How are we to understand the Bible literally? e.g. Jeremiah 31:10 vs. CCC 116

Today’s reading for today’s responsorial psalm at Mass is the following:

R. (see 10d) The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
proclaim it on distant isles, and say:
He who scattered Israel, now gathers them together,
he guards them as a shepherd his flock.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
The LORD shall ransom Jacob,
he shall redeem him from the hand of his conqueror.
Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion,
they shall come streaming to the LORD’s blessings.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.
Then the virgins shall make merry and dance,
and young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into joy.
I will console and gladden them after their sorrows.
R. The Lord will guard us as a shepherd guards his flock.

Meanwhile, CCC 115 & 116 say,

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.” [St. Thomas Aquinas, *STh

I, 1, 10, ad I.]

The problem is that, literally, the above text is not true, as evinced by the martyrdom of Christians in Africa and the Middle East (and possibly others elsewhere, e.g. the Sikhs in the USA). Literally, this text appears either to be false or else no longer applicable to our lives today: A shepherd guarding his flock means one who stops lions etc. from hurting and killing the sheep.

Of course, the immediate reaction upon reading the text is to point to the moral and anagogical senses (cf. CCC 117): The anagogical sense is most obvious, “The Lord guards us from spiritual temptation, and from sin, so demons don’t lead us astray, so Satan doesn’t devour us as he seeks the ruin of souls.” The moral sense is likewise clear, “Because the Lord is guarding us, we should feel a certain inner peace, happiness, security, and should not be threatened by the insults of others. It’s in God’s hands, so don’t worry.”

Again, though, the problem is that “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal”, as the Catechism quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, and it is not fitting that these other interpretations be based on a meaning that is literally false.

It seems to me the resolution must be in the following: The text is from Jeremiah, and applied literally to the Israelites at that period in time (c. 598 BC). While the Lord no longer guards us from our enemies (in part because of our wickedness as a nation), the other senses of this passage still apply. That the leaders of the Catholic Church in the USA chose to lift the passage out of its proper context by using it in a self-contained responsorial psalm – suggesting that the Lord guards us personally, now, like a shepherd guards his flock – is regrettable, but of no opposition to the faith.

However, the problem with this explanation is that it may not have been a true statement even in Jeremiah’s time; cf. the NAB’s introduction: “Jeremiah counseled Zedekiah in the face of bitter opposition” – but perhaps this ‘bitter opposition’ was simply a matter of enslavement (what we might call a “harsh shepherd”): Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar was protecting them from foreign enemies (since they were contributing to his empire, and hence an economical asset). So perhaps it was true literally at the time, and Jeremiah was saying that the Lord wanted them to be patient and bear their adversity for a while.

What do you think?

I think that you should not interpret the Bible yourself. Luther did that and look what happened. He started Protestant.

All there is to a sheep is the physical, whereas a human has both physical and spiritual components. The only way to protect a sheep is physically. The best way to protect a human (if you happen to be omnipotent) is spiritually, because eternity is much longer than life on earth.

Also I was taught that the literal sense means “what the author meant to convey.” To take an extreme example from Ps. 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” Well, the Lord doesn’t keep me in a pen, let me out to pasture to eat grass, and so forth. But since the author clearly didn’t mean to imply that, it is not against the literal sense of scripture to interpret it more loosly. Also, sometimes I want stuff. I get hungry and thirsty, and sleepy, and the other day I was someplace with too much A/C and I wanted a sweater (which I didn’t have access to at the time), etc. However, what the author was trying to convey was, “Nothing that I truly need will be lacking for me, and the Lord knows what I truly need.”

It is also important to remember that the passage is poetry, and therfore must be understood as poetry. In the famous Robert Frost poem, Frost didn’t mean that there was actually two roads in a wood, and that he took one and that made all the difference. Taking the poem as it was obviously meant, he is talking about paths in life. If you take it really literally, it makes no sense. How can it matter what way Frost walked one day, unless he means it metaphorically?

In the same way, how can it be true that the Lord, even at the time the passage was written, prevented all harm from coming to each individual Israelite? People still had free will, probably someone murdered or robbed from some Israelite at the time. The Lord is looking after the nation of Israel and ensuring its surival, the same as He does to the Church.

The Church in the USA is not responsible for the passages chosen for the liturgy. AFAIK, that is decided for the whole Latin Rite. The US Catholic bishops have (name removed by moderator)ut into the translations, but they don’t decide what readings are used.


…Theproblem is that, literally, the above text is not true, as evinced by the martyrdom of Christians in Africa and the Middle East (and possibly others elsewhere, e.g. the Sikhs in the USA). Literally, this text appears either to be false or else no longer applicable to our lives today: A shepherd guarding his flock means one who stops lions etc. from hurting and killing the sheep…

And why is it not true? I don’t understand your premise.

I would offer one suggestion which I know that…you know and hold fast to in your faith: … remember/keep in mind…in a vibrant/active way…that you are not simply dealing with “text”…but the Living Word of God…an absolute imperative to keep in mind…any time and any way and any reason…you use Sacred Scripture…the living Word of God.




105 God is the author of Sacred Scripture. "The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit."69

"For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself."70

106 God inspired the human authors of the sacred books. "To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more."71

107 The inspired books teach the truth. "Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as** affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.**"72

108 Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living”.73** If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, "open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures."74**


Pax Christi

The OT passages refer to something that was happening at the time it was written in the basic general sense but ultimately they refer to something that applies to everyone. God does not think it is so important that he has to have us know what happened to the Jews a few thousand years ago.

The things in the Bible refer to our relationship with God. In the passage you quoted Jacob means humanity, the conqueror is sin, the Lord redeemer is Jesus. The dancing, joy, etc. is at the resurrection.

Where you read Jacob in the Bible you can replace Catholic Church - not the institution, buildings, etc. but the people - both formal members (those baptized into the Church) and informal members (those baptized through some other way)

That is incorrect. Jesus quotes from the Old Testament. Moses was a literal person.


The shepherd is guarding his sheep against destruction.

That means eternal destruction in Gehenna (hell).

Do not fear the one that can destroy your body.
Fear the one who can destroy your body and soul forever in hell.

The first few centuries of the church are martyrs.
The first 30 popes are martyrs.
There are martyrs in every age.

They are the white robed army of martyrs under the altar as depicted in Revelation.
A place of privilege and beatitude!
Literally…Mt 5

There are those that would preach a prosperity gospel–that nothing will ever go wrong for you, you will always be healthy and wealthy and get your way. Basically, the Golden Calf bull god Apis cult masquerading as Christianity.

St. Maximilian Kolbe’s feast day is coming up August 14. He is a martyr of Auschwitz who volunteered to take the place of another man condemned to the concentration camp starvation bunker.

Not the prosperity gospel at all.

But a powerful intercessor! And the man he saved attended the canonization ceremony as a very old man with a large family of children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Blessed are they!

St. Max, pray for us.