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Raining cats and dogs (1)

One of the challenges in understanding the Scripture has to do with appreciating the difference between literal and figurative speech.  Although that seems pretty straightforward, it can be more challenging than it sounds.  Add to the mix the thinking among some that taking the Bible literally is good and taking it in a non-literal way is bad, while to others understanding the Bible literally is nonsense, and well, you can see why there’s some confusion over the matter.

It seems to me that the place to start is to understand exactly what it means to take something literally. Literal speech means that what is being said is neither an exaggeration nor a figure of speech, the words are to understood at their actual face value (i.e., their common, primary meaning).  Matthew makes this statement about Jesus, “Leaving Nazareth, He went and lived in Capernaum,” (Matthew 4:13).  What does he want us to know?  He wants us to understand that Jesus left Nazareth and started living in Capernaum.  In fact, it’s hard to restate it in a simpler, more direct way.  And with that, we see the strength of saying something literally --- it is simple, direct, and easy to understand. 

It should go without saying that when someone says, “It was literally raining cats and dogs,” or “I was literally sweating bullets,” they don’t understand the literal meaning of the word literal (or they are using it in a non-literal way --- smile).  Other times though, it’s not quite as apparent.  In Isaiah 13, the prophet is depicting God’s judgment that was about to fall upon Babylonians (v. 1).  He speaks of hearts melting (v. 7), and faces aflame (v. 8). The heavens will tremble and the earth will be shaken from its place (v. 13).  I asked in a class recently if we were to understand this literally and one person replied that perhaps we should since God really did put an end to Babylon kingdom.  I appreciate their sentiment but it does not change the fact that hearts did not literally melt and the earth was not shaken from its place.  If we took Isaiah’s word literally, that’s what would have to happen. Since the earth is still here and Babylon isn’t, we can conclude that Isaiah didn’t intend for his language to be taken in the literal sense.
 
Which brings us to a substantial issue that often lies beneath the surface of our interpretive efforts --- it is neither more God-honoring nor less God-honoring to understand the Scripture literally.  What is God-honoring is to seek to understand the Scripture as it was intended to be understood.  You don’t have to spend too much time in the Bible before it becomes obvious that it is not written in such a way as to be taken literally or figuratively all of the time --- it is a beautiful intermingling of the two.  That’s why questions like, “Do you believe the Bible to be literally true?”, may be well-intentioned but they inevitably generate more heat than light (especially when they are used as code for “Do you believe the Scripture is true?” --- a totally different question). 
So where does all of this leave us? Hopefully, with the recognition that we can and should understand the Bible both literally and figuratively (according to its context). Beyond that though, there is the larger issue of us having the sensitivity to hear our Father in whatever manner He chooses to speak to us. 
May we learn to listen to Him!
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