Author: Ron Graham
Literal and Figurative
—What's it all about?
There’s a lot of confusion about what’s figurative and what's literal in the Bible, and about what these terms mean. How do we define which Bible passages and prophecies are ‘literal’, which are ‘figurative’, and which are both?
1 ‘Figurative’ Is Not the Same as ‘Spiritual’
Premillennialists are noteworthy for confusing the figurative with the spiritual. Likewise they confuse the literal with the physical.
The term “figurative” doesn't mean “spiritual” or “heavenly”; nor does “literal” mean “material” or “earthly.” Indeed, something earthly may be “figurative”, of something heavenly. For example...
The Tabernacle, Hebrews 8:1-2, Hebrews 9:8-10, Hebrews 10:1
The earthly tabernacle was figurative of the heavenly tabernacle. Both are real tabernacles, real dwelling places of God; but the earthly was a sign or symbol of the heavenly. In no sense is the heavenly tabernacle a figurative tabernacle.
2 Prophecies Can Have Both Earthly and Heavenly Fulfillments.
In some cases, a prophecy may have both an earthly and heavenly fulfillment. The earthly fulfillment may be only a partial satisfaction of the prophecy, and be intended itself as a physical type, sign, or symbol —prefiguring something heavenly and eternal. For example...
Land Promise, Hebrews 11:13-16,Hebrews 12:22-23
The land promise given to Abraham embodied not just a promise of a physical land, but "a better country that is a heavenly one". In other words the land occupied by the Israelites, though real enough in itself, was merely a shadow of good things to come, namely a heavenly and eternal home.
Throne Promise: Acts 2:30-36 2Samuel 7:12-14
God tells David, "I will raise up your descendant after you, and establish the throne of his kingdom for ever". Peter applied this promise to Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and says that David himself "being a prophet looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of Christ".
This prophecy was not applied to an earthly throne (in a future millennium on earth), but to the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the heavenly throne. Solomon also fulfilled this prophecy but not to the extent of fully satisfying the oath. Rather, Solomon on his earthly throne was figurative of Christ and his heavenly throne.
3 The Figurative, If Taken Literally, Makes No Sense
A figurative expression makes no sense unless it is interpreted as a substitute for an expression that does. My mother would occasionally say to me, "I ought to skin you alive!". The statement itself was not true and made no sense. My mother meant, "I should punish you well" —but that was not what she said. My mother, by the way, was a real gem, and her blood was worth bottling.
Matthew 7:15, 2Timothy 4:3, 1Peter 2:7
The Bible uses figurative and literal language just like everybody does. When Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15) we take the word "prophets" literally and the word "wolves" figuratively.
Paul said, "The time will come when people will not endure sound teaching, but wanting their ears tickled they will gather teachers for themselves to suit their own desires" (2Tim 4:3). We take that statement literally except for the obvious figure of speech concerning ears. Prophecy likewise will have figurative elements. For example...
Stone Rejected, (Psalms 118:22, 1Peter 2:7).
"The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone" This is not speaking of a literal stone, but is figurative of Christ. Nobody takes that prophecy literally.
Visions, Revelation 12:1
Visions, a kind of prophecy, are more often than not highly figurative or symbolic. The "woman clothed with the sun and the moon beneath her feet" could hardly be taken as ‘literal’. John speaks literally when he tells us he saw the woman in the vision. But the vision itself makes no sense unless we see it as a sign of God’s grace in giving his only begotten Son (John 3:16).
Earthly and Heavenly
From the examples I've given in this lesson, you should be able to understand the difference between literal and figurative language, and not to confuse things literal and figurative with things earthly and heavenly.
The terms ‘figurative’ and ‘literal’ in such cases should, for clarity and accuracy, be replaced by "earthly" and "heavenly". We would never, for example, think of addressing "our heavenly Father" as "our figurative Father" would we? Nor would we say "figurative life" for "eternal life".
In the same way, the heavenly thone of David and the heavenly tabernacle are not figurative in any sense. In fact, the earthly tabernacle and throne, although real on earth, were figures of the heavenly realities.