On the Interpretation of the Tropical Parts

Among the portions of New Testament Scripture which require a separate hermeneutical consideration, are those in which tropes or figures are employed. Some of the examples given under the last two divisions might in part be referred to this head, for there is also a figurative element in them. But other portions belong more properly to it; and the class is of sufficient compass and moment to entitle it to special inquiry. The subject, however, does not hold so large a place in the hermeneutics of the New Testament as it does in those of the Old; for the poetical enters more into the composition of the Old, and poetry, from its very nature, delights in the use of figure. In both the prophetical, and the more distinctively poetical books of Old Testament Scripture, the boldest images are introduced, and the language has throughout a figurative coloring. But of these we are not called to treat at present. We have to do merely with that more sparing and restricted use of tropical language, which appears in the New Testament, and was not incompatible with its clearer revelations and its more didactic aim. Reference, however, may also be occasionally made, by way of illustration, to passages in the Old Testament.
It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to state, yet, in case of any misapprehension, it may as well be stated, that the terms “figurative” and “tropical”, on the one side, and those of “literal” and “grammatical”, on the other, may be employed indiscriminately, as being substantially of the same import. The one pair happen to be derived from the Greek, and the other from the Latin, but, in each case, from words that precisely correspond. “Literal”, from the Latin litera, denotes the meaning of a word, which is according to the letter, the meaning it bears in its original or primary use; and nothing else is indicated by the term “grammatical”, in this connection, the word of Greek derivation for what is according to the γραμμα or letter.
But when a word, originally appropriated to one thing, comes to be applied to another, which bears some real or fancied resemblance to it, as there is then a τροπος or turning of it to a new use, so the meaning is called tropical, or, if we prefer the Latin form of expression, figurative—there being always some sort of figure or image suggested to the mind in this new use of the term, founded either on resemblance or some other link of connection, and forming a natural transition from the original to the derived sense. Very commonly also the word proper is used to denote the original import of words, and improper the figurative. But as these epithets are fitted to suggest wrong ideas, it is better not to employ them in such a connection.
All languages are more or less figurative; for the mind of man is essentially analogical, and delights to trace resemblances between one object and another, and embody them in forms of speech. In strictly mental operations, and in regard to things lying beyond the reach of sense or time, it is obliged to resort to figurative terms;—for only through the form and aspect of sensible objects can it picture to itself and express what lies in those hidden chambers of imagery. And the more vivid its own feelings and conceptions are respecting spiritual and Divine things, or the more it seeks to give a present and abiding impression of these to the mind of others, the more also will it naturally call to its aid the realistic language of tropes and metaphors. Hence the predominant use of such language in sacred poetry; and hence also its occasional employment by Christ and His apostles, in order to invest their representations of Divine things with the greater force and emphasis.

I. How To Know What Is A Figure And What Is Not

In applying our minds to this subject, the first point that naturally calls for inquiry, has respect to the proper mode of ascertaining when words are employed, not literally, but tropically. How may we assure ourselves, or can we assure ourselves, against any mistake in the matter?  This branch of hermeneutical inquiry began to receive some consideration in comparatively early times; and in Augustine’s treatise De doctrina Christiana, we find certain rules laid down for determining what in Scripture should be taken literally, and what figuratively. These are, certainly, somewhat imperfect, as might have been expected, considering the period when they were written: yet they are not without their value, and if they had been followed up by others, with any measure of Augustine’s discernment, they might have kept the early church from many false interpretations, on which the most unscriptural and superstitious views leaned for support.

Obvious Figures

In the first place, it may be noted, that in a large number of cases, by much the larger number of cases, where the language is tropical, the fact that it is so appears from the very nature of the language, or from the connection in which it stands. This holds especially of that kind of tropical language, which consists in the employment of metaphor; i.e., when one object is set forth under the image of another and in the employment of parable, which is only an extended metaphor. Thus, when Jacob says of Judah, “Judah is a lion’s whelp, from the prey, my son, thou art gone up;” or when our Lord designated two of His disciples by the name of Boanerges, “Sons of thunder;” or, again, when He spake of the difficulties connected with an admission into His kingdom, under the necessity of “being born again,” and of ” entering a strait gate and treading a narrow way;”—in all these and many examples of a like nature, the tropical element is palpable; a child, indeed, might perceive it; and the only room for consideration is, how the lines of resemblance should be drawn between the literal and the figurative sense of the terms. The same also may be said, and with still stronger emphasis, of formal similitudes and parables, in which the literal interpretation is expressly, or by plain implication, taken as the mere cover of something higher and greater.


Another class of passages, in which the figure is also, for the most part, quite easy of detection, are those in which what is called synecdoche prevails; i.e. in which a part is put for the whole; as a cup for its contents, “Take this cup and drink it,” or, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils.” It is manifest, that in such cases the cup does not stand alone; it is viewed merely as the symbol of the draught presented in it.


So in other passages, where there is a kind of metonymy, such as putting a cause for an effect, or an effect for a cause:—for example, when our Lord says of Himself, “I am not come to send peace upon earth, but a sword;” or when, inversely, the apostle Paul, in another connection, says of Him, “He is our peace.” In examples of this description also there is no difficulty; it is obvious, that a particular result is in the eye of the writer, and that, for the sake of point and brevity, the object or person is identified with that result, or with the natural cause and instrument of effecting it, as if they were one and the same.

Difficult Figures

But still, when all such examples as those now referred to have been taken into account, there remains a considerable number,—especially of the class called metonymies, in regard to which it is not so easy to determine whether the language should be understood literally or tropically.

It may, for instance, be questioned, whether our Lord, in Matt. 5:23, where He speaks of bringing a gift to the altar, means an actual altar for the presentation of sacrificial offerings, or something in the spiritual sphere that might be held equivalent to it:— whether, again, when speaking of His followers eating His body and drinking His blood, He meant a corporeal or a spiritual participation:

or Paul, when he makes mention of a fire that is to try every man’s work, (1Cor. 3:13) whether he has respect to the material element of fire, or to a process of judgment, which in spiritual things will have the same effect as a searching fire in earthly.

It is well known, that these questions are answered very differently, and that great points of doctrine hang on the specific interpretations adopted. Nor is it possible, by any sharply defined rules to settle conclusively the view that should be taken; for the settling of the rules would necessarily involve a discussion of the particular cases to which we wish to apply them. It is more, therefore, to the general principles of interpretation—to the proper mode and habit of dealing with the Word of God, the accurate analysis of its terms, the close and discriminating examination of the scope and connection:—it is to this, more than to any specific directions, that we are to look for obtaining the skill to determine between the literal and the tropical in the less obvious cases. At the same time, there are two or three leading principles, which, if fairly and consistently applied, might, in the majority of cases, be sufficient to guide to a right decision.

Principle #1

The first of these is, that when anything is said, which, if taken according to the letter, would be at variance with the essential nature of the subject spoken of, the language must be regarded as tropical. This principle requires to be little more than enunciated; it carries its own evidence along with it. No single act, no particular attribute, can be ascribed by an intelligent writer to a person or an object, which is inconsistent with their proper nature. So that, on the supposition of that nature being known to us, we can be at no loss to understand in what sense the language should be taken.
Thus, it is essential to the nature of God, that He is spirit and not flesh—a Spirit infinite, eternal, and unchangeable; consequently, without bodily parts, which are necessarily bounded by space and time; without liability to passionate excitation or erring purposes, which arise from creaturely limitations. Hence all those passages, which represent God as possessed of human powers and organs, as seeing, or hearing, or having experience of such affections as are the result of human weakness and infirmity, must be understood in a figurative sense. Nor can it be otherwise with those things, which are spoken of the soul and its spiritual life in terms borrowed from what pertains to the body:—As when our Lord calls on His followers to cut off their right hand and pluck out their right eye, or when St. Paul speaks of crucifying the flesh, and putting off the old man of corruption. In such cases the path is clear; we must keep strictly in view the essential nature of the subject discoursed of; and since that is not such as to admit of an application of the language in the literal sense, we can have no hesitation about understanding it tropically.

 Principle #2

A second principle applicable to such cases, is, that if the language taken literally would involve something incongruous or morally improper, the figurative, and not the literal sense, must be the right one. If the literal implies nothing contrary to sense and reason—if the instruction it conveys is in accordance with the great moral distinctions impressed upon the conscience, and written in the Word of God, then it may safely be adhered to as the sense actually intended. But if otherwise, we must abandon the literal for the figurative.

Rom. 12:20

The passage formerly referred to in another connection (Rom. 12:20) may be taken as an example; it is the exhortation to heap coals of fire on an enemy’s head, by showing kindness to him in the time of want and necessity. The action itself here specified (whatever may be understood of the motive involved in it) must in any case be understood figuratively; since the heaping of coals of fire on the head of another must plainly have respect to the moral influence of the things done to him upon his state or character. But further, in regard to the kind of operation intended, or the nature of the effect to be wrought, held out as the motive for exertion in the manner specified, it must be, as Augustine long ago remarked, of a beneficial, not of an injurious description, since it is brought in to enforce a precept of benevolence, and must, therefore, have contemplated the good of the parties interested.


There are many similar examples in the Proverbs, where the one just noticed originally occurs; as—to mention only another—when a person sitting at meat with a ruler is exhorted to put “a knife to his throat,” meaning that he must set bounds to his appetite—slay, in a manner, his voracity. In like manner, our Lord says, “If any man will come after Me, let him take up his cross and follow Me,”—”Whosoever loveth his life, shall lose it,”—”Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness;”—in each of which passages there must be a certain amount of figure; since, to bear a cross, and to love life, in the natural sense of the expression, cannot be regarded as things fitted to carry with them the consequences of good and evil with which they are associated, nor can it be deemed proper, otherwise than by a figure, to make for one’s self a friend of what is unrighteous. In such cases, we can only get at the true meaning by penetrating beneath the surface, and apprehending a moral act or line of behavior as the object presented to our notice.

Principle #3

A third direction may be added; viz., that where we have still reason to doubt whether the language is literal or figurative, we should endeavor to have the doubt resolved, by referring to parallel passages (if there be any such) which treat of the same subject in more explicit terms, or at greater length. The really doubtful cases, in which we can avail ourselves of this help, may not, perhaps, be very numerous; but they are still to be found.

First Beatitude

Thus, in the first beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount, in which the simple designation poor occurs, in the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed are ye poor:” this has its fuller explanation in St. Matthew’s Gospel, where we read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit:”—plainly indicating that, if literal poverty is not excluded, respect is mainly had to the spiritual frame.

New Testament Altars

In like manner the passage in the same sermon, respecting bringing a gift to the altar, in so far as regards its bearing on the Christian Church, has its meaning clearly determined by the Epistle to the Hebrews, and other parts of the New Testament, which declare earthly altars, and the offerings proper to them, to have no longer any place in the Church of God.

Destroy This Temple

And the word of Jesus, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” though spoken with apparent literality, was afterwards found, when the progress of events and the illumination of the Spirit laid open its meaning, to have had a figurative import. It referred, not to the building usually designated the temple, but to the Lord’s body, although this also was in reality a temple, which is but another name for the dwelling-place of Deity; nay, was such in a sense more strictly appropriate than could be affirmed of the other.

1 Cor. 3:13

Now, if we apply these simple and just principles of interpretation to the passage in Corinthians (1Cor. 3:13) we can have no difficulty in ascertaining the result that ought to be arrived at. The declaration there made is, that “the day,” viz., of coming trial, “shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is.” What is the nature of the work to be tried?

Moral or Earthly?

That is naturally our first question. Is it of a moral, or simply of an external and earthly kind? The only work spoken of in the context is that which concerns the foundation and progress of Christ’s Church, and man’s relation to it—work, therefore, in a strictly moral sense; and so, by our first principle, the fire that is to try it must be moral too. For how incongruous were it to couple a corporeal fire with a spiritual service, as the means of determining its real character? And if in accordance with our last principle, we have recourse to other passages, which speak of the day of future trial and final decision, we find statements, indeed, to the effect that the Lord will be revealed in flaming fire, or, as it again is, in the clouds of heaven; but as to what shall really fix the character and the award of each man’s work in the Lord, we are left in no room to doubt that it shall be His own searching judgment:—this it is that shall bring all clearly to light, and give to every one according to his desert. The result, therefore, is obvious; the fire spoken of, and spoken of simply in respect to its property as an instrument of trial, must be understood tropically of what, in spiritual things, has the like property.

John 6:53

Let us also try, in the same way, what our Lord says about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. The Romanists contend that the expressions must be taken literally, even as recorded in John 6:53, long before the sacrament of the Supper was instituted. Ernesti, who was a Lutheran, admits it must be understood tropically there; but he maintains that the words at the institution of the Supper must be taken literally. When treating of the interpretation of tropical language, in his Institutes of Biblical Interpretation, he states that, as at Matt, 28:19, in the formula of baptism, the word “baptize” is to be taken literally, so the words at the institution of the Supper, about eating and drinking must be taken literally. And he refers to what he regards as a kind of parallel passage, Heb. 9:20, where the words of Moses are quoted, “This is the blood of the covenant which God hath enjoined unto you,” and draws the conclusion that, as in this case the blood of the covenant must be literally understood, so our Lord must have meant His blood to be understood in the same manner. Nor could this expression, he adds, convey any other than its proper sense to the minds of the disciples, who were accustomed to take up our Lord’s declarations in their proper or literal sense.
No doubt, they were accustomed to do this; greatly too much accustomed: it was their failing and their error to be so. Hence our Lord had once and again to complain of their inaptitude to perceive the real import of His words; and specially in regard to this very form of expression, when, on one occasion, He spoke of having Himself bread to eat that others knew not of, and on another, cautioned His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees; so far was He from justifying them for understanding His words literally (as He discovered they did) that He reproved them on that very account for their dullness of apprehension. If Ernesti’s reasoning were sound, and the use he makes of the words of Moses in Hebrews were valid, the natural conclusion would be, not only that the corporeal presence of Christ in the Supper should be maintained, but also that the whole legal economy should remain in force—the altar of sacrifice, with the blood of slain victims, the distinction of Jew and Gentile, the continued teaching of the scribes in Moses’ seat, etc: for these are all distinctly mentioned by Christ, and, in all probability, were at first understood in the most literal sense by the disciples.
We must plainly have other rules for our direction in such a case. It is surely one thing to say, that Christ literally ratified the covenant with His own blood, and a very different thing, that bread and wine became His blood, and as such were to be eaten and drunk, at a feast instituted in commemoration of His act in ratifying the covenant. Indeed, it is only by a sort of figure that we can speak even of the covenant being ratified by His blood—a figure derived from the ancient sacrifices; for, in reality, it was the simple death of Christ, the free surrender of His soul through the pains of dissolution [death] to the Father, which, in His case, established the covenant; and would equally have done so, though not a drop of blood had been outwardly shed. There is a failure, therefore, as to formal resemblance at the very outset, in the actions that are brought into comparison. And when we come to the participation spoken of, there is no resemblance whatever.
Even Augustine, with all his leanings toward ritualism, and his mystic notions on the virtue of the Sacraments, saw that the literal in its strict sense could not stand. On the passage in St. John’s Gospel, about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, he says, “It appears to order a wicked and abominable action; it is, therefore, a figure, teaching that we must communicate with our Lord’s passion, and have it sweetly and profitably laid up in our memory, that His flesh was crucified and wounded for us (prtecipiens passioni dominicae communicandum, et suaviter atque utiliter recondendum in memoria quod pro nobis caro ejus crucifixa et vulnerata sit.)”
Whether we look to this passage, or to the words, “This is My body broken for you,” and “This cup is the New Covenant in My blood, shed for the remission of sins, drink ye of it,” the literal interpretation violates every one of the three leading principles, which we have laid down as applicable to such cases.

Violates Principle #1

It is against the first principle; for what our Lord was speaking of in the one passage, and the privilege He was establishing in the other, was a joint participation with Himself as the Redeemer of men. But this is a thing in its very nature spiritual; and a carnal amalgamation with His bodily parts—were such a thing possible—could be of no benefit: in that respect, as our Lord Himself testified, “The flesh profiteth nothing.” Not oneness of outward standing or corporeal substance, but unity of soul, identity of spiritual life—this is what alone avails in such a matter.

Violates Principle #2

Then, the literal interpretation is against our second principle of interpretation, inasmuch as it ascribes an action to Christians, nay imposes as the highest and most sacred duty an action, which is abhorrent to the common instincts of humanity—an action which has no parallel in real life, except among the lowest types of human nature—the most untutored savages. These alone among mankind are known, and even these only in extreme cases, to eat human flesh and drink human blood; and it is utterly inconceivable, that the most solemn rite of Christianity should have been designed to be formally the same with the most unnatural and savage practice which exists in the world.

Violates Principle #3

And, finally, the parallel passages may also be said to be against it; for though from the singularity of the case, as to the Sacrament of the Supper, we cannot appeal to any passages absolutely parallel, yet passages substantially parallel are not wanting—passages in which Christ is represented as identifying Himself with an external object, much as He does with the bread and wine in the Sacrament:—Such as, “I am the door,” “I am the vine,” “The Church which is His body,” “And that Rock was Christ.” We have also passages, in which the bread of this ordinance, after consecration, the bread as actually partaken by the communicants, is. still designated bread, and not flesh;—as when the apostle says, in 1Cor. 10:16, 17, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For, we being many are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread“—from which one might as well argue, that believers are turned into bread, as from the words in Matthew, that the bread is turned into flesh. And in Acts 2:42, 20:7, 11, we have the expression, “breaking of bread,” used as a common phrase to denote the celebration of the Supper, manifestly implying, that the participation of bread, and not what could be termed flesh, constituted the formal act in this part of the Communion.
We say nothing of the doctrinal positions based upon the literal sense, but contemplate the matter in a simply exegetical point of view. Apart altogether from the doctrinal consequences and results, the close and comparative examination of the words leads to the adoption of the tropical, in contradistinction to the literal import.

II.  What To Do With Figures

We turn now to what forms naturally the second subject of consideration in this branch of inquiry, viz., the proper mode of treating the tropical or figurative portions of Scripture. This necessarily varies to a considerable extent, as does also the use of figure in Scripture:—so that uniform rules, applicable to all cases of figurative language, cannot possibly be given. The field must be surveyed in successive portions.

Words That Are No Longer Figures

In the first place, there are in Scripture, as in other compositions, words and phrases, which are really used in a figurative manner, but in which the figurative has become so common, that it has ceased to be regarded as figurative. Examples of this in ordinary language are not far to seek.

  • “expression”, for example, which in its original sense means a squeezing out, but is now almost invariably appropriated to the specific act of pressure outwards, which takes place in speech, when the thought conceived in the mind is put forth into intelligible words.
  • “ardor”, which is primarily burning or heat, but by usage has come to be confined to states of mind—reflect, ruminate, and many others of which what was once the tropical, has now come to be the ordinary usage.

Examples of the same description are found in Scripture, in such words as “edify” (edify one another in love…) “train-up” (originally “draw-up”, but now usually educate, instruct, rear) “synagogue”, “church”: in all which the secondary or tropical meaning is the current one; and if occasionally a reference may with advantage be made to the primary sense, generally it is best to treat them as no longer tropical, but to regard the common acceptation as the only one that has any particular claim for notice.

Figure Upon Figure

A second point to be noted is, that there is often a complex tropical meaning in the words and phrases of Scripture (as of language generally)—one tropical meaning, by some addition or subtraction in respect to the principal idea, giving rise to another, and that, perhaps, still to another. So that there is sometimes trope upon trope; and it is of importance, not only to have a general acquaintance with the whole, so as to be able the more readily to choose the proper one for the occasion, but also to understand something of their successive growth—to be able to trace, in a manner, their genealogy, so as fitly and intelligently to connect one with another. This can now, for the most part, be done with comparative ease, and usually requires nothing more than the careful use of the grammar and the dictionary; for of late years the progress of philological study has been such as to determine pretty accurately almost all the primary and derived meanings of the words in New Testament Scripture, with their relative order and gradation.


As an example of the accumulation of tropes in the meaning of some words, we may refer to Rev. 3:12, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God,” in which not the nearer, but a more remote tropical meaning is given to “pillar”. The literal is that of a strong support to a material building; whence comes the more immediate tropical meaning, of some kind of like support in the sphere of moral and spiritual things; but a further tropical meaning also arises, suggested by the thought of pillars being usually the strongest and most securely fixed parts of the building—the meaning of a stable and abiding position.


Immediate figure

Remote figure

A tall vertical structure used as a support for a building. A support to people in matters moral and spiritual. The strongest and most securely fixed parts of the building

This is the idea intended to be conveyed in the passage referred to; and hence it is added, as what naturally arises from the subject of the promise having the position of a pillar assigned him, that “he shall go no more out”—his place in the region of bliss and glory shall be one of eternal continuance.

Widow’s Houses

We may point for another example to Matt. 23:14, where our Lord says to the Scribes and Pharisees, “Ye devour widows’ houses”—τας οικιας των χηρων, evidently meaning the goods or substance of those widows. The first transition from the natural to the figurative import consists in taking house, by metonymy, for family—what contains for the principal objects contained in it—and then, by a further limitation, putting the means of support, belonging to the house or family, for this itself—on the implied ground, that the one as to substantial existence is identified with the other, and that he who lays his hand on the means of sustenance to a house virtually lays his hand on the house itself. This second trope, therefore, growing out of the first, is quite natural; and we can easily see, how much, by the throwing together of the several things which make up this last idea, the language of our Lord gains in strength and vivacity. It leads us to think, not merely of the avaricious and fraudulent appropriation of some earthly goods, but of the result also flowing from such conduct—the actual absorption of a whole house, in order to gratify a base and selfish appetite.

Fair & Natural Explanation

As a third direction for the proper explanation and management of the tropical language of Scripture—and indeed, the principal one—we mention this, that care should be taken to give a fair and natural, as opposed to a far-fetched or fanciful turn to the figure employed. We do so, on the ground, that figurative language is essentially of a popular caste, and is founded on those broader and more obvious resemblances, which do not need to be searched for, but are easily recognized and generally perceived.

Thomas Fuller

When the apostle, for example, says, “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” the reference plainly is, to the time that should be set to the continued indulgence of angry feelings: if these should arise in your bosom, let them not be harbored, let them at least expire ere the day closes, on which they have arisen. But see how oddly, and we may say fantastically, Thomas Fuller draws out the figure,

“St. Paul saith, ‘Let not the sun go down on your wrath,’ to carry news to the antipodes in another world of thy revengeful nature. Yet…”

he adds, as if intending to give a more simple view of the matter,

“…let us take the apostle’s meaning rather than his words, with all possible speed to depose our passion; not understanding him so literally, that we may take leave to be angry till sunset; then might our wrath lengthen with the days, and men in Greenland, where day lasts above a quarter of a year, have plentiful scope of revenge.”

It is evident on a moment’s consideration, that such turns given to the image are quite fanciful: they could not have been in the apostle’s mind, nor would they readily suggest themselves to an ordinary reader of the epistle; and they serve rather to amuse, or to divert attention from the right point, than guide it into the proper channel. Even writers much less fanciful than Fuller, and who have their imaginations more under control, often err in this direction.


Thus Leighton, in his first sermon on Isa. 60:1—as a whole an admirable discourse—when referring to Song of Solomon 6:10, where it is said of the spouse, “She is fair as the moon and clear as the sun,” thus explains,

“The lesser light is that of sanctification, fair as the moon; that of justification the greater, by which she is clear as the sun. The sun is perfectly luminous, but the moon is only half enlightened; so the believer is perfectly justified, but sanctified only in part; his one-half, his flesh, is dark; and as the partial illumination is the reason of so many changes in the moon, to which changes the sun is not subject at all, so the imperfection of a Christian’s holiness, is the cause of so many waxings and wanings, and of the great inequality of his performances, whereas in the meanwhile his justification remains constantly like itself.”

Doctrinally, indeed, this is perfectly correct; but it is certainly not in the passage, on which it is founded. The reference there to the two objects in nature, sun and moon, is merely to these as they strike the eye of a spectator—therefore, to the intense brightness of the one, and to the milder radiance of the other. And the Church is compared to the two luminaries of nature, only for the purpose of exhibiting under two similar, though slightly diversified aspects, the imposing and attractive appearance, which would belong to her, if she were in her normal condition of light and purity.

Matt. 10:16

Take still another example. In Matt. 10:16, our Lord exhorts His disciples, since they were to go forth like sheep in the midst of wolves, to be “wise as serpents”—on which Augustine remarks, by way of explanation,

“It is known respecting the serpent, that it presents to those striking it, instead of the head, the whole body; and this shows, in connection with our Lord’s word, that we should offer to those persecuting us our body, rather than our head, which is Christ, lest the Christian faith should be, as it were, slain in us, if by sparing our body we should disown God.”  “Or, again…”

taking another view of the matter

“…since it is known, that the serpent, when compressed by the straitness of its den, casts off its old skin, and thereby, it is said, receives new strength, it admonishes us to imitate that same cunning of the serpent, and put off the old man, as the apostle says, that we may put on the new, and put it off through straits, entering (as the Lord says) through the strait gate.”

I need scarcely say, that these points in the natural history of the serpent (if they were real) would serve little to illustrate our Lord’s maxim, in the connection, in which it is introduced; since, plainly, the wisdom He recommends, and finds imaged in the serpent, is wisdom, not to enter into a Christian state, nor to brave persecution and death, when entered, rather than betray the cause of Christ, but to guide one’s self discreetly and prudently in the midst of danger, so as, if possible, to escape the evil threatened by it. Indeed, there is scarcely anything known in the natural history of the serpent-brood, which can be of service in illustrating the comparison; for in their existing condition serpents are not remarkable for wisdom, in the respect now mentioned, and possess lower instincts and sagacity than many other irrational creatures. Yet there can be no doubt, that in ancient times the serpent was very commonly taken as a symbol of wisdom, was even extensively worshipped as having something Divine about it. But this most probably sprung out of the tradition respecting its primeval state, as the wisest among the beasts of the field, and the part it was in consequence employed by the arch-deceiver to play in the fall of man. Scripturally, and traditionally, the serpent was peculiarly associated with the attribute of wisdom—and it is best to regard our Lord as simply founding on this historical belief, and the deeply significant facts connected with it.
The danger of erring in the manner now referred to is not, perhaps, so great in our day, as it was in former times, when general literature abounded with labored ingenuities and fanciful conceits. We live in an age, which gives more play to the unsophisticated feelings and instincts of nature, and which is less disposed to seek for remote and curious analogies. But when in public discourses a passage is selected, which contains a similitude, there always is some danger of pressing this, in some respects, too far, so as to make it the cover of a more varied or lengthened instruction than it naturally suggests. The best way to avoid this, is to cultivate simplicity of thought and style, and to rest in the conviction, which experience will amply justify, that two or three points, well-chosen and vigorously handled, will make both a happier and a more lasting impression, than double the number, if not properly grounded in the text, or really germane to the subject.

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