How to Interpret the Bible, Part 5: Literal Interpretation Does Not Mean Lack of Symbols or Poetry


Page from French Psalter

Another point to keep in mind has to do with the kind of biblical literature we are dealing with when seeking to interpret a passage. The Bible contains a variety of genres or styles of writing ranging from the overtly poetic, such as the Psalms, to prophetic writings, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature and more. Knowing what kind of passage we are dealing with often helps our interpretation of it.

Related to this are questions of interpreting the Bible literally or figuratively. Both are valid approaches so long as they are judiciously employed. For instance, when the biblical writers share evidence of the resurrection of Jesus they do so quite literally. Despite some liberal interpretations arguing that the biblical writers are, for example, merely speaking of Christ’s resurrection figuratively or as a symbol of some kind, the biblical text is clear that the resurrection is viewed as literal. Even Paul acknowledged, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

~ Focus on the Family, “How Do I Interpret the Bible?

This is part 5 of the series “How to Interpret the Bible“, so if you have not yet read the introduction, you should do so.  Likewise, we have already covered “Ask God for Help” and “Standard Definitions Don’t Depend on What the Meaning of the Word ‘Is’ Is“.  Admittedly, the last part, “Pay Attention to Whom Is Being Addressed“, and this one could have been lumped in with “Context, context and context“, but these are special cases that seem to get abused far more often.  Still, the context can also help clarify the genre of the section that is being read.

Far too many people read the Bible “allegorically”.  IOW, they assume it is all myths and fables and interpret it to mean whatever they want it to mean.  In effect, this is really no difference than everyone doing “that which was right in his own eyes” (cf. Jdg 17:6; 21:25).

20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

2Pe 1:20-21

In reality, the allegorists are engaging in private interpretation.  The only way to interpret Scripture is through the same Holy Spirit that inspired it!  And, since the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, it stands to reason that the Bible means what it says!

Critics of “Biblical literalism” will point to the poetry, the symbols in prophecy, etc., to claim that it was never intended to be taken literally.  However, as Wikipedia says on the subject:

Literal interpretation does place emphasis upon the referential aspect of the words or terms in the text. It does not, however, mean a complete denial of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor)….

There are many genres present in the Bible, and I’m not going to claim to cover them all.  However, here are hopefully the significant ones to pay attention to.


Perhaps the most well known genre of literature within the Bible that is not simply a statement of the facts would be the Psalms.  They were sung as hymns in the Temple or as songs as they traveled to Jerusalem during the festival pilgrimages.  Most were written by David or by Asaph, David’s musical director.

Like most songs, they express some type of truth from the viewpoint of the composer and make allusions and use figures of speech that would have been understood when they were written.

Figures of speech, of course, are not restricted to poetry, even as our own daily language is filled with idioms and poetic language in its own right.  One of the most famous passages of the Bible contains “The LORD is my Shepherd”.  Obviously, God is not literally a shepherd with a crook and a flock of sheep, but rather were are being compared to sheep who require a greater being to care for us.

Of course, poetic language can have some ambiguity attached to it.  Job is an entire book written in poetic language.  So, when Satan tells God that he has been “going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it”, was he literally “walking” on the earth?  Some say no, for that would take too long, and furthermore how could he “walk” back into God’s presence.  My answer?  I don’t know (see rule 7).  I think a definite answer requires understanding how spirit beings move around, and I’m not sure any human is qualified to do that.

What has to be remembered is that things like that are side issues.  What would have been clear from Satan’s response was that he roams through the earth.  He and his demons are often in our midst, and we need to be aware of this.  Something that can be implied from the way he answered, and I believe this to be true, is that Satan is rather coy and tries to hide his real motives.


Perhaps the second most known genre in the Bible would be the parables of Jesus.  Jesus used everyday ordinary items and people that would have been familiar to be symbols of a greater truth in his stories.  Yeast symbolizes the spread of the Kingdom, a Samaritan symbolizes a Jew’s merciful neighbor, and so on.

So, what do the parables and the symbols in them mean?  Fortunately, the disciples had that very same question, and we have recorded the answers to that very question.  Granted, not in all cases, but in the harder to understand parables, we do.

Not everything in a parable is a symbol, though, and not every detail of a parable is necessarily significant.  To arrive at the proper understanding, we must keep in mind that Jesus had one main point to make, and the symbols He used need to support that one point.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of nuances in some of them.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son is filled with nuances that are cultural in nature (cultural context) that we might easily gloss over because they don’t mean anything to us.  When the father in the parable says, “For this my son was dead,” we must remember that he had taken his inheritance early and left, thus disgracing the family.  Even today, when an Orthodox Jewish woman marries outside of Judaism, that woman is effectively dead to that family.  It is their form of shunning.

However, if someone is busy squeezing for every drop of detail in order to make it into something else, then that person is going to jump the tracks rather quickly.  This happens a lot with the Parable of Lazurus and the Rich Man.  People plug in their preconceived notions of Heaven and Hell, and they pull out the details of a parable to support doctrine!  It’s not even the main point of it, which is why the starting point always needs to be the main point of the parable.


Like poetry, oftentimes the style used in proverbs are so ingrained withing the culture that they come out in other ways at other times.

Most parables are not just sayings about right and wrong behavior, but most often the contrast of good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, and the wise and the foolish are made stark by being placed right alongside each other.

Another pattern in proverbs and poetry are statements which are ordered one time and then reversed later.  This is often called a chiastic structure, and it would be the ABC…CBA form (there are others, see link).

12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.

Ps 22:12

We see traces of this in the NT, BTW.  “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath”.

Proverbs are usually generalized.  They state broad truths, but if you take any one, you will find exceptions somewhere somehow.  This is important to keep in mind, for some people treat the Proverbs like promises, and that is not their purpose.


Most people understand the former, but here is where a lot of people get confused for some reason.  Prophecies are usually given via visions or dreams, and they are full of symbolic language.

However, remember that no prophecy is for private interpretation.  You cannot just assign any old meaning on the symbols and make it true.

This is where context becomes critical.  The Bible interprets the Bible, but never more than in prophecy.  In many (if not most) of the cases, the symbol is explained right alongside the vision.  Daniel 2 is a good example.  The dream is reiterated, and then its meaning is spelled out.  When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, the same thing occurred.

Sometimes, though, the symbol was explained a few chapters earlier.  We just look for the nearest available explanation.  In other cases, we might have to turn to parallel prophecies.  Many of Daniel’s visions were parallels of each other stated in different ways, but not all of them were explained to him.  So, sometimes it is necessary to seek out parallel prophecies in other books.  For example, the symbols in Daniel are made clearer by the Book of Revelation and vice versa.

In a lot of cases, it isn’t that difficult.  That’s because most of the prophecies center around either the first or second coming of Christ, so framing the timing allows us to seek out the parallel prophecies.  Some are not as clear, and those usually are the ones that have dual fulfillment.

Prophecy can be confusing because it isn’t just poetic language sometimes, but it is actual signs and symbols.  They mean something, but they don’t mean any old thing we want them to mean.  We need to assign the meaning that the Bible gives for them, assuming it does.

The difference is that a sign points to something greater, whereas a symbol stands in place of something else.  The Sabbath, for example, is a sign of God’s people.  It is not the people, but it points to God’s people.  A symbol literally moves and acts within a story in place of something else.  The beasts in Daniel and Revelation stand for various entities and they talk and move reflecting what those entities will do.

A sign that points to nothing is, er, pointless.  A symbol that does not stand for something else is not a symbol.  When is a symbol not a symbol?  When it doesn’t stand for anything.

It seems that even some ministers are too quick to wave their hands and say, “That’s just a symbol.”  Oh, really?  What is it a symbol of?  A symbol exists, occupies space, and it has significance.  So, if someone says, “It’s just a symbol,” then they need to be able to tell you a symbol of what.  Otherwise, they are engaging in an allegorical and not literal interpretation of the event.

There is one time when it is legitimate to say that something is a symbol but we do not know of what.  That is when the Bible comes out and says it is a symbol of something but the answer is vague or sealed up.

Read Zechariah 4 for an interesting but vague description of the Two Witnesses.  We only know them by the “Two Witnesses”, BTW, because of the Book of Revelation.  Notice the vague answers that the angel gives in response, not once but twice, to the question, “What are these?”

Even in the Book of Revelation, we are not told much about them.  We do not know their nationality, even.  However, we do know they are the same because of Revelation 11:4 is the same description that we saw in Zechariah.

So, we don’t know their names, their heritage, or anything else to recognize them except that they will prophesy and have fire proceeding out of their mouths whenever someone tries to hurt them (it could mean literally fire coming out of their mouths or that by their words they will cause fire to burn up those who try to hurt them).  We know they will cause it to not rain, and they will have the power to strike the earth with plagues such as turning water into blood.

So, we know the olive trees are symbols of the Two Witnesses, but that doesn’t mean we are given a clear idea of exactly who these individuals are.  It is unlikely that we will until they appear on the scene.

Knowing what a symbol stands for does not mean we have absolute clarity.  Some things will be straight forward, but some things will be hidden until they happen.  My guess is that the angel that spoke to Zechariah was probably not himself clear on what they represented, thus his confusing answer.


The who begat who lines of descent are more or less their own genre, IMO.  They are quick historical narratives, but they have a certain style to them.  However, if you notice, that style does change at some point, doesn’t it?  They start out pretty much with listing the fathers but rarely the mothers, but during the times of the kings, the mother’s name starts to be mentioned in the chronicles.

Law and Case Law

Not only does the Bible contain Law, such as the Ten Commandments, but much of the Book of Numbers and Deuteronomy are filled with case law.  Case law is just the application of the law that sets precedents for later situations and rulings.


And, of course, the Bible has literal history as well.  These sections, of course, are constantly under attack by unbelieving archaeologists.  Because these  and the genealogies are the “most literal”, if you will, they are the ones that historians and archaeologists try to discredit the hardest.  For, if the literal interpretation of the Bible can be made suspect, then that taints the idea that God Himself is infallible, for how can He be all-knowing if there are mistakes in His word?

Isn’t That the Crux of the Issue?

People who want to allegorize the Bible play right into the same hands, though.  They too do not really believe the Bible, and their allegories make it all seem like myths and fairy tales.

If the Bible is not literally true, then anyone can do whatever they want, for what does it really matter?  Maybe there are multiple paths to God.  Maybe someone can live however they want, and it just won’t matter in the long run.

It, like so many similar endeavors, is just justification for doing what is right in their own eyes.

From here, you may:

Go back to the Introduction

Go back to Part 4

Go on to Part 6

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