When is a Wolf Not a Wolf?
How to know when to take the Bible literally and when to take it figuratively
All of us use figures of speech: “She’s the black sheep of the family” or “He had to eat crow” or “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Mt. 10:16).
Sometimes the word wolf really means “wolf,” a four-legged animal that destroys and feeds on other four-legged animals; and sometimes it refers to human beings who prey on other human beings. The first interpretation is literal; the second, figurative.
These two understandings also represent the two basic schools of eschatology: Premillennialism and Amillennialism. Eschatology is the doctrine of future things. Reading Scripture literally leads to Premillennialism: the belief in a future, 1,000-year (millennial) reign of Christ on Earth; and reading figuratively results in Amillennialism, the belief there will be no 1,000-year reign of Christ on Earth.
So how does someone reading the Bible know when to take something literally and when to take it figuratively? This is the fundamental issue of prophetic interpretation. Bible scholar Dwight Pentecost said it well in the introduction of his classic work, Things to Come:
No question facing the student of Eschatology is more important than the question of the method to be employed in the interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures. The adoption of the different methods of interpretation has produced the variant eschatological positions and accounts for the divergent views within a system that confront the student of prophecy. The basic differences between the premillennial and the amillennial schools and between the pretribulation and posttribulation rapturists are hermeneutical, arising from the adoption of divergent and irreconcilable methods of interpretation.1
Speaking to the issue of hermeneutics, Bible scholar Charles Ryrie wrote,
Hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation. Exegesis consists of the actual interpretation of the Bible, the bringing out of its meaning, while hermeneutics establishes the principles by which exegesis is practiced.
In actuality every interpreter of the Bible has a system of hermeneutics, whether consciously so or not. As one practices his exegesis, he reveals his hermeneutics, though probably most interpreters do not ever systematize their hermeneutics. Few, if any, interpreters begin by working out their hermeneutics before proceeding to exegesis. Most seem to think about hermeneutics after they have been interpreting for years. But thinking about the subject of hermeneutics serves an important purpose, for it does force one to examine the basis of exegesis and the consistency of his interpretive practices.2
Allegorical vs. Literal
The allegorical method interprets something figuratively that was intended to be understood literally, whereas the literal method interprets words and phrases using their normal, usual, customary meaning, including the use of figures of speech.
All readers recognize figures of speech. But allegorists interpret words and phrases figuratively that were not intended to be understood that way. Herein lies the rub for interpreting biblical prophecy. When is a wolf not a wolf? The interpretation of a word or phrase should be determined by the context—the words around the term itself—which enables the reader (who may be centuries removed from the writer) to figure out the intended meaning.
The prophetic portions of the Bible work exactly the same way. Some of those passages, however, may be somewhat obscure today for several reasons, such as:
1. Much biblical prophecy is poetic in structure, which requires a basic understanding of Hebrew poetry.
2. The writers belonged to a different time and culture, which requires some understanding of the cultural context.
3. Modern readers may have preconceived ideas concerning a prophecy’s meaning, so they must listen carefully and humbly to what the prophet was actually saying.
For example, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “‘The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,’ says the LORD” (Isa. 65:25).
The statement “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” conveys the idea of peaceful coexistence. The question is whether or not this imagery was intended to be figurative, describing different types of people who normally are hostile toward one another (racially, culturally, politically, etc.) living peacefully together. Such is the usual amillennial interpretation, which sees this prophecy as being fulfilled in a spiritual kingdom, like the church.
Clearly, people who are born again by God’s Spirit (Jn. 3:3–8) should love one another (13:34–35), even when they come from mutually antagonistic backgrounds.
But what did Isaiah intend us to understand? To answer that question, we must examine the context. The ultimate issue with prophetic literature (indeed, with all literature) is the intended meaning of the author. Is there anything in the context that indicates Isaiah’s intended meaning?
The next line (“the lion shall eat straw like the ox,” Isa. 65:25) emphasizes grazing, which in turn emphasizes the literal nature of the statement. The lion will be transformed from carnivorous to herbivorous. The following line (“and dust shall be the serpent’s food”) indicates a similar transformation for the serpent. Both statements argue for the literal interpretation of the words wolf and lamb.
In the preceding context, Isaiah already stated God will create “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17). This new creation will include significantly increased longevity for mankind: “No more shall an infant from there live but a few days, nor an old man who has not fulfilled his days; for the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed” (v. 20).
He also said God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (v. 21); and their days will be “as the days of a tree” (v. 22).
All these factors point toward a literal, physical Earth. However, this is not the new heavens and new Earth of Revelation 21—22 because there remains the possibility of death.
Therefore, based on context, Isaiah intended us to understand that he was describing a renewed, Eden-like heavens and Earth; and the wolf is a four-legged creature who no longer destroys the lamb. Isaiah was describing the earth’s renewal, which will characterize the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:1–6) that Jesus will establish at His Second Coming.
A literal hermeneutic only accepts figures of speech when the literal sense doesn’t make sense. When we read John 1:29, where the apostle John said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” we are forced to understand Lamb figuratively. But in Isaiah 65:25, the literal sense makes perfect sense—unless the reader already has decided there is no earthly Millennial Kingdom.
Literal interpretation—unless the context demands otherwise—is critical to understanding Bible prophecy (and almost every other form of writing). A wolf is always a wolf (four-legged animal) unless the context tells us otherwise.
- J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1958), 1.
- Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999), 125.