Psa. 18:2, “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer;…” (KJV)
I have opined before of those who insist that all of the Bible must be taken literally. Surely it is evident that the poetry used in Psalms 18:2 is a literary device to express the idea of God’s strength, shelter, and endurance in a physical sense that man can understand.
The word “rock” in the original Hebrew is “סָ֫לַע” (Strong’s Heb. 5553), transliterated as “sela” and means a crag, or cliff. It is the image of a stronghold, a sheltering place out of the wind, of unchanging endurance against time. The Holy Spirit used the literary device of a metaphor to relay some of God’s characteristics in poetic words we can absorb.
Those who are demanding that we must treat every word of the Bible literally are causing confusion. This idea has caused many people to draw false conclusions.
For instance, many believe that the Levitical laws of restitution were literal. But, this is very hard to justify, and indeed was never understood by the Hebrews as literally “an eye for an eye”.
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible on Lev. 24:19 :
“…as he hath done, so shall it be done unto him: not that a like damage or hurt should be done to him, but that he should make satisfaction for it in a pecuniary way; pay for the cure of him, and for loss of time, and in consideration of the pain he has endured, and the shame or disgrace brought on him by the deformity or mutilation, or for whatever loss he may sustain thereby;…” Source: Biblehub
Except for capital punishment, the Hebrews understood restitution to be a monetary replacement or payment for cure or loss of injury as far as possible. The “beast for a beast” or “eye for an eye” was also a limit upon the monetary restitution, so that the judges would not overly penalize the accused beyond the measure of the damage or loss. God’s intent was that the punishment would not exceed the crime.
Or, should we take Matt. 5:30 literally?
“And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee:…” (KJV)
Under the old law, the Jews had a practice of actually cutting off the hand for impure touching. In the Middle East there is still a practice today of cutting off the hands of thieves. The Lord’s intent is not literally to cut off the hand, but to stop the impure, or sinful behavior. Christ used an idiom to convey the intent for spiritual righteousness.
Gill’s Exposition at Matt. 5:30 includes:
“…A way of speaking, [an idiom] much like what our Lord here uses; and to the above orders and canons, he may be very well thought to allude: but he is not to be understood literally, as enjoining the cutting off of the right hand, as they did; but of men’s refraining from all such impure practices, either with themselves, or women, which are of a defiling nature; and endanger the salvation of them, body and soul; the same reason is given as before.” Source: Biblehub
It can be very dangerous to insist that God meant every verse of the Bible literally.
God is the author of the Bible. It is God’s intention that is important; it is God’s purpose that we must determine from within His words. We use the context, and scriptural references, as well as commentaries and definitions from the original Hebrew and Greek languages in order to delve fully into God’s meaning. That is how we seek Him out. That is how we have to grow in the knowledge of His word.
Sometimes His word is very literal. Sometimes, however, it is poetical. Other times it is highly symbolic and figurative. And still other times He used a lot of hyperbole. The Bible is a book of history, prophecy, poetry, parables, and proverbs.
The Holy Spirit used every type of literary device – metaphors, similes, analogies, allegories, personification, and anthropomorphism – to convey spiritual concepts in physical properties and human relations which we can understand. The context of the Bible will tell us when the scriptures are literal and when they are not.
Whenever we come across prophesy in the Bible we have to switch gears, so to speak and open our minds to the symbolic prophetical language God used in His word. There are key words that signal the switch from literal to figurative. Some of these are “as”, “like”, “but”, “and”, “for”, “until”, etc.
All of these conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositions are the clues that let us know some of God’s definitions. They are used throughout the Bible to indicate metaphors, parallels, and symbols.
For instance, consider the poetry couplet of Isa. 37:27,
“Therefore their inhabitants were of small power, they were dismayed and confounded: they were as the grass of the field, and as the green herb, as the grass on the housetops, and as corn blasted before it be grown up.” (KJV)
This prophesy Isaiah gave in the form of poetry to Hezekiah against Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, and compared the Assyrians to grass of the field, as being without power, small and insignificant. One thing was compared to another (a simile), and assured Hezekiah of the ease with which God would prevent and destroy Sennacherib’s army. In God’s eyes, the grass of the field was synonymous with men, and was indicated by the word “as” in the second half of the couplet.
This same analogy of comparing weak or defenseless people to grass is used again in Rev. 9:4.
“And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.” (KJV)
We can positively identify the grass in the first half of the couplet as an antonym for wicked men in the second half. The angels could not hurt “the grass of the earth,” but could hurt the men who did not have the seal of God. Therefore, as an antonym, the grass of the earth were those men that did have the seal of God. The antonym was indicated by the word “but” in the second half of the couplet.
Couplets are very helpful in identifying and defining the symbols in God’s prophesies. The first part of the couplet will have either a synonym or antonym in the second part. Synonyms are usually indicated by the words “as” and “like.” Antonyms usually follow the word “but.”
Psa. 12:6, “ The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.” (KJV)
This poetic couplet compares God’s word to the purest of silver, purified seven times. The simile is indicated in the second half by the word “as”. The scripture does not mean that God’s words are literally silver.
Psa. 19: 1-2, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. 2 Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” (KJV)
The Holy Spirit used anthropomorphism to attribute the ability of human speech to daylight, and personified the night as a teacher dispensing knowledge. Neither the day nor the night were literally speaking.
The literalists will agree with the most obvious of these spiritual comparisons, but then will insist that God’s word is always literal whenever they want the scriptures to support their personal interpretation of prophesy. They are not consistent in their application of “literal interpretation”.
But we are told that no scripture of prophesy is of any private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20). That means only God interprets (Dan. 2:19-24), and we are to find His meanings from within His word. His comparisons, similes, and metaphors are the codes of His prophetic language.
Many of the codes (symbols) are found in the couplets of His poetry.
Jer. 46:7-9, “7 Who is this that cometh up as a flood, whose waters are moved as the rivers?
8 Egypt riseth up like a flood, and his waters are moved like the rivers; and he saith, I will go up, and will cover the earth; I will destroy the city and the inhabitants thereof.
9 Come up, ye horses; and rage, ye chariots; and let the mighty men come forth; the Ethiopians and the Libyans, that handle the shield; and the Lydians, that handle and bend the bow.” (KJV)
In the prophesy against Egypt, her armies were compared to a flood that would cover the earth. The use of a flood as a metaphor for an overwhelming army is shown many times in prophesy.
Dan. 9:26, “And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.” (KJV)
The comparison in Daniel to the end of the desolations of Jerusalem being as a flood was a comparison to the army of the prince that would destroy the city. The flood of the army overwhelmed the city, and “washed” it away. That army was the Roman army under Vespasian and Titus in the Jewish/Roman war of AD 67-70.
We can keep looking for many more metaphors and similes throughout the scriptures, but there is one more in particular I have in mind. It is the couplet of Matt. 24:35.
“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (KJV)
One thing would pass away, but another thing would not pass away. Just as in many other couplets of poetry and prophesy, the word “but” signals a comparison. When we examine this scripture closely we find that the comparison is between “Heaven and earth” and “my words”.
The word “but” indicates an antonym, something opposite to another. In this comparison, “heaven and earth” was opposed to, opposite of Christ’s words, “my words”. Then, “heaven and earth” must have been symbolic of someone else’s words, and was being used by Christ as an idiom.
On the Mount of Transfiguration, God told the disciples of a change He was making. Moses and Elias appeared with and was speaking to Jesus, and God told Peter and the disciples with him in Matt. 17:5,
“While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” (KJV)
Peter was told to hear Christ’s words, which implied that the gospel of Christ was above Moses’ words which would no longer be in effect under the gospel of Christ. The change God was making was from the old Mosaic covenant of the fleshly law, to the gospel of Christ which fulfilled all the law (Matt. 5:17-18).
Then, as Christ’s words (the gospel of the new covenant) would not pass away, and the disciples were to listen to Christ instead of to Moses, then Moses’ words were the ones passing away. In the prophetic couplet of Matt. 24:35, “Heaven and earth” was an idiom for the old Mosaic covenant.
Moses’ words, the old sacrificial covenant, was the heaven and earth that did pass away in the destruction of that sacrificial temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70.