In our lives we hear figures of speech all the time. We say such things as: “Break a leg”; “You are in hot water”; “We are closer than white on rice”; etc. A man from China was studying at a preaching school here in the states. His classmates would use figures of speech often and he would politely and regularly stop them to ask what they meant. Most of the time we do not even realize that we are using a figure of speech until it is pointed out by someone else.
What about the Bible? We study this book that covers a vast amount of time – thousands of years. Within the pages of the Bible we find different forms of writing: poetry, history, law, gospel, epistles, apocalyptic. The Bible is also filled with varying figures of speech. Through the next several bulletin articles we will look at figures of speech contained in the Bible. Before we begin we must recognize figurative language.
Figurative language can be viewed through eight simple rules (4 of which will be presented this week).
1. Nothing should be regarded as figurative unless such a demand is made by the meaning of the immediate context, or by the evident meaning of the passage as a whole. Revelation 20 depicts Satan, a spiritual entity, being bound with physical chains and locked into a pit with no bottom. This is clearly figurative language. A spiritual being cannot be bound by physical means (chains).
2. A word or sentence is figurative when the literal meaning involves an impossibility. God tells Jeremiah: Now behold, I have made you today as a fortified city and as a pillar of iron and as walls of bronze against the whole land, to the kings of Judah, to its princes, to its priests and to the people of the land (Jeremiah 1:18). The prophet Jeremiah could not be a literal city or pillar of iron with bronze walls. God was using figurative language to describe the strength that would be given to the prophet.
3. A passage must be interpreted figuratively when a literal interpretation will cause to contradict another passage. Ecclesiastes 9:5 tells us: For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. In light of all that God’s word has taught us, do the dead know nothing? If this were the case, if the dead know nothing, then how did the rich man know he was in torment (Luke 16:19:31)? Ecclesiastes writes about the limited view of man on earth, different from the perspective of God’s son.
4. When the Scriptures are made to demand actions that are wrong, or forbid those that are good, they are supposed to be figurative. Jesus speaks in figurative language when He teaches to cut away a member of the body (Matthew 18:8-9). This is a figure of speech intended to teach man to give up that which will endanger the soul.
Next week, the concluding 4 rules for recognizing figurative language will be presented. These will prove valuable in identifying figures of speech in the near future.