The Bible has Multiple Meaning (Part 2)

Bible verse used in podcast:

  • Hosea 12:9-10, John 10:1-6, John 16:25
  • Matthew 5:19
  • James 2:10, Matthew 5:26, Romans 6:23
  • Ezekiel 28
  • Danial 2

Is the Bible figurative?

When jumping into this debate, people often overestimate figurative vs literal interpretation. Last time I focused on a literal interpretation, but this time let’s focus on figurative interpretation. There comes a problem when you only use literal interpretation; the Bible says it includes figurative language.

9 And I that am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt will yet make thee to dwell in tabernacles, as in the days of the solemn feast. 10 I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets.

Hosea 12:9-10 KJV

At first, it seems straight forward, many people would think that dreams have symbolic means about our lives. But what about this word similitude? It comes from דָּמָה H1819 – damah; to be like, resemble. Some translations use the words parable, symbols, or similes when translating this passage in different ways. The idea does not change. The whole point is that the prophets use some type of figurative language. At the very least you would expect figurative language would be limited to the prophets (because it says sp to a degree). For many who have read through the prophets, this seems straight forward. But it turns out that is not enough.

1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

John 10:1-6 ESV

25 “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.

John 16:25 ESV

Here we see Jesus is directly using figurative speak and it is directly acknowledged as so. But this should worry some for a literal interpretation. The reason is we expect that what Jesus is saying are important truths for our lives. But we can see here he is using them in a way so that people don’t understand what he is saying. This could get into a deeper conversation, but the single point that figurative language thought the bible holds important meaning. But not only does it hold abstract theological meaning, but it also turns out even figurative meaning in the Bible holds real “physical” meaning about the world we experience.

Physical symbolism

One example is when you get to Ezekiel 28, the chapter starts off talking about the prince of Tyre. It is clear that the prince is not doing good and God is making statements against him. But as you keep reading something happens. God then turns his attention to the king of Tyre:

11 Moreover, the word11 Moreover, the word of the LORD came to me: 12 “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord GOD: “You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared.

Ezekiel 28:11-13 ESV

At this point, there is a problem, the king of Tyre could not have been in the garden of Eden. if this king was a human, he would have to be thousands of years old. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden in Genesis 3 so no humans except for Adam and Eve have been in the garden. This excludes all other possibilities and leaves us with the concept that this must be Satan (among other reasons). Clearly the symbolic meaning has a lot of implications on a person that we would want to know a lot about. But this “symbolic-ness” gives even more insight, the king of Tyre is not human but the prince is. In a symbolic way, it is looking at the chain of command. The one really in charge is Satan, so who is the prince? One implication could be that the prince is the human king we would think of and the king (the one who is really in charge) is Satan working as a power behind the human king. From here you head to Matthew 4 and think about the temptations of Jesus. Remember that Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus didn’t challenge Satan’s claim. Jesus does not give any indication that it is not Satan’s to give. Satan seems to have the real power behind the kingdoms of the world. 

Here is another example of this. When you get to Daniel chapter 2, King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and wants the interpretation of the dream (I copied over the bits that are important for the overall context, hence why it is a lot):

3 And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.” 4 Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” 5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. 6 But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation.” 7 They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation.” 8 The king answered and said, “I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm– 9 if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you. You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation.” 10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. 11 The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.” … 27 Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, … 31 “You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, … 36 “This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37 You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, 38 and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all–you are the head of gold. 39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth.

Daniel 2:3-11, 27, 31-32, 36-39 ESV

When looking at this, Nebuchadnezzar’s demands are extremely clever and well thought out. If he tells the people his dream, anyone can make up an interpretation. But if they could tell him the dream and interpret it, that shows real power. Only he knows what he dreamed. Now here is Daniel getting the dream that no one knows. Clearly Daniel must have some special ability so Nebuchadnezzar has a reason to listen. But when looking at the dream, it is all symbolic, a status with different types of metals. Clearly it is all symbolic, but yet when Daniel turns to give the interpretation, it is talking about real events, real kingdoms, and real people. Daniel directly states that the head of Gold is Nebuchadnezzar himself. He even explains how this is not just him but his kingdom and soon others will come after him and other kingdoms. This is a classic study that comes out of this where you can find the major nations that rule over the middle east from Nebuchadnezzar until the Roman period, which you could set out on a journey to look for. But to the point, the symbolic dream has physical interpretation in our real world. 

Beyond context

There are times when the passage is obviously literal and obviously figurative. Not all passages are as straight forward. Often you need to look at the context of the passage to help understand which to use. But often, context is not just part of it. Sometimes you need to get deeper into the way someone is thinking about their words, not the way you interpret them. Sometimes people read for context and not realize that the way the writers are speaking is not the same way they understand it. For instances lets take this passage:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Now it is pretty clear that Jesus’ words here are pretty harsh. If you read this literally, you run into a problem. Jesus is saying to destroy your body every time you sin. Not clearly that will run into problems. I spoke with someone on this issue, and they took a literal approach to the Bible in general. We were talking about how serious sin is when I came to this passage. When you look at how serious sin is, if you were to really cut off a body part to prevent you from sinning, it wouldn’t be hard to have to quickly need to cut off everything. When talking to this person he mentioned how your hand doesn’t cause you to lust so you wouldn’t need to cut it out. I then replied saying that list happens in the heart according to Jesus and if you follow his logic, if something causes you to sin, you need to cut it out. Now can you cut out your heart because that is where the lust happens? If you did you would be dead. The issue goes past just looking at a person, the issue is the intentions that come from the heart. To easily clear this up Jesus is using a hyperbole which is an extreme statement to express something. What is being expressed here is the reality of sin and how serious it’s effect is on our lives. All throughout the Bible, you find that Sin is a big issue. 

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 ESV

10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.

James 2:10 ESV

25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Matthew 5:25-26 ESV

The whole point that Jesus is making is that sin is more than just the physical actions we do. Sin deals without inward being and the way our hearts are. If we really cared about sin and understand how serious it is, then we should do everything in our power to keep ourselves from sinning. But that is not enough. In this example, cut off the body parts that allow you to sin. But that is still not enough, our own effects can’t stop us completely from sinning because of how far gone we are. That is not even considering what we need to do about the fact that we did sin. Stopping yourself from sinning and paying for those sins are two separate issues. Both only Jesus can’t handle.

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