Prophetic Language in the OT: Literal? (Bavinck)

Most readers of the OT are familiar with the prophetic texts that talk about a future temple, sacrifices, mount Zion, etc. Of course some Christians take these prophecies extremely literally. But is literal interpretation of these OT prophetic texts legitimate? Do these OT prophetic texts give us an eschatology of literalism? Herman Bavinck said not so much:

Now it is true that that future is depicted in images derived from the historical circumstances that then prevailed, so that Zion and Jerusalem, temple and altar, sacrifice and priesthood, continue to occupy a large place in it. But we must remember that we ourselves do the same thing and can only speak of God and divine things in sensuous, earthly forms. One reason God instituted Old Testament worship as he did was that we would be able to speak of heavenly things, not in self-made images but in the correct images given us by God himself. The New Testament, accordingly, takes over this language and in speaking about the future kingdom of God refers to Zion and Jerusalem, to temple and altar, to prophets and priests. The earthly is an image of the heavenly. All that is transitory is but an analogy (“Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis”).

Nor must we forget that all prophecy is poetry that must be interpreted in terms of its own character. The error of the older exegesis was not spiritualization as such but the fact that it sought to assign a spiritual meaning to all the illustrative details, in the process, as in the case of Jesus’s parables, often losing sight of the main thought. When it is stated, for example, that the Lord will cause a shoot to come forth from the stump of Jesse, that he will establish Mount Zion as the highest of the mountains, that of the exiles he will bring back one from a city and two from a family, that he will sprinkle clean water on all and cleanse them from their sins, that he will make the mountains drip sweet wine and the hills flow with milk, and so forth, everyone senses that in these lines one has to do with poetic descriptions that cannot and may not be taken literally. The realistic interpretation here becomes self-contradictory and misjudges the nature of prophecy.

It is also incorrect to say that the prophets themselves were totally unconscious of the distinction between the thing [they asserted] and the image [in which they clothed it]. Not only did the prophets undoubtedly view the above poetic descriptions as imagery, but also in the names for Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom, Moab, Philistia, Egypt, Asshur, and Babel they repeatedly refer to the power of the Gentile world that will someday be subject to Israel and share in its blessings (Isa. 34:5; Ezek. 16:46ff.; Dan. 2:17ff.; Obad. 16–17; Zech. 14:12–21). Zion often serves as the name for the people, the believing community of God (Isa. 49:14; 51:3; 52:1). And although it is true that Old Testament prophecy cannot conceive of the future kingdom of God without a temple and sacrifice, over and over it transcends all national and earthly conditions. It proclaims, for example, that there will no longer be an ark of the covenant, since all Jerusalem will be God’s throne (Jer. 3:16–17); that the kingdom of the Messiah will be everlasting and encompass the whole world (Pss. 2:8; 72:8, 17; Dan. 2:44); that the inhabitants will be prophets and priests (Isa. 54:13; 61:6; Jer. 31:31); that all impurity and sin, all sickness and death, will be banished from it (Ps. 104:35; Isa. 25:8; 33:24; 52:1, 11; Zech. 14:20–21); and that it will be established in a new heaven and on a new earth and will no longer need the sun or the moon (Isa. 60:19–20; 65:17; 66:22). Even Ezekiel’s realistic picture of the future contains elements that require a symbolic interpretation: the equal shares assigned to all the tribes, though in numbers [of tribal members] they vary widely; the precisely measured strips of land intended for priests, Levites, and the king; the separation of the temple from the city; the high location of the temple on a mountain and the brook that streams out from under the threshold of the east door of the temple toward the Dead Sea; and finally, the artificial way things are put together and the impossibility of implementing them practically—all these features resist a so-called realistic interpretation.

Bavinck, Herman, John Bolt, and John Vriend. Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008. p. 659-660.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015