2 Tim 3.16-17
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

What does it mean to read and understand the Scripture “literally”?

In the past I have used the phrase:

“We are to read the Bible literally unless the text indicates otherwise.”

A more precise assertion would be:

“We are to take the text literally according to the purpose intended by the text, whether literal, figurative, etc., and in such a way that it does not lead to a direct violation of any other part of Scripture that is also correctly understood according to this principle.”

This redefinition is intended to recognize the many cases in which a text is clearly figurative, illustrative, metaphorical, etc., and is to be understood in such ways. That is, we should understand a figurative text as figurative, a metaphorical text as a metaphor, and so on rather than strictly according to the technical and/or literal definition of the words used. In other words, we are to operate with the same principle of verbal communication that we use daily.

This is easy to illustrate with a very typical example from everyday life: “The sun rose at 6:30am this morning.” If we use a strictly “literal” interpretation of the statement we end up with nonsense: the sun is much too large to “rise” from the earth or “set” into the earth. Plus, the earth is a sphere, so the rising and setting have, at best, a local only meaning. The “rising” here is a “setting” elsewhere; and, in fact, it is neither nearly everywhere else.

It is not an exaggeration to say that every person on the planet has used this language—and that without ambiguity, misunderstanding or accusation of deception! I’ve yet to hear an astrophysicist decry the imprecision of that expression as a reason to ban its use in any and all conversation.

Such a phrase is an expression of appearance, not a statement of astrophysics: the sun appears to rise in the morning and set at night. This is the reasonable, rational and mature understanding of a clearly figurative expression. So, whether you want to apply the terms “literal” or “figurative” to this case is one of semantics; understanding that the intent of the expression adequately describes what the event of sunrise or sunset looks like is the point the speaker makes and which was intended to be understood as such by the hearer.

But how does this work when the context of an expression is in the Scripture? Really, in just the same way. Here are a few categories to consider.

Anthropomorphic expressions used of/by the LORD
Other expressions used of the LORD
Expressions used of the Lord Christ
Expressions used of Israel
Expressions used of Nations

[I'm not ignoring the fact that there are many expressions in the Scripture which are difficult to understand. My assumption, though, of this article is that the LORD wrote the Scripture to be understood. In it He used "variety of expression" in the same way we do to communicate with each other; the local and distant context is to be our guide as to what a given text means when the expression used may be initially more difficult to understand.]

Here are some unusual expressions that we find in the Scripture, which nonetheless are typically found in our own daily communications with each other without misunderstanding or ambiguity.

Anthropomorphic expressions used of/by the LORD

Gen 18.20-21
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” And the LORD said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.

Exo 33.5
For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, 'You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now therefore, put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I shall do with you.'

Deu 32.26-27
I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces, I will remove the memory of them from men,” had I not feared the provocation by the enemy, that their adversaries would misjudge, that they would say, “Our hand is triumphant, and the LORD has not done all this.”

1 Sam 15.11,35
I regret that I have made Saul king ...
... And the LORD regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.

Job 2.3
The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.”

[I have written quite a bit about this text in another article:
The LORD: the Author of Calamity
in the chapter entitled:
The Exceptional Case of Job’s Calamity.]

Psa 44.23-24
Arouse Yourself, why do You sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever. Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression?

Psa 78.36,39, 41,59,65
But they deceived Him with their mouth and lied to Him with their tongue. ... Thus He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not return. … Again and again they tempted God, and pained the Holy One of Israel. … When God heard, He was filled with wrath and greatly abhorred Israel; ... Then the Lord awoke as if from sleep, like a warrior overcome by wine.

Isa 42.14
“I have kept silent for a long time, I have kept still and restrained Myself. Now like a woman in labor I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.

Isa 59.16
And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede ...

Jer 15.6
I am tired of relenting!
[The word “relenting” here is the same as “regret” in 1 Sam 15 (above).]

Jer 44.22
So the LORD was no longer able to endure it, because of the evil of your deeds, because of the abominations which you have committed; thus your land has become a ruin, an object of horror and a curse, without an inhabitant, as it is this day.

Eze 6.9
... how I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts ...

Hos 8.4
... they appointed princes, but I did not know it ...

Amo 2.13
Behold, I am weighted down beneath you as a wagon is weighted down when filled with sheaves.

1 Cor 1.25
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
[cf. Gen 20.11; Gen 22.10-12; Isa 1.14; Isa 54.8; Isa 62.7; Isa 63.5; Isa 63.9-10; Jer 31.20; Eze 24.12; Hos 11.8.]

Other expressions used of God

Psa 61.1-4
Hear my cry, O God; Give heed to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For You have been a refuge for me, A tower of strength against the enemy.
Let me dwell in Your tent forever; Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings.

[This is but one of many similar expressions used in the Psalms.]

[Many years ago my wife and I met with a young couple in our home for lunch. One purpose of the meeting was to discuss eschatology (because I learned he was of the post-mil persuasion). One of the points I raised in favor of the future Millennium was from the well-known verses in Rev 20, where the duration of 1000 years is repeated 6 times. He was ready (in his mind at least) for this. His objection? This verse from the Psalms:

Psa 50.10
“For every beast of the forest is Mine,
The cattle on a thousand hills.”

His basic objection ran something like this:

"Does the LORD really own the cattle on exactly 1000 hills? Why not 999 or 1001? Why not some other number vastly different from 1000, since there are probably many more hills than merely 1000? If it is exactly 1000 hills, why doesn’t He own the cattle on them?"

He was trying to establish that if the use of the number "1000" was to be taken literally in Rev 20 (my argument), why not in Psa 50 as well? The problem here is that he took the text strictly literally instead of recognizing the obvious meaning: the LORD owns everything (which the text states!). His objection, of course, demonstrated pure arrogance and stubbornness, a mindless devotion to a failed eschatology. I am certain that if there was another text which could be taken as "non-literally" as Psa 50, if it did not run counter to his post-mil ideology, he happily would take the meaning of such a text as non-literal.

This young man also ignored the local context:

Psa 50.10-12
“For every beast of the forest is Mine,
The cattle on a thousand hills.
“I know every bird of the mountains,
And everything that moves in the field is Mine.
“If I were hungry I would not tell you,
For the world is Mine, and all it contains."

I heard about two years after our lunch that he and his wife had joined the Roman Catholic “church”. I was not surprised.]

Expressions used of Christ

Joh 1.29
The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and *said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

[Surely John intended to express that this One was to be the sacrificial Lamb who would finally, and literally, take away sin “once for all”. And, even in this expression we must understand “world” to be only the world of God’s elect—unless we reject the biblical teaching of divine election and instead accept universalism.]

1 Pet 2.4-8a
And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture:
“Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone,
And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve,
“The stone which the builders rejected,
This became the very corner stone,
“A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense”;

Expressions used of Israel

Isa 5.7a
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel
And the men of Judah His delightful plant.

Hos 10.1
Israel is a luxuriant vine;
He produces fruit for himself. …

Nah 2.2
For the Lord will restore the splendor of Jacob Like the splendor of Israel,
Even though devastators have devastated them
And destroyed their vine branches.

Expressions used of nations

Isa 10.5
Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,

Isa 10.16-19
Therefore the Lord, the God of hosts, will send a wasting disease among his stout warriors;
And under his glory a fire will be kindled like a burning flame.
And the light of Israel will become a fire and his Holy One a flame,
And it will burn and devour his thorns and his briars in a single day.
And He will destroy the glory of his forest and of his fruitful garden, both soul and body,
And it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
And the rest of the trees of his forest will be so small in number
That a child could write them down.

There are very many other obvious examples I could present, but the point should be clear:

The language of the Bible, though inspired by the Spirit, is also inherently human with typical human expressions. We surely would drive each other crazy if our language was only strictly literal. Rather, we all, very often, use all types of expressions that can’t be taken literally but whose meanings are nonetheless clear.

Yes, of course there are ambiguous expressions used among and by people. But this strictly human characteristic can’t be applied to the LORD–unless, of course, we ascribe to Him a fundamental inability to express Himself accurately at all times. This is why above I added the constraint that, properly understood, no portion of Scripture will ever lead to a direct violation of another properly understood Scripture.

I want to end this article with one final example from the Revelation of the Lord Christ:

Rev 5.6
And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth.

I maintain that what John saw is exactly what he describes: a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes—no more, no less.

The very simple reason that I hold this is because of the truth revealed in Rev 1.19:

Rev 1.19
Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.

Many years ago when I taught an adult class on the study of the Revelation, in Lesson 1 of that study I wrote this in the notes I gave to the class:

As I enumerate below, John's uses the verbs “I see” (G3708 ὁράω and G991 βλέπω) and “I hear” (G191 ἀκούω) a combined total of 91 times. Since there are 404 verses in the book of Revelation, John amply demonstrates the fact that he was an “eye witness” of the events that God gave to Christ to “show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place”. (v.1.1) John clearly states that he saw the seven-eyed, seven-horned Lamb,

Therefore, we have the inspired testimony of God that 91 times (close to once every 4 verses!) John obeyed the command to record what he saw. So, any attempt to “interpret” what John saw as anything other than a “seven-eyed, seven-horned Lamb” makes John both disobedient and a liar, someone whose writings therefore can’t be trusted, and which don’t belong in the canon of the Scripture. According to the principle I stated above, maintaining that John is a liar would certainly undermine the meaning of Scripture in that it violates 2 Tim 3.16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching …”

I therefore take that in Rev 5.6, for whatever reason, the Lord intended to present Christ to John at this point in the Revelation as a “seven-eyed, seven-horned Lamb”. In doing so there is neither ambiguity nor a violation of any other Scripture. There is no doubt but what John saw was none other than the Lord Christ as He chose to reveal Himself at that moment.


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