Figurative Language in the Bible

J. Noel Meridith

Much of the Bible is written in figurative language. To understand a passage properly, therefore, we must acquaint ourselves with the kinds of figures of speech. It is obvious that if we interpret literal language as if it were figurative, or figurative as if it were literal, we will certainly miss the meaning.

As we open our Bible let us remember first, that all words are to be understood in their literal sense, unless the evident meaning of the context forbids. Now the question comes, "How can we know figurative language?" The rules of Hermeneutics to settle this point are: (1) The sense of the context will indicate it. (2) When the literal meaning of a word or sentence involves an impossibility. (3) If the literal makes a contradiction. (4) When the Scriptures are made to demand that which is wrong. (5) When it is said to be figurative. (6) When the definite is put for the indefinite. (7) When it is said in mockery. (8) By the use of common sense! (D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics, p. 195ff.)

Let us now look at some figures of speech used in the Bible and some examples of each.

1. Simile, is a comparison in which anything is likened to another and the comparison is stated by the words "as" or "like". An example is 1Peter 1:2, "All flesh is as grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of grass." Jesus used a striking simile in describing hypocrites in Matthew 23:27, "Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."

2. Similitude, is a drawn-out or prolonged simile. Jesus contrasts the man who builds on the rock and the man who builds on the sand and likens them to obedient hearers and disobedient hearers is a remarkable similitude. (Matt. 7:24-27).

3. Metaphor, is a comparison reduced to a single word expressing a similarity without the signs of comparison. The simile says that it is like it; the metaphor says it is it. In Luke 13:31-32, Jesus said of Herod, "Go and say to that fox." If he had said "Go tell that man that is like a fox," it would have been a simile, but Jesus uses the forceful metaphor. "Ye are a temple of God" is a metaphor in 1 Corinthians 3:16. In Matthew 26:26-28 Jesus took a loaf and said "this is my body" and he took a cup and said "this is my blood of the covenant"; these are metaphors. How many controversies on the Lord’s supper would be settled if brethren realized that this is metaphorical language!

4. Allegory, is a figurative application of a story or narrative. This is a figurative sentence or discourse in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances. Paul's stated allegory in Galatians 4:21ff is a classic in the New Testament. We as Isaac are children of promise and of the freewoman. Paul's description of the Christian armor in Ephesians 6:11-17 is listed in the standard works as an allegory. It is certainly worthy of study in our fight against sin and Satan.

5. Metonymy, is a figure of speech which exchanges the name of one thing for that of another on account of some relation between them. Here are some varieties of the figure. (a) The cause is stated, but the effect is meant. (Luke 16:29). "They have Moses and the prophets", i.e., their writings. (b) The affect is named when the cause is meant. (Luke 2:30). "For mine eyes have seen thy salvation", i.e., have seen the Lord's Christ, the source of salvation. (Cf. verse 26). (c) The name of the container is used to denote the thing contained. (1 Cor. 11:26). "For as often as ye ... drink the cup", i.e., drink the contents of the cup. They could not very well literally drink the container! (d) Parents are put for their children or descendents. (Rom 9: 13). "even as it is written, Jacob I love, but Esau I hated," was not said of the twin boys, but their children. (Cf. Mal. 1:2-3).

6. Synecdoche, is a figure of speech in which anything less or anything more is put for the precise object meant. Here are some of the varieties. (a) The whole is put for a part. (Luke 2:1). "All the world" means the Roman Empire. (b) A part is put for the whole. (Acts 27:37). "Two hundred threescore and sixteen souls", i.e., souls is put for the whole man. (c) The genus is put for the species. (Mark 16:15). "Creature" or creation is put for moral and intelligent creation. (d) The species is used to denote the genus. (Rom. 1:16). "Greek" means Gentile. (e) A definite number is used for an indefinite. (1Cor. 4:19). "Five" is put for very few; "ten thousand" for very many.

7. Irony, is a figure in which what is meant is the opposite of that which is stated. (Job 12:2). "No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you." Elijah makes an ironical ridicule of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27.

8. Sarcasm, is a satirical remark uttered with scorn or contempt; a taunt; a gibe; a cutting jest. The soldiers kneeled before Jesus mocking him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" It was bitter sarcasm.

9. Hyperbole, is a manifest and impressive exaggeration for the purpose of expressing the full force and increasing the vividness of the subject presented. (Psalm 119:136). "Streams of water run down mine eyes, because they observe not thy law."

10. Personification, is a figure that clothes inanimate objects with the attributes of things animate. (Isa. 55:12). "The hills shall break forth before you into singing; and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands."

11. Paronomasia, is a play upon words, a figure in which a word is repeated with a variation in the sense. (Matt. 8:22) "Follow me; and leave the dead to bury their own dead."

12. Anthropomorphism, is a figure which ascribes human features or elements of the human form to God. (1 Pet. 3:12). "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."

13. Paradox, is a figure in which opposites are seemingly affirmed of one and the same subject. (Matt. 10:39). "He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." (2 Cor. 12:10). "When I am weak, then am I strong."

14. Parable, comes from the two Greek words, para, beside, and ballein, to throw; hence to throw or place beside. It is a story by which something real in life is used as a means of presenting a spiritual or moral thought. The simple definition, "An earthly story with a heavenly meaning", is excellent. The word "parable" is used in a broad sense in the Bible often including other figures of speech. Jesus was a master of the parables. Nell R. Lightfoot in a fine work entitled The Parables of Jesus, lists forty-six parables Jesus taught. In Matthew 13:45-46, is a short parable on the value of the kingdom of heaven which is compared to a "pearl of great price." In the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-8), the interpretation is given by Jesus (Luke 8:9-11).

15. Prolepsis, is an anticipating, especially, the describing of something before it has been done. Thus we read of Bethel at the time of Abraham (Gen. 12:8), and yet it was not till later at the time of Jacob's flight that it received its name (Gen. 28:10-19). In Abraham's day it was called Luz. It was, however, called Bethel in his day of anticipation. – From the Gospel Advocate