The first pair is figurative vs. literal. This has to do with the kind of language used. The language used to describe prophesied events is often figurative, meaning we are not to apply a direct literal meaning of the words used. We sometimes call this figure of speech. Figurative language takes many forms: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, metonymy, etc. Discussion of each of these forms is not necessary: it is enough for us to know that there are several ways in which words can be used without intending their strict, literal meaning. Literal, of course, means the words are to be understood in their exact accepted definition, or close to it.
There is something of a gray area here – sometimes figures of speech are so embedded in our culture and language that they become literal. When we speak of an argument or debate we use terms of warfare: we speak of fighting or attack. We don’t mean this literally, exactly, but the figure is so imbedded we don’t consciously think of it as a figure.
The other pair of terms is spiritual vs. temporal. These terms have to do with the nature or the significance of a prophesied event. Temporal deals with the space-time universe, with the scope of the daily life of humanity. We will sometimes use physical as a synonym. Spiritual speaks of things from God’s perspective. This is not always an either/or proposition. Sometimes a temporal event can have spiritual significance. What can help us in this regard is that the Psalms and Prophets used figurative language to ascribe spiritual significance to temporal events. Let’s take a look at Psalm 18:
Then the earth shook and trembled; The foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken, because he was angry.
Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; Coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down with darkness under his feet.
And He rode upon a cherub, and flew; he flew upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his secret place; his canopy around him was dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.
From the brightness before him, his thick clouds passed with hailstones and coals of fire.
The Lord thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire.
He sent out his arrows and scattered the foe, lightnings in abundance, and he vanquished them.
Then the channels of the sea were seen, the foundations of the world were uncovered at Your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils. (Psalm 18:7-15)
Notice the language David uses here. Without knowing what he is writing about, we might assume he is describing some kind of catastrophic, cosmic event – much like people understand the return of Jesus. In fact, the language of this Psalm is nearly identical to some of the language used to describe Jesus’ coming. But the heading of the Psalm describes the occasion as David’s defeat of Saul. This is not a “cosmic” event. The language here is exaggerated, but this is the stuff of poetry. This event is very important to David, and has great spiritual significance. David, a “man after God’s own heart,” wants to celebrate his victory but he does not take credit himself, so he gives glory to God. And he uses language that eloquently expresses both his gratitude and the profound significance of the event he describes. He uses figurative language to invest a temporal event with spiritual significance.
Let’s look at another example. In Isaiah 13, the prophet describes the judgment of God against Babylon:
The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like that of many people! A tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together! The Lord of hosts musters the army for battle.
They come from a far country, from the end of heaven – the Lord and His weapons of indignation, to destroy the whole land.
Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand! It will come as destruction from the Almighty.
Therefore all hands will be limp, every man’s heart will melt,
And they will be afraid. Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them; They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth; They will be amazed at one another; Their faces will be like flames.
Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine.
I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will halt the arrogance of the proud, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
I will make a mortal more rare than fine gold, a man more than the golden wedge of Ophir.
Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts and in the day of His fierce anger. (Isaiah 13:4-13)
The temporal event being described here is the capture of Babylon by the Medes (Isaiah 13:1, 17-19). Again, notice the language used. This passage is an interesting combination of literal language graphically describing the attack of the Medes, and figurative language describing God’s act of judgment through this event. The event itself is, on the historical level, just another exercise in ancient warfare, a relic for the annals of ancient history. The language of prophecy, however, gives us insight into the spiritual significance of this event.
In Exodus 19:4 God tells the people of Israel that he brought them out of Egypt “on eagle’s wings.” This is a very simple example of figurative language being used to describe a temporal event in spiritual terms.
So how does this apply to our understanding of end-time prophecy? Very simply, Jesus used figurative language (coming on the clouds, etc.) to describe a temporal event (the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans) in terms of its spiritual significance (the consummation of the ages and the coming of the kingdom of God).
This means that Christ’s coming and the kingdom ushered in are spiritual in nature. This should not surprise us. Jesus frequently described the kingdom in spiritual terms: “My kingdom is not of this world” – “The kingdom of God does not come with observation” and so on (John 18:36; Luke 17:20). In some cases this will mean that a prophecy that appears to use literal language, speaking of the kingdom of God or of Zion or Jerusalem or the temple, might turn out to be figurative, with a spiritual application. This is probably the most confusing aspect of biblical prophecy. But it is not alien to our way of thinking. Various Jewish people, with a literal understanding of prophecy, were expecting a temporal, or physical, kingdom. Jesus did not satisfy their expectations in this regard. He offered them a figurative understanding of these prophecies that pointed to a spiritual kingdom. This is part of the reason they had him crucified, and it seems unlikely that he would return to offer a temporal kingdom he refused to usher in the first time.
The spiritual nature of the work of Christ is established throughout the New Testament. Never once is it suggested that Jesus came to remain on earth, or that his ascension into heaven was a necessary retreat and delay in the establishment of his kingdom. Rather, he taught that just as he came from the Father, he would return to the Father, bringing fullness and completion to the arc of biblical prophecy. In John 6:62-63, Jesus said, “What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” His message was not temporal in hope and promise, but rather he came to bear testimony to the spiritual. Entry into his kingdom requires a new birth after the manner and power of the spirit because his kingdom is not of this world, and therefore cannot be entered by flesh and blood (John 18:36; 1 Corinthians 15:50).
One last term that we will need to be familiar with is type. In everyday use “type” has been reduced to mean “variety” or “kind.” In the study of literature, however (and biblical interpretation is a kind of literary study), it means something that foreshadows or anticipates or signifies something else. It is a sign of something to come. You might think of it as a pointer, or a kind of real-life metaphor. David, as king of Israel, was a type of Christ. Because we have the example of David as a temporal king, we have a better understanding of Jesus as a spiritual king.
A great deal of the Old Testament system served as a type of the New Covenant that was to come. Because the Old Covenant had priests, we can understand better what it means for Jesus to be our high priest, and for Peter to call the early believers a “royal priesthood.” Because the Old Covenant had a temple, we can understand what Jesus meant when he said “Destroy this temple and I will build it again in three days,” referring to his own body, and why Paul and Peter can both refer to the church in temple terms. The fact that these temporal functions and artifacts – these types – passed away is not an occasion to denigrate them or despise them. They had a great and valuable purpose, and this purpose was to point to the greater things to come (Hebrews 9:11; 10:1).
The law system was a type or shadow of things to come, but not the very image of those things (Hebrews 10:11). A type does not typify itself. Physical or temporal concepts are used to point to a higher and spiritual meaning, which would otherwise be impossible without a point of reference. To hope for a literal fulfillment of these pointers, or types, is to miss this vital point in God’s spiritual program for humanity. Literal fulfillment is not necessary if a literal concept was used in the first place in order to convey a higher meaning and understanding of some spiritual reality.
Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned next week as we look further at the nature of biblical prophetic interpretation.
For right now, what do you think? How might understanding prophetic language as figurative language describing the spiritual significance of temporal events transform how you read biblical prophecies? The Comments section is open!