The Limits of Literal Interpretation

The general principle of the literal interpretation of Scripture, which we (with all Protestants) heartily endorse, chiefly applies to historical narrative. The prophetic passages of Scripture, as well as the poetic book of psalms, often contain figurative language. This is a native feature of poetry, and a common one in prophecy. This fact has been the occasion of many differences of opinion on the interpretation of prophecy.

The general rule of literal interpretation, therefore, does not require us to interpret every word of Scripture in a literal sense. Indeed, to attempt to do so would often result in nonsense; and many times it would bring Scripture into conflict with Scripture. The correct method is to follow the Scripture’s own indications as to when it speaks in strict literalness, and when not. This is an aspect of the vital principle that Scripture interprets itself, which is equally as fundamental as that of literal interpretation.

The gospels are literal historical records of the words and deeds of Jesus. But within this is contained the literal record of Jesus’ sayings, in which there are very many times that He either uses figurative language, or interprets the Scriptures in a non-literal manner. This is the reason that His disciples so often did not understand Him.

As a case in point, here is a prophecy from the Old Testament:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

And here is the non-literal New Testament fulfillment, according to the angel Gabriel:

And many of the children of Israel shall he [John the Baptist] turn to the Lord their God. And he [John] shall go before him [Jesus] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:16-17)

And according to Jesus Christ:

Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elijah, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:11-15)

And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elijah must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elijah truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.“ (Matthew 17:10-13)

And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elijah must first come? And he answered and told them, Elijah verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at naught. But I say unto you, That Elijah is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9:11-13)

It is probable that most Israelites prior to the coming of John the Baptist interpreted the prophecy of Elijah’s coming literally, and we cannot condemn them for doing so. But this is a plain instance of literal interpretation leading to an erroneous conclusion. The scribes, observing that Elijah the Tishbite had not yet appeared on the scene, thought they had an unanswerable argument against Jesus’ claim to Messiahship!

It would be wrong to demand an additional, literal fulfillment of this prophecy in the future (as some nevertheless do) on the mistaken premise that because a literal fulfillment is possible, anything less would be inadequate and contrary to the truthfulness of God. Jesus makes it plain that John is the complete fulfillment of the prophecy when he says, “this is Elijah, which was for to come”.

Besides, the prophecy was for Elijah to come before Messiah appeared. Since Jesus has already come, there is now no opportunity for a completely literal fulfillment. On the other hand, John the Baptist fulfilled the actual terms of the prophecy by his ministry, restoring true religion in Israel in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

Finally, John was not inferior to Elijah, nor was he a less significant figure in the history of Israel. This second Elijah did no miracle, but he turned back the hearts of the children of Israel to the Lord, as the first one did (1 Kings 8:37-39); and also announced the long-awaited coming of Israel’s redeemer-king! Therefore, in sending John, God did not do less than He would have done, if He had sent the literal Elijah.

“But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:26-28)

By parity of reasoning, when the New Testament declares that the Kingship of Christ is to be exercised from His throne at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:30-36) rather than from an earthly throne in Jerusalem, how can this be viewed as an inadequate fulfillment of the promise to David concerning his seed, when the power and authority of that throne in heaven includes any that David had, and is infinitely greater than that of any earthly throne? It’s as if someone promised his son a hundred dollars upon his graduation from school, and gave him a car worth ten thousand dollars instead! Who would be so mad as to complain that the promise was not fulfilled because it was not fulfilled to the letter?

The Jewish expectation of a literal, visible, earthly kingdom was not only false, but it was a main cause of their rejection of Jesus, for they were only interested in a Messiah who would come and liberate them from the Romans. They did not realize that their greater bondage was to sin and death; and that for this cause they needed most of all a spiritual redeemer. The Bible tells us that they did what they did to Christ because they did not understand the prophets; and yet Dispensationalists today follow the same wrong path!

Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent. For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him.” (Acts 13:26-27)

This error was so ingrained, that even His disciples didn’t “get it” for a long time.

But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done… Then he [Jesus] said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:21-27)

Dispensationalists claim that prophecy is “history written beforehand”, and claim to follow the rule, “literal unless impossible”. The tendency of the Dispensational brand of excessive literalism is to expect a future, literal fulfillment of prophecies that have already been spiritually fulfilled. The result is a complex and bizarre futuristic scenario unlike anything the historic Christian church has ever seen before.

From the book, The Myth of the Postponed Kingdom, A Critique of Dispensationalism, by Howard Douglas King