As we work through the passages dealing with the end of time, we need to keep a few things in mind about how to read figurative language in the scriptures. Let’s start by clarifying how we speak of such things.
First, “literal” is the opposite of “figurative.” When the scriptures say “The Lord is my shepherd,” the scriptures speak truth, but it’s a figurative truth, not a literal truth. God is not literally my shepherd, or else I’d be a literal sheep, and I’m not. In fact, I’m allergic to wool.
Someone got the idea years ago that we should argue that the scriptures are the “literal truth,” which is a ridiculous claim. They are true. The truths expressed in scriptures are sometimes expressed in literal language and sometimes expressed in figurative language. Both kinds of language express truths. Therefore, to say that the scriptures don’t always express a literal truth is to state an obvious reality. The scriptures often use figurative language.
Some figurative language is symbolic. In other words, sometimes there’s a one-to-one correspondence between a figure and a reality. “Babylon” in Revelation is generally taken to refer to Rome (some disagree). “Babylon” is nearly a code for “Rome,” but it’s a code with meaning beyond the mere meaning “Rome.” After all, there must be some reason John chose to refer to Rome as Babylon and not as Sparta or City X. Were we studying one of those passages, we should take the time to understand the choice of symbol, not just the meaning behind the symbol.
Now, not all figurative language is symbolic in this sense. There is often no easy way to replace the figure with the meaning behind the figure. For example,
(Rev 21:21) The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.
Does “pure gold” stand for a particular spiritual substance? Does the fact that it’s transparent mean there’s something beneath it to see? What is the “great street”? What do the pearls stand for?
You see, God normally uses figurative language to express thoughts that aren’t expressible in literal terms — or to do a better job of expressing the thought than literal language would accomplish. Therefore, when we try to reduce all the figures and symbols to an underlying literal sense, we always lose something that God meant for us to see.
And “see” is the right word. God uses words to paint pictures, and if we respect God’s choice of language as the very best choice, we must take the time to actually see the pictures. What does a gate made of pearl look like? What does a great street paved with transparent gold look like?
Don’t stop there. God paints these pictures for a reason, and one reason is to evoke an emotional response. We need to pause, reflect, and feel the picture. What feelings do those images produce? Wonder? Awe? Amazement? Stop and feel the emotions.
Don’t dare pass directly from the figures to the underlying meaning and suppose you’ve understood what God meant for to you understand. God meant for you to see a picture and feel the images in the depths of your soul. Don’t skip that step. Indeed, in many cases, that’s the last step. I don’t think that the pearls or transparent paving stones stand for anything. The point of the picture is that we’ll be amazed, astonished, and brought to our knees in wonder at God’s new creation — and that God, through John — wants us to actually feel a bit so we can anticipate it as we await Jesus’ return.
We can’t anticipate what we’ve never imagined. And that’s the point.
(Psa 139:4-16) Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. 5 You hem me in — behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
This passage is almost always cited in the abortion debates, but that’s not why David wrote it. Before then, this was a predestination passage. But that wasn’t David’s point either. It’s fine to make abortion or free will arguments from it, but we shouldn’t forget to read the passage for its primary purpose. David’s point is … well, why should I take away the joy of discovery? That’s part of how it works, too.
Don’t suck the feeling out of the words. Rather, see and savor the images and thoughts and feelings. That’s why God chooses that kind of language.
Many of the truths God wants us to understand aren’t propositional truths. But, sometimes, there is a propositional truth or two buried in the figures. But we can’t correctly interpret the figures until we’ve seen the pictures and put ourselves in them, seeing and feeling what’s been expressed. Only then can we seek the underlying propositions.
Therefore, when I write about such things, I tend to quote the full text of the prophecy — so the readers can easily read and revel in the figures. DON’T SKIP THE QUOTES! And don’t think you’ve understood the Bible better by reading past the figures to the underlying meaning. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Now, in the context of 2 Peter 3, Revelation, and such like, the fact is that the authors write in figurative language. 2 Pet 3:10-13 is rich with metaphors. So is Revelation. So are Rom 8 and 1 Cor 15. And it’s not always easy to determine where the metaphors end and the literal language begins. Such is the nature of figurative language.
Will we really live in a New Jerusalem at the end of time? Yes. Will it be made of stone buildings on top of a mountain? I doubt it. Will it look anything like a human city? I have no clue. But this much I’m sure of. We were meant to read, imagine, and mentally place ourselves in the pictures — and we can’t begin to understand the meanings behind the figures until we understand the figures as pictures, indeed, as pictures that tell a story.
Get the figures right, and then maybe you can discern the story and then maybe you can discover lessons in the figures. But the figures themselves are lessons, too. And they are from the hand of God, written as figures of speech, because God decided that’s the very best kind of language to use for his purposes. We must take the time to see what God is saying.