The Bible speaks to us in many different literary forms. Some of the time, it speaks in plain language. At other times, it speaks to us through poetry. There are also times when it speaks to us in figurative or symbolic language. Much of prophecy is in this third form: symbolic. Naturally, if we do not understand this symbolic language, or worse, if we try to interpret symbolic language literally, we are not only likely, but all but assured to misunderstand the prophet’s message. Now, God is not a God of confusion, so we might wonder, if nearly one-third of Scripture is prophecy, why did God give it to us in a language that is not readily understood? I asked Him this very question for many years until one day, it dawned on me. When asked why He taught in parables, Jesus responded by siting a prophecy that said the Messiah would teach in parables so that the lost would be ever hearing but never understanding. Not only was He fulfilling prophecy, but Jesus was teaching in a way that would seem foolish to the lost while making perfect sense to the saved. Why should we expect prophecy to be any different? God’s Word is designed to make us work to understand. You have to seek understanding by studying, and studying with a sincere heart. But, when you do, the Lord’s Word is good: you will find Him, and He will open His Word to you — even His prophecies. You just have to learn the language.
Now, if prophecy is heavy with symbolic language, how do we learn the meaning of those symbols? Well, we start by learning to recognize when we are dealing with symbolic language. If we pay attention (by reading closely), we will find that the prophet usually tells us we are dealing with symbolic language. The easiest and surest sign is when the prophet tells us he was having a “vision” or was “in the spirit.” These are positive indications that what follows is likely to be figurative in nature. But the prophet will usually give us other indications that many believers miss. We must watch for indicator words. When the prophet prefaces something with “like” or “like unto,” or “as” or “such as,” the prophet is telling us he is not being literal, but it trying to describe what he is seeing in his vision in terms that his audience will better understand (remember, the prophet’s audience is the ancient Hebrew).
For example: if the prophet tells us he saw something “like a gull,” we should not think he saw a bull, or even something that looked like a bull. While it is possible, we must remember that, to the ancient Hebrew, the bull was symbolic of strength. Have you ever wondered why the Hebrews kept making graven images of golden calves or bulls? It is because the bull is a symbol of strength, so if you are going to make your own god, you would naturally want that god to give the impression of being strong. Therefore, when a prophet says something was “like a bull,” we should first think like the Hebrew would and think ‘strong‘ or ‘powerful.’
So, before we start learning what the symbols in prophecy mean, we must first learn to recognize when we are dealing with symbolic language. We do this by watching to see if the prophet tells us that he had a vision or was in the spirit. But we also do this by watching for words that indicate comparison rather than physical likeness or appearance. Once we master this, we can start looking for the meanings of the symbols used in Scripture. This will be the subject of my next post: learning the symbolic language of Scripture.