Figures of Speech

by A.E. Knoch

THE QUESTION has been asked, "How could Paul lock the kingdom when he did not have the keys?" As this inquiry gives a good example of the false use of figures of speech, it will be worth while to go into it from that angle. We have worked for many months on figures of speech used in the Scriptures, and hope to make this a feature of the new Keyword edition. A good drilling in this subject seems to be the thing most needed next to the use of a concordance. It may be that we will specialize along this line for a while, in order to forestall the asking of questions like the above.

At the same time this will be a good occasion to speak a few helpful words regarding some other dangers which may accompany our methods and our message. Our insistence on exactitude, and on faith rather than reasoning, may easily lead to harmful extremes, especially when associated with figures of speech. What looks like a "concordant method" may be applied so as to do damage, rather than help. To make this clear and actual, we need a good example, and this one will do excellently. If we drive matters to ludicrous extremes, this is done intentionally, so as to impress upon our readers in a striking way the worthlessness of some methods which look as if they were accurate and concordant, yet succeed only in creating discord.


The value of accuracy in the study of God's Word cannot be overestimated. But there is a false kind of accuracy which is base metal. We might insist, for instance, that Peter was given the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and that this particular kingdom is mentioned only in Matthew, therefore, since there is no record therein that he used these keys, the kingdom of the heavens has not and never will be unlocked, and no one will ever enter it. Our Lord, consequently, heralded a kingdom which will never materialize, and even Peter himself will not get what is promised to him in it. Is it not a mere inference to suppose that the kingdom heralded in Acts and the Unveiling are the kingdom of the heavens? All the parables of the kingdom will lapse, in fact Matthew's whole account is quite pointless, for it uses a phrase concerning the kingdom which is never used of it again. We, who supposed that this kingdom would come as foretold in the Unveiling have no "proof" for this whatever!

Doesn't this sound logical and unanswerable? What is wrong with it? The mistake is to treat the phrase "the kingdom of the heavens" as if it were literal instead of a figure, and then in looking for the same figure instead of resolving the figure into the fact, and then looking for this, either literal, or under another or similar figure.

In the first place let us clearly recognize that the heavens cannot literally rule. We know Who the Rulers are in the kingdom of God, and in the kingdom of Christ. But heaven is a locality, not a personality. When the God of heaven sets up His kingdom on earth, that will be the kingdom of the heavens (Dan.2:44), especially that aspect of it in which it is given to His saints (Dan.7:2-27). Daniel did not call it precisely "the kingdom of the heavens," so that, if we wish to be exact, and not confuse six with half a dozen, we could say that it was not the kingdom foretold by the prophets. We should say, to be really accurate, that it was not predicted under this precise figure, nevertheless was clearly foretold.

According to Daniel, the kingdom to Israel, referred to in the book of Acts, and the kingdom of God and His Christ in the Unveiling, though not confined to the special aspect denoted by "the kingdom of the heavens," must include it. Matthew usually specializes where Acts and the Unveiling are more general in their phraseology. Instead of the vague "heavens," they put Christ, Who comes from the heavens. When He rules, the heavens rule. This is not inexact inference but intelligent understanding. Exactitude which must lead to the total isolation and separation of the kingdom of the heavens from both prophecy and fulfillment, simply because this precise term is used only in Matthew, shows that knowledge has been divorced from wisdom. To stress a certain aspect of the kingdom as is done in Matthew does not make it another kingdom.

Moreover, in regard to the keys, it is well to emphasize that Peter was given the keys under this title. It is the national aspect of the kingdom with which these are associated, a kingdom in which Israel is no longer under foreign domination but under the Son of David, a kingdom which will rule all the other nations of the earth. Surely it is not exactitude which would deny that David's Son will rule simply because the kingdom becomes our Lord's and His Christ's (Rev.11:15). David's Son is Christ. Yet it is well to remember that as Son of David His kingdom is confined to Israel, while as Christ it includes the world, not to say the universe.

Peter was given the keys to the kingdom of the heavens, not the kingdom of God. In the book of Acts the question is, "Art Thou at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel" (Acts 1:6). It is this narrower phase of the kingdom with which the keys are connected, not with the wider thought, which denotes personal entrance into the sphere of God's personal rule. This aspect was not opened or closed. It is found throughout, even when the kingdom to Israel is locked. Paul had heralded this aspect in Acts and in his epistles, and goes right on with it after Israel is calloused (Acts 28:31). It is present even in Ephesians (5:5). These two aspects must be kept distinct in considering the keys, or there will be confusion. In this article we always refer to the limited aspect, as a matter of course, for this only is in view.

The figure of the keys belongs to that most numerous of all figures, Implication, commonly listed as Hypocatastasis. The principal figures of likeness are, Simile, which says that one thing is like another, Metaphor, which says that one thing is another, and Implication, which implies that one thing is like another. Now the kingdom is not an enclosed space with a door, and there is no literal key to open this door. Therefore when our Lord said, "I shall be giving you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens" (Matt.16:19), He only implied that the kingdom was like such a place.


We know of nothing to compare with a concordance for fixing the meaning of words. But to deal in the figures as if they were the literal meaning of a word is most unwise. Each usage may be different. In figures of likeness only certain points are like and all the rest is unlike. These points of likeness are not always the same. It is impossible to reason from one to another. We will consider some passages where the figure of the keys is used in order to show that it may indicate the authority to lock, or the right to unlock, or both. Each passage must be interpreted solely in the light of its own context, not in that of others which use the same figurative expression. We will consider some other passages where this figure is used, in order to show how unwise it is to import the context of one into that of the other.

Our Lord has the keys of death and the unseen (Rev.1:18). He reassures John by telling him that He is living, though He was dead. Here there is no thought of locking but only of unlocking. In one sense any man can unlock the portals of death by murdering another and sending him to the unseen. But only our Lord can recall from death. He alone has opening keys. In the next passage the figure is vastly different. The reference is to the deposing of Shebna and the installation of Eliakim as treasurer of the temple (Isa.22:15-20). Here the thought is double. No one can either open or close who has no keys. It is a special position of honor and literally denotes the control over the house of David, rather than mere entrance or exit. The fifth messenger was given the keys of the well of the abyss (Rev.9:1,2). Here there is no thought of locking, or of unlocking for entrance, but of opening so as to allow the locusts to emerge.

These three examples will suffice to show how useless it is to consult other occurrences of a figure in order to fix the details of its application. According to these the keys given to Peter may be for the rescuing of someone out of the kingdom, as our Lord will save His saints out of death and the unseen, or he may be standing at the door of heaven to exercise continuous control of all the opening and closing as did Eliakim, or he may use them to open the door of the kingdom in order to allow its denizens to escape. That he was given the keys for none of these purposes should be evident to all.

Another passage may help us to see how impossible it is to treat figures in this fashion. The Pharisees were charged with locking the kingdom of the heavens in front of men. They not only refused to enter themselves, but also prevented others (Matt.23:13). According to this (some would say) the Pharisees also were given the keys to the kingdom! Peter simply got what the enemies of Christ had long since had! But the figure here is not keys. There is nothing about opening. It is confined to closing, to keeping men out. It is rather the opposite of Peter's gift. Let us note also that this shuts out all reasoning to the effect that Peter alone has the keys, hence he alone can lock. Such deductions are the result of lamentable ignorance concerning figures of speech. No matter if Peter alone had the keys to open, anyone who kept his fellows from Christ, effectually locked the kingdom, and every act of God which kept them from turning did the same thing.


The only intelligent method of fixing the force of this figure is to compare it with the facts. Did Peter sustain any relation to the kingdom which distinguishes him from the rest of the apostles? The facts fit the figure perfectly. It was Peter who stood up first at Pentecost, and spoke words which brought those who accepted them into the kingdom. He it was who first went to the nations, and by his mouth Cornelius came into it. The door that had been locked was opened, and Peter had the special honor of doing it. Immediately after Peter had been promised the keys, our Lord cautioned his disciples not to say to anyone that He is the Christ (Matt.16:20). How could anyone enter the kingdom in this case? But when Peter preached at Pentecost he did this very thing for the first time thereafter (Acts 2:36), and three thousand found an open entrance into the kingdom.

Some confuse the interpretation of a figure of speech with reasoning, inference, imagination, supposition, conjecture, surmise, or guess work. They want strict adherence to facts. They are like the disciples who when our Lord spoke of the leaven of the Pharisees, failed to see the implication (for such it was), and confined themselves to the fact that there was no bread. Very well, let us confine ourselves to the facts. A large part of Christendom has tried to do so. As a consequence Peter is now the porter at the portals of heaven. The Roman Catholic church is certainly the most scriptural, if we must take our Lord literally. Then also, the bread is His body, and the wine His blood. Christ is both a Lambkin and a Lion. If these are literal it is comforting to add that we are dead, and the dead know not anything.

No, indeed! There are thousands upon thousands of figures of speech used in God's revelations to us, and there is no way out of it, we must have sufficient spiritual insight to grasp their figurative significance or we may go astray. Our Lord deliberately said that He would wake Lazarus out of sleep. The disciples misunderstood, so He told them frankly that Lazarus died. So also we are compelled to perform a mental process which, in the time of the Reformation, was denounced as of the devil, and which is still under the ban in some quarters. No matter how much we may try to avoid the consequences, our Lord did not give Peter any keys made out of metal, and it is our problem to determine what He literally meant by keys.


Usually we grasp the force of a figure without any distinct thought process. In this case, however, we will try to analyze the steps by which we may arrive at some definite notion of what He literally meant. The circumstances are helpful. The Lord had been heralding this kingdom of the heavens (Matt.4:17), as John the Baptist had done before Him (Matt.3:2). It had drawn near. But the time came when the heralding ceased and was replaced by parables. The nation as a whole had not responded. Then He asks His disciples what others think of Him, and finally what His own disciples think. Peter's response showed that he, at least, had grasped the truth. As a reward he is to have special honors in the kingdom which, as the secrets concerning it had revealed, would be heralded again. The promise of the keys is one of these. They were to be given him in the future. Immediately our Lord cautions His disciples that they should not make Him known, and foretells His suffering and death (Matt.16:20-25).

The condition of the kingdom from that time until Pentecost was a very remarkable one, which few fully apprehend, and which had made a profound impression on the disciples. No one could get into it. At first our Lord had heralded it openly. Its laws were promulgated. Everyone was welcome. Then He changes to parables. His disciples wonder why. He explains that this is done to keep them from being healed (Matt.13:10-15). The kingdom had become inaccessible at the time that Peter was promised the keys. This is implied in the figure. To express it figuratively, the kingdom was locked. How long was this to last? Until He had been crucified. When was it again heralded? At Pentecost. Who had the honor of inaugurating this new heralding? Peter. The literal history could not be more graphically condensed than is done in the picture of the keys.

If Peter has the keys to open the kingdom of the heavens, will he be raised from the dead before the rest in order to unlock it in the time of the end? The figure of the keys is exhausted in its application to Peter's past ministry. When the kingdom is set up by Christ such a figure does not agree with the facts, and cannot be used. Christ Himself is not said to have the kingdom keys. Shall we then ask, "How can He open the door into it?" Then there will be no door into the kingdom. It will comprise the whole world. If we wish to express it figuratively, the whole door will be broken in. God will give His people a new heart. They will be saved by Jehovah first and then they will repent. It will not depend, as in the past, on something done by the nation, but directly on God's power. Repentance will follow as a fruit, rather than precede as a key. The figure is altogether out of place in the future.

Perhaps the literal facts will enable us to go even further, and fix upon those things which are specifically intended by this figure. For entrance into any divine blessing we need Christ, and we might call Him the Key. For entrance into the kingdom of God in its broadest sense faith would be the essential. But if we wish to narrow it down to the kingdom of the heavens we may be more specific. There are certain special requirements needed for entrance into it. Peter at Pentecost was speaking to the nation which, by its refusal to repent, had failed to enter the kingdom. Then he lays down two necessary requirements - repentance and baptism. These seem to be the special projections, as it were, which fit the lock of the kingdom of the heavens, the sovereignty of Israel as a nation.

This explanation of the keys is not an article of faith, but the interpretation of a figure. All that we can say positively is that the literal things which the keys represent must be peculiar to the kingdom of the heavens, they must make entrance into it a possibility, and Peter must be the first to apply them. Anything which can qualify in these particulars is entitled to be called a key. I would not object if faith also were included among the keys, for this is the vital element in repentance.

What do the keys represent? On the day of Pentecost Peter used them. When those who heard asked, "What shall we be doing?" (Acts 2:37) he said, "Repent and be baptized each of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of your sins..." By means of these things they could actually and literally gain entrance into the kingdom.

Now, with a literal key, the very same instrument is used to lock as to unlock. So that, if Peter had been given literal keys he could have locked the door at any time. Could he lock the door with the keys given to him? Suppose that, at the end of Acts he should be called in to lock the kingdom. Would he preach repentance and baptism to close it? How silly, you say. That would not lock. That can only unlock.

So here we have a striking example of how easily a figure may be mishandled if we press it out of its proper limits, as if it were literal. It leads to the most absurd conclusions. If we follow these out further, it is only in order to drive this home, and give the questioner some material to work on, so that he may himself recognize that such handling of God's Word must lead to darkness and confusion. Paul also preached what Peter did, outside the land. He told them to repent. Did that lock the kingdom? As Peter had unlocked the door, it certainly could not open it again, unless it had been locked meanwhile. So that, if we followed out the line indicated by the question, we might foolishly say that Paul used the same keys, so of course must have locked the kingdom. The only difficulty is that they opened, rather than locked it.

In passing, let us note that binding and loosing is an entirely different figure. You need no key to bind or loose. It has nothing to do with entrance into the kingdom, but with authority over those in it. Peter does not merely open the door. He did not only herald the kingdom to unbelievers. He also rules among the believers.


The connective and, in Greek, joins clauses of the same rank, in no way dependent on one another, so the binding and loosing is in no way an explanation of the keys. There are many particles in Greek which could have been used if such a relationship existed. The indiscriminate mixing of these two radically distinct figures has led to the practical addition of the idea of locking and unlocking. Where this is intended, it is expressed (Rev.3:9). Its introduction here has caused untold confusion. Binding and loosing is not now before us, but we point out that it refers to literal acts in the kingdom or in its power, dependent on the authority conferred on Peter, and, later, was extended to others (Matt.18:18). But they were never given the keys, hence these are not necessary for binding and loosing.

But, we might ask, Did not our Lord Himself use these keys? How is it that the kingdom was locked after He had opened it? Up to the middle of Matthew's account the door to the kingdom seems to be open. But, in the thirteenth chapter, it is shut with a bang. Who did it? Isaiah! How does he do it? By announcing that the people will not repent, the reverse of the principal opening key. Their heart is stout, they hear heavily, they shut their eyes (Matt.13:15). Whenever the door of the kingdom is closed this key is used to lock it. So that the kingdom door was closed when Peter was given the keys and he did not use them until the day of Pentecost. Of course the figure of the keys is not used of closing the kingdom, but the fact remains, however it may be expressed.

The healing of Israel coincides with the coming of the kingdom. This will occur when the people return to God (Isa.6:9). Isaiah, in his day, longed for this, but he was commissioned to dull the spiritual sensibilities of the people, so that they would not return. This led to the loss of Israel's nationality and the captivity. A similar situation arose on two later occasions, when our Lord's ministry was rejected and when that of His apostles was refused (Matt.13:14; Acts 28:25-27). It is quoted seven times in connection with these two occasions (Matt.13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke.8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26; Rom.11:8). These three periods, after Isaiah, our Lord, and the apostle Paul had pronounced this doom on the people, are times when the kingdom is impossible of realization.

Once Isaiah had spoken, the captivity was bound to come, for God Himself had locked the people up in stubbornness. So also after our Lord quoted the same words. Thereafter, until the suffering of the cross had been accomplished and the day of Pentecost had come, it was utterly out of the question that the kingdom should come, notwithstanding the fact that it was in this time that He made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Again, after Paul had quoted Isaiah in Romans and in Rome, nothing on earth or in heaven can establish the kingdom until the Rescuer shall come out of Zion. Callousness has come on Israel until the complement of the nations may be entering (Rom.11:25,26). In these three periods the kingdom cannot come. In figurative language it is locked. Stubbornness, callousness, insensibility comes on Israel lest they should enter.

But for two brief periods the opposite was true. John the Baptist and our Lord called the nation to repentance and healing. So also did His apostles, from Pentecost onward. John the Baptist had the high honor of first announcing its nearness in the former period. At the close of this period Peter, by his confession, showed that he had turned and been healed, so he was chosen to inaugurate the second period. As this consisted in once more heralding the kingdom so that those who turned to God could enter it, our Lord used the figure of the keys. Literally they simply indicate that he would end the period then running, by a renewed heralding of the kingdom to the nation. And this is precisely what occurred. Only it was expressed in figurative language.

Perhaps we should say that our Lord locked the door. The key he used was the sixth of Isaiah. If He had not locked it, there would have been no need to give Peter keys to open it again. But how useless it would have been to give Peter the key He had used in locking the kingdom! The sixth of Isaiah cannot open. It can only close. These are figures! Let us not mishandle them! Entirely different keys must be used to close and to open the kingdom. They must be opposites, not the same. One must be repentance, the other must be stubbornness.

The effect of locking the kingdom was that our Lord forbade its heralding. He cautions the disciples that they may be saying to no one that He is the Christ (Matt.16:20). Instead, He begins to foretell His sufferings. It may seem strange to some that our Lord did not herald the kingdom during the last half of His ministry. But so it was. It was withdrawn, in abeyance, postponed, or any other expression which will fit the facts. Now that it was again heralded by the apostles, and Isaiah six again locked the door, a similar condition exists. There is no authority for preaching the kingdom. And, even if it is ignorantly proclaimed, the door is locked: no one can get in. Literally, those to whom it might be heralded cannot repent, because God has made it impossible. The sixth of Isaiah applies until the time of the end. There is nothing in the truth for today which would allow anyone even to get in through the keyhole.

Peter was never given the key to lock the kingdom. It was given to Isaiah first (Isa.6:9,10), when Israel rejected Jehovah. Our Lord used it after Israel had rejected Him (Matt.13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40). And who used it when Israel rejected the testimony of the spirit in the book of Acts? Paul! As soon as he was severed by the spirit to his special work (Acts 13:2) he blinds Elymas, the magician (Acts 13:11), one of the most striking pictures we have of unrepentant, stubborn, resisting Israel.

In Germany, where this is written, the houses are usually secured by means of large locks. The particular one which I use must be turned twice to make a thorough job. So it was with locking the kingdom. Paul did not only lock it once, but twice! Long before the end of Acts he anticipated the outcome, and wrote to Rome what he later said at Rome. Here is what he says: "What Israel is seeking for, this she has not encountered, yet the chosen encountered it. Now the rest were calloused, even as it is written, 'God gives them a spirit of stupor, eyes not to be observing, and ears not to be hearing, till this very day'" (Rom.11:7,8). Paul's early epistles begin where Acts ends. The spirit always gets ahead of the flesh. So Paul gave the first turn to the key long before the Jews were informed that the door was shut.

Yet the heralding must proceed, for its real purpose is not to bring in the kingdom, but rather to try Israel in order to show her utter unworthiness. But it is finished, officially and finally, at Rome. There Paul takes Isaiah's key, which our Lord had used to lock the kingdom, and gives it another turn. Coming as it does, at the close of the book of Acts, it should take little intelligence to see that the heralding of the kingdom is at an end, for the time, just as it was in the days of our Lord. The heralding in the book of Acts, of repentance and baptism, ends with unrepentant Israel locked out of the kingdom, like blinded Elymas, "until the appointed time."

Now let us not reason that Paul, because he had the key to lock the kingdom, can unlock it again. Figures of speech, such as these, should never be stretched and warped and expanded so as to cover fields of thought beyond their range. They have been made a means of confusion, a weapon of error. Let us always keep the picture well within the frame of the context. Our Lord did not give Peter literal keys, which would open or shut, but figurative ones, only to open. Peter could not lock the kingdom. That would go against his functions. But Paul locked the kingdom twice as securely as our Lord Himself, by giving the key a double turn. Both religiously and politically, Israel is locked out while Paul is on the scene.

Put literally, Paul wrote to the Romans that "callousness, in part, has come on Israel, until the complement of the nations may be entering" (Rom.11:25). To the foremost of the Jews, in Rome, he applied the passage in Isaiah which, on two other occasions, had put the people into such a spiritual condition that they could not enter the kingdom (Acts 28:26,27). The nations replace them as recipients of salvation and the blessings figured by the olive tree, until "The Rescuer shall be arriving out of Zion!" (Rom.11:26).


In dealing with two passages, one of which is figurative and the other literal, we should make both either one or the other, just as, in dealing with fractions, we must reduce them to a common denominator. Thus 1/6 and 3/12 = 2/12 + 3/12 = 5/12. Peter heralded a message by which the nation should have entered the kingdom. Paul, at the end of Acts, applies a passage which made it impossible for them to do so. Figuratively, Peter unlocked the door at Pentecost at the commencement of Acts (although this figure is not used there), and Paul locked it at the close of Acts. The figure is not necessary for our faith. The facts at the beginning and end of Acts show that the kingdom was heralded first, and that the heart of the people was made stout lest they should be healed at the last. Acts is a record of the rejection of the kingdom.

The meaning of a word is one, and constant in every occurrence, but the figurative usage of a word is diverse, and may be different in every occurrence. This distinction has usually been ignored in our lexicons. That is why some words have so many "meanings" and there is so much confusion and overlapping that the definitions do not really define. We must find the same literal sense everywhere, but we must not carry a figurative usage from one context to another. A derogatory sense, when figurative, is not transferable. The word zeal, for instance, may denote jealousy in its figurative usage. Then all passages mean zeal, for the jealous are also zealous, but not all mean jealous, for this is only a figurative usage. One figurative usage may lead us astray as to the significance of an element. Thus the diminutive is often used as a token of affection, but this does not show that this is the meaning of all diminutives. The laws governing figures of speech are, in some respects, the opposite of those used in determining the literal significance of words, hence I feel a special burden upon me to warn those who use "concordant" methods not to apply them where they may do much damage and lead to much error.

As my mind had been much occupied with the problem of how to help the Lord's people to appreciate the figures used in the Scripture, this appealed to me as a good example by means of which I might make an unpopular subject interesting and instructive. Notwithstanding all my sharp warnings and deterring examples many will not find it easy to avoid all at once the practices which I seek to expose. It is one of the least understood of all subjects among the saints today. That is why I have marked all the important figures in the projected Keyword edition, in the text, and will do so in the concordance, besides giving an index to many more. Then all should be able to make a closer acquaintance with the subject, and clear up their difficulties.

This, and similar problems in figures, has been called a "quagmire" by one who sought to investigate it in the usual way. The failure to properly interpret figures has marred many an otherwise fine exposition. What has not been made out of the olive tree! To bring order into this chaos is a task well worth much labor. Since we have found a satisfactory solution to many figures which once harassed us, we may be pardoned if we are eager to pass on to our friends a few of the thoughts which may save them much perplexity and help to illumine the Word of God. Like most of such problems, the solution is too simple for us to grasp readily. At the same time a certain amount of spiritual discernment is necessary in order to find the fact which underlies each figure. May God give each one grace to understand Him when He speaks of our feelings in figures as well as when He expresses Himself in plain facts!

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