Beware of Interpreting Bible Prophecies Too Literally
When we read any passage in the Bible, it is very important that we interpret it in the right way. If a passage is meant to be understood literally, then taking it purely non-literally is obviously going to lead to wrong conclusions about what it is saying. Similarly, if a text is meant to be understood non-literally, then to take it purely literally would be a big mistake.
It is very common for readers of the Bible to go wrong in both of these ways.
On the one hand, there are those who deny literal interpretations to passages that should be understood literally. Sometimes even texts that refer to key parts of the Christian faith, like the resurrection of Jesus or His future return, are interpreted purely symbolically. This leads to heresy.
On the other hand, there are those who take literal interpretations of passages that should be taken purely non-literally. In fact, many Christians today seem to think that interpreting literally means holding true to what Scripture teaches, while interpreting non-literally means compromising on biblical truth.
This is actually a serious mistake. The Bible contains a great deal of non-literal teaching. The Psalms, for example, constantly use vivid metaphors. Books like Daniel and Revelation contain powerful apocalyptic imagery. And in John’s Gospel we repeatedly find Jesus making statements that those listening to Him misunderstand precisely because they take His words literally (John 2:19-21; 3:3-4; 4:10-15, 31-34; 11:11-13).
One common way in which Christians interpret the Bible literally when they shouldn’t is when interpreting prophecies. There are many who insist on always trying to interpret biblical prophecies as literally as possible.
Of course, some prophecies should certainly be interpreted literally.
A good example of this can be found in Acts 1:11, where some angels tell the eleven disciples:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
Obviously, the angels’ words should be taken literally. To spiritualize them into something else would be a misinterpretation.
However, there are many biblical prophecies that cannot be taken literally. Some of these are interpreted by Scripture itself in a way that rules out literal interpretation. And others are so obviously non-literal that no one in their right mind would interpret them literally. In what follows, I will give some examples of these prophecies.
My aim in this article is to show that the Bible contains many non-literal prophecies, and thereby to encourage Christians not to approach biblical prophecies, including end-times prophecies, simply assuming that they should be interpreted literally.
If, after analyzing a prophecy, we are satisfied that it should be interpreted literally, then fair enough. But it is a big mistake to assume that it should be interpreted literally before even analyzing it.
Here are some examples of biblical prophecies that cannot or clearly should not be interpreted literally:
In Deuteronomy 30:6 Moses prophesies:
“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Obviously, circumcision of the heart is a symbolic figure of speech. It is physically impossible that these words could be fulfilled literally.
In Psalm 118:22 the psalmist writes:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
This verse is quoted several times in the New Testament, where it is made clear that this stone refers prophetically and figuratively to Jesus (Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:7). It is not talking about a literal stone at all.
In Isaiah 11:4 we read:
“. . . and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
Clearly, this is figurative. God doesn’t literally have a mouth, and we can’t expect Him to literally strike the earth with a rod.
In Isaiah 40:3-4 Isaiah prophesies:
“3 A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.’”
Luke 3:2-6 tells us that this prophecy was fulfilled in the preaching of John the Baptist. And most of it is obviously not meant to be understood literally.
For example, it would be absurd to suppose that Isaiah is referring to a literal filling in of valleys or lowering of mountains. Instead, these are vivid figures of speech that signify preparation.
In Isaiah 55:12 God says:
“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Clearly, this passage isn’t referring to mountains and hills that literally sing or to trees that literally clap their hands. Rather, this is symbolic language.
In Ezekiel 37:24 we read:
“My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd.”
“David” here refers figuratively to Jesus. The literal king David had been dead for hundreds of years when this prophecy was given. It is not reasonable to think that this verse is prophesying a time when the literal David will literally be king over God’s people.
In Hosea 3:5 Hosea prophesies:
“Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king, . . .”
This is another prophecy where “David” means Jesus.
In Amos 9:11 God says:
“In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, . . .”
This prophecy is quoted by James in Acts 15:16. James understands the raising up and repairing of the booth of David to be fulfilled in the ministry of Christ, probably both His earthly and heavenly ministries. Nothing else makes sense in the context of Acts 15.
At first sight Amos 9:11 might have seemed to be prophesying the restoration of the Davidic monarchy in a succession of kings. However, this interpretation (which is in itself far from literal) would have been a misinterpretation. The real fulfillment was even less literal and actually concerned Jesus’ ministry.
Nor is it possible that there were two levels of fulfillment of this prophecy, with the first referring to a succession of kings. That wouldn’t fit with Jewish history, in which there was no restoration of the Davidic monarchy after the exile.
In Matthew 12:40 Jesus prophesies:
“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
In this verse Jesus prophesies that He will be in the heart of the earth, i.e., dead, for three days and three nights. This “three days and three nights” that Jesus is dead for is the part of the prophecy that we are interested in here.
Literally, three days and three nights is about 72 hours, give or take a few hours. But Matt 27:46-28:5 clearly implies that the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection was about 36 hours, give or take a few hours!
The three days and three nights in Matt 12:40 is not a symbolic kind of non-literal language. But it cannot reasonably be described as literal, especially as Jesus was literally dead during only two periods of night-time – the nights of Friday to Saturday and Saturday to Sunday.
There are other biblical prophecies like this one, where the wording of the prophecy is fulfilled in a very imprecise way.
In John 2:19-21 Jesus gives a prophecy to some Jews while in the temple courts in Jerusalem:
“19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20 The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.”
Note that the Jews listening to Jesus take His prophecy literally. They pour scorn on His supposed claim to be able to build such a magnificent structure as the temple in three days.
As v. 21 makes clear, however, this prophecy was actually symbolic and referred to Jesus’ body. By interpreting the prophecy literally, His hearers had misunderstood it.
It is true that Jesus’ words may have some kind of secondary level of meaning that refers to the literal temple, and scholars debate this.
Nevertheless, even if there is a secondary level to the saying, the primary level of meaning is still non-literal. Even more importantly, any secondary level of meaning is certainly not literal as far as the raising up of the temple in three days is concerned. That time reference can only apply to what happened to the symbolic temple, i.e., Jesus’ body. It cannot apply to the literal temple.
Cautious in interpretation
The examples we have looked at show clearly that there are biblical prophecies that cannot or should not be taken literally. And, as I have also noted, there are some prophecies that certainly should be interpreted literally. A number of prophecies actually have both a literal level and a non-literal level of fulfillment.
Unless it is immediately obvious how to interpret a given prophecy, we should be cautious and start by being open to interpreting it purely literally, or purely non-literally, or both literally and non-literally. Any other approach doesn’t do justice to what we find in the Bible itself.
False expectations of a new temple
My main motivation for writing this article is to try to oppose some wrong ideas about the future that many Christians have.
There are many believers today who think that the Bible prophesies the existence of another literal temple in Jerusalem.
Those who think this are making a terrible mistake.
According to Scripture, the sacrificial system was right at the heart of how the Jerusalem temple was designed and what it was all about. Therefore, a future Jerusalem temple without sacrifices is a contradiction in terms. However, we know that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has made all temple sacrifices obsolete (Hebrews 7:11-10:18). So it is not reasonable to think that there will ever be another Jerusalem temple.
What is more, the Bible describes both the individual Christian’s body, and Christians corporately, as God’s temple (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21). The reason for this description is that under the New Covenant in Christ’s blood we are now God’s dwelling place instead of the Jerusalem temple.
It is therefore inconceivable that God wants there to be another literal temple in Jerusalem at some point in the future. Thinking that He does is a very serious error.
Those who claim that the Bible does prophesy the existence of another literal temple appeal to various passages as support for their view. The main ones are Ezek 40-47; Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; Matt 24:15 and 2 Thess 2:3-4.
However, once we recognize that biblical prophecies should often be interpreted non-literally, it becomes clear that none of these passages needs to be understood to refer to a future, literal temple.
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