Home > Hermeneutics > How is the teacher to determine when the language is literal and when non-literal?

How is the teacher to determine when the language is literal and when non-literal?

Arthur PinkIf all Scripture had been couched in highly figurative language and mysterious hieroglyphics, it had been quite unsuited to the common man. On the other hand, if all were as simple as the A B Cs there had been no need for God to provide teachers (Ephesians 4:11). But how is the teacher to determine when the language is literal and when non-literal? Generally, plain intimation is given, especially in the employment of metaphor, where one object is used to set forth another, as in “Judah is a lion’s whelp” (Genesis 49:9). More particularly.

First, when a literal interpretation would manifestly clash with the essential nature of the subject spoken of, as when physical members are ascribed to God, or when the disciple is required to “take up his cross” (live a life of self-sacrifice) in order to follow Christ.

Second, when a literal interpretation would involve an absurdity or a moral impropriety, as in

“When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee: and put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite” (Proverbs 23:1, 2): giving no quarter to your lusts; and heaping coals of fire on an enemy’s head (Romans 12:20).

Third, refer to other passages, and interpret such a verse as Psalm 26:6, by Genesis 35:1, 2, and Hebrews 10:22.

From all that has been said above it is evident that we must avoid a stark literalism when dealing with sensory or material representations of immaterial things, and when bodily terms are used of non-bodily ones.

“The sword shall devour” (Jeremiah 46:10): to devour is the property of a living creature with teeth, but here by a figure it is applied to the sword. “Let my right hand forget her cunning” (Psalm 137:5): here “forgetting,” which pertains to the mind, is applied to the hand signifying

“may it lose its power to direct aright.” “I turned to see the voice” (Revelation 1:12)

means Him that uttered it.

“Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God”(Ecclesiastes 5:1)

may be taken in both a literal and a figurative sense. In the former, it would signify “let your gait be demure and your speed unhurried and reverent as you approach the place of worship”; in the latter, “pay attention to the motions of your mind and the affections of your heart, for they are to the soul what the feet are to the body.” It is unto the due ordering of our inward man that our attention should be chiefly directed.

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures

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