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 metaphor is one of the very common figures found throughout the Scriptures."


THE METAPHOR is one of the very common figures found throughout the Scriptures. Like the simile it is a simple comparison. The simile compares two objects, persons, or things and usually employs the word as, or like. An illustration of the simile is, He fought like a lion. I can make the same comparison, but change the manner of statement. Taking the person concerning whom I am speaking out of the class of human beings and putting him into the class of animals, I can say, "He was a lion in the fight." In using either of these figures, I am selecting that outstanding characteristic of the lion and of his fighting to emphasize the pugilistic tendencies and actions of the man concerning whom I am speaking.

Many of the figures of the metaphor type, as well as of the simile, are drawn from the animal kingdom. This is especially true in the early part of the Scriptures. For instance, Jacob, in blessing his sons, speaks of Judah in these words: Judah is a lion's whelp. Here Judah and his descendants are thought of as young lions. Jacob takes them out of the class of human beings and thinks of them as if they were a lion. Continuing the same idea he declares, From the prey, my son, thou art gone up (Gen. 49:9). Judah is thought of as a lion that has seized upon his prey and killed it. After having eaten what he chooses, he goes up to his lair in some mountain fastness where he is absolutely free from all attack, of any sort. In the same chapter Jacob thinks of his various sons in terms of different animals. For instance in 49:14 he speaks of Issachar's being a strong ass, Couching down between the sheepfolds. In verse 17 he thinks of the tribe of Dan and those descending from him as a serpent in the way, An adder in the path. That biteth the horse's heels, So that his rider falleth backward. Then again, in verse 21, he speaks of Napthtali as a hind let loose. Joseph is then thought of as being a fruitful bough, A fruitful bough by a fountain; His branches run over the wall (vs. 22). In speaking of Joseph, he thinks of him as a grapevine that is flourishing and very fruitful. In speaking of Benjamin and his tribe he declares that he is a wolf that raveneth: In the morning he shall devour the pray, And at even he shall divide the spoil (vs. 27). It is clear from all these references that, with the exception of Joseph, Jacob draws all of his metaphors from the animal kingdom.

In Deuteronomy 32:34 Moses thinks of God as a mighty warrior who has His sword and His arrows, and who goes into battle against the enemies of Israel, conquering them and treading them under His feet. Thus he thinks of the power of God by which He will destroy both His own enemies and those of Israel as a sharp, glittering sword. Thus infinite power is thought of in the category of a literal sword with which Jehovah, the war hero, fights against His enemies and slays them. (See especially verse 14). In verse 42 he thinks of the arrows in this manner:

I will make mine arrows drunk with blood,
And my sword shall devour flesh.

Still in thinking of Jehovah as a warrior with His sword and with His arrows, Moses mixes his figures (a practice that is not sanctioned by modem English, but perfectly proper in the genius of the Hebrew tongue and spirit), and speaks of the arrows as if they were actual people who had drunk of blood of their victims. The same figure appears in Isaiah 34:5: For my sword hath drunk its fill in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Edom, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment.

Frequently the place where people are located by the Lord is thought of as the nest of a fowl. For instance, in Numbers 24:21 we read of the Kenites:

Strong is thy dwelling-place,
And thy nest is set in the rock

Here the mountain fastness where the Kenites dwelt is thought of as probably an eagle's nest which is put high up in the mountains far from access by men or beasts. A similar figure is used by Jeremiah concerning Edom: As for thy terribleness, the pride of thy heart hath deceived thee, 0 thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, that holdest the height of the hill: though thou shouldest make thy nest as high as the eagle, I will bring thee down from thence, saith Jehovah (Jer. 49:16). Some of the territory of the Edomites was very mountainous and rocky. For instance, the city of Petra - "the rose-red city half as old as time" - was one of their fortresses, or strongholds. This city was practically impregnable in the ancient days. Jeremiah compared it to the eagle's nest and thought of it as being in the high mountains, inaccessible to all of their enemies. Again, Obadiah, who spoke an oracle against Edom used the same figure in the following statement: Though thou mount on high as the eagle, and though thy nest be set among the stars, I will bring thee down from thence, saith Jehovah (Obadiah, vs. 4). Habakkuk used the same figure in referring to Babylon, in which expression there evidently is an allusion to the hanging gardens of Babylon: Woe to him that getteth an evil gain for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the hand of evil! (Hab. 2:9)

Jeremiah noted the folly of Israel in her apostatizing from God and in her adoption of idols as objects of warship: For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water (2:13). A fountain of living, running water is of course far better and superior to that of the rain-water that runs into a cistern that is hewn out in the rocks. Such a cistern frequently was broken and the water was spilled. It therefore ceased to be of any benefit or profit to the men who thus constructed it. God is, therefore, in this passage thought of as being a fountain of living, running water - that never runs dry. But the idols and idol-worship are thought of as broken cisterns that cannot hold water to meet the needs of the worshiper.

Frequently the prophets spoke of certain spiritual matters in terms of the Jewish ritualism. As an example of this usage, note the following:

I will wash my hands in innocency:
So will I compass thine altar, 0 Jehovah

Doubtless this language is based upon the Mosaic regulation that the priests before entering into the tent of meeting should bathe themselves with water, lest they die, when they would come near to the altar to minister and to burn an offering made by fire unto Jehovah (Ex. 30:20). The great laver was located between the altar of burnt offerings and the sanctuary. After the priests had made the proper sacrifices, they passed by the laver at which they bathed and cleansed themselves ceremonially and then entered the holy place. Paul was thinking in terms of such an act of approaching God in the following statement: But when the kindness of God our Saviour, and his love toward man appeared, 5 not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit; 6 which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour (Titus 3:4-6). In Psalm 51:7 David prays,

Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow

This language is based upon and borrowed from such passages as Leviticus 14:6,7,51. In these verses Moses was speaking about the ceremonial cleansing of the leper who was pronounced clean by the priest, upon a thorough examination of his case, who noted the fact that there had disappeared from the person afflicted every sign and symptom of that dread disease. It is also possible that David's language might be an echo of the ceremonial cleansing of one who had become unclean, according to the law, and who was cleansed ceremonially by the water of purification mentioned in Numbers 19:18,19.

In I Corinthians 5:7,8, Paul speaks of Christ as being our passover, who had been slain for us. We are therefore to purge out the old leaven of wickedness and malice and are to observe the passover in the newness of the spirit and power of the life imparted to us by the Spirit of God. This language of course is based upon and borrowed from Exodus, chapters 12 and 13. An understanding of the ancient ritualism of the passover makes intelligible Paul's language. Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:13) spoke of His disciples as being the salt of the earth. Salt is a preserving power, especially of meats; and of other things. Again, in verse 14, He compared the Christians to light. We are to the world what physical literal light is to the darkness.

There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of metaphors throughout the Scriptures, but these are sufficient to call attention to the general principles of understanding and interpretating such figurative language.


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 http://www.biblicalresearch.info/page7.html.
A brief biography of Dr. Cooper may also be found
on the Biblical Research Society home page.

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