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Figurative Language September 30, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.

There are three common errors people make when studying the Bible. By understanding and recognizing them, we can hopefully avoid them. But, on the other hand, if we truly grasp and apply these three aspects of Biblical study then we can dramatically improve how much we get out of our time in the word. So, first off we have the role of context. You can’t expect to understand the message of the Bible if you only read selected verses, or isolate verses from their surrounding context. Because of its importance I have already devoted an entire post to this topic.  Secondly, we have the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis. If we want to be faithful to the text we have to come to it humbly and allow its message to speak to us, not impose our preconceived meanings into the text. I have also elaborated on this issue in a previous post. The third biggest error in the study of the word has to do with a misunderstanding of genre. Because this is such a big issue I am devoting the next few posts to developing this idea further. For now, I would just like to give an introduction to genre and talk about figurative language.

First off, it is important to realize that the Bible is true and reliable and is in a sense literal. But even though the Bible is literally from God, not everything in it is to be taken literally. Also, although the Bible is true, not everything said is true. This may seem complicated, but it is actually quite simple. The Bible accurately represents what people say and do, even if what they do is unholy, or what they say is a lie. For instance, when Abraham is travelling through Egypt, he tells the Pharoah that Sarah is his sister so that Pharoah wouldn’t kill him and take his wife. Another example is when Moses goes up to the top of Mt. Sinai to get the ten commandments and when he comes down he sees a golden calf that the people had made. When he questions Aaron about it, Aaron’s reply is, “I threw in the gold and out came this calf”. Seeing people lie or practice deceit does not negate the truthfulness of God’s word. It actually shows the fraility of man and the grace and power of God to use broken vessels. The “heroes of the faith” were not perfect and God still used them. He can certainly use us if we are willing.

It is pretty easy to recognize when people are lying in the Bible. Usually, we can see from the surrounding context the actual events that are going on and the consequences of their deceit. A lie is a very specific small area of genre. It is a sub category of discourse. When you come across a lie in scripture, we need to recognize it as such and understand it differently than a statement of truth or a question. When you see a lie in the text, you might ask what motivated the speaker to this deceit. Or if you see a quetion in the text you might wonder if the question is simply to gain information or are they asking to discredit someone (like the Pharisees did to Jesus). It helps to think through the different possibilities of motives whenever people are saying things.

Figurative language is not a genre, but it is used in more in some genres than others. Genres are just texts with common features that we have categorized to help us understand them more. Figurative language shows up in all the genres, but some genres have this as their primary feature. Figurative language is a broad category that encompasses everything from poetry and dreams/visions to parables, allegories and even simple metaphors. It is used to help describe things and make things more real. One use of figurative language is “anthropomorphisms” which are statements describing things with human characteristics. In Proverbs wisdom is spoken of as a lady. There are also metaphors and similes which compare things. The word of god is like a lamp. God is like a shepherd. Satan is like a lion. Fear of man is like a trap. The love of money is a root. Abiding in Christ is like a branch abiding in a vine. There are many more examples throughout scripture. Our job is to recognize these and ask why they are used and what comparison is being made. Sometimes the point being made is so complicated that it takes a picture or an analogy to explain it. And sometimes using a figure of speech helps us remember or see the comparison better.

Jesus used figurative language all the time. He spoke in parables and allegories. He used words with double meanings and used a lot of symbolic language. Part of the reason Jesus used so much figurative language was that he wanted people to ponder what he was saying and seek out the truth. Often times the disciples would come to Jesus after he said something and ask him what he meant.

The Old Testament has a lot of figurative language. Psalms is mostly songs and Proverbs is full of catchy sayings and analogies. The prophetic books use symbolism and metaphor all the time to reveal what God is saying. Sometimes, like in Hosea, the prophet will actually act out something symbolically as a message to the people.

The most important thing about figurative language is simply to recognize when it is being used. If you are reading through Psalms or Isaiah, most of what you are reading is using symbolic imagery. For instance, when it says that to God a thousand years is like a day we can take this either literally or figuratively. When people take this literally they end up with weird views like the day age theory, which says that it didn’t take God six days to create the earth, but rather 6 thousand years. There are two problems with this. First it imposes a literal meaning on a figure of speech, and second it assumes that the Creation narrative is figurative, when it is actually literal.

Figures of speech are natural in the Bible and even in our speech today. When we come across figurative language in the text we should take time to seek out what the author is trying to say and how the imagery helps illuminate this idea.


Psalm 91:2 says that the Lord is my refuge and my fortress. How do these images help describe the character of God? What traits do these words represent?



1. Mark - October 6, 2009

Really liked what you said can’t wait to learn more about genres

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