A large proportion of the words in all languages, in truth all that express intellectual and moral ideas, were originally figurative, the universal law being to represent immaterial by material objects. Examples are the words exist, existence, emotion, affliction, anguish, etc. But in these, and innumerable other words, the primitive physical meaning has become obsolete, and thus the secondary spiritual meaning is to us literal. Or, what often happens, while the original physical signification is retained, a secondary figurative meaning of the word has become so common that its use hardly recalls the physical meaning, and it may therefore be regarded as literal; as in the words hard, harsh, rough, when applied to character. In the first of the above examples: "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," the transfer of the word hard from what is physically hard to what is painful or difficult, is so common that it can hardly be regarded as figurative. But the expression that follows is figurative in the fullest sense of the word.
Rhetoricians divide figures into two general classes, figures of words, and figures of thought, and they give elaborate definitions, classifications, and rules for their use. The interpreter of Scripture, however, need not encumber himself with any rhetorical system. The general rules of interpretation already considered will be, for the most part, a sufficient guide to the meaning of the rich variety of figures contained in the Bible, especially in its poetical parts. It is only necessary to add a few words in reference to the ascertaining of figurative language; the most prominent classes of figures; and some principles to be observed in their interpretation.
2. The question may arise whether a writer is to be understood literally or figuratively. For the ascertaining of figurative language, a few simple rules will be, in general, sufficient.
(1.) Multitudes of cases can be decided at once by considering the nature of the subject.
Thus, when the apostle calls Jesus Christ a "foundation," and speaks of building upon this foundation "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble," adding that "every man's work shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is;" and, further, that "if any man's work abide" this fire, "he shall receive a reward," but "if any man's work be burned he shall suffer loss" (1 Cor.3:11-15), we know at once, from the nature of the subject, that he speaks figuratively. He compares the church of God to a temple, of which Jesus Christ is the foundation, while her teachers and preachers are the builders. The "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble," represent primarily the materials with which they build; that is, the character of their doctrines and precepts, and secondarily, the character of those whom they bring into the Christian fold. The "fire," again, is the trial and judgment of the last day.
The apostle says of the ancient Israelites that "they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them; and that Rock was Christ." 1 Cor.10:4. So also Christ is called to believers "a chief corner-stone, elect, precious;" but to unbelievers "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence" (1 Pet.2:6-8); "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David" (Rev.5:5); "the Lamb of God" and simply "the Lamb" (John 1:29, 36; Rev.5:12; 6:1; etc.); "the door of the sheep" (John 10:7, 9); "the true vine" (John 15:1); and "the living bread which came down from heaven" (John 6:51). He himself says: "Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." John 6:54. There is no more ground for understanding the last of these passages literally than the preceding, that is, there is no ground whatever. The dogma of the Romish church, which teaches that the consecrated bread and wine are literally converted into the body and blood of Jesus, violates alike sound reason and every sound principle of interpretation. "As the words, 'This is my body,' and 'This is my blood,' were spoken BEFORE Christ's body was broken upon the cross, and BEFORE his blood was shed, he could not pronounce them with the intention that they should be taken and interpreted literally by his disciples. He could not take his body in his hands, nor offer them his blood in the cup; for it had not yet been shed." Horne, vol.2, p.319.
(2.) In ascertaining figurative language, the interpreter will naturally take into account the scope, the context, and the general analogy of scriptural teaching. If the literal sense, though possible in the nature of things, is inept or contrary to the general tenor of Scripture, it must be rejected.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that, under the future reign of the Messiah, the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the lion eat straw like the ox, and the child play with impunity on the hole of the asp. Isa.11:6-8. It is possible to conceive of this state of things as effected by a change in the physical nature of all noxious animals. But the writer immediately adds: "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (ver.9). Since then the change is effected by the universal diffusion of "the knowledge of the Lord," it must be a moral change -- a transformation of the character of wicked men figuratively described as wolves, leopards, bears, lions, and vipers. The general analogy of prophetic language, which, as will be hereafter shown, abounds in figurative forms of representation, strengthens this conclusion.
By the prophet Haggai, again, God says: "Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land." Chap.2:6. The key to the meaning of these words is given in the following verse: "And I will shake all nations, and the Desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts." In such a connection, and with such a result, nothing could be more vapid than to understand this shaking of heaven and earth, sea and land, in a physical sense. It is the mighty overturnings among the nations, social, moral, and political, that are here predicted, as Jehovah says by Ezekiel: "I will overturn, overturn, overturn it, and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is, and I will give it to him." Chap.21:27. Compare Isa.13:13; Jer.4:24; Ezek.38:20; Joel 3:16. So when God announces that he "will cause the sun to go down at noon, and darken the earth in the clear day" (Amos 8:9), we understand at once that under this figure he forewarns the covenant people of the sudden approach of great calamity. Compare Deut.28:29; Job 5:14; Isa.13:10; Jer.4:23-28; Ezek.32:7, 8; Joel 2:31; 3:15; etc. This subject will be further discussed under the head of the interpretation of prophecy.
In the sermon on the mount, the Saviour says: "Whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt.5:39); but the preceding context gives the scope of this and the other particular precepts that follow, which is that Christ's followers should "resist not evil," that is, by rendering evil for evil. It is the spirit of meekness and forbearance that he inculcates, not a slavish regard to this and that particular form of manifesting it. So when he says: "Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (ver.42), he cannot mean, consistently with the scope of the passage and his teachings elsewhere, that we should stultify ourselves by literally giving to every asker and borrower, without regard to his necessities, real or alleged. He means rather to inculcate that liberal spirit which never withholds such help as it is able to give from those who need it.
When the Saviour says again: "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee," etc., both the preceding context and the general tenor of the Scriptures teach us that he means what is expressed by the apostle in another form: "Mortify, therefore, your members which are upon the earth." Col.3:5. To mortify is to deprive of life, make dead. We mortify our members which would seduce us into sin, not by destroying them, but by keeping them in subjection to "the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus."
(3.) If the interpreter is liable to err by taking figurative language in a literal sense, so is he also by regarding as figurative what should be understood literally. A favorite expedient with those who deny the supernatural character of revelation is to explain the miraculous transactions recorded in the Bible as figurative or mythical. When David says that in answer to his prayer "the earth shook and trembled, the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth;" that God "bowed the heavens also and came down, and darkness was under his feet;" that "the Lord thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hailstones and coals of fire;" that "he sent out his arrows and scattered them, and he shot out lightnings and discomfited them," all acknowledge that the language is to be figuratively taken. Why then, an objector might ask, not understand the account of the giving of the law on Sinai amid thunderings and lightnings as figurative also? The answer of every plain reader would be -- and it is the answer of unsophisticated common sense -- that the former passage occurs in a lyric poem, where such figurative descriptions are entirely in place; the latter in a plain narrative, which professes to give throughout historic facts with names and dates; that no reader, who had not a preconceived opinion to maintain, ever did or could think of interpreting the passage in Exodus in any other than a literal way, while every reader understands at once that the poetic description in the eighteenth psalm is to be taken figuratively. The attempt has been made to interpret the gospel history as a myth -- the embodiment of a system of pure ideas in the garb of history. It is difficult to refute an assumption which has no foundation to rest upon. This mythical theory may, nevertheless, be disposed of in a very short and simple way. The great central truth of the gospel history is the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If any one would know how the apostle Paul regarded this, let him read the fifteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, where he pledges his veracity as a witness on its historic reality (ver.15). If, now, Paul so regarded it, Luke, his companion in travel and labor, cannot have taken a different view of it, nor any other of the evangelists. But if the death and resurrection of Jesus are recorded as true historic events, the whole mythical theory vanishes at once into thin air.
(4.) In regard to those prophecies which relate to the distant future, it may sometimes be difficult to determine whether we are to look for a literal or a figurative fulfilment of them. But this subject will come up for consideration in another place.
3. In regard to the different kinds of figures a few words may be in place.
(1.) The term trope (Greek, tropos, a turn) is applied, in a general sense, to figures of words and speech of every variety; but, in stricter usage, to a word or sentence turned from its literal signification to a figurative sense. Quintilian adds (Inst. Orator.8.6.1) that this must be with good effect (cum virtute); that is, it must add clearness, force, or beauty to the thought.
The principal varieties of the trope are the metonymy and the metaphor. The metonymy is founded on the relation of one thing to another. Thus when Abraham says to the rich man: "They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them" (Luke 16:29), Moses and the prophets are put for their writings; that is, the authors for their works. "A soft tongue," says the wise man, "breaketh the bone." Prov.25:15. Here the word tongue is put for speech, the instrument for the thing effected, and this metonymy is joined with a metaphor. (See below.) The synecdoche, in which a part is put for the whole, as the sword for war, is in its nature essentially a metonymy. Rhetoricians give elaborate classifications of metonymies, but they are of little value to the scriptural student, since all are interpreted according to the few simple principles given in the preceding chapter.
The metaphor is founded on the resemblance of one thing to another; as in the examples already given: "The Lord God is a sun and shield" (Psa.84:11); "I am the true vine and my Father is the husbandman." John 15:1. It may lie not in a single word, but in an entire expression, thus: "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (Acts 26:14); "I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see." Rev.3:18. The metaphor and metonymy may be joined, as in the words already quoted: "A soft tongue breaketh the bone;" or they may blend themselves with each other, as when Nahum says of the princes of Nineveh: "The sword shall devour thy young lions." Chap.2:13. In this last example, as often elsewhere, personification, which is properly a figure of thought, is added, the sword being represented as a beast of prey. The grand and gorgeous personifications of Scripture naturally clothe themselves in tropical language of inimitable beauty and exhaustless variety. "O thou sword of the Lord," says Jeremiah, "how long will it be ere thou be quiet? put up thyself into thy scabbard, rest, and be still. How can it be quiet, seeing the Lord hath given it a charge against Ashkelon, and against the sea-shore? There hath he appointed it." Chap.47:6, 7. The prophet Habakkuk represents God as coming forth in his glory for the salvation of his people: "The mountains saw thee," says he, "and they trembled: the overflowing of the water passed by: the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high: the sun and moon stood still in their habitation." Chap.3:10, 11. God's promise to his redeemed is: "Ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." Isa.55:12. Metonymies, metaphors, and sometimes personifications -- the books of the New Testament sparkle with these figures, and they are used always for effect, not empty show. They are like the flaming bolts of heaven, which rend and burn as well as shine. "Beware of false prophets," says the Saviour, "which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits: do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?" Matt.7:15, 16. How effectually does he by these metaphors strip off the mask from false teachers! "If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?" 1 Cor.12:15, 16. Here is personification without a trope. "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Cor.15:55), here is a majestic personification in metaphorical form.
As resemblance lies at the foundation of the metaphor, it may be called an abbreviated form of comparison, the thing with which the comparison is made being directly predicated of that which is compared. Thus, when we say: A sluggard is vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes of those who send him, we have a metaphor, the sluggard being directly called vinegar and smoke. But if we say: "As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him" (Prov.10:26), we have a comparison, and the language ceases to be tropical. The metaphor is thus a more vivid form of expression than the comparison.
A common mode of comparison in the book of Proverbs is simply to put together the object compared and the thing or things with which it is compared, thus: "A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool's back" (chap.26:3); that is, As a whip is appropriate for, the horse, and a bridle for the ass, so is a rod for the fool's back. Again, "Where there is no wood the fire goeth out, and where there is no tale-bearer the strife ceaseth" (Prov.26:20); "Charcoal to live coals, and wood to fire; and a man of strife to kindle strife" (Prov.26: 21); "Silver dross spread over an earthen sherd -- burning lips [lips glowing with professions of love] and a wicked heart" (Prov.26: 23); in all which cases our version has supplied particles of comparison.
(2.) An allegory is the narrative of a spiritual transaction under the figure of something lower and earthly, the lower transaction representing directly the higher. We have in the eightieth Psalm an exquisite example of the allegory: "Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen and planted it. Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it," etc. (ver.8-16); where the transfer of the Israelitish people from Egypt to the land of Canaan, with their subsequent history, is described under the figure of a vine.
The metaphor and allegory have this in common, that the foundation of both is resemblance, and in both the lower object is put directly for the higher. Yet the metaphor cannot be properly called a condensed allegory, nor the allegory an extended metaphor; for it is essential to the allegory that it have the form of a narrative, and that it contain real history -- in the case of prophecy it may be future history -- under a figure. Hence it admits of indefinite extension, as in the "Pilgrim's Progress;" and we may add the Canticles, which the Christian church from the earliest times has regarded as an allegory of which the subject is, in Old Testament language, God and his covenant people, but, according to the representation of the New Testament, Christ and his church.
We must carefully distinguish between true allegory and the allegorical or mystical application of real history. In the former case it is not the literal meaning, but the higher sense represented by it, which constitutes the historic truth. God, for example, never transferred a vine from Egypt to Palestine, but he did the covenant people. The story of Sarai and Hagar, on the contrary (Gen., chap.16), is true history. The apostle Paul makes an allegorical application of it to the two covenants, that on Sinai and that in Christ, which is very beautiful and appropriate; yet the story itself is not allegory, but plain history. See further, in Chap.37, No.4.
(3.) A parable is the narrative of a supposed event for the purpose of illustrating a spiritual truth or principle. The office of the narrative is to embody the principle. It should, therefore, be natural and probable; but its literal truth is of no consequence. In our Lord's parable of the unjust steward, for example (Luke 16:1-9), the incidents of the narrative may or may not have been historically true; but either way the great principle which it illustrates (ver.10) remains the same.
Allegories and parables pass into each other by insensible degrees. Some of our Lord's so-called parables are rather allegories; as that of the vineyard let out to husbandmen (Matt.21:33-41), which is founded on the beautiful allegory of Isaiah (chap.5:1-7); so also that of the good shepherd (John 10:1-18). In their pure form, however, the allegory and the parable are easily distinguished from each other. In the allegory, the figure represents directly the higher transaction. Hence the incidents introduced in the figure -- at least all the main incidents -- must have something corresponding to them in the spiritual transaction which the figure represents. The case of the parable is different. Here the spiritual truth is not directly described in terms of the figure, but simply illustrated from it. The incidents and characters of the story are separable from the general principle which it inculcates, and are sometimes formally separated by the speaker himself; as when our Lord says: "The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field," etc. Matt.13:24. For this reason they may belong more or less to the mere drapery of the parable, so that to press them in its interpretation would lead to error instead of truth. See further below, No.7.
(4.) The fable is related to the parable, but it differs from it in two respects. First, it moves in a worldly sphere, having to do with prudential maxims rather than spiritual truth. Secondly, it allows, in harmony with this its lower nature, irrational objects as speakers and actors, which would be contrary to the dignity of the parable. Our Lord never employed fables as vehicles of instruction. There are two examples of them in the Old Testament; neither of them, however, coming from the lips of prophetical men. The first is that of Jotham: "The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive-tree, Reign thou over us," etc. Judg.9:8-15. The second is that of Jehoash: "The thistle that was in Lebanon sent to the cedar that was in Lebanon, saying, Give thy daughter to my son to wife: and there passed by a wild beast that was in Lebanon, and trode down the thistle." 2 Kings 14:9.
(5.) A symbol is a material object, a transaction in the material world, or sometimes a number, to represent some higher spiritual truth. Ritual symbols, like the ark of the covenant, the high-priest's dress, the sacrifices, and, in general, the whole tabernacle and temple service, will be considered hereafter under the head of types. We speak of symbols now, only so far as they belong to the human side of interpretation. We have a beautiful example of a symbolic transaction in the seventeenth chapter of the book of Numbers, where the princes of Israel, by God's direction, take twelve rods, write each man his name upon his rod, and lay them up in the tabernacle before the Lord, whereupon Aaron's rod "budded, and brought forth buds, and blossomed blossoms, and yielded almonds;" a symbol that God would make the priesthood to flourish in his family.
Scriptural symbols exhibit a wonderful variety. Sometimes they are seen in dreams, as in Jacob's dream of a ladder reaching to heaven (Gen.28:12-15); Pharaoh's two dreams of the fat and lean kine, and the good and thin ears (Gen.41:1-7); or in prophetic vision, like Jeremiah's vision of a seething pot with the face towards the north (Jer.1:13); Ezekiel's vision of the cherubim (chap.1); and Amos' vision of a basket of summer fruit (chap.8:2). At other times they are actual transactions. So the false prophet Zedekiah "made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the Lord, with these shalt thou push the Syrians till thou have consumed them" (1 Kings 22:11); the true prophet Jeremiah wore a yoke upon his neck as a sign that God would subject the nations to Nebuchadnezzar's power, and the false prophet Hananiah broke it, that he might thus signify the deliverance of the people from Nebuchadnezzar's rule. Jer.27:1-8, compared with 28:10, 11.
(6.) A proverb is a short maxim relating to practical life. It may be expressed literally or figuratively, but in either case it must contain a general truth. "A scorner loveth not one that reproveth him; neither will he go unto the wise" (Prov.15:12), is a proverb expressed in plain language. "The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe" (Prov.18:10), is a proverb under a beautiful figure. The foolish young men counselled Rehoboam to say to the Israelites: "My little finger shall be thicker than my father's loins." 1 Kings 12:10. This is not a proverb, because it contains only the figurative statement of a particular fact. But if we change the form, and say: The little finger of a foolish ruler is thicker than the loins of a wise king, we make it general, and thus it becomes a proverb.
The Hebrew word for a proverb (mashal) denotes a similitude, this being one of its most common forms. Examples occur in abundance in the book of Proverbs. We have them in the form of direct comparison: "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" (chap.27:19); "A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike" (chap.27:15); "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith" (chap.15:17). We have them also in the form of metaphor: "The contentions of a wife are a continual dropping" (chap.19:13); "The lips of knowledge are a precious jewel" (chap.20:15). But most frequently the comparison appears in the form of contrast, thus: "A wise son heareth his father's instruction; but a scorner heareth not rebuke" (chap.13:1); "A faithful witness will not lie; but a false witness will utter lies" (chap.14:5). The signification of the word proverb is then extended to short sententious maxims of every form, even where comparison is excluded, thus: "A wicked man taketh a gift out of the bosom to pervert the ways of judgment" (chap.17:23).
(7.) The word myth (Greek muthos) was applied by the Greeks to a legend or story of early times, then to a fable, like those of AEsop. In modern usage it is defined to be a story in which "there is an unconscious blending of the deeper meaning with the outward symbol, the two being separate and separable in the parable." "The mythic narrative presents itself not merely as the vehicle of the truth, but as itself being the truth; while in the parable there is a perfect consciousness in all minds of the distinctness between form and essence, shell and kernel, the precious vessel and yet more precious wine that it contains." Trench, Notes on the Parables, chap.1. A good illustration of this we have in the tales of Grecian mythology, once received by the masses of the people as literally true; but which "a later and more reflective age than that in which the mythus had birth" learned to regard as only the vehicle of certain ideas respecting deity. The myth, as thus defined, does not come within the sphere of biblical interpretation. The historic events recorded in the Old Testament may, and often do, shadow forth something higher. In that case they are not myths, but typical history. Chap.37, No.4. All the scriptural narratives, on the contrary, which are true, not in their literal meaning, but in a higher sense, come under the head of allegories, parables, or symbolic representations.
4. In the interpretation of figurative language we must be guided, in general, by the principles considered in the preceding chapter. To lay down special rules for the interpretation of the rich and endlessly varied figures which adorn the pages of Holy Writ would be as impracticable as useless. The history of Biblical exegesis, however, shows that some general cautions are much needed.
5. The youthful student of Scripture should be reminded, first of all, that its figurative language is no less certain and truthful than its plain and literal declarations. The figures of the Bible are employed not simply to please the imagination and excite the feelings, but to teach eternal verities. The Lord Jesus, "the faithful and true Witness," said: "Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away." Mark 13:31. Yet there is a class of interpreters who seem to think that if they can show in any given case that his language is figurative, its meaning is well nigh divested of all certainty and reality. Thrice in immediate succession did he solemnly warn his hearers to cut off an offending hand or foot, and to pluck out an offending eye, rather than be cast with the whole body into hell, "into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." Mark 9:43-48. But, says one of this class of expositors, the maiming of the body is figurative language, and so is the representation of the worm that never dies. Undoubtedly the maiming of the body is so; and how far the unquenchable fire may also be a figure for the dread reality that awaits the incorrigibly impenitent in the world to come we pretend not to know. But in the lips of Jesus figures teach truth, not fiction. The unhappy sinner who despises the grace of the gospel will find the reality not less terrible than the figures by which Christ has represented it. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable; but we cannot on this ground set aside the solemn lessons which it inculcates. What these lessons are, it requires only candor and faith to receive. They teach us that God's suffering children go immediately, upon death, to a state of conscious blessedness; and "the men of the world, which have their portion in this life," to a place of unmitigated suffering. Whatever be the comprehension of the word Hades (rendered in our version by the word hell), there is an impassable gulf between Lazarus in Abraham's bosom and the rich man in torment. The "great gulf fixed" may be a figure; but it represents an awful reality; and that reality is, that there is no transition from the one state to the other.
6. In the allegory the higher spiritual transaction is, as we have seen, directly represented by the lower. When we know, therefore, what the allegory represents, we have the key to its interpretation, and all its incidents fall naturally into place. If the sphere of the allegory be the outward history of God's people, all its incidents -- at least all its main incidents -- ought to have a significance. If its sphere be that of inward spiritual experience, as in the Song of Solomon, more latitude must be allowed for the drapery of the story; yet here also the essential parts will each correspond to something in the higher object represented.
An example of pure historic allegory is that of the vine transplanted from Egypt (Psa.80), where the higher object, which gives the key to the meaning, is God's covenant people. The casting out of the heathen (ver.8), is literally expressed, but in the verses following, the figure is beautifully carried out. This vine takes deep root and fills the land; the hills are covered with its shadow, and its boughs are like the goodly cedar; it sends out its boughs to the sea, and its branches to the river (ver.9-11). Here we have one main incident, the increase of the people in the land of Canaan. Then God breaks down its hedges, so that every passer-by plucks it; the boar out of the wood wastes it, and the wild beast of the field devours it (ver.12, 13). This is another main incident, the withdrawal of God's protection from his people, and their oppression by their heathen neighbors. The prayer that follows in behalf of this vine (ver.14-16) represents the love which God's people bear to his church. All these parts of the allegory have their proper significance. The rest of the imagery -- the hills overshadowed by it, the boughs like the goodly cedar, the wild boar wasting it, etc. -- is but the drapery of the allegory; and an attempt to find a spiritual meaning for each of these particulars -- the boar out of the wood, for example, and the beast of the field -- would but mar its beauty and force.
We give from Ezekiel (chap.17:3-10) another example of historic allegory, in which the essential parts can be readily distinguished from the luxuriant imagery of the prophet: "A great eagle with great wings, long-winged, full of feathers, which had divers colors [Nebuchadnezzar], came unto Lebanon, and took the highest branch of the cedar [Jehoiachin, whom Nebuchadnezzar dethroned and carried to Babylon. The cedar of Lebanon represents the royal family, and Jehoiachin, as the reigning monarch, its highest branch]: he cropped off the top of his young twigs [the same as: he took the highest branch of the cedar], and carried it into a land of traffic [Chaldea]; he set it in a city of merchants [Babylon]. He took also of the seed of the land [the king's seed, meaning Zedekiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar made king in the place of Jehoiachin], and planted it in a fruitful field; he placed it by great waters, and set it as a willow-tree [established Zedekiah on the throne, and gave him the means of prosperity as his vassal]. And it grew, and became a spreading vine of low stature [not a lofty cedar, but a low vine; that is, a tributary king], whose branches turned towards him [towards Nebuchadnezzar, as dependent upon him], and the roots thereof were under him [under Nebuchadnezzar, as subject to his power]: so it became a vine, and brought forth branches, and shot forth twigs. There was also another great eagle with great wings and many feathers [Pharaoh, king of Egypt]: and behold this vine did bend her roots towards him [Zedekiah turned away his confidence from Nebuchadnezzar to Pharaoh], and shot forth her branches towards him, that he might water it by the furrows of her plantation. It was planted [had been planted by Nebuchadnezzar] in a good soil by great waters, that it might bring forth branches, and that it might bear fruit, that it might be a goodly vine [fidelity to Nebuchadnezzar would have made Zedekiah prosperous]. Say thou, Thus saith the Lord God: Shall it prosper? [now that it bends towards the second eagle] shall he [Nebuchadnezzar] not pull up the roots thereof, that it wither? It shall wither in all the leaves of her spring, even without great power or many people to pluck it up by the roots thereof [the work of plucking it up will be easy, not requiring a numerous force]. Yea, behold, being planted shall it prosper? shall it not utterly wither when the east wind toucheth it? [a new figure to represent its destruction] it shall wither in the furrows where it grew."
There is a class of allegories in the Old Testament which represent the relation of God to his people under the figure of husband and wife. Such are the Song of Solomon, and the two remarkable allegories in Ezekiel (chapters 16 and 23). The luxuriant fulness of imagery in these allegories does not admit of interpretation in detail. The general scope only of the images is to be taken into account, since this contains the essential idea.
In the free style of the scriptural writers the allegory admits of the introduction of literal clauses ("Thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it," Psa.80:8), and also of explanatory clauses, though not so readily as the parable. See examples in Isa.5:7; John 10:9, 11, 14.
7. The scriptural parables have a rich variety of form, sometimes approaching to that of the allegory, when the interpretation must be upon the same general principle. In its pure form, however, the parable does not, like the allegory, represent directly the higher spiritual truth, but is simply a narrative to illustrate it. It may be introduced in the absolute form, like the parable of the barren fig-tree (Luke 13:6-9); or, more commonly, in the shape of a similitude, thus: "The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field" (Matt.13:24); "Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it?" Mark 4:30. It may be left without explanation, but more commonly an explanatory remark is added. So to the parable of the two sons whom the father asked to work in his vineyard is added the application: "Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (Matt.21:28-31); and the parable of the Pharisee and publican is both introduced and followed by an explanatory clause (Luke 18:9-14). All such clauses are of the highest importance for the interpretation of the parables to which they are annexed. In the interpretation of a parable, the first and most important thing is to ascertain the spiritual truth which it is intended to inculcate. How far a spiritual significance is to be sought for the particular incidents of parables is a question to be determined separately for each, according to its nature.
In the parable of the sower, which our Lord himself interpreted (Matt.13:3-8, 19-23), all the parts are essential, since the four different kinds of soil represent four different classes of hearers. So in the parable of the tares in the field (Matt.13:24-30, 37-43), the good seed sown by the owner of the field, the tares sown by his enemy, the separation, at the time of harvest, of the tares from the wheat, the burning of the tares, and the gathering of the wheat into the barn, are all main incidents in its spiritual application. Not so in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt.25:1-13), of which our Lord himself has given the scope, and, so far as we can see the only scope: "Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh." If we go farther, and inquire what is the spiritual meaning of the lamps and oil-vessels, of the equal division of the virgins into five wise and five foolish, of the request of the foolish virgins that the wise would give them oil, and the answer of the wise virgins, we run into useless speculations. All these particulars belong to the drapery of the parable, and are intended to make the story natural and probable.
In the pure form of the parable, the personages introduced to illustrate God's ways of providence and grace do not, as in the allegory, directly represent God himself. It is not necessary, therefore, that there be in all cases a correspondence between their character and that of the holy God. It is sufficient if the words and deeds ascribed to them truly illustrate the spiritual principle in question. In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt.18:23-35), his lord "commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made" (ver.25); and afterwards he "was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him" (ver.34). We need not trouble ourselves about the reasonableness of these acts on the part of an earthly lord. It is sufficient for the end of the parable that they were in accordance with the usages of the age, and thus illustrated the great truth which the parable was intended to enforce: "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (ver.35). We have still more forcible illustrations of this principle in such parables as those of the importunate friend (Luke 11:5-8), the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), and the unfaithful steward (Luke 16:1-9). The Saviour does not compare God to an indolent friend, who will not arise to accommodate his neighbor with bread till he is forced to do so by his importunity; nor to an unjust judge, who fears not God nor regards men. But he draws illustrations from their conduct of the efficacy of importunate prayer; adding, at the conclusion of each parable, its scope: "And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Luke 11:9); "And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?" Luke 18:7. In the parable of the unfaithful steward, our Lord introduces a fraudulent transaction -- a transaction so manifestly fraudulent that there is no danger of our thinking that it could have his approbation -- that he may thus illustrate the importance of prudent provision for the future. By allowing each of his lord's debtors to diminish the amount due from him, he gains their favor, that in time of need he may be received into their houses. For the right apprehension of the parable, the words of the eighth verse are of primary importance: "And the lord [the master of the steward] commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely" [prudently, as the Greek word means]. Unjust as the steward's conduct was, he could not but commend it as a prudent transaction for the end which he had in view. Our Saviour adds: "For the children of this world are in their generation [more exactly, towards or in respect to their own generation; that is, in dealing with men of their own sort] wiser than the children of light." The steward and his lord's debtors were all "children of this world," and the transaction between them was conducted upon worldly principles. Our Saviour would have "the children of light" -- God's holy children, who live and act in the sphere of heavenly light -- provident of their everlasting welfare in the use which they make of this world's goods, as this steward was of his earthly welfare when he should be put out of his stewardship. He accordingly adds, as the scope of the parable (ver.9): "Make to yourselves friends of [by the right use of] the mammon of unrighteousness [so called as being with unrighteous men the great object of pursuit, and too commonly sought, moreover, by unrighteous means]; that when ye fail [are discharged from your stewardship by death], they may receive you [that is, the friends whom ye have made by bestowing your earthly riches in deeds of love and mercy] into everlasting habitations." Our Lord uses the words, "they may receive you," in allusion to the steward's language: "they may receive me into their houses." They do not receive us by any right or authority of their own, for this belongs to Christ alone; but they receive us in the sense that they bear witness before the throne of Christ to our deeds of love and mercy, by which is manifested the reality of our faith, and thus our title, through grace, to everlasting habitations. Compare the remarkable passage in Matt.25:34-46, which furnishes a true key to the present parable.
8. To determine whether a symbol is a real transaction or seen only in vision, we must consider both its nature and the context. When Ezekiel, at God's command, visits the temple-court, digs in its wall, and sees the abominations practised there (chap.8), we know from his own words (ver.3) that the whole transaction was "in the visions of God." So also the remarkable vision of dry bones. Chap.37:1-14. But the symbolical action that follows -- the joining of two sticks into one -- seems to be represented as real; for the people ask concerning it: "Wilt thou not tell us what thou meanest by these?" (ver.18), and the two sticks are in the prophet's hand "before their eyes" (ver.20). The nature of the symbolical transaction recorded in Jer.32:6-12 -- the purchase of Hanameel's field -- with the accompanying historical circumstances, shows that it was real. From the nature of the vision of the chariot of God, on the contrary, which Ezekiel saw (chap.1:10), as well as from the accompanying notices (chaps.1:1; 8:1-4), we know that it was represented to the prophet's inner sense, not seen with his outward eyes. The moral character of the transactions recorded by Hosea (chaps.1-3) has led commentators to decide against their literal occurrence.
In some cases we must remain in doubt whether the symbolical transactions are real or seen in vision. How are we to understand, for example, the transactions recorded in Isa. chap.20; in Jer. chap.13:1-11; in Ezek. chap.4? Concerning such examples expositors will judge differently; but in either way of understanding them, their meaning and the instructions which they furnish are the same.
The subject of symbols will come up again in connection with that of prophecy. At present we consider simply the general principles upon which they are to be interpreted. Here we are to be guided first of all by the writer's own explanations. Where these are wanting we must carefully study the nature of the figures used, and the connections in which they occur.
The sacred writers very commonly indicate the meaning of the symbols which they employ. Thus the prophet Isaiah is directed to loose the sackcloth from his loins, and put off his shoe from his foot, walking naked and barefoot. Chap.20:2. Then follows the explanation of this symbolical transaction: "Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and Ethiopia; so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot," etc. (ver.3, 4). For other examples see the symbol of the girdle (Jer.13:1-7 compared with ver.8-11); of the purchase of Hanameel's field (Jer.32:6-12 compared with ver.13-15); of the removal of household stuff (Ezek.12:3-7 compared with ver.8-12); of the plumb-line (Amos 7:7, 8); of the four horns and four smiths (Zech.1:18-21); and many other symbolical transactions which will readily occur to the student of Scripture.
But sometimes the symbol is given without an explanation, or with only an obscure intimation of its meaning. The prophet Amos has a vision of grasshoppers, and afterwards of a devouring fire, with only a general intimation that they denote heavy calamities, which the Lord in his pity will avert in answer to prayer. Amos 7:1-6. Here the nature of the symbols, in connection with the known situation of the Israelitish people, shows that they represent the general desolation of the land by foreign enemies. The prophet Ezekiel adds no interpretation to his vision of the Lord enthroned in glory upon the firmament above the chariot with four cherubim and four living wheels full of eyes, in the midst of which a bright fire glows and lightnings blaze. Chaps.1, 10. From a careful study of the nature of this magnificent imagery we may infer with probability that the cherubim with their wheels, moving every way with the rapidity of a flash of lightning, denote all the agencies and instrumentalities by which God administers his government over the world, which are absolutely at his command, and execute with unerring certainty all his high purposes. The four faces of the cherubim, moreover, which answer to the four principal divisions of living beings among the Hebrews, seem to represent the fulness of their endowments. The meaning of Ezekiel's vision of a New Jerusalem, with its temple and altar, comes more properly under the head of prophecy. Some of the symbols in the book of Zechariah are expounded with beautiful clearness, as that of the two olive-trees. Chap.4:1-10. Of others the meaning is only hinted at in an enigmatical way; so that their interpretation is a matter of great difficulty and uncertainty. As examples we may refer to the symbol of the ephah (chap.5:5-11); of the four chariots coming out from between two mountains of brass with horses of different colors (chap.6:1-9); of the two staves, Beauty and Bands, with which the prophet in vision is commanded to feed "the flock of the slaughter," and which he is afterwards to break (chap.11:4-14). For the details in the interpretation of these and other difficult symbols the reader must be referred to the commentaries. Our limits will only allow us to indicate the general principles upon which the expositor must proceed.
9. There is a class of scriptural symbols which may be called numerical. Thus seven is the well-known symbol of completeness, four of universality, twelve of God's people. See Chap.32, No.5. Under this head fall also those passages in which a day is put for a year, or for an indefinitely long period of time. One of the most certain examples is Daniel's prophecy of the seventy weeks that were to precede the death of the Messiah (chap.9:24-27), for the details of which the reader is referred to the commentators. Upon the same principle we must, in all probability, interpret the "time and times and dividing of time," that is, three and a half years (Dan.7:25); the "forty and two months" (Rev.11:2; 13:5); and the "thousand two hundred and threescore days" (Rev.11:3; 12:6). Compare Ezekiel 4:4-8, in which symbolical transaction a day is expressly put as the symbol of a year. On the symbolical interpretation of the six days of creation, see in Chap.19, No.6.