Read Psalm 80:8-19; John 15:1-6 …
There are some figures of speech that most would be able to understand simply because of their long-term use in (at least) the English language. “I wouldn’t go out today, it’s raining cats and dogs.” “She will always be the apple of my eye.” “Have you seen what that guy can pick up? He’s as strong as an ox!” When reading those phrases one likely didn’t think literal cats and dogs were falling from the sky, or that there is a girl that is an apple, or that there is a man that is an ox. Why? Because there is an understood use of language where comparisons are made that don’t have to describe reality, and in fact may be describing an impossibility. There is a little voice in our heads that says that that relationship can’t really be actual, therefore it must be figurative.
The Scriptures, since what has been revealed by God was communicated by men, use those same types of figures of speech that can be found in common language today. Not the same actual words to convey a relationship, but the same general forms. There are a couple of these forms that should be remembered when looking at the Scriptures and attempting to understand what is written.
Two very common forms of figurative speech that are descriptive of relationships are metaphor and simile. Some might remember from their English classes in school that a metaphor makes an implicit comparison, while a simile makes the comparison using “like” or “as.” Jesus uses both in the Gospels. Matthew 10:16 – “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” – is a simile. John 6:35 – “I am the bread of life” – is a metaphor. Because figures of speech like these will be like falling leaves during autumn, it is important to find the intended point of similarity in the comparison.[i] When that point is found, the meaning will be apparent as the sun.
There are also methods of speech that are used to denote something being spoken of in a figurative fashion, such as a synecdoche or metonymy. The synecdoche is used when a part is put of the whole or the whole for a part.[ii] Like we still do, the Scripture uses the term “wheels” to denote wheeled vehicles (cf. Isa. 5:28; Ezek. 23:24). Likewise, when Paul is accused of bringing Trophimus into the Temple (Acts 21:28) the term is being used to denote those areas where Gentiles were excluded, but the entire complex could also be called the Temple (Mark 11:15). Metonymy is being used when a thing is called a name that is closely associated with it.[iii] Sometimes the word tongues is used to indicate languages (Acts 2:11; 1 Cor. 12:30); or circumcision is used to refer to the Jews (Gal. 2:7; Eph. 2:11).
Space is too limited to discuss them all, but there are times in the Scriptures when other figures of speech are used such as: hyperbole, irony, euphemism, or personification – and to these could be added the same amount again. Part of the difficulty of these types of figures is the increasing distance from the original writer’s social context and language structures from our society and language. Great care must be taken when determining the meaning of a figure of speech so that an accurate understanding of the author’s intention is maintained. One of the greatest misuses of the Scriptures is applying to a figure of speech what one wants the Bible to say rather than seeking what the Bible does indeed say.
Figures of speech add fire and vitality to the story of the Bible but if the literal is interpreted as figurative, or the figurative as literal, we will certainly miss the meaning.[iv]
[i] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 257.
[ii] G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980), 135.
[iii] Ibid., 136.
[iv] D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: A Text-Book (1888; repr., Delight: Gospel Light Publishing Company, n.d.), 195.