How to Recognize Symbolic Language

“So, do you take the Bible literally?” The guy sitting next to me in Music Appreciation class had just discovered I was a Christian, and he was eager to start a debate. His question took me a bit off guard, and so I paused, not knowing what to say. I had only been a believer for a little over a year, and I knew that I interpreted the Bible literally. Or at least I thought I did. 


The dilemma in that brief moment was very real to me. If I say yes, he will point to a figure of speech in Scripture that will make me look ridiculous. But if I say no, he will think that I’m denying the reality of hell or the historicity of events like the resurrection of Christ.


The correct answer to the question, of course, is that we should interpret the Bible literally where it was intended to be taken literally, and figuratively where it was intended to be taken figuratively. This flows out of our overall goal to discern the authorial intent of a given passage of Scripture, and in this way, we approach Scripture like we would any other piece of literature. But this only raises another question: How do we know when the biblical author is using symbolic language and when he is not? How do we distinguish the one from the other?


Our starting point, of course, is to begin with the literal interpretation. As Bernard Ramm wrote in Protestant Biblical Interpretation:


Whenever we read a book, an essay, or a poem we presume the literal sense in the document until the nature of the literature may force us to another level. This is the only conceivable method of beginning or commencing to understand literature of all kinds (p. 123).


Not only is this the only conceivable approach, but it also reflects the reality that symbolic language is a departure from the literal, and not vice versa.


This is a good starting point, but we still need to wrestle with the question of what exactly should compel us to abandon the literal interpretation. If I am studying a passage of Scripture, and I think that something might be intended symbolically, what exactly should I be looking for to make that decision? I would like to suggest that in order to determine whether or not the language in question is symbolic, we must begin by asking the following three questions:


1. Does it possess some degree of absurdity when taken literally?


The literal meaning of symbolic language ought to cause the interpreter to scratch his head and ask, “But how can this be?” In other words, there is something inherent in symbolic language that compels the interpreter to seek something other than a literal meaning. That something is a degree of absurdity that is found in a literal understanding of the language.


For example, consider Isaiah 55:12, where the Lord says, “And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Does this verse possess some degree of absurdity when taken literally? Yes, of course, for how is it that literal trees could clap their hands? Simply put, literal trees do not have literal hands. (At this point, a word caution is in order, for many supernatural truths or acts of God may seem absurd to the unbelieving mind, which is not at all what I’m referring to here.) 


2. Does it possess some degree of clarity when taken symbolically?


Put simply, symbolic language effectively communicates what it symbolizes. In other words, when you conclude that the literal meaning of the language is absurd and ought to be abandoned, a symbolic interpretation should yield some degree of clarity to the meaning of the language of the text. With symbolic language, then, the meaning intended by the symbolism is essentially clear and understandable.


Consider again the example of Isaiah 55:12. Does this verse possess some degree of clarity when taken symbolically? Absolutely, for when understood symbolically, it clearly and effectively communicates that Israel’s return from exile will be a time of great rejoicing. In this way, we might say that Isaiah 55:12 possesses the first two characteristics needed to be considered a candidate for symbolic language: a degree of absurdity when taken literally, and a degree of clarity when taken symbolically.


3. Does it fall into an established category of symbolic language?


As Walt Kaiser notes, figures of speech are “legitimate departures from the normal use of words for special purposes. Thus, they are limited in number; they can be described, named, and defined in accordance with known examples” (Toward an Exegetical Theology, p. 122; emphasis original). Therefore, if you think that a biblical writer may be using symbolic language, determine whether the language in question falls into an established category of such language. Some of the more common figures of speech include the use of simile (Isaiah 53:6a; Psalm 42:1), metaphor (Psalm 84:11a; 2 Peter 2:17), hypocatastasis (Acts 20:29; Jeremiah 4:7), hyperbole (Psalm 6:6; 1 Samuel 1:23), personification (Isaiah 35:1; 1 Corinthians 15:55), and anthropomorphism (Psalm 8:3; 2 Chronicles 16:9a).


Returning again to Isaiah 55:12, we find that the language of this verse does indeed fall into an established category of symbolic language. More specifically, it contains an obvious example of personification in which the trees are pictured as people who are rejoicing by clapping their hands. Therefore, the verse is best understood as a symbolic statement which pictures Israel’s return from exile as a time of such rejoicing that even the trees will be filled with delight!

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Justin on May 11, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    You could also just reply “Sometimes.” Of course, with an intent to follow up and discuss exactly what you described above. Throws them off a bit and allows you to set the tone of the discussion.

  2. I have a question from something I just read this morning. Micah 4 seems to be giving a preview of the eschaton. Micah 4:3 talks about beating swords into plowshares, which I take to mean that there will be no need for weapons anymore.

    What do we do with this? Are we to think that weapon technology will regress to swords by the time the Lord returns? Or should this have a figurative meaning? I only ask because it doesn’t seem to fit any of the three criteria you listed.

    • Jason,
      Here are my thoughts on this.

      I think here context is king. The historical context of the text is around the 8th Century and is written by a Jew of that time period to Jews of that time period. Swords were the weapon used during that time and there was no knowledge of what weapons would be used in the future. The intent communicated in the passage is of a future time of peace. Micah was not prophesying about the specific types of weapons used but about the change from war to piece. In this context the military hardware (a sword) is no longer needed. If you followed this text in a wooden literalness then you would also glean that the nations all become agrarian since they will be using plows and that it is possible for a nation as a whole to lift up a single sword. But it seems that the immediate gramatical context defines sword as representing violence and war against others and that putting away violence and the means of violence (the weapons of war, at the time a sword) in favor of peace and the tools used in peace time, a plow. The opposite of this is stated in:
      Joel 3:10 “Beat your plowshares into swords And your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, “I am a mighty man.””

      As for Matt’s questions:
      1. Does it possess some degree of absurdity when taken literally?
      In context yes, because that phrase appears in a verse that speaks of a nation as a whole lifting a single sword and that is absurd. So sword is established as being used in a non literal way.

      2. Does it possess some degree of clarity when taken symbolically?
      In context yes, because it is referring to war ending and peace beginning.

      3. Does it fall into an established category of symbolic language?
      In the context of the Bible, yes. It is established and used throughout scripture as symbolic of war, strife and judgement.

      Here I will quote:

      Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
      © 1998 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA
      Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc.
      Version 1.0

      The sword was the most important weapon of warfare in the ancient Near East and in the Greco-Roman world. Ranging from sixteen inches to three feet in length, with one or both sides sharpened, this implement was used for thrusting and slashing opponents in armed conflict. Most of the over four hundred occurrences of the term in the Bible are to be understood in a literal sense, but sword also came to acquire a set of figurative meanings.
      Because it commonly occurs in narratives describing battle, “the sword” became a symbol for warfare. “Putting a city to the sword” is another way of saying “going to war.” Defeat was spoken of as “falling by the sword” (see Jer 19:7). The OT prophets pointed to a time in the future when there would no longer be war, and the sword would be absent. Hosea proclaims, “I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety” (Hos 2:18 NRSV). Isaiah depicts this as a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares” and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” (Is 2:4 NRSV).
      Even beyond the context of warfare, the sword represents bloodshed and strife. Nathan’s prophetic announcement to David that “the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Sam 12:10 NRSV) indicated that there would be discord and violence among family members in succeeding generations. Absalom’s conspiracy against his father is one illustration of what Nathan prophesied (2 Sam 15–18).
      The sword also symbolizes divine judgment. The psalmist warns, “If one does not repent, God will whet his sword” (Ps 7:12 NRSV). Scripture even speaks of God’s judgment as “the sword of the Lord.” In the outpouring of God’s wrath on the day of vengeance, Isaiah says that “the sword of the LORD is bathed in blood” (Is 34:6 NIV). Jeremiah speaks of the inescapability of God’s judgment: “the sword of the LORD devours from one end of the land to the other; no one shall be safe” (Jer 12:12 NRSV). Jesus is depicted as bearing a sharp, two-edged sword in his mouth (Rev 1:16), which he will use “to strike down the nations” (Rev 19:15 NRSV) at the consummation.”
      The sword also symbolizes divine judgment. The psalmist warns, “If one does not repent, God will whet his sword” (Ps 7:12 NRSV). Scripture even speaks of God’s judgment as “the sword of the Lord.” In the outpouring of God’s wrath on the day of vengeance, Isaiah says that “the sword of the LORD is bathed in blood” (Is 34:6 NIV). Jeremiah speaks of the inescapability of God’s judgment: “the sword of the LORD devours from one end of the land to the other; no one shall be safe” (Jer 12:12 NRSV). Jesus is depicted as bearing a sharp, two-edged sword in his mouth (Rev 1:16), which he will use “to strike down the nations” (Rev 19:15 NRSV) at the consummation.
      The power of civic authorities to punish and execute wrongdoers is depicted by the image of the sword. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that the governing authority “does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4 NIV). The passage therefore speaks of the divinely granted role of local governments to punish those who violate public laws.
      Because of the sword’s capacity to inflict wounds, it is used to symbolize anything that causes harm and injury to people. The psalmist says of his enemies that their “tongues are sharp swords” (Ps 57:4 NIV), and the writer of Proverbs observes, “Rash words are like sword thrusts” (Prov 12:18 NRSV). A promiscuous woman wounds those allured and taken in by her: “In the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword” (Prov 5:4 NIV). A false witness is like a sword because of the damage this person can do (Prov 25:18). Those who exploit the poor for their own gain are said to have teeth that are swords (Prov 30:14).
      A few passages in the Bible use this instrument of piercing to symbolize something good—the Word of God. God’s Word is represented as a sword because of its ability to penetrate a human life. Isaiah prophesied that God would make the mouth of the Servant of the Lord “like a sharp sword” (Is 49:2 NRSV). His message would have a powerful impact on humanity. In Paul’s depiction of believers’ ongoing struggle with the forces of evil, he pictures the Word of God as a sword that functions as part of their protective armor (Eph 6:17). Jesus himself had set the example of intimate acquaintance with the written Word of God which issued in appropriate application to each of the devil’s three solicitations to evil (Mt 4:1–11; see SATAN). The writer of Hebrews also likens the Word of God to a sword: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the [836] thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12 NRSV). God’s Word can reach into the deepest recesses of our beings and have a transformative effect on our lives.”

      • William — I agree with you. However, I’m not sure that context makes it so easy to switch back and forth between reading this literally and figuratively. What about verse 4 then? Again, it is clear that this indicates a time of peace, but how can we be sure that this should be taken figuratively?

        I guess I’m playing a little bit of the devil’s advocate here (or maybe the Covenantal theologian’s advocate, which some may think is the same thing :) ). I just can’t help but wonder if our reading of this passage is colored by our theologies a little bit rather than what we would get from a straightforward reading of the text?

  3. Haven’t seen Bernard (Bernie) Ramm cited recently. My college student friend asked me the other day what he should read on hermeneutics. I told him Bernard Ramm has never really be replaced. I read the Osborn’s book when it first came out. Not good. His descriptions of the post structuralist approaches to literary criticism were totally superficial. Got the impression he simply didn’t understand what he was writing about. On the other hand Vanhoozer can so subtle that few students will understand him. I don’t know that to say about Thiselton. Certainly not an author I would recommend to a someone new to the subject.

    So unless some world class work has been published in the last decade that I don’t know about the Ramm which is 1950s is still waiting for a replacement.

  4. Jason: Great question. I’m scrambling about here at the office, answering some email and trying to get a head start on Sunday morning’s sermon before I leave in a few hours for a 1½-day getaway with my wife, but I’ll get back to you on Thursday or Friday.

    Or perhaps someone else would like to address Jason’s question in the meantime. Gentlemen?

  5. Posted by Paul Eastlack on May 12, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    C. Stirling Bartholomew, I would also reccomend along with Ramm, “Evangelical Hermeneutics” by Robert Thomas. This is instrumental in dealing with current errors in hermeneutics and the exegetical process. I absolutely would NOT recommend Thiselton. There are more bones to spit out than meat in Thiselton, and should be reserved for the seasoned exegete.

  6. Posted by Fred Wolfe on May 12, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    What a great blog. I will benefit a lot from this point of view!

  7. I think this is a great topic to teach people in the church that you pastor. In fact, I became convicted that I needed to spend some Monday evenings with our Men’s Bible study to explain Bible study methods/hermeneutics. As we talk about symbolic language as well as genres and other things that fit within the topic, we go to scripture to talk about these examples. It has been received well by the guys, who are used to studying a book of the Bible in a systematic fashion. Wish I would have discussed the importance of this earlier with them as a short series. Probably underestimated the guys and to that I repent!! The notes are easy to go through but the work comes in finding examples and using them as opportunities to glorify God with them. Tough/fun thing to do.

  8. An invaluable resource which every bible exegete should have on their shelf which deals with this issue is Bullinger’s “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.” It is a resource which identifies the different symbolic language used throughout Scripture. This is helpful in identifying what kind of symbolic language is being used. It is one thing to say, “That is symbolic.” It is another thing to say, “That is an metonymy, or hyperbole, or merism.” Not so that we can sound like a professor, but so that we can honestly say why we take a particular passage figuratively or literally and far that symbolism should be taken.

    Not understanding word pictures, figurative language, and symbolic language have lead to strange interpretations of baptism, eschatology, the church, and on and on. Bullinger’s book is helpful and it is worth picking up if you see it. At least, that is my opinion.

    • Bullinger’s “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible” is a very helpful recommendation. Thank you. I found the full text online as a downloadable pdf on Scribd.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: