Basic Bible Interpretation:
Special Topics in Bible Interpretation


Reasons for Figurative Language

General Guidelines for Interpreting Figurative Language

Christ told us that we are the salt of the earth, and we are not free to choose our own preference as to what comparison was intended. We must search diligently to discern what comparison he intended. I once heard a fascinating sermon in which many characteristics of salt were used in analogy to exhort Christians toward more appropriate behavior.
  1. Salt was used as a preservative, so the presence of Christians in the world will keep it from moral decay.
  2. Salt enhances flavor, so Christians are to add a flavor of godliness to a tasteless society.
  3. In the Old Testament there was a salt covenant and a salt offering, indicating that God is a covenant God who keeps His promises. In the same way, Christians are to keep their promises and demonstrate through their lives that God is faithful.
  4. Salt was not to remain isolated in a container but was meant to be sprinkled around. Likewise, Christians should not remain in monasteries isolated from society, but should distribute themselves around in order to have an impact on their world.
  5. Salt has an impact out of proportion to its size. In the same way, a small minority of Christians can impact a large portion of their world.
Is it legitimate to make all of those points of comparison with the assurance that Jesus had all of that in mind when He said, "You are the salt of the earth"? No , for the first task of the interpreter is to discern what the author had in mind by way of comparison, not what our own experience or our own ingenuity may devise. The guideline is this: the intent of the author must control our understanding of his meaning.4

Identifying Types of Figurative Language

In examining figures of comparison, remember that ordinarily only one point of comparison is intended. The comparisons are limited, and the reader is not permitted to improvise or decide what point of comparison he likes best or finds compatible with his doctrinal structure. If we are not careful, the Scriptures will no longer be an independent authority, sitting in judgment on our ideas, but rather we interpreters will become the authorities, building unsound doctrine on misapprehension of a figurative biblical expression.7

Principles for Interpreting Figurative Language

  1. Determine whether figurative language is being used. Use the general guidelines above to determine whether a passage contains a figure of speech. It would violate the principle to authorial intent to interpret a figurative passage literally, or to interpret a literal passage figuratively. Sometimes a normal statement is wrongly taken as a figure of speech; for example, when John wrote that 144,000 will be sealed with 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (Rev 7:4-8), there is no compelling reason to understand this statement figuratively.
  2. Determine what the figure of speech (image) is referring to (referent). For example, Isaiah 8:7 says, "Therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River." How are we to determine whether these floodwaters are literal or figurative? This is a figurative expression because the very next phrase gives the referent: "the mighty king of Assyria with all his pomp." The floodwaters are the image and the king of Assyria is the referent. "Sometimes the image is stated, but the nonimage or referent, though not given explicitly, is suggested by the context. In Luke 5:34 the bridegroom is not said to be Jesus, but the meaning is implicit since Jesus said in the next verse that the bridegroom would be taken from them. The guests of the bridegroom are not specified, though they are most likely Jesus' disciples who are eating and drinking, much like bridegroom guests."8
  3. Determine the specific point of comparison that is being made between the image and the referent. For example, Isaiah 53:6 says, "All we, like sheep, have gone astray." The image is sheep, the referent is human beings, and the specific point of comparison is the tendency of sheep to stray off on their own, just as human beings stray away from their Shepherd and Creator. Not every aspect of sheep is part of this figurative comparison - only their tendency to stray is being emphasized.
  4. Determine the specific meaning that was intended by the biblical author when he used a particular figure of speech in a specific context. Treat each figure of speech individually according to its specific context, and do not assume that a particular figure always means the same thing throughout the Bible. For example, in Hosea 6:4 the figure of "dew" is used to describe the transience of Judah's loyalty to God, but in Hosea 14:5 the figure of "dew" describes the Lord's blessing on them.

Interpreting Biblical Prophecy

Resource List for Special Topics in Interpretation

Ranked in order beginning with the least complicated and least costly resources in each category.

Figures of Speech

  1. Basic Bible Interpretation (Chapter 7), Roy Zuck
  2. Understanding and Applying the Bible (Chapter 12), Robertson McQuilkin
  3. Interpreting the Bible (Chapters 8-10), A. Berkeley Mickelsen
  4. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, E. W. Bullinger


  1. Basic Bible Interpretation (Chapter 9), Roy Zuck
  2. Understanding and Applying the Bible (Chapter 13), Robertson McQuilkin
  3. All the Parables of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer
  4. Interpreting the Parables, Craig Blomberg

Symbols and Types

  1. Basic Bible Interpretation (Chapter 8), Roy Zuck
  2. Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Chapter 9), Bernard Ramm
  3. Interpreting the Bible (Chapters 11-12), A. Berkeley Mickelsen
  4. Interpreting the Symbols and Types, Kevin Conner


  1. Understanding Bible Prophecy for Yourself, Tim LaHaye
  2. Basic Bible Interpretation (Chapter 10), Roy Zuck
  3. Understanding and Applying the Bible (Chapter 18), Robertson McQuilkin
  4. The Interpretation of Prophecy, Paul Tan


1 A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, 179-180.
2 Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, 166.
3 C. S. Lewis, Miracles, 88-89.
4 McQuilkin, 172-173.
5 McQuilkin, 172.
6 Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 147.
7 McQuilkin, 174.
8 Zuck, 164.
9 Mickelsen, 280.
10 Mickelsen, 288.
11 Zuck, 242.