Let the Bible Explain Itself
When asked the question, “How does one decide whether the language of the Bible is to be taken literally or figuratively?” the simple answer is that throughout the world in every language we take what is said literally. The exceptions to this rule would be when the speaker often uses nonliteral language or when taking the words literally twists or distorts what is said.
Look at the book of Ezekiel for a moment. The opening words speak of “the fourth month on the fifth day of the month.” Common sense makes it obvious that this is a historical narrative. Now, for someone to take the word and use his own imagination to make some profound affirmation about the numerical value of the numbers four and five violates the nature of the text. Ezekiel is simply establishing the date of the revelation God was giving to him.
However, in the verses which follow there is a description of the vision seen by the prophet. There is a whirlwind, raging fire, a great cloud, four creatures which look like a man, with each one having four faces, four wings, straight legs, calves’ feet, faces like lions, oxen, eagles and humans. Beside each of them were wheels, that had wheels inside wheels, that lifted the creatures up, and they flew. What on earth could this mean? We read the words describing these creatures, but what is this all about? The answer is simple. “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezek. 1:28). Do the wings, feet, faces, and wheels have some figurative meaning? There is no way any man can give precise meaning to each of these, for God does not reveal them. Ezekiel saw a manifestation of the glory of the Lord. He wanted us to see that he uses words to tell us what he saw in the vision, and then God specifically describes the creature.
Some focus on the details of the vision and try to find some hidden meaning, yet Ezekiel tells us the precise meaning. Ezekiel talks about the Spirit in this book (3:12-13, 25; 8:4; 9:3, 11:23; 45:9). Common sense would lead us to spend far more time on the Spirit and where He is found in relation to the temple than to spend all our time trying to make too much of the description of the Spirit in the vision.
Hopefully, looking at these words from the early chapters of Ezekiel will help us more clearly see one principle of dealing with prophetical, poetic language. We must never place more emphasis on the figurative language in any verse than the Bible does. Let God emphasize what matters in the text. Be willing to stop short of assigning your own meaning to figurative language. Find God’s emphasis and then stop. Let the Bible explain itself.