FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE Figurative Signposts in Scripture

By Ellis Skolfield

[The verses in this article are taken from the King James Version [KJV]

Do you actually believe there’s going to be a real living animal with seven heads and ten horns running amuck around the world? A truly weird monster with the body of a leopard, feet of a bear and mouth of a lion? If taken literally, that is what we have to believe, because that is what Revelation 13 says. Since the physical existence of such an animal is most unlikely, could God be using that bizarre creature to picture something else?
When an author wishes to portray characters or events in a hidden or symbolic way he uses figurative language.
Whether a passage is literal or figurative is not determined by the reader, but by the Author.
– 1 . Interpreting literal language figuratively results in false doctrine! (I don’t know what that verse means, but it doesn’t mean what it says)
– 2. Interpreting figurative language literally also results in false doctrine. (That freaky sounding seven-headed “beast” is actually going to exist) Really? Figurative signposts are key to discerning whether a passage is literal or figurative.

Examples of Figurative Signposts in Scripture
“Like, Likened” or “Like Unto” :

Matthew 13:44 
44: The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field.
Matthew 18:23 
23: Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 
Mark 4:30 
30: Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? It is like a grain of mustard seed 
Luke 13:20-21 
20: Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? 
21 It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal

“AS”: Not always a figurative signpost, must be determined by context.
FIGURATIVE: 

Luke 17:6: If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed. 
Matthew 13:43: Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun 
Luke 10:3: Behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves 

NOT FIGURATIVE: 

Matthew 14:36: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.
Mark 2:14: And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom.
Luke 8:23 But as they sailed he fell asleep.

“In The Spirit”:  A different kind of figurative signpost.
Here the prophet is seeing through his spiritual eyes rather than through his physical eyes.

Revelation 1:10: “I was in the spirit on the Lord's day.” 
Revelation 4:2: “And immediately I was in the spirit.” 
Revelation 17:3: “So he carried me away in the spirit.” 
Rev 21:10: “And he carried me away in the spirit.” 

All show that the prophet is having a vision and all prophetic visions are figurative!

Example of a Figurative Vison

Genesis 37:9-10 
9 “And he (Joseph) dreamed yet another dream (in other words he had a vision), and told it his brethren, and said, ‘Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.’ 
10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father (who understood the vision as figurative) rebuked him, and said unto him, ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?’” 

Joseph’s dream is obviously about Jacob and the children of Israel. So are there any prophetic visions in the Bible that are not figurative?
The Bible has only one Author and the Figurative Language in Genesis 37 is the same as that in Revelation 12.

Revelation 12:1 
1 “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” 

Since the sun, moon and stars in Genesis, are identical to the sun, moon and stars in Revelation, whom do you suppose Revelation 12:1 is actually identifying?
Why it’s . . . ISRAEL of course!
So Revelation 12:1-6 is actually about Israel.

Figurative language appears all over Revelation!

Revelation 4:6: “And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal.”
Revelation 9:10: “And they had tails like unto scorpions.”
Revelation 11:1: “And there was given me a reed like unto a rod.”
Revelation 13:11: “And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.”
Revelation 16:13: “And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon.”
Revelation 16:3: “And the second angel poured out his vial upon thesea (of people, Rev 17:15); and it became as the blood of a dead man; and every living soul died (spiritually) in the sea.”

Revelation has over 60 figurative signposts so Revelation is primarily figurative!
Some of Revelation’s figurative language is defined for us in the book itself . . .

Revelation 1:20 “The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels {Greek, —ἄγγελος, ang’-el-os, a messenger} of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.” 

Revelation 11:3-4 “And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.” 

Revelation 17:18 “And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” 

There all kinds of messengers in Scripture:
Jesus is the “messenger of the covenant,”
the Holy Spirit is a messenger,
holy angels and humans are messengers and so is Satan.

In Revelation, context reveals the identity of the various “angels.”
About “Angels” in Revelation In the New Testament, the Greek word translated angel is: —ἄγγελος, pronounced ang’-el-os, by definition a “messenger.”

1. Jesus is the messenger of the covenant, Malachi 3:1
2. Holy Angels can be messengers, Luke 1:19
3. The Holy Spirit is a messenger, John 16:13
4. People can be messengers, Galatians 4:14
5. Satan and his angels can be messengers, 2 Corinthians 12:7

In Revelation, ang’-el-os appears 68 times. All are messengers of some kind, some very good, others very wicked. The identity of the various “angels” in Revelation must be determined by context!

Seven Important Rules of Interpretation
1. The Cultural Setting of the Prophet.
All prophecy must be viewed from the prophet’s own knowledge base, not from ours. We must place ourselves in the sandals of the prophet and render his prophecy from his historic and cultural position. Interpreting a prophecy from our 21 century knowledge base can lead to false doctrine . . .

Hosea 7:8 
8 “Ephraim, he hath mixed himself among the people; Ephraim is a cake not turned.”

In Hosea’s time, a flatbread was cooked one side at a time, just like we do pancakes today. This Hosea prophecy (written just before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel) tells the Israelites that only half the story of the so-called “ten lost tribes” took place before they were dispersed by the Assyrians into the Caucuses Mountains region in 725-722 B.C.. Still part of God’s chosen people, Israel was still to become a multitude of nations, Genesis 48:19, but their future would be in among the Gentile nations, Amos 9:8-9.

2. Idioms Must Be Understood As Nonliteral.

1Kings 21:21 
21 “Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall.” 

So is God is going to perform surgery on those of Ahab’s relatives who can’t find a bathroom? Once again, if taken literally, that is what we have to believe, because that is what Scripture says. But when understood idiomatically, the prophet Elijah is informing King Ahab of Israel that God is going to judge Ahab’s house because of his wicked deeds, and allow all of his male descendants to die off so that Ahab’s family tree will be wiped out.

3. Scriptural Adjacency.

Revelation 11:4
4 “These (two witnesses) are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.” 

For the definition of scriptural figures, first look within the surrounding verses, then the chapter, then the book, then the testament, then the whole Bible. It is faulty exegesis to use Old Testament definitions for “olive trees” and “candlesticks” if there are New Testament definitions that fit these New Testament figures perfectly! Romans 11:24-32 and Revelation 1:20

Rules 4 through 7, Having the Right Heart Attitude

4. Recognizing the Bible as the true Living Word of God.

Hebrews 4:12 
12 “For the word of God is quick (Greek: ζάω, dzah’-o, living), and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

5. The Lord will not open His Word to us if we’re willing to compromise it.
6. The Lord can teach us nothing if we hold our doctrines above His Word.
7. We learn the doctrines of men from books by men, we learn to know God from His Word.