The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures

Study earnestly to present yourself approved to God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing (Strong's: dissecting correctly) the Word of Truth.

~ 2 Timothy 2:15 ~


In many places in the Scriptures, the believer is encouraged to study the written Word as the foundation for a holy, godly and fruitful life before God and man. But how are we to study this unified, but daunting, compilation of sixty-six books written by over forty authors between nineteen hundred and thirty-five hundred years ago in languages and cultures that may be totally foreign to us? Enter the science of hermeneutics.

To understand hermeneutical principles is to be equipped for an intelligent study of the Word of God, tending greatly to our approval before God as workmen that do not need to be ashamed.

Interpreting Scripture properly is a critical skill to master, particularly in an age in which the Babel of interpretations is legion. We have been treated to much sound instruction in this regard by Dr. David L. Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, with "Rules of Interpretation" and "Messages Concerning the Laws of Interpretation." Let us continue to hone our skills with "An Analysis of Figures of Speech" that we might be clear and accurate voices for the Lord. To read or review prior studies, please see links in our Library. Let us now apply ourselves. - ed.

Dr. David L. Cooper





"The Bible student especially cannot afford to neglect the study of this method of speaking, for it appears
at various places in the Scriptures."


ALLEGORY is an important type of speech. The Bible student especially cannot afford to neglect the study of this method of speaking, for it appears at various places in the Scriptures. The one who does not recognize this figure will be at a loss in many instances. He therefore will, as a consequence, miss the meaning of the given passage. Literally, the word allegory means to speak another thing. A person speaks of a given matter or relates certain details concerning it, but he has an entirely different meaning in view. This type of language is common, not only to the Scriptures, but also to human language and thought in all parts of the world.

Possibly the greatest allegory that was ever written in the English language is Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Everyone who is acquainted with it knows that he spoke one thing as if he were simply talking about certain actual facts, localities, people, circumstances, and conditions. At the same time he did not intend to be understood as speaking solely of them; but he composed his story in such a way that it was evident there was running parallel with his account a deep spiritual meaning. There are other excellent allegories in the English language, as well as in other tongues.

The allegorical method of Origen, one of the early Christian Fathers, and of many others have done untold damage to the cause of Christ and the cause of true Christianity. Those of the Alexandrian school of thought and interpretation, together with Origen, maintained that the literal meaning of the Scriptures was not the important thing. What they narrated, according to them, was given to convey a deeper, or spiritual, hidden meaning. Practically, everything in the Scriptures was thrown into this category. To them the Scriptures said one thing, but meant something entirely different.

This allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures is indeed a vicious and dangerous method to adopt. Frequently, we speak of it as spiritualizing the Scriptures. Instead of thinking of it as "spiritualizing" the Scriptures, I would rather speak of it as "evaporating" the Word. According to the golden rule of interpretation we are to take everything at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise. We are never to say that a passage is allegorical unless the facts are quite positive in that direction. Only under such conditions are we permitted to think of a passage as allegorical.

Someone has said that an allegory is an extended metaphor. That is true. But we must recognize the truth that an allegory is a special metaphor. It is a story or narration that is told in such a way that the reader or the hearer can get the lesson intended to be conveyed. A parable is the laying down of a known truth, or that which is recognized as true, beside an unknown factor in order to bring out the unknown truth. Parables usually have sufficient data to enable one to recognize them as this type of speech.

Let us look at a few allegories in order that we may be able to recognize one when we see it and be able to interpret it properly.

The Allegory Of The Vine

In Psalm 80:8-6 the writer declared that God went down into Egypt, procured a vine there, came back, drove the nations in Canaan out of it, and planted this vine in their land. Thus planted in this locality, it grew and developed in a marvelous manner, sending its branches unto the sea and its roots unto the River. After the vine thus grew, God broke down the walls around it. Those who passed by plucked it. Then the boar from out of the woods ravaged it, and the wild beasts of the field fed upon it. Following this description is an earnest prayer that God would turn and would have mercy upon this vine of His planting. When a person takes the entire Psalm into consideration and sees that it is a prediction concerning the last generation of Israel that will he scattered among the nations, when he recognizes it as their prayer to God to come and to deliver them from their evil case, when he remembers the history of Jacob and of his descending into Egypt and his posterity's growing into a nation, and when he remembers all of the events connected with the deliverance at the time of the Exodus, he sees instantly that this is an allegory. While the psalmist spoke as if he were talking of a literal vine, at the same time the context shows that he did not mean a literal vine, but that he was speaking of literal Israel. Having all these facts in mind, he understands that this is an allegory.

God drove out the nations of Canaan and established His Chosen People in that land, which He gave to them for a perpetual inheritance. On account of their disobedience the Lord broke down the barriers protecting His people and allowed various nations who are represented as wild beasts to come in and tread down this vine and destroy it. But the time will come when Israel will see her predicament and call upon God for deliverance. When she does, Messiah will come.

In connection with Psalm 80, one should study such passages as Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6, and Matthew 21:33-46. The scriptures here referred to are the outgrowth of the original allegory found in Psalm 80. These must therefore be studied in the light of the original passage.

Ecclesiastes 12:1-8

In this famous passage the wise man urged young people to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, before the evil time would draw near, when they would not have any pleasure in Spiritual and eternal things. They should, he said, do this

before the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars, are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain; 3. in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows shall be darkened, 4. and the doors shall be shut in the street; when the sound of the grinding is low, and one shall rise up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low.

This language certainly is not literal. It is introduced in such a way that it is not to be recognized as simply a metaphor or a parable. The writer said one thing, but it is evident that he has a meaning running parallel with what he actually and literally says. The facts of the context indicate that this is true.

This passage has been interpreted as a prediction concerning the judgment day, or what we premillenarians call the great Tribulation Period, when God's judgments are brought upon the world. Of course, when a person takes in the entire trend of thought, he can make that idea fit into this context. But that is not the normal meaning. Again, there are those who interpret this as a reference to the day of death, which is thought of as a gathering storm that comes and takes the life of a person in old age. There are elements in the passage that seem to favor this interpretation. And yet there are still others who interpret this allegory as a reference to the coming of the late winter or early spring in Palestine, which often proves fatal to the infirm and weak. The facts may be twisted to yield such an idea. Again, there are those who think of it as a warning against old age. This certainly cannot be true; for the righteous, when they reach a ripe old age, are represented in such passages as Psalm 92:12-14 and Proverbs 16:31 as being in a glorious condition.

The suggestion has been made, with good reason, that this allegory presents a sensual old man who has spent his life in the gratification of the flesh, and who is approaching the inevitable hour of passing out of this life. The human body is represented in this allegory as a house in which the man lives. The keepers are probably the arms; the strong men are the legs; the grinders that cease are the teeth; those that look out of the windows are the eyes; and the doors possibly are the mouth and ears. Generally speaking, this seems to be the consensus of opinion of the best commentators.

Thus the young person is urged to remember God, to come to Him and to give his life and all that he is to the Lord in youth and to serve God throughout life to the end of the same. Such a one who does this is indeed wise. The one who fails to do this must inevitably meet the condition which is here mentioned, and against which one is warned.

Allegories Used By Ezekiel

The prophet Ezekiel was very fond of the use of allegories. For instance, "chapter 16 contains an allegorical history of Israel, representing, by way of narrative, prophecy, and promise, the past, present, and future relations of God to the Chosen People, and maintaining throughout the general figure of the marriage relation." In similar imagery found in chapter 23, the prophet represented the idolatries of both the northern and the southern kingdoms, the capitals of which were Samaria and Jerusalem. Though these are allegorical representations, the meaning of the prophet is very clear. In chapter 15 Israel is represented under the allegorical picture of the wood of the vine-tree, or grapevine, which is unprofitable at its best for lumber or manufacturing purposes. But after it has been burnt and snatched from the fire, it is of less value than ordinarily. Thus the Lord pictorially represented Israel's unprofitableness in His sight. The imagery in 19:1014 is practically the same with little changes. In 19:1-9 the allegory of the lioness and her whelps is presented. Again we see the same method of language employed by the prophet in chapter 31 in his prediction concerning Assyria.

The Allegory Of The Good Shepherd And The Fold

In John, chapter 9, appears a record of our Lord's healing a blind man, whom the Jews had excommunicated from the synagogue. The Pharisees became bitterly angered by our Lord's performing this miracle. In discussing this situation, Jesus said that He had come into the world that they who see not might see, and that those who see might become blind. This saying called forth a retort from the Pharisees in the form of the following exchange of words: Are we also blind? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see: your sin remaineth (John 9:39-41). This situation was the occasion of our Lord's speaking the allegory of the Good Shepherd and the fold of the sheep.

Our Lord declared that those who do not enter by the door, but climb up some other way, are thieves and robbers. But the one that enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter opens. Such a one goes in, calls forth his sheep, puts them forth, and goes before them, leading them to green pastures and to still waters. This language, spoken under the conditions set forth in chapter 9 and as an outgrowth of that which had just occurred, is obviously not to be taken literally, but is a story that is used to illustrate great and fundamental truths. As we learn from reading the first eighteen verses of John, chapter 10, Jesus was and is the Good Shepherd. To him the porter, John the Baptist, opened. He went into the fold of Israel to call forth all of those who were His own. Those who constituted His own are none other than those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and who receive the truth when it is presented to them. In other words, the fold of which Jesus was speaking was the Jewish nation. His sheep were the truth lovers who accept Jesus and His salvation. He leads them forth from Judaism into another fold, that of His own.

Jesus declared clearly that He had other sheep that were not of the Jewish fold, that He would bring them and put them together, and that there would be one flock, one shepherd, and one fold. Of course this language is a reference to the honest truth-seeking Gentiles who hunger and thirst after God, and who accept the truth when it is given to them. Thus this marvelous presentation of truth is very forceful and vivid.

In connection with the thought of our Lord's being the Good Shepherd, one should read and study such passages as Jeremiah 23:1-4. When this scripture, however, is studied in its context, it is seen that it refers to the regathering of the honest, conscientious, truth seekers among the Jews into the great fold of Israel of the millennial kingdom of our Lord. The same thought is presented in Ezekiel, chapter 34. Our Lord, as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep is set forth in such a passage as Zechariah 11:4-14.

The Allegory Of Hagar And Sarah

In Galatians 4:21-31 the Apostle Paul gave us the famous allegory of Hagar and Sarah. Hagar, the bondwoman, signifies in this comparison the old covenant, which pictorially presented Jerusalem in her bondage and slavery. On the other hand, Sarah, the free-woman, stood for the new covenant which answers to the Jerusalem which is from above, that is, the new Jerusalem, which will come down out of heaven when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to this earth and sets up His millennial kingdom. (We must not confound the Jerusalem from above here mentioned with the new Jerusalem described in Revelation, chapter 21. This latter one is the eternal Jerusalem, that comes down out of the eternal heavens and rests upon the eternal earth.)

Ishmael, the one born according to the flesh, answers to those Jews who were then in the bondage of sin and in the grip of a dead legalism. Isaac, the child of promise, answers to those who are Christians, and who are enjoying the freedom with which Christ has made us free.

Ishmael, the child after the flesh, persecuted Isaac. This fact answers to, or typified, the persecution of the believers by the legalists. The instruction which God gave to Abraham was that he should cast out the bondwoman with her son in order that the freewoman with the child of promise might enjoy the privileges which were theirs by divine grace. This fact answers to the exhortation for the children of the free-woman not to become again entangled in the yoke of bondage. These analogies are pointed out and are very clear. It is to be noted that the Apostle stated specifically that the argument which he was making was an allegory. This constituted an argumentum ad hominem. By this type of reasoning the Apostle showed the absurdity of those legalists who were trying to force the yoke of the law upon the believers in Christ.

The Allegory Of The Warrior

In Ephesians 6:10-20 the Apostle introduced his famous allegory of the Roman soldier who was armed that he might make an offensive attack against his enemy. Thus the Apostle spoke of a soldier with the various pieces of his armament and of his fighting to the finish. But in the connection in which the Apostle used this language, a person sees instantly and clearly that he was not talking about literal warfare; but that he was speaking of a spiritual conflict which the child of God has daily. Obviously the Apostle, in this passage, was speaking of the spiritual conflict that believers have daily as they fight against the powers of Satan and sin.

There are numbers of other allegories that are presented in the Scriptures. But these suffice to call our attention to their general use. Of course, the greatest allegory that is to be found in the Scriptures is that of the Song of Solomon. There is however quite a bit of controversy as to its significance. The Jews, for instance, say that it represents Messiah in His relation to Israel. Many Christians, on the other hand, see in this marvelous hymn reference to Messiah in His relation to the church - the body of believers. There are others, however, who see the relationship that exists between Christ and the individual Christian set forth by this book. There are objections to all of these interpretations. Some, on the other hand, see in this pictorial representation the divine setting forth of true love between a young man and his beloved and puts love on a high and holy plane.

It is impossible for one to be dogmatic as to the meaning of this great allegory. It is altogether possible that there may be an element of truth in each one of the interpretations just mentioned. In view of the uncertainty let us hold ourselves in a firm reserve and not become dogmatic where the Scriptures do not warrant such a positive attitude.

May we see, because of this little study in allegories, how to interpret them and thus discover the lesson that the Holy Spirit had in giving us teaching in this form.


Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society, where other outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper may be found. Links to the "Rules of Interpretation," "Messages Concerning
the Laws of Interpretation" and "An Analysis of Figures of Speech" series
may be found at
A brief biography of Dr. Cooper may also be found
on the Biblical Research Society home page.

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