Prophetic Literature: Literal or Spiritual

It is curious how students of Biblical prophecy today can hold to the authority, inerrancy, and clarity of Scripture and still come to completely different conclusions on the matter. Disagreements frequently arise over whether the meaning of prophecy is to be taken literal (i.e., things happens just as described) or spiritual (i.e., a deeper meaning explained by symbols). Those who would advocate for the former position place strong emphasis on a literal interpretation and pride themselves on taking Scripture just as it is written. Alternatively, those who would promote the latter view look at prophecy as more figurative or symbolic to convey spiritual meanings. This approach has been accused by the opposing side of “explaining away” or worse flat out rejecting what the Bible says.

These serious charges against the spiritual interpretation of prophecy compel others to take the extreme opposite approach and presuppose interpretive principles such as: “Literal whenever possible,” “literal unless absurd,” or “if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” They champion the idea that certain prophecies such as the second coming must be fulfilled in exactly the way they are described in the Bible unless absurd to do so. Anyone who does not look first to the literal interpretation falls into subjectivity and denies the objective reality of Scripture.

There is a flip side to this coin. What might seem absurd to one person may not seem absurd to someone else, and what might make sense to one individual might not make sense to another. And so, the literalist are in danger of falling into the same problem of subjectivity that they accuse others with.

The interpretive principle of literalism is presupposed. In other words, it is assumed to be valid from the start without proof. There is nothing wrong with presuppositions per se (i.e., in and of itself), however for them to remain valid they must be consistent. For instance, If every prophecy about the future second coming of Jesus must be interpreted under the assumption of literalism, then we should have all the reason in the world to expect that the Old Testament (OT) prophecies about the first coming were literal. But they weren’t! The prophecies were full of figures and symbols. Let’s take a look at some examples of Christ’s first coming foretold with the use of figures.

Old Testament prophecies fulfilled spiritually

The very first Messianic prophecy is found in Genesis 3:15 where, in pronouncing a curse upon the serpent, God told him that one of Eve’s offspring would bruise his head and, in turn, he would strike back and bruise his heal. Now this Messianic prophecy certainly was not fulfilled literally by a man striking the head of a snake. Rather it was fulfilled in a highly figurative sense when Christ gained the victory and triumphed over Satan at the cross (Heb. 2:14).

As we fast forward to the last prophecy in the OT, we see God’s promise that he would send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD (Mal. 4:5). This prophecy, like the first, did not come to pass literally. Jesus himself said it was fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:14), who came in the spirit and power of Elijah.

Moreover, we have the prophecy of Isaiah:

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORDmake straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 40:3-5). 

This certainly was not fulfilled by a highway construction program or a landscaping project. Rather it was fulfilled in the work of John the Baptist who paved the way for the public ministry of Jesus (Matt. 3:1-3; Luke 3:3-6).

Furthermore, Isaiah also prophesies about the oppression the people of Zebulun and Naphtali would experience by the Assyrian invasion, but also about the restoration that would take place afterward: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isa 9:2). Later Matthew explains that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy when he started preaching in Galilee (Matt 4:12-17). Clearly, Isaiah was speaking of spiritual darkness where sin and oppression was prevalent, and the spiritual light where salvation and truth shined that was brought to those lands when the Messiah would come.

Finally, when Balaam attempted to pronounce a curse on the people of Israel, God made him pronounce a blessing instead. Within that blessing we are told of the Messiah:

a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly.
And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!” (Num 24:17-19). 

This prophesy is fulfilled initially in David’s victory over Moab and Edom (2 Sam 8:2,14; Psa 60:8; 108:10), but ultimately and completely in Christ who would possess all the heathen nations along with the remnant of Edom (Amos 9:11, Acts 15:17). Most commentators recognize the symbolic reference to the Messiah:

  • A Star; a title often given to princes and eminent and illustrious persons, and particularly to the Messiah, (Rev. 2:28 22:16). ~ John Wesley
  • The “star” and “scepter” may be considered as names and titles of the Messiah; he is called the “morning star”, Revelation 22:16 for his glory, brightness, and splendor, and for the light that comes by him, and the influence of his grace. ~ John Gill
  • This passage was understood by the ancient Jews to refer to the Messiah either exclusively or with a secondary reference to David. ~Daniel Whedon

Neither Christ nor David are stars in the literal sense of a luminous spheroid of plasma, rather in the sense they are rulers. David was a king, and Jesus is the King of kings who will conquer all his enemies (Psa 110:1), and bring spiritual light to the nations.

There are many more prophecies just like these in the OT that highly utilize symbolic and figurative language for the purpose of conveying spiritual truth. Surely these examples are sufficient to show that it simply is not true that every prophecy pointing to Christ’s first advent was fulfilled literally in every detail.

New Testament examples of figurative language

The New Testament follows the same practice. Jesus told his disciples they were the “salt” and “light” of the earth (Matt. 5:13-16), not literally but in the sense they were to show the world good works and speak the gospel message for God’s glory. When instituting the Lord’s Supper Jesus said of the bread and wine, “this is my body … this is my blood” (Matt. 26:26, 28). Extreme literalism has lead to the Roman Catholic belief that Jesus’ words are meant to be taken in the sense that the bread and wine actually transform into real flesh and blood during communion. Paul says to “beware of dogs” (Phil 3:2), and warns against “fierce wolves” (Acts. 20:29).  He didn’t mean that the SPCA wasn’t doing a good job in keeping animals from roaming in public, rather his warning was to watch out for evil people with wicked intent toward the church of God.

To interpret certain prophecies or other statements as spiritual or figurative does not mean we “explain them away.” Sometimes their true meaning is to be found only in the spiritual realm. There is danger in literalizing or materializing prophecies to such an extent that they are kept on an earthly level and miss the true and deeper meaning.

Apostate Israel’s mistake of radical literalism

This is exactly what the Jewish leaders did in the time of Christ. They looked for literal fulfillments with an earthly kingdom and a political ruler and, consequently, they missed the redemptive elements to the point that when the Messiah finally came they did not receive him but instead rejected and crucified him. Such a fearful consequence of materializing Christ’s first coming should put us on guard against making the same mistake regarding his second coming.

Conclusion

One does not have to read far in the Bible to discover that not everything can be taken literally. This does not mean that its meaning is unclear. Literalism does not equate with clarity. Sometimes spiritual truth can become more clear by the use of figures and symbols. It is not true that spiritualizing a passage means subjectivity because all the symbols and figures in the OT are in some shape or form pointing to the work or character of Christ. Everything in the Law of Moses, Prophets, and Psalms (i.e., the entire OT) were somehow related to or fulfilled in our Lord Jesus (Luke 24:44) whether literal or spiritual.

 

Bibliography

Gill, John. “Commentary on Numbers 24:17”. “The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible”.

Wesley, John. “Commentary on Numbers 24:17”. “John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible”.

Whedon, Daniel. “Commentary on Numbers 24:17”. “Whedon’s Commentary on the Bible”.

Published by Ben Moore

Hi, I'm Ben Moore, a Christian worldview writer. This site is committed to seeing Christ's kingdom permeate throughout all of life, including the social institutions that God has designed; family, church, and civil government. While Christian churches have been focused on applying the Bible to the heart of the individual, its application to society is often neglected, lost, or even rejected. The content of this site predominately speaks into these issues and wants to discover how God's word applies beyond the life of the individual Christian and to the public square.

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