See Part 1
Now, to be fair, many proponents of both amillennialism and postmillennialism would argue they treat the Bible literally when the passages demand it. However, prophetic passages they insist, must be interpreted in a much less literal fashion because the prophetic Scriptures contain symbolic language. The presence of symbolism forces us to change our interpretative method when interpreting prophecy. If one were to interpret symbolic language literally, it is argued, absurd and ridiculous conclusions would result. Because premillennialists insist upon interpreting all Scripture, including prophetic, eschatological passages consistently with a literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutic, their method is viewed as tending toward “wooden literalism.”As I noted in part one of this study, I believe the accusation against premillennialism as holding to wooden literalism is misleading. I believe utilizing a literal approach to reading all of scripture, including heavily symbolic prophetic passages, is the only way to take the text seriously, especially with respect to authorial intent.
It’s dishonest to say a literal hermeneutic dismisses symbolic language. Most certainly one who holds to a literal hermeneutic recognizes symbolism and figurative speech with in the biblical literature. The question is how does one interpret such language? Does the presence of figurative speech insist we treat the text differently from all the rest of the Bible? No, I don’t think so. However, there are exegetical rules within the grammatical-historical hermeneutic that can help us understand symbolic, figurative language.
First, symbolic language and figurative speech often point to a literal reference: something real and historic. Symbols, metaphors, similes, and figurative speech are just graphic representations of “an actual event, truth, or object” [Couch, 71]. For example, consider Revelation, one of the more symbolic books of the Bible. Chapter 20 speaks of how Satan will be bound with a chain and sealed in the bottomless pit. The typical objection to the literalist interpretation is to ask, “how can a spiritual being like Satan be bound with a chain?” The objector then says the “binding” must mean something else entirely and attempts to build a case for the devil being “bound” at the cross of Jesus, etc.
The literalist, on the other hand, certainly grants that a spiritual being can’t be bound with a chain in the “wooden literal” sense of being bound. John most certainly is employing symbolic language; but the symbolic language refers to an actual event: Satan will be caused to cease from all of his corrupting activities and removed from the earth. The symbolism of a chain binding the devil refers to something that will really happen to Satan as related to his activity on earth.
Take another example from the book of Daniel. the four major empires in the ancient world leading up to the first advent of Jesus Christ are described as metals in a statue (chapter 2), as bizarre beasts (chapter 7), and as a ram and goat (chapter 8). The symbolism describes real, geopolitical kingdoms that existed on the earth and shaped the course of human history. Hence, premillennialists only believe the additional symbolism of a divine rock smashing the metal statue at the end of chapter 2 is also a real, geopolitical kingdom, one that is yet to come.
There is a second exegetical principle when interpreting symbolism literally: Does the symbol when interpreted literally lead to absurdity, yet when understood symbolically, lead to clarity?
Now what do I mean by that? When an interpreter comes to a passage containing symbolism, if he were to interpret the symbols “literally” would the conclusion lead to an absurdity or something ridiculous? For instance, Isaiah 55:12 speaks of how the “trees of the field will clap their hands.” Clearly we are dealing with symbolic language here. But, if we take this statement “literally” does the prophet mean to say trees will come to life with arms and hands in some weird, anamorphic fashion and clap them together? Or does the symbolic language, when understood symbolically, lead to clarity? In this case, the prophet means to convey with the use of this illustration the great rejoicing that would take place at the fulfillment of God’s Word? The second interpretation best describes the context of the prophecy.
Let’s consider one that is not so clear. Micah 4:1 says, But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. Some suggest that what Micah is saying here is that Mt. Zion will be the tallest mountain on the face of the earth during the millennium. Objectors to such a position point out the height of Mt. Everest as being 29,000 feet and unless a radical, supernatural reconstruction of the world happens, Mt. Zion could never be the tallest mountain during the millennium. Those objectors do quickly forget Peter’s words in his second epistle where he describes such a possible transformation of the world (2 Pet. 3:3 ff.) and that certainly could include the heights of mountains. But, honestly, such objectors are correct. There is a good amount of absurdity with interpreting Micah’s words to mean, “Mt. Zion will be the world’s tallest mountain during the millennial reign of Christ.”
I think a better way to look at this text is to note how the symbolism makes the prophecy clear. In ancient times, mountains, or what we know in Israel today as “Tels,” would be a strategic location where a tribe or group of people built their city, and the city in turn came to be known as a seat of governmental authority of a specific realm or kingdom in the area where it existed. The prophet is utilizing a symbolic image to express how Mt. Zion will be exalted above all the kingdoms of the world, which is exactly what is to be expected when Christ comes to vanquish his enemies and establish His kingdom.
But that leads us to a third exegetical principle involving symbolism: The Bible is its own interpreter when interpreting symbolic language. Non-premillennialists like Kenneth Gentry for example, will insist we must look to the Bible first to provide for us the key to interpreting the symbolism in biblical prophecy. Premillennial “literalists” are often criticized for going outside of the biblical text to find solutions to interpreting prophecy. Hal Lindsey and his take on the locust of Revelation 9 as being chemical spraying helicopters is a clear illustration.
Gentry’s point is well taken, though he is guilty of reading non-biblical interpretations into the book of Revelation. For instance, his insistence that the hailstones described in Revelation 16:21 are so beyond the weight of any normal, weather produced hailstones that to interpret them as such is to introduce dishonesty into the text of the Bible. He appeals to the historical record of Josephus, who says the Romans used large, white colored boulders in their catapults when they besieged Jerusalem. Josephus’s account, then, must be recording the fulfillment of this prophesy.
However, the more biblically consistent way to interpret these hailstones is to turn to the whole of the Bible. What does the Bible say about hailstones? If one would do a quick check of a concordance, Job, probably one of the earliest written books of the OT, states in 38:22-23 Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail, Which I have reserved against the time of trouble, against the day of battle and war? That is an unusual comment from the Lord to Job. However, we see the Lord using this “treasure of hail” in Joshua 10:11 where He cast down stones from heaven upon the Amorites on behalf of Israel so that the people who died from the hailstones was greater than the people killed by Israel in battle. Great hailstones are also mentioned in Isaiah 30:30, Ezekiel 13:11, 13, and 38:22, along with some other places in Psalms. Why then is it hard to believe God can move supernaturally in nature to destroy His enemies with hailstones? That is what a consistent reading of Scripture states?
Another example is Crenshaw and Gunn’s chiding of the literalist take on Matthew 24:29 where Jesus says, Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. According to Crenshaw and Gunn [22-25], these cosmological visions cannot happen because stars falling from the heavens would destroy the universe and the sun being darkened would turn the earth into a frozen ball. Additionally, prophets used the sun and moon motif, along with similar expressions to describe “sudden and disastrous change” that takes place. Such as Israel being thrown into bondage for 70 years, the judgment upon Babylon, and in the case of Jesus’s words in Matthew 24:29, Jerusalem being destroyed by the Romans.
It could be that the “sun and moon” expression is a description of sudden and disastrous change or judgment. But there seems to be something physical and real in that expression when once again, we see Peter describes real, genuine cosmological signs taking place at the dissolution of the world in 2 Peter 3. Crenshaw and Gunn barely brush by Revelation 6:12, 8:12, and 16:8 , where those passages all describe the sun and the moon being smitten as part of the judgment upon the earth, and when they are smitten, the cosmological signs produce physical consequences upon the earth and on humanity. How can a motif, what really is meant to be a “figure of speech” or “symbolic language,” produce physical effects upon humanity and impact life upon the earth? There has to be real cosmological happenings upon the earth.
Then lastly, we should take every word at its primary, ordinary, literal meaning unless the exegetical facts of the immediate context suggests otherwise. In other words, we should not go looking for an allegorical or spiritualized interpretation unless the context gives us some exegetical reason to do so. Considering Isaiah’s prophecy about the millennial kingdom in chapter 11, he speaks of how predatory animals like wolves and lions will exist peacefully along side docile animals like sheep and cattle. Taken in the normal, ordinary sense, there is nothing to indicate we are to spiritualize such poetic sounding language. There is no reason not to take the prophet’s words literally. Even if this is language meant to be only poetic, the meaning is still literal none the less: the idea being put forth is the rest and safety and peace of the Messiah’s Kingdom.
Now, as I draw this to a close, someone may object to these principles I have outlined by saying “aren’t you being naive thinking the interpretation of prophetic passages filled with symbolic language is so cut-and-dried?” Well of course not. I know there are difficult passages under discussion that have been debated vigorously for centuries. Each passage has to be carefully interpreted with in its own context and all the difficulties weighed in our exegesis of those passages. But I think in the end, the grammatical-historical literal hermeneutic will provide us the best method for interpretation.
Curtis Crenshaw and Grover Gunn, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow.
Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics.
Kenneth Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation.
Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, The End Times Controversy.
James White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority, and Authenticity.