The Language of the Bible

MANY SINCERE CHRISTIAN believers read the Bible daily. They know it is the Word of God but they have difficulty in understanding its language. Such expressions as “the earth melted at God’s voice” (Ps. 46:6); the earth reeling “to and fro as a drunkard” (Isa. 24:20); or the idea of those cast into outer darkness as “weeping and gnashing” their teeth (Matt. 22:13), confuses them. This is especially true when they read that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) Yet, once the key to the Bible is used to open one’s mind to understand its message, the language employed assists the reader’s comprehension.

The seemingly strange language of the Bible is, in reality, picture language. Many students of the Bible use the expression ‘symbolic language’. Symbols or pictures are intended to clarify what the Lord wants to convey to us. We read the Lord’s words in Isaiah’s prophecy: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:9) It would be impossible for us to grasp God’s thoughts unless they were ‘illustrated’ for us. The use of illustrations is essential in education, especially in teaching children. We, as children of men, are like infants before the Lord. In his Word he comes down to our level, using illustrations to help us understand his plans and purposes.


Some want to interpret the Bible literally, and say that the interpretation of any text symbolically is to change God’s Word. Yet many readers accept parts of the Bible pictorially without giving it a second thought. Some of the most beautiful and well-known promises of the Bible, by which the Lord assures his people of his care for them, are presented in very colorful, pictorial language. The 23rd Psalm, known so widely by Christian people, is an excellent example of this, yet it is nearly all phrased in pictorial or symbolic language.

When David writes, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters,” none of this passage is literal. David put himself in the position of a sheep, and God as his shepherd. Certainly no one would argue that David was actually, literally a sheep! We as human beings may not view lying down in green grass as a delightful experience! How wonderfully reassuring is the lesson when we understand it as the psalmist intended. Without the illustration employed by David in this psalm, the lesson of God’s care would not have been nearly so impressive and comforting.

Another reassuring promise of God’s Word reads: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.” (Ps. 91:1-4) This is a promise made more understandable and forceful through the use of illustrations, or symbols. God is likened to a ‘refuge’ and a ‘fortress’. He is also spoken of as having ‘feathers’ and ‘wings’.

No one would want to say that these words were to be understood literally. Yet we have a meaningful illustration in this psalm. Fortresses in ancient times were designed to protect people from the assaults of their enemies; so also God protects his people. Likewise, the protection a mother hen gives to her chicks from hawks and other enemies, by calling them to hide under her wings, is a vivid word picture of God’s intimate and loving care for his people.


This is true with respect to other teachings of the Bible. Fire is often used symbolically in the Scriptures, rather than literally. For example we read: “Wait ye upon me, saith the Lord, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent.”—Zeph. 3:8,9

When the Lord says, ‘Wait ye upon me until the day that I rise up to the prey’, he does not mean that he is a hunter waiting to kill his prey. Instead, this is God’s answer to the heartfelt cry of his people throughout the ages. Whenever and wherever there has been injustice, suffering, exploitation, crime, or other evil, the question has always been asked: “Why doesn’t God do something about this? Why does he permit such wrongs to continue?” In Zephaniah’s prophecy God asks us to wait on him; he tells us that his ‘due time’ will come to do something about human suffering; that his ‘fierce anger’ will burn against all the causes of human suffering.

However, we must be prepared to accept God’s method of establishing righteousness in the earth. When God is entreated to do something about human suffering, people often do not want interference in their own way of life. In Zephaniah’s prophecy, very drastic action by God is described. There is a ‘gathering’ of the ‘kingdoms and nations’ of earth, upon whom is ‘poured’ God’s ‘indignation, even all his fierce anger’, and the ‘whole earth’ is ‘devoured’ by the ‘fire of his jealousy’. One meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘jealousy’ is ‘zeal’. ‘Fire’ is used to picture God’s ‘zeal’.


The ‘devouring’ of kingdoms and nations is illustrated in other ways in the Scriptures. In Daniel 7:23, the earth is said to be ‘devoured’, not by ‘fire’, but by a ‘wild beast’. Pictorial language is used throughout the Book of Daniel, where kingdoms are represented by four ferocious beasts. (Dan. 7:4-7) This practice is similar to the usage by journalists of beasts to picture present-day governments, such as the British lion, Russian bear, or the American eagle. Students of prophecy believe that the fourth beast mentioned in Daniel 7:7 symbolizes the Old Roman Empire, which is said to have ‘trodden upon’ and ‘devoured’ the whole earth. Pictorial language is used to show that the Roman Empire would bring essentially the whole known world under its control.


Zephaniah’s prophecy, speaking of ‘all the earth’ being ‘devoured’ with the ‘fire’ of God’s ‘jealousy’, uses similar pictorial language. In neither case is the reference to the literal earth, but rather ‘earth’ is used to picture the people, the social order, or the society of earth. We know also that the reference is not to the ‘devouring’ of this literal planet upon which we live, with the consequent destruction of the human race, because in the following verse the Lord explains what happens afterward: “I will turn to the people [who are still here!] a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent.”—Zeph. 3:9

‘Fire’ is used in the Scriptures very aptly to symbolize destruction. And in Zephaniah’s prophecy, man’s selfish rulership over earth is destroyed in preparation for the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. We could not use a more appropriate symbol for complete destruction than fire. To our ancestors, fire was the most destructive agency known, and still is today. Thus, fire is used to illustrate the destruction of the willfully wicked. “The lake of fire,” mentioned in Revelation 20:14, is an illustration of the condition of destruction. No one would think of throwing anything into a fire to preserve it! The picture language of the Bible uses the natural characteristics of the illustration to convey God’s thoughts to us.


There are many illustrations in God’s creation which are used in the Bible in one association or another. God illustrates his meanings through the sun, the moon, the stars. He uses clouds and storms, and the wind—even the whirlwind. He also uses animals—sheep and goats and horses. He uses trees and grass, wheat and tares. He uses the oceans, the rivers, and the lakes. Generally speaking, we humans know the characteristics of all these, hence they convey to our minds certain ideas; so when they are used by the Lord in the symbology of his Word, we can better understand the message he is endeavoring to convey to us.

Using the sun as a picture, the Bible speaks of Jesus in the establishing of his kingdom as the rising of the “Sun of righteousness.” (Mal. 4:2; Matt. 13:43) Knowing what the light and warmth of the sun does for humanity, we instantly perceive the life-giving blessings which will reach the people through the rulership of Christ. Thus God helps us to understand the meaning of prophecy. He wants us to use our minds, inviting us to “Come now, and let us reason together.”—Isa. 1:18


One of the most impressive prophecies of God’s Word uses a number of illustrations such as ‘mountains’, ‘seas’, ‘waters roaring’, ‘chariots burned in fire’, and the ‘earth melting’. It reads: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. … The heathen [nations] raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted. … Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen [nations], I will be exalted in the earth.”—Ps. 46:1-3,6,8-10

Although this prophecy uses destructive forces in illustration, the climax is noteworthy. It pictures God as saying, ‘Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth’. After all the ‘destruction’, the earth remains—it is neither ‘removed’ literally, nor ‘melted’, and the nations remain to ‘exalt God’s name’, or to recognize him as the supreme Lord and Ruler.

This prophecy is of special comfort to God’s people. They are able to recognize God’s particular protection and care over them, and so they say: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’. As they view the events occurring at the conclusion of this present age, they are able to say, ‘Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea’. The earth, the mountains, and the sea are all used pictorially. The Bible is consistent in picturing kingdoms as mountains. In this case, the psalm interprets this symbol when in verse 6 it says, ‘the kingdoms were moved’, to describe the meaning of verse 2: ‘the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea’.

In Daniel 2:35, the stone that smites the image becomes “a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” In verse 44, this mountain is clearly identified as “a kingdom which shall never be destroyed.” Also, the “waters” of the sea mentioned in Revelation 17:1, is described as being “people, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues,” in Revelation 17:15. The sea is also often used to depict the raging masses of humanity. Jesus uses this picture in Luke 21:25 when speaking of the end of this old order of society upon earth. He said, “Upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring.” The earth, in this prophecy, represents the present social order that is removed to make way for Christ’s kingdom.


Events that occur at the end of the age, at our Lord’s return, would include “distress of nations” and “men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.” (Luke 21:25,26) ‘Mountains’ ‘carried into the midst of the sea’ refers to the mighty bulwarks (mountains) of society coming under the control of the discontented and rebelling masses of humanity (the sea)—which has been going on in recent years. When the ‘earth’ ‘melts’ at the sound of the Lord’s voice, we see the use of yet another symbolism commonly employed. We hear of a heart melting, meaning that someone’s obstinacy has been broken down, and that there is a yielding to the wishes of another. So we see in the use of this symbol the rigid, obstinate, selfish, present social order of earth ‘melting’, signifying that man’s selfish social order succumbs to divine authority—pictured by ‘the Lord’s voice’. His power and authority are felt in the earth.

One of the characteristics of earth’s present social order and man’s rulership is war. In this prophecy, the weapons of war are destroyed, and God makes ‘wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire’. The immediate following of God’s command for war to cease shows how completely Divine authority will control the affairs of earth. This is confirmed in Micah 4:3, where we read, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The Lord will not share the rulership of the world with man. Therefore, all the symbolisms of this prophecy, and others used elsewhere in the Bible which describe the troublous times in which we are living, merely depict a transition period leading into a new age—the Messianic Age—when Divine authority, through Christ, will take control of all the affairs of mankind.

The use of Biblical expressions such as ‘fire’, the ‘earth melting’, ‘turbulent seas carrying away mountains’, ‘earthquakes’, ‘floods’, and other disasters are not intended to frighten the reader, nor to imply that God is bent on nothing else except destruction and punishment, or that he has no love or kindness. On the contrary, they are intended to reveal that the Lord is concerned about human suffering, and will take drastic steps to bring about an end to it. This is emphasized in the concluding words of this prophecy where we read: ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the heathen [nations], I will be exalted in the earth’, already quoted, and concluding with these words: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”—Ps. 46:10,11

It is important to note that the consequence of these pictorial events is the establishment of God’s kingdom, the exaltation of God’s name in the earth, and not the destruction of Planet Earth. Divine authority will be operative on behalf of mankind. Jeremiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “They shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”—Jer. 31:34

In this kingdom where happiness will prevail, there will be some disappointment, described by Jesus as “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 22:13) In the Middle East and the general territory around Israel, this was an idiom of speech denoting great disappointment and chagrin. When Jesus used this expression in his parables, it was never intended to suggest that some of mankind would suffer forever. Instead, Jesus used it, in particular, with respect to the religious rulers of his day, to indicate that in the kingdom when they found themselves without authority, and when they realized how they had missed gaining the greatest prize of all time, they would display great disappointment. However, they, too, will have the opportunity to come under the instruction and reformation of the kingdom laws then to be in effect, and to gain eternal life by obedience to those righteous laws.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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