Symbolism



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We will now look at various figures of speech, idioms and other linguistic techniques for adding depth to the meaning of a passage. We will discuss symbolism, typology, allegory,and various figures of speech.

Symbolism is the representation of one thing by another thing, which is called a symbol. Often the symbol is used in place of an abstract idea or concept. The Bible is rich in its use of symbols. These are used in typology,allegory,and parables.

In the following symbolism, the Lord instructs Hosea to take an adulterous woman as his wife. This woman represents Israel:

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, 'Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.' So he married Gomer. (Hosea 1:2-3a)

Then I [Hosea] told her, 'You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.' For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days. (Hosea 3:3-5)

This is very rich symbolism and includes prophecy.

The book of Revelation contains many examples of symbolism. One example is:

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. (Revelation 12:3)

In this passage the meaning of the symbol is given so there can be no confusion about it.

The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. (Revelation 12:9)

We must be careful not to assign the wrong meaning to symbols in scripture or the meaning will affected.

I do not consider idioms to be figures of speech.


Typology

I should mention I no longer believe Typology is a valid or useful method of interpretation.

There are several words we need to understand in order to discuss the subject of typology. A "transaction" is a historical event which can be isolated from other events for the purpose of study. A "type" is a transaction which comes before another event and which adds to our understanding of the second event. The word "typical" is merely the adjective for the noun "type." "Typology" is the study of types and typical transactions.

The study and understanding of typology is of critical importance in properly interpreting and understanding the Word of God. Those who underemphasize the abundance of types found in scripture will fail to understand the true significance of passages, and will often give a literal meaning where a symbolic meaning was intended. Going to the other extreme, those who give a typical significance to everything are guilty of arbitrarily assigning a meaning to a transaction, and thereby adding meaning which was not intended by God.

God's purpose in using typology is given by Paul:

For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:3,4)

In this passage, Paul quotes from the book of Psalms:

The insults of those who insult you fall on me. (Psalm 69:9)

These prophetic words spoken by David give a preview of the rejection of the Messiah. The typical significance of this passage lies in the fact that it contains a general truth which will be valid over and over again throughout history. Thus, we can even apply Psalm 69:9 to ourselves as we share the gospel with people — those who reject Jesus are often hostile to us as well.

The word "type" is actually used in scripture and its meaning and usage is clearly defined by the context:

They drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. . . . Now these things occurred as examples [types] to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. (1 Corinthians 10:4b,6)

Here the word "type" is translated as "example." The purpose of a typical transaction is to serve as an example to us so that we can avoid the mistakes that people made in the past. If the Israelites were aware that Christ was accompanying them in their travels in the wilderness, perhaps they would have been able to take possession of the promised land. Just so, we are to be aware that Christ is accompanying us on our journeys so that we can lay claim to all that God has for us.

Some have taken the idea of the rock accompanying the Israelites in a literal sense and suggested that a physical rock actually moved with the Israelites in the wilderness. The significance of the rock, however, lies not in the rock itself but in the water which proceeded from it and which refreshed the people. The phrase "that rock was Christ" could even be misinterpreted to support Monism which is the idea that the physical universe is God. So we must be careful, as we interpret typical passages, that we do not apply meaning that was not intended by God. All the errors in the interpretation of this passage have come from literalizing that which is not meant to be literal.

The most natural interpretation of this passage from 1 Corinthians is that Christ is our source of nourishment and refreshment and that he accompanies us wherever we go. We are to take comfort in this truth so that we do not act in a manner displeasing to God as the Israelites did. And when we need strengthening, Christ will be there to strengthen us:

If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. (John 7:38)

Another example of scripture clearly identifying a transaction as a type is:

Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern [type] of the one to come. (Romans 5:14)

Here, Adam is spoken of as being a type or pattern of Christ. In the same way that we are all subject to the curse of sin through Adam's sin, just so are we are all justified by Christ's sacrifice even though we have done nothing worthy of justification. This is a profound truth in that it gives us the hope of salvation. We can see the effects of the curse of Adam all around us and there can be no cause to doubt that Adam's sin did, indeed, affect the entire world and everything in it. So we can be assured that in a similar manner, Christ's sacrifice for us has, indeed, effected every aspect of our lives for us who believe.

The tabernacle was a type of God's presence and glory:

They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow [type] of what is in heaven. That is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.' (Hebrews 8:5)

Here we see that a physical object is a symbolic representation of something that is in heaven.

The Jewish holidays, laws and commandments are also types of higher spiritual realities.

"Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow [type] of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16,17)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming — not the realities themselves." (Hebrews 10:1).

They are given to us to help us to understand great spiritual truth.

A few of the many types found in scripture are:

"For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)

"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14,15)

"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22)


Allegory

An allegoryis a story or figure of speech that uses symbols to express truth. It can be quite lengthy; the book "Pilgrim's Progress," for example, is an extended allegory. An allegory differs from a type in that the event used in the comparison need not be an actual historical event — it is used for the purpose of expressing a truth; whereas in typology the first event is an actual historical event and is significant in its own right as well as shedding light and giving meaning to a second event.

An example of an allegoryis:

Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices . . . On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean. (Ezekiel 16:2,4a)

In this allegory, Israel is likened unto a despised infant who is unwanted by the one who gave birth to him. Notice that the imagery of the despised infant is fabricated in order to shed light on the condition of the relationship between God and Israel. This imagery has no other significance except that it casts light on this relationship.


Parables

A parable is an allegoryin the form of a story used to illustrate a moral truth. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the parables of Jesus in detail.

Jesus gives the purpose for using parables:

Then Jesus said, 'He who has eats to hear, let him hear.' When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, 'The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.' (Mark 4:9-12)

Verse 12 is quoted from Isaiah 6:9,10.

Notice that it is God's purpose to give understanding to some but to confound the minds of others. Parables, therefore, have within them powerful truths which speak directly on such critical issues as salvation and forgiveness. The truths contained in parables are very deep. We should be unwilling to accept the first interpretation we hear of a parable but should, rather, study the meaning diligently from a variety of sources and meditate in prayer and Spirit for long hours before we even pretend to understand God's purpose in revealing this parable to us.


Figures of Speech

There are many figures of speech used in scripture. The purpose of a figure of speech is to increase our understanding and to facilitate the communication process. We will briefly look at each of the common figures of speech. Usually the intended meaning is more comprehensive than the literal meaning.

I do not consider idioms to be figures of speech.


Simile

A simile is a figure of speech which uses the word "like" or "as" to compare two dissimilar things. Psalm 109:23 has two similes in one verse:

I fade away like an evening shadow; I am shaken off like a locust. (Psalm 109:23)

It is obvious that the writer is not suggesting that he is an evening shadow or that he is a locust which is shaken off, but that he has some of the characteristics of these things, namely that he is forgotten and unwanted.


Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one word is used in place of another. An example is:

Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel. (Proverbs 20:15)

Solomon is not telling us that lips are literal jewels. He is drawing a parallel between the rarity and preciousness of jewels and of spoken knowledge.


Personification

Personification is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object is represented as if being a person or living being or as if possessing the attributes of a person. A good example is:

Lift up your heads, O you gates. (Psalm 24:7)

Clearly the gates are not living beings with heads. The idea being expressed here is that the Lord is so glorious that even the inanimate objects will seek to worship and praise him.


Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a portion of something represents the whole. An example is:

I will set my face against them. (Ezekiel 15:7a)

God is not merely going to set his face against them; he is also setting his total will and his whole purpose against them. In a synecdoche the actual meaning is more comprehensive than the literal meaning.


Hyperbole

A hyperbole is a figure of speech which is characterized by extravagant exaggeration.

If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas. (Job 6:2,3a)

Job is attempting to describe the intensity of his misery by comparing it to the extremely large number of sand grains and the enormous weight of this sand.


Analogy

An analogy is a figure of speech in which there is a likeness in one or more ways between things otherwise unlike. A good example of analogy being used in scripture can be found in chapter 8 of the book of Isaiah:

Because this people has rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah, . . . therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River — the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. (Isaiah 8:6-8)

In this analogy, the devastation of Judah caused by the invasion of the king of Assyria is likened to the devastation caused by the power of a flood which destroys everything in its path. It is important for us to recognize that this is not a literal flood, but that the imagery of a flood is being used to describe the effects of the invasion. The writer of this passage clearly intended it to be interpreted as an analogy because he explicitly stated that the floodwaters of the river represents the king of Assyria.

In properly interpreting an analogy used in scripture, we must be careful not to assign more meaning to the comparison than was actually intended by the author. In the above passage, for example, we would be taking the analogy beyond what was intended if we claimed that the ground would be muddy after the invasion as it would be after a literal flood. No such meaning is intended.

The Bible is rich its use of analogies and we should, therefore, be prepared to properly interpret them.


Irony

Irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning of a statement is the exact opposite of what is actually said. An excellent example of irony being used in scripture is found in chapter 38 of the book of Job:

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: . . . . Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:1,4)

Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years! (Job 38:21)

If we interpret verse 21 in a strict literal sense, we would have to accept as fact the idea that Job was born before the creation of the earth and that he witnessed the creative process and understood it fully. However, this conclusion would be false because we can easily refute it from the Word of God.

Job could not yet have been born at the time of the creation because man had not yet been created. We see this in the account of the creation in the book of Geneses:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

At a time after this event God said, 'Let us make man in our image.' (Genesis 1:26a) Job, himself, clearly denies being present at the time of the creation and of even understanding it when he says to the Lord:

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:3)

There can be no doubt whatsoever that verse 21 of Job 38 is intended by God as irony. We must, therefore, interpret it in this way.


Literal Interpretation

Much of the Bible is literal.The historical accounts are intended to be interpreted literally, not as allegoriesas some have done. The doctrinal teaching is intended to be interpreted literally. For example, when Paul writes ...

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:17)

... he is speaking literally.

Even prophecy is mostly literal. An example is this prophecy against the city of Tyre:

"From the north I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, with horsemen and a great army. (Ezekiel 26:7)

I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. (v. 14a)

These prophecies came true in way that literally matches the text. Today the spot where Tyre used to be a flourishing city is now a bare rock that fishermen use to spread out their fishing nets for drying.

The "word faith" teachers, such as Kenneth Copeland, Fred Price and Kenneth Hagin, have attempted to literalize things in a way that does great damage to the interpretation of scripture. One such doctrine concerns the nature of faith. The following verse is taken out of context to "prove" that faith is a substance:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for. (Hebrews 11:1a KJV)

Then it is claimed that God used this substance when he created the universe so that the universe was not really created out of nothing, but that it was created out of this "substance of faith" which is resident in God's nature.

There are several serious problems with this teaching on the substance of faith. We will discuss several of these problems here. The first concerns the word which is translated as "substance" in the King James Version. The greek word is hupostasis and it doesn't refer to a substance but to an assurance or confidence. In fact, the New International Version translates it as "being sure of."

Here are the four other occurrences of this word in the Bible: The word "self-confident" in:

In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool; (2 Corinthians 11:17)

the word "confident" in:

For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we — not to say anything about you — would be ashamed of having been so confident; (2 Corinthians 9:4)

the word "confidence" in:

We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first; (Hebrews 3:14)

and, the word "being" in:

The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being. (Hebrews 1:3a)

This last example is translated with the word "person" in the King James Version.

If it were a valid principle of interpretation to use the common meaning of a word after it has been translated into English as the "word faith" teachers have done with the word hupostasis in its translation as "substance," then we would have to accept the following interpretations of the meaning of the word "faith" in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the person of things hoped for," or: "Now faith is the being of things hoped for."

The second problem with the doctrine of faith being a substance out of which the universe was created concerns the meaning of the word created in the following passage:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

The word translated as "created" is the Hebrew word "bara" means to create out of nothing, and, in fact, this is the only word in the Hebrew language which can be used to express this idea. If the heavens and the earth were created out of a substance, then the writer of this passage chose the wrong word; but surely the Holy Spirit doesn't make mistakes. Therefore, the doctrine of the "substance of faith" must be in error.

This inane attempt at literalization leads to utterly nonsensical results. Yet hundreds of thousands of people are being taught that faith is a substance or force which can be used by humans to coerce God into doing anything which we can believe for as long as we can find an out-of-context passage of scripture which we can speak with the tongue. We must be careful to literalize passages in a manner that makes sense and only when this is the intended meaning of the passage otherwise we will misinterpret scripture.


Table of Contents

Hermeneutics — Overview

The Principles of Interpretation of Scripture

How to Interpret the Bible

Scripture Accessible to all Believers

The Role of Teachers

The Role of the Spirit

The Nature of Communication

Human Communication

Good Writing

Divine Communication

False Principles of Interpretation

Bringing Together Unrelated Passages

Altering the Translation

Improper Use of Language

False Meaning of Words

Ignoring Related Passages

Quoting Out of Context

Who Said It?

Limiting the Meaning of a Word

Literalizing a Figure of Speech

Good Principles of Interpretation

The Theme of the Bible

The Theme of the Old Testament

The Theme of the New Testament

The Themes of the Books of the Bible

Scripture Quoted in Scripture

Uses of Prophecy

Misuse by Satan

Spiritual Warfare

Prayer and Worship

Support of Gospel

Discussions on Truth

Uses by Holy Spirit

Symbolism

Typology

Allegory

Parables

Figures of Speech

Simile

Metaphor

Personification

Synecdoche

Hyperbole

Analogy

Irony

Literal Interpretation