Literal And Figurative Language in the Bible — David R. Pharr

The original languages of the Scriptures were intended to be read and understood by people of average education and intelligence. Most words should be understood according to their ordinary meaning at the time they were written. Legitimate interpretation is discovering what was intended by the writer, not what we think he should have meant. Ordinarily we expect the words to convey their primary meanings, but sometimes it is evident that the writer intended a secondary meaning, i.e., figurative.  It is very important to understand that the purpose of figures of speech is to help us understand or to give emphasis to what is literally true, not to imply contradictions or to cause confusion.

Words are often used as comparisons.  Similes are figures of speech in which it is specifically stated that one thing is “like” another, or “as” another. The purpose of such comparisons is to clarify or emphasize some characteristic(s) of the thing being considered. Jesus frequently used this device in parables about the kingdom. For example, He said, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt. 13:45f). His use of “is like” leaves no doubt that He is making a comparison. The purpose also seems obvious. The kingdom is to be sought and is of greater value than all else, obviously the kingdom is not a literal small white stone from a mollusk.

Metaphors are also figures of speech used for comparisons. They are different from similes in that they are not introduced as such. Instead, it is expected that the reader/hearer will easily recognize the terms are being used in a comparative sense. Jesus is described as “the Lamb of God.” Obviously, He is not a four-legged wool covered young sheep.  Jesus said His people are “the salt of the earth,” meaning nothing about their mineral composition, but that they are similar to the element in its preservative power.

In most cases, common sense readily recognizes figurative comparisons. It simply doesn’t make sense to imagine a man to be a literal sheep. Having a broader knowledge of Scripture gives additional advantage. By knowing the Old Testament sacrificial system and knowing what would be the purpose in Christ’s death, the idea of His being “the Lamb of God” fits perfectly. Another example is in Jesus’ response to Herod. He said, “Go tell that fox  . . .” (Luke 13:32). No one would imagine He meant the king was an actual fox.

The Bible also teaches with symbolism. This involves the conveyance of ideas that are real by things that not real. Revelation is a book of symbols. In the KJV reading of verse one it is said that the things revealed were “signified.” The word can be altered to “sign-i-fied” so as to remind us that it is a book of “signs.” The message taught in Revelation is literally true, but its truth is presented by verbal pictures of objects and events that are not real. Many baseless notions and outlandish theories have arisen from failure to distinguish between what is symbolic and what is real. It should be remembered that a sign/symbol does not represent itself.

In Scripture, as well as in everyday speech, hyperbole, meaning exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, is a frequent figure of speech. It is something that if meant literally would be a falsehood, but as hyperbole it makes a strong impression. For example, in Psalm 58:3 the wicked are described as going “astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.” That at the moment born they would actually speak lies, or anything else, is hardly possible. Instead of being literal this exaggeration is used to emphasize their lifelong evil character. This can be compared to Psalm 51:5, which Calvinists have misappropriated to teach inherent depravity. Rightly understood, David is only emphasizing the enormity of his transgression. The Psalms are poetry and as such use poetic devices, i.e., figures of speech.  Poetry should not be used to establish point of doctrine.

Another important distinction is in the figure of speech called synecdoche.  This is the practice of referencing the whole by naming a part. One example of this is in reference to the Lord’s Supper. Acts 20:7 tells of the church meeting to “break bread,” but it actually refers to partaking of both the bread and the cup, and probably the entirety of the worship assembly.  A frequent use of synecdoche is in various passages pertaining to salvation from sin. For example, reference is made to the time when Roman Christians “first believed,” meaning when they were converted. “Believed” is not used to exclude obedience, i.e., “belief only,” but as part of the whole process of conversion (Rom. 13:11; 6:17f).  Closely related is metonymy, a figure which names something connected with a thing to represent it. For example, “the cup” is used to represent what is in the container, i.e., “the fruit of the vine” which is in the cup.

Literary scholars have numerous definitions of different kinds of figures of speech.  In most cases, the average reader will recognize when figurative language is being used and will grasp the point being made. Some basics points to remember are:

1.  Figurative interpretations must always be in harmony with the context, including the entire context of Scripture.  Symbolism must not contradict plain Bible truth.

2.  It is figurative if the literal meaning involves an impossibility.  For example, Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  Here, “dead” is figurative in one instance and literal in the other.  Obviously, literally “dead” persons cannot bury anything.

3.  It is figurative if the literal sense would demand wrong actions or forbid doing right.  For example, Matthew 5:29-30 should not be understood as a requirement to mutilate one’s body to avoid sin.

Bible study is one of the most fulfilling actions one could undertake.  It is my hope that the points made in this article will be of assistance to you in your study of God’s Word.

David serves the Charlotte Avenue congregation in Rock Hill, SC, and is on the board of directors for the Carolina Messenger.

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