Better Bible Study Tip #53: The Bible is Always True, but the Bible is Not Always Literal

In Amos 9:11-12, Amos prophesies of a day in the future.

In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name.

If we take Amos’s words literally, we might expect that one day some sort of physical structure that once belonged to David will literally be rebuilt. The rebuilding of this physical structure will be connected to Israel possessing the remnant of the Edomites, as well as all other nations called by God’s name.

But the apostle James didn’t read it that way. In Acts 15, when the apostles and the elders met in Jerusalem to hear how Peter had taken the gospel to the Gentiles, James responded by opening to the book of Amos.

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

Acts 15:13-17

James didn’t hesitate to read Amos non-literally. He understood that Amos’s “booth of David” was a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to David’s dynasty (compare this with 2 Samuel 8, where God promised David that he would build him a “house”). James recognized that “Edom” could be understood as a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to all of mankind (the Hebrew word “Edom” is very close to the Hebrew word “Adam” or “mankind”. The book of Obadiah uses “Edom” in this same way).

This doesn’t imply that Amos’s prophecy was untrue simply because it wasn’t literal. “Not literal” doesn’t mean “not true”. It just means that biblical authors were open to using poetic, symbolic, or metaphorical forms of language to communicate truth. If we want to truthfully understand what Amos wrote, we have to recognize that the text was never intended to be taken literally.

This doesn’t mean that we can come up with any sort of weird interpretations of scripture we want. James didn’t just reinterpret Amos to say whatever he wanted it to say. He was reading the text responsibly, by paying attention to how the Old Testament develops certain images. By so doing, he was able to follow how the prophesy was intended to be understood.

For better Bible study, remember that scripture is always true, but scripture does not always have to be read literally.