overstatementa greatly exaggerated and perverted judgment. Everyone who will examine it soberly and scientifically must admit that there are symbols appearing here and there in it. At the same time he must also admit that there are many statements that are literal and must be interpreted thus. For instance, we are told in the first three chapters that the candlesticks symbolize the various churches to which letters were sent. That symbolism was chosen because of its appropriateness to the subject. But the churches thus represented were real and literal. The messages that were written by John to them must be interpreted according to their common sense meaning. There are those who endeavor to interpret the living creatures of chapters 4 and 5 as symbols. An examination, however, of the context shows that these are real, celestial beings, that serve God and His purposes. They must be thus understood. In chapter 5 the Almighty is presented to us as having a roll of a book in his right hand. The Lamb, the Lord Jesus Christ, takes it out of His hand. This book is seen to be sealed with seven seals, which the Lord Jesus breaks in succession. This pictorial presentation of the book was doubtless chosen to indicate a revelation, since the messages of God which He sent to us are written in material books. We have some difficulty in picturing to ourselves the form and size of this little book and how it was sealed. But we know the significance of a seal. In order to read the message of the book, the seals had to be broken. Such seems to be the significance of the seals and the breaking thereof. When the Lord broke each of the first four seals, one of the living creatures shouted, "Come." In answer to this command there appeared in the vision the rider on a certain colored horse. Thus at the breaking of the first four seals and at the command of the living creatures, four riders on four different horses of various colors came forth. The question which immediately arises is: Are these horses and riders to be understood as symbols, or are they to be interpreted literally? A clue as to the proper answer seems to be found in an examination of the rider on the fourth horse. He is called death. Hades follows after him. It is clear that death is here used symbolically, for it is personified and thought of as an actual rider. And yet we know that death is not a person. From this fact we see that this rider is a symbol. We have every reason to believe that the other three are used in the same way. When we look at the facts of each case, we can see how very appropriate each of these symbols is to set forth that which is explained in the literal language accompanying the presentation of each symbol.
I could continue through the Book of Revelation, calling attention to those things that are put in symbolic language and those things that are to be taken literally, but what has been mentioned is sufficient to let the reader know that the Lord does use symbolic language in various portions of His Word. But we are never to conclude that the presence of a symbol in a certain section requires that we understand everything that is said in that connection is to be taken symbolically.
But before leaving the Book of Revelation, I feel constrained to refer to the twentieth chapter. There we are told that the Lord Jesus Christ will return to earth and reign for a thousand years. This statement is frequently nullified by those who tell us that we are not to understand this statement as literal, since the Book of Revelation is highly figurative. Figurative language may appear in the same sentence with a statement of a sober literal fact. One is to use common sense and look at the facts as they are presented in a certain passage in order to determine the significance of the language employed. There is no reason for our doubting that the assertion regarding our Lord's reigning a thousand years should be taken literally. I therefore believe the statement and accept it at its face value.
II. Interpreting Symbolic Language
In Daniel chapter 7, we have a very fine illustration of symbolic language. The prophet saw in the night-visions the great sea which was at various times agitated by stormy winds. When the water was first churned into a raging fury, there emerged from it and came upon the land a lion-like beast. At a subsequent time, when the water was again agitated, there emerged a bear-like beast, which came upon the land and was master of that which he surveyed. A third time the water was churned into a raging tempest. On this occasion there came forth a leopard-like beast, which came upon the land and did as its predecessors. On the next occasion when the waters were agitated, another one that was horrible, terrible, and different from all the rest came forth and exercised authority in place of its predecessor. He extended his boundaries to include the entire world and became master of all peoples, tribes, tongues, and languages. The account of these visions is found in Daniel 7:1-8.
When anyone reads this passage he is impressed with the fact that it is not a description of a literal occurrence. Lions as we know do not live in water. Bears do go into water at times, but that is not their natural habitat. Leopards certainly do not live in water. The impression which the reading of these verses makes upon one's mind is that this is not literal language. Evidently, then, it is figurative or symbolic. How are we to determine its meaning? The answer is found in verses 17 and 23. "These great beasts, which are four are four kings, that shall arise out of the earth." The interpreting angel informed Daniel that the four beasts which he had seen in vision are four kings that arise out of the earth. These beasts cannot be literal kings. The only way to understand this language is to interpret it as indicating that the beasts are used symbolically. God chose these animals to represent four different kings. But in verse 23 we learn that the fourth beast is likewise a symbol of a kingdom:
"Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be a fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all the kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down and break it in pieces." We are logical in concluding that all four of the beasts not only are symbols of kings, but also of kingdoms over which they reign.
Since God has attached this special significance to a beast when it is used symbolically, and since He is not the author of confusion, we may conclude that, wherever a beast is used symbolically, it has this same significance. The importance of our recognition of this principle is seen in the fact that, by the great Protestant reformers, the beast of the Book of Revelation was interpreted as being a symbol of the Roman Catholic church. We must admit that, during medieval days, when the Roman Church enjoyed its hey-day, it did relegate to itself certain political powers and would do so today if it had the authority and opportunity. It was primarily an ecclesiasticism and not a civil government. The beast of the Book of Revelation is a symbol of a civil government which exists at the end time, and which is world-wide in its scope and grasp. When the reformers, therefore, interpreted this symbol as signifying the Roman Catholic Church and system, it did violence to the truth and laid the foundations for much misunderstanding of the Scriptures. This false interpretation has been and is continuing to be the occasion of much confusion in the field of the study of prophecy. Let us therefore hold to the significance of a symbol which the Lord assigns to it.
A further illuminating reference will enable us to see the force of this principle. When the Lord instituted the Supper at the conclusion of the passover on the night of His betrayal, He gave to the elements, the loaf and the cup, a special significance. The loaf represents His body; the cup, His blood. Regardless of where those emblems are used in a Christian assembly, they have the same significancealthough various shades of ideas may be read into the language of the Saviour. This memorial supper has the same and everlasting significance wherever it is observed.
Let us, as we study the Word of God, never consider any passage as figurative unless the facts of the context demand such an interpretation. Let us also recognize the various figures of speech that are used. We are to bear in mind constantly that no language is to be understood as symbolic unless the facts of the context thus indicate. When we find such symbols, let us seek for the divine interpretation of them, and never read into the record something that is not found in the inspired text.
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