October 3, 2012

Why I ‘literally’ take God at His Word

by Josiah Grauman

teetering logUnfortunately, when discussing Biblical interpretation, we often spend much of our time making philosophical statements instead of explicitly biblical ones. Having interpreted the Bible symbolically for most of my life, I remember the first time I was forced to ask myself: How does God tell me to interpret His Word?

Though my first conclusion was: “Symbolically, of course, that’s how the New Testament authors interpret the Old…” not being an inspired author myself, I began to question how legitimate it was for me to be coming to such subjective conclusions. I wondered: “Can one text really mean one thing ‘to me’ and a different thing ‘to you’, and don’t we rather want to believe what it means ‘to Him'”? Then Isaiah 40-44 brought clarity.

I now take the Bible ‘literally’ because according to YHWH, if His Word is not fulfilled in the normal way that the original audience should have expected it to be fulfilled, then He, by His own definition of divinity, is no better than a teetering log (Isa. 40:20).

How did I make that logical leap you ask? Three quick steps from Isaiah 42-44:

Step 1: YHWH defines divinity: Only God can see the future (Isa. 42:8-9, 43:10-11, 44:6-8):

Seeing the futureI am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42.8–9).

You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isaiah 43:10).

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it… Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any” (Isaiah 44:6-8).

YHWH sets forth the divine litmus test: God alone sees the future.

Step 2: YHWH defines false gods: they are dead idols = blind, deaf and dumb, and all those who worship them are like them (Isa. 44:9, 12, 16-18):

BlindIsaiah continues in the next verse, “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame” (Isaiah 44:9).

He then goes on to mock the idols and their makers, “The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint” (Isaiah 44:12).

The imagery is pathetic from YHWH’s perspective. Just the fact that the idol has a maker is sad, but that this maker is so weak is even more pitiable. But the mockery goes even further. Speaking of the wood the idol-maker chops down, Isaiah writes: “Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand” (Isaiah 44:16-18).

There is a clear distinction between YHWH and idols. YHWH sees all things, including the future; the idols and all those who worship them are blind. (This should be obvious, since only an all powerful being who controls every aspect of the future could know it. So, though an idol, through demonic activity (1 Cor. 10:20), might aid in a more probable guess at one’s fortune (cf. Acts 16:16), this is still blindness compared to YHWH).

Step 3: YHWH proves His divinity: He executes His promises exactly as was expected (Isa. 44:24, 26-28, cf. Jer. 29:10; with Ezr. 1:1-3):

Fulfilled promiseYHWH demonstrates Himself to be the great I AM, the multi-generational God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in that He can say something and then generations later, it happens. What is the specific prediction given in Isaiah 44? YHWH promises that at the end of the exile, a man named Cyrus would give a decree that Israel could return to her land and rebuild the temple. In fact, Jeremiah also adds that the exile would last 70 years.

“I am the Lord, who made all things… who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isaiah 44:24, 28).

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10).

And what happened? Ezra records: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: …go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel.”  Ezra 1:1-3. And when did it happen? Exactly 70 years later (Cf. Ezra 1:1 with Daniel 9:1-2).

Everything came true exactly as YHWH said it would, exactly in the way that the original audience expected.

Conclusion: YHWH is God.

I think we all agree up until this point… however, now we need to take a moment to ponder the hermeneutical implications of this fact.

What conclusion should a Jew have come to if Cyrus would have decreed a return to a spiritual Jerusalem and the ability to rebuild spiritual walls? What if the decree was issued by a man names Jairus?

packin bagsWhat conclusion should a Jew have come to, according to YHWH’s own definition of deity, if Cyrus had made the decree 78 years into the exile? Do you think a Jew should have thought, well, “that’s okay YHWH, you did your best… 70 years was probably a symbolically complete period of time anyhow”, or would he have raised his fist up to heaven and cast off YHWH as the idol that He’d be if He was incapable of fulfilling His prophecy in the obvious way He presented it? When Daniel read 70, he started packin’ his bags (Dan. 9).

I think you get my point. If it didn’t come true exactly in the way the original audience ought to have understood it, YHWH, by His own definition, is a teetering log fit for the fire.

Thankfully, this is not the case. YHWH is God, and He is always faithful to His Word. This is why I care about authorial intent, this is why I study the historical context, this is why I try so hard to put myself in the shoes of the original audience, because taking God at His Word fuels my worship of He who always does what He says.

Josiah Grauman


Josiah is the director of the 'Instituto de Expositores', a Spanish language training institute at Grace Community Church, where he and his wife serve as missionaries.
  • Heather

    Such a rich article, so full of God’s Word! I say a hearty AMEN.

    Today, I read so much Christian writing that says otherwise, or that to take God’s Word literally, especially in the context of Church instruction, is to be over-the-top, extremist, or ultra-conservative. Of course studying the history behind the writing is fascinating, to say the least, but I don’t believe it should ever overshadow the larger truth, that this is His Word and He chose what was to be written in it, so we should take it literally and seek, in every way, to obey it in love. Know what I mean? For example, how often I see this principle applied to the role of women in the Church, and how often I hear people say “oh, Paul was just writing to those people at that time in history because of the pagan problems they were having then, it doesn’t apply to us anymore.” Yikes. Talk about playing with fire. Who are we to pick and chose when God was being literal or not in His Word? If we can’t take His Word literally, how can we take Him literally? I agree with you, that we can take Him literally, thus, we can take His Word, the Holy Bible, literally!

    • Heather,


      And thanks for your great point that our study of extra-biblical sources should never trump the Scriptures. Perhaps my choice of words, “historical context”, gives that impression. To me, historical context is mainly studied in the Bible itself. That is, if I want to know the background to Ephesians, I should study Acts 18-20 :).

      As you say, we certainly shouldn’t study the historical context in order to then sit as a judge over what we obey and what we don’t obey. If Paul says women shouldn’t be pastors because Adam was created first (1 Tim. 2:13)… then I don’t care what culture or context you are in, Adam was created first everywhere, and therefore women shouldn’t be pastors anywhere.

      May the Lord help us to more earnestly desire to study the Scriptures so that we can more properly tremble at what He says (Isa. 66:2), and be even more ready and willing to believe and do everything exactly as He instructs.

      Lord bless,

      • Heather

        Amen 🙂

  • busdriver4jesus

    I would love to know your theological background… you mentioned interpreting the Bible symbolically for many years and now holding to a dispensational perspective. I have the exact opposite story! You made some grand statements… one in particular caught my eye: “He always executes His promises exactly as expected…” Did you mean in the immediate context of Isa and the return from Exile? Or that God throughout all history does this? The former makes sense, but the latter? First, whose expectations are we talking about? I’ll assume that in your past, you’ve been exposed to the cornucopia of O.T. texts in the N.T. that were fulfilled in totally unexpected ways… like almost everything about Jesus! (Mt 2:15, 2:23, etc.) So could you expand your statement?

    • Mr. Bus Driver for Jesus,

      Oh what fun theological journeys the Lord gives us 🙂

      First, I’d love to know what statements I make in the article that are dispensational? That was not my intent, in fact, I tried to avoid them.

      As far as your statement that “almost everything about Jesus” deals with OT texts that were fulfilled in unexpected ways:

      1. I would argue the opposite. Jesus was exactly what the Jews should have expected their Messiah to be. He fulfilled all the prophecies. If some Jews wanted Him to overthrow Rome, this was their unbiblical expectation, not what they ought to have expected from Isaiah 53, etc. I think I did emphasize this in the article a couple of times. “Exactly as they ought to have expected”. Jesus did miracles, proclaimed the gospel to the poor, was David’s son and David’s Lord, rode in to Jerusalem on a donkey, was pierced, born in Bethlehem, of the line of Judah, born of a virgin, was God incarnate, came out of Galilee, etc. Furthermore, Luke 24:25-38 seems really clear that the OT spoke directly about Jesus, and He is and was doing exactly what we and they should have expected had they properly understood the OT.

      2. I guess the short answer to your question about NT authors quoting OT texts in unexpected ways is:

      a) I mention that they are inspired authors. One of my points is that I don’t necessarily have the liberty to say something means something if the Scriptures don’t explicitly say so. Matthew could because the Spirit was speaking :).

      b) We would have to look at the texts one by one, which is hard to do in a comment thread :). But as a general rule, given that the two texts you mention use the word ‘fulfill’, I would say that it is important to note that what was ‘fulfilled’ were not prophesies in the OT. The OT never mentions the word Nazarene, Hosea 11:1 isn’t a prophesy. The verb is past tense. Hosea’s audience didn’t expect God to do anything based upon the fact that He had called them out of Egypt.

      I think if we study the word pleroo ‘fulfill’ in Greek we come to understand that ‘filling something up’ in the Jewish mind didn’t always necessarily carry the connotation that we think of with the word “fulfill”. I don’t think Matthew ever claims that the passage in the OT spoke directly about Christ, but rather he is using OT words to corroborate that Jesus was the second Adam, the Son of God that Israel couldn’t be, He, like Israel who was His ‘type’, came out of Egypt. Matthew is filling up his argument with OT parallels.

      So when I say I take the Bible literally, I’m not claiming the there aren’t tons of symbols in Scripture, many which point to Christ. I give a hearty amen to that brother! Moses didn’t know that the rock He struck was Christ… That is symbolic.

      However, let us not forget that there was no prophesy about the rock, no divine prediction. Moses therefore had no expectation about something that God was going to have to do concerning the rock that then didn’t get fulfilled as God presented it.

      My point is that when God gives a verbal prophecy (not a type or a symbol through providence), then there is a guarantee that if we understand it correctly, it will be fulfilled accordingly.

      Hope that helps… and yes I know I avoided your theological background question ;). I personally don’t like the word dispensational because I grew up hearing all the stuff that many dispensationalists taught that I do not believe to be biblical and are sometimes associated with the term (non-lordship salvation, different methods of salvation, etc.).

      Lord bless!

      • busdriver4jesus

        Thanks for your reply, and I apologize for my label “dispensational”; I know about the baggage that has been heaped up on that word, and I mourn that you were afflicted by the errors you mentioned. I attend a progressively dispensational church, so I don’t consider this issue a deal-breaker, but a flint on which we can sharpen our minds.
        I do also appreciate your clarification; “exactly as they ought to have expected” is different from the statement I picked a fight with: “He always executes His promises exactly as expected…”. That’s what I was looking for.
        Thanks again!

        • Praise the Lord. And thanks for your kind response. I actually gave a little edit to the line as well to provide some clarity… thanks for your sharpening 🙂

  • Peter

    Hi Josiah! Good article. I love your passion to see God’s word taken seriously. I was wondering if you would comment on Paul’s use of the word “mystery” in the NT, especially Colossians and Ephesians, where he refers to the person and work of Christ? How should we understand “mystery” given, as you say, that the Jews “ought to have expected” the Christ to be a suffering Servant-King, rather than an earthly Roman-conqueror? Is it possible that some OT prophecies are clearer than others? Just to tip my hand a bit, I think God always speaks truthfully in prophecy, but sometimes what He intends for His children is veiled. Indeed, it is often far better than what they expect. Thanks, brother!

    • Peter,

      Your humble graciousness exudes through your words, thank you.

      I guess I’ll tip my hand a bit as well. Tomorrow I’m going to expand on my article and make a few comments about the relationship between the Church and Israel :).

      So, for now, suffice to say that I believe the Old Testament didn’t explicitly predict that the Gentiles would be fellow heirs with the Jews. So I won’t emphasize a traditional: it’s either them or us, but more of a both.

      To answer your question more directly, the issue to me is whether the Old Testament saint should have expected that Christ would always be the suffering servant, or whether he should have seen that the suffering of the servant would one day make Him into the Conquering King. In the OT, often timing is what is unknown, though the concepts are clear (1 Pet. 1:10-11).

      So though I do totally agree that the fulfillment of God’s promises will be far better than we can conceive of them… I don’t want to give the impression that they will be better because they will be different. I.e. He promised us a car and instead gives us a plane, but rather it will be better because of the quality of perfection which in unfathomable to us fallen sinners.

      Lord bless,

  • Harry

    Great Article! Would like to see you write on J.E.D.P. A friend (raised Anglican / nominal / not saved ) has been watching too much liberal bible history shows on TV. Plus he can’t get his head around God killing people throughout the OT. Love to see your perspective.

    • Harry,

      Thanks for your comments…

      Honestly, in my opinion, what your friend needs most is prayer and the Gospel. That doesn’t mean you can’t interact with him on the issues, but I think we must always understand that it’s very hard to convince a dead/blind man of anything. Once his heart is regenerated and his eyes opened, hearing the voice of his Shepherd and believing that He is who He says that He is will come naturally.

      The only thing that has this power, to save, is the Holy Spirit through the presentation of the Gospel. So I would encourage much prayer and a clear Gospel presentation.

      I’ll think about the J.E.D.P. article, and also throw the idea out to perhaps any other cripplegate writers who might do a better job than I.

      Lord bless,

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