Prophetic Language in the Bible
If we study the Bible carefully, we shall determine that there are some symbols and metaphors that are peculiar to the language used in prophecy. These are and have been troublesome to some Christians and an understanding of these will greatly aid you in your Bible reading and study.
The fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 BC is actually prophesied in the Bible (see Isaiah 13:1).
1. Isaiah 13:10
2. What cataclysmic events were to happen in the universe during the fall of Babylon by the Medes?
3. Isaiah 13:13
4. In the verse above, what cataclysmic events were to take place?
With reference to the fall of Babylon, there are no historical or scientific records that validate any of the physical events that seem to be implied in the above verses!
In another example, the prophet Isaiah announces the desolation of Bozrah the capital of Edom late in the sixth century BC (we know it is Bozrah from Isaiah 34:6). Look closely at the language used in that prophecy.
5. Isaiah 34:3
6. In the above verse, do you think that “the mountains shall be melted with their blood” actually happened?
8. What cataclysmic events are prophesied in the above verse?
9. Isaiah 34:9
10. What cataclysmic events are prophesied in the above verse?
11. Isaiah 34:10
12. From the verse above, describe in your words the burning of Bozrah.
I think you might agree that the language used in the scriptures above would demand a cataclysmic catastrophe to take place (if this language is to be taken literally), along with some sort of profound phenomena taking place in the universe.
But instead, what we can draw from these passages is that symbol and metaphor belong to the grammar of prophecy! It is not necessary to ask, Have these predictions been fulfilled? We know they have been; as the accomplishment of them stands in history as a monument to the truth of the Scriptures. God has not permitted anything He has said through His servants the prophets to fall to the ground unfulfilled. One thing is for sure, there is not a single sane person who would say that the symbols and figures depicting these monumental events literally took place!
13. Read Ezekiel 32:7–8.
14. Describe the cataclysmic events that should take place if the two verses above are taken to be literal.
15. Micah 1:4
16. Here the prophet Micah tells of how God will come down to earth in power against the sins of Israel. In your words, what is to happen?
17. Nahum 1:5
18. How does the prophet Nahum describe what happens to the earth in the presence of God?
19. Daniel 8:10
20. In the verse above, the destruction of the Jewish people by Antioch Epiphanes is being described. What is it that was to happen?
All of the examples above are sufficient to illustrate what is actually self-evident, that in prophetic language the most terrible phenomena are used to represent God’s judgment and His awesome power. The imagery, if literally fulfilled, would have to result in the total dissolution of the world or the destruction of the universe when in fact it is meant to describe the downfall of a dynasty, the capture of a city, or the overthrow of a nation!
If the language we have examined above has the meaning that we have assigned to it, then similar language throughout the Bible can be understood in the same manner. This method of understanding the Scriptures is known as “analogia fide” and is an accepted interpretation principle used by Bible scholars. It is the application of this principle that we will be making in upcoming Learning Activities to understand what the Bible is saying in other key passages in the Scriptures.
There are some who would dispute the above understanding by saying that if we interpret one part of a discourse literally then we are bound by consistency to interpret the entire prophecy in the same manner. This group would contend that in Matthew 24:29–31, if we interpret verse twenty-nine figuratively then the rest of the chapter must also be interpreted figuratively as “you cannot have it both ways to suit your theology.” This would mean that the words, “Judea,” “mountains,” “housetop,” and “field” must be figurative. Their reasoning then supports a literal understanding of ALL words that appear in the text! It is difficult for the author of this web site to understand how such an argument can be put forth by anyone who has seriously studied the Scriptures. A serious study clearly reveals that writers of the various books of the Bible at times write expressions through a series of figurative terms, but incorporate all of this in the midst of a very plain and understandable narrative of factual (literal) information. Consider the following example from the book of Psalms.
In Psalms 18, verses three through five, David writes of the distress he is under. In verse six, David calls upon the Lord for his deliverance which comes as described in verses seven through eighteen. But notice the language in verses 7–18 used to describe his deliverance.
“…the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken…” Verse 7.
“There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it” Verse 8.
“He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet” Verse 9.
“And he rode upon a cherub; and did fly; yes, he did fly upon the wings of the wind” Verse 10.
“…thick clouds passed, hail stones and coals of fire” Verse 12.
“Yea, he [God] sent out his arrows…” Verse 14.
“…Oh Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils” Verse 15.
“…he drew me out of many waters” Verse 16.
It is obvious that God delivered David, but the deliverance was not by means of the acts of nature and by the physical means as decribed in these verses. These descriptions are used to indicate that David’s deliverance by God was just as if God had physically come down from above and effected all of these things so that David could be delivered but these acts described, in and of themselves, were not the deliverance itself. They are meant to be proof of a divine deliverance and no more (not that that is a small thing!). They are “figurative language.”
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