Figurative language is an important part of human communication. We use figurative speech frequently in normal conversation (e.g., “he’s as fast as lightening”; “she broke his heart,” “he twists truth like a nose of wax”; “he has stirred up a hornet’s nest”). Men write songs, poetry, and works of fiction that incorporate figurative language.
In the Bible, figurative language is used for the same purposes as in ordinary speech and it is interpreted by the same rules, but it is used for other purposes, as well.
It is important to understand that figurative language is a major element of the Hebrew mindset. It is not mere poetry. It is not just “flowery language” that we can take or leave, as is often the case in other literature. The figurative language is a fundamental part of God’s revelation, and the Jews were taught to think like this by their very language and by being weaned on Scripture. God not only taught the nation Israel what to think, but also how to think.
“A pre-existing type of thinking was given to the Hebrew people, along with their language. This thinking was designed by God as the perfect medium for His revelation of Himself to mankind. This thinking related the world together and saw its totality within God, interconnected with His Person as its Creator. The entire world is His creation, and it His revelation. The Hebrews thought in intrinsic associations or likenesses. Combined with the proper understanding of the world’s relationship to its Creator, they could ‘see’ or ‘visualize’ the intrinsic connections between the physical world and the eternal, invisible world. They understood that the creation was not God but that God was completely manifest in it and could be likened to every part of it” (Jonathan Cloud, “Some Thoughts on Faithful Ancient Hebrew Thinking,” Aug. 2, 2017).
One of the purposes of the creation is revelation, to teach men about God and about life itself (Ps. 19:1-3; Ro. 1:20), and Scripture is filled with lessons from creation, particularly by means of parables, similes, metaphors, and personification. In Hosea alone we find the following examples: lion (Hos. 5:14); dove (Ho. 7:11); eagle (Ho. 8:1); wind (Hos. 8:7); grape (Hos. 9:10); fig tree (Ho. 9:10); bird (Ho. 9:11); root (Ho. 9;15); fruit (Ho. 9:16); empty vine (Ho. 10:1); foam on water (Ho. 10:7); heifer (Ho. 10:11).
The Bible writers made use of every aspect of creation to illustrate spiritual truths.
Following are some of the types of figurative speech in Scripture:
Simile (similitude): Comparing two things using adverbs such as “like” and “as”
“The moon became as blood” (Re. 6:12)
In Revelation 1:12-16 we have a description of Christ, and some of it is symbolic, as we see by the use of adverbs -- “like wool” (v. 14), “white as snow” (v. 14), “as a flame of fire” (v. 14), “like unto fine brass” (v. 15), “as the sound of many waters” (v. 15), “as the sun shineth in his strength” (v. 16).
The book of Proverbs is filled with simile. For example, “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike” (Pr. 27:15).
Metaphor: A comparison without the use of the adverbs
A metaphor is shows the relation between one thing and another or the resemblance of one thing to another. It is “an abbreviated form of comparison.”
“Jehovah is my rock, fortress, buckler, horn, high tower” (Ps. 18:2).
“the windows of heaven” (Mal. 3:10)
Christ is called a rock (1 Co. 10:4), a chief cornerstone (1 Pe. 2:6), a lion (Re. 5:5), a lamb (Joh. 1:29), a door (Joh. 10:7, a vine (Joh. 15:1), bread (Joh. 6:51), a foundation (1 Co. 3:11).
The book of Proverbs is filled with metaphors - “As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him” (Pr. 10:26).
Metonymy: The name of one thing is put for another
Paul uses the cup to signify the drinking of the juice in the Lord’s Supper (1 Co. 11:26).
Paul uses “Moses and the prophets” to signify the Old Testament (Lu. 16:29).
Synecdoche: The part is put for the whole
For example, sword is often used to signify war (Isa. 51:19; Jer. 14:13).
Personification: Speaking of inanimate objects as if they were animate
“the hills shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isa. 55:12)
Hyperbole: An exaggeration used for emphasis
“Oh that mine head were waters!” (Jer. 9:1)
“Tyrus ... heaped up silver as the dust” (Zec. 9:3)
“Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good: do not all go to one place?” (Ec 6:6)
“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Mt. 5:29). This is hyperbole to emphasize the necessity of getting saved before it is too late and of not allowing anything to hinder getting saved.
Parable or allegory: An extended simile
The king of Babylon is likened to a great eagle (Eze. 17:2-3).
Israel is likened to a vine (Ps. 80:8-13).
Symbol: A material object used to illustrate spiritual truth
Prime examples are the tabernacle and its articles (e.g., the gate into the court, the altar of sacrifice, the laver of washing, the candlestick, the table of shewbread, the incense altar, the mercy seat, the ark of the covenant).
Other examples are manna, the brazen serpent, and Jeremiah’s yokes (Jer. 27:1-8).
Anthropomorphism: Human features attributed to God
“For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears unto their supplication: but the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil” (1 Pe. 3:12).
“For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him” (2 Ch. 16:9).
Following are some purposes of figurative speech in Scripture:
Figurative language can hide the message. Some things in Scripture are given to hide truth to those who refuse to believe. Peter said that the difficult things in Scripture are misused by unbelievers to their own destruction (2 Pe. 3:16). He warned of willingly ignorant scoffers (2 Pe. 3:3-5). This is why Christ taught in parables at times (Mt. 13:10-17). The truth of Scripture is plain to those who believe, but it is obscure to those who disbelieve. In other words, God gives willful unbelievers enough rope to hang themselves! This is true of the Bible as a whole and of the prophecies in particular. For the believer, there is ample evidence that the Bible’s prophecies have been fulfilled; and beautifully so, but the skeptic, looking at the same prophecies, doesn’t understand (and doesn’t want to understand) and is thus confirmed in his unbelief.
Figurative language can expand the message. Hebrew parallelism, for example, expands the message by using teaching parallels. For example, Isaiah 1:18 contains a contrastive parallel -- “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” The ugliness of sin is contrasted with the perfection of salvation in Christ. The meaning is that though our sins are horrible, God’s grace in Christ provides complete cleansing. Isaiah 2:3 is a completive parallel -- “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” “Zion” in the first part is completed by “Jerusalem” in the second part. The combined parallel teaches us that Zion is Jerusalem. And “the law” in the first part is completed by “the word of the Lord” in the second part. The second part of the parallel explains that the law in Christ’s kingdom will be the Word of God.
Figurative language can emphasize the message. Consider hyperbole, which is an exaggeration used for emphasis. Consider Luke 14:26, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Christ used this language to emphasize that He must be pre-eminent in His disciples’ affections. There must be a first love for Christ. He must be loved to fervently and greatly that love for other things seems like hate by comparison.
Figurative language can empower the message, making it more dramatic, visual, and memorable. The Hebrew prophecies are filled with powerful drama. “... they are the eyes of the LORD, which run to and fro through the whole earth” (Zec. 4:10); “they refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear” (Zec. 7:11); “Howl, fire tree, for the cedar is fallen” (Zec. 11:2); “there is a voice of the howling of the shepherds; for their glory is spoiled” (Zec. 11:3); “and I took my staff, even Beauty, and cut it asunder” (Zec. 11:10); “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings” (De. 32:11). Christ used figurative language in the same way (e.g., hiding a candle under a bushel basket, Mt. 5:15; kicking against the pricks. Acts 26:14).
Figurative language can condense the message. For example, the image of Daniel 2 that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream is described in five verses (Da. 2:31-35). But even the briefest interpretation of the dream requires 10 verses (Da. 2:36-45). And in fact, many entire books have been written to explain that one figure.
Figurative language requires the Bible student to study and meditate on God’s Word. God requires that men study His Word diligently (Pr. 2:1-6; 2 Ti. 2:15). Those who are not willing to seek God and to study His Word will not know the truth. There are simple things in Scripture and there are difficult things. Bible prophecy, with its heavy element of symbolic language and Hebrew poetry, will not be well understood unless the individual is willing to be a serious student.
Figurative language does not make the Bible’s message less true. “The youthful student of Scripture should be reminded, first of all, that its figurative language is no less certain and truthful than its plain and literal declarations. The figures of the Bible are employed not simply to please the imagination and excite the feelings, but to teach eternal verities. The Lord Jesus, ‘the faithful and true Witness,’ said: ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away’ (Mark 13:31). Yet there is a class of interpreters who seem to think that if they can show in any given case that his language is figurative, its meaning is well nigh divested of all certainty and reality” (E.P. Barrows, “The Figurative Language of Scripture,” Companion to the Bible).
The Interpretation of Figurative Language
First, symbolic language is defined by its context.
Consider the book of Revelation. Chapter one uses some figurative language, which is clearly identified. In Revelation 1:12 and 16, we see “seven golden candlesticks” and “seven stars,” but those are explained in verse 20.
Consider Daniel 8, where the vision of verses 2-8 is interpreted in verses 19-25.
Consider the vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:1-2. This is explained in verse 11.
Consider Isaiah chapter 2. In verses 1-5 we have a prophecy of the exaltation of Israel during the Millennium. The symbolic language is in verse 2--“the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains.” This is explained in the context. The “mountain of the Lord’s house” refers to Jerusalem (v. 1) and the “mountains” and “hills” refer to other nations (vv. 2b, 3, 4). Isaiah 2:10-22 is a prophecy of the Great Tribulation, and the symbolic language in verses 13-16 is explained in verses 11, 12 and 17. The cedars and oaks, towers, fenced walls, ships, and pictures refer to man’s idolatrous pride and glory. It refers to everything that man trusts in and loves apart from God: his wealth and possessions, his military might, the objects that he constructs, his inventions. Everything in this present world system is designed for man’s pleasure and glory, while the Creator God is despised and His laws broken. In the day of the Lord, this idolatrous world system will be judged and overthrown in preparation for the coming of Christ and the establishment of His kingdom.
Second, symbolic language is defined by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
Sometimes the Bible student has to go to another passage to explain figurative language. Consider Revelation 4:5. The same description is used in Revelation 5:6 and Isaiah 11:2. By comparing these three passages we learn that the figurative description of the Holy Spirit refers to the following: First, the seven spirits describes the all-knowing intelligence of the Holy Spirit. In Revelation 4:5, the seven Spirits are likened to lamps, which signify spiritual light. Seven is the biblical number of perfection and completion (e.g., seven days of creation, seven seals of Revelation). Thus, this speaks of the Holy Spirit’s perfect intelligence and the fact that He imparts wisdom and understanding to all of the creation. Second, the seven spirits describes the everywhere presence of the Holy Spirit. In Revelation 5:6 the seven Spirits are “sent forth into all the earth.” Third, the seven spirits also refers to seven characteristics and works of the Holy Spirit, as described in Isaiah 11:2.
We are reminded of the necessity of studying the Bible and not only reading it. Paul said the man of God must labor in God’s Word in order to understand it properly (2 Ti. 2:15). And Proverbs says we must seek wisdom as men search for treasures (Pr. 2:3-5). If the individual only consults commentaries and asks teachers for meanings, he will never learn much. He must do his own studying and must attempt to understand the passages for himself. Only then will he understand properly. Good commentaries are helpful, but they should be used only after the student has made every effort to understand the passage for himself by studying the words, examining the context, and by comparing Scripture with Scripture.
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