We are told we are to take everything literally in Scripture. What is meant, by this kind of literalism, is a wooden literalism. But does that really fit how Scripture uses words and meaning?
Let’s take a look at some examples
so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. ~1 Kings 3:12
Scripture tells us that Solomon was king like no other that preceded him or would ever follow him.
Note what is said of Hezekiah who would follow Solomon:
After him was none like him among all the kings of Judah , nor any that were before him. ~2 Kings 18:5
And what of Josiah who follows many years later?
like unto him was there no king before him, . . . neither after him arose there any like him. ~2 Kings 23:25
What do we make of Jesus’ words regarding himself?
… she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. ~Matthew 12:42
Wait! Weren’t we told that no one greater than Solomon would ever come after him? Or Hezekiah? Or Josiah? This form of poetic language is used to prove the point of the greatness of the one to whom the author is referring. This is an all too common form of language and should be understood within the context it is being used.
…For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. ~Daniel 9:12
Really? Was what happened to Jerusalem the worst thing that has ever happened to any city under Heaven? What about Jericho? What about Sodom? For that matter, what about the entire world during the Noahic flood? Or what about what happened to the Egyptians at the hand of God?
There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. ~Exodus 11:6
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away… ~Matthew 5:29
Who believes this passage is saying what the words actually say, or do people understand it as hyperbole?
The king [Solomon] made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. ~2 Chronicles 1:15
I’m sure silver and gold may not have been as common as rocks, but the point is that Solomon was very rich, and his kingdom luxurious.
Let’s look at a few other passages
So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’ ~John 12:19
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. ~John 21:25
It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there; no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there. ~Isaiah 13:20
Yet we know that long since the Old Testament judgment upon Babylon, people have in fact lived there.
Ezekiel 26:14 says,
And I will make you a bare rock; you will be a place for the spreading of the nets. You will be built no more, for I the Lord have spoken.
Yet long afterwards, Jesus ministered there, as did the apostles (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 3:8, Luke 6:17, Acts 21:3).
This is hyperbolic, poetic talk regarding powerful judgment. Such language is for dramatic effect, and is not meant to be taken in a wooden, literal sense.
So there is no need to compare all calamities throughout history with the tribulation in 70 A.D. to see what the “worst tribulation of all time” is. If we simply compare Scripture with Scripture, and if we understand that the Bible often uses hyperbole, then it becomes quite clear that Jesus was using hyperbole in Matthew 24:21. The language used there is virtually identical to the language used in Ezekiel 5:9, Daniel 9:12, 2 Kings 18:5, 2 Kings 23:25, etc. So the intention of Matthew 24:21 is not to compare the Great Tribulation with every other calamity of all time. Jesus was simply saying that it was going to be really, really bad.1
What did the Old testament say about the Babylonian exile?
And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. ~Ezekiel 5:9
This is obviously quite similar to the words Jesus uses to describe something about to happen to the same people…the Jews. Also regarding the Babylonian exile…
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. ~Matthew 24:21
A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ ~Isaiah 40:3
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ~Matthew 3:1-3
If Matthew had not interpreted Isaiah 40:3 for us, we would still be looking for someone to make a straight highway in the desert for the Lord.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. ~Zechariah 9:9
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.’ 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden. 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’ ~Matthew 21:1-11
Zechariah 9:9 was fulfilled when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Since Jesus was not a physical King as the Jews expected, they rejected Him as king.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. ~Malachi 4:5
He answered, ‘Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.’ 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. ~Matthew 17:11-13
Jesus himself stated in Matthew 17:11-13 that John the Baptist was Elijah. If Malachi 4:5 had not been interpreted for us by the Lord, we would still be looking for Elijah to come.
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
30 And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. ~Joel 2:28-32
But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
17 And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20 the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. 21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. ~Acts 2:16-21
Peter claims that Joel’s prophecy, Joel 2:28-32, was fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21). There are some that try to claim that only part of this prophecy was fulfilled at Pentecost and the rest will be fulfilled later. If this were true we would have to admit that they were given more insight to the scriptures than Peter, for he did not say that this is part of Joel’s prophecy and the rest will follow, but “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.”
I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. 10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. 11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. ~Psalm 16:8-11
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. ~2 Samuel 7:12
Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. ~Acts 2:30-31
Peter continues with the Old Testament prediction that Jesus as king would someday sit on David’s throne (Psalms 16:8-11; 2 Samuel 7: 12) and declared it fulfilled by the resurrection of Christ.
Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? ~Genesis 18:18
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ ~Galatians 3:8
Paul claims that the promise made to Abraham and his seed that through him all nations would be blessed, Genesis 18:18, has been fulfilled in the saving of gentiles, Galatians 3:8. The promise was not to be fulfilled through Abraham’s fleshly descendants, but his spiritual seed. Also in this same chapter of Galatians Paul explained that the promises that God made to Abraham was not to his physical descendants as of many but one which was Christ. This means that the land and blessings that God promised to Abraham’s fleshly descendants was to be through faith in the coming Messiah. This is why Joshua said in Joshua 23:15 “Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all good things are come upon you, which the LORD your God promised you; so shall the LORD bring upon you all evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you. 16 When ye have transgressed the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed yourselves to them; then shall the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and ye shall perish quickly from off the good land which he hath given unto you.” The Jews cannot anymore have the promises made to Abraham and his descendants without Christ, than we can have salvation and the blessings promised to God’s people without Christ2.
Ezekiel 40-48 —> Hebrews
When the New Testament book of Hebrews teaches that the Old Testament system of sacrifices is forever replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then Ezekiel chapters 40-48 should be interpreted as being fulfilled instead of looking for a future fulfillment. These are only a few of the many scriptures where the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament prophecies in a non-physical way.
1Hyperbole in the Bible
2Why I Believe Eschatology the Way I Do by Orval Heath