Hermeneutics and Figurative Language – Part Two

This is the second half of an article looking at various figures of speech employed in the Bible. I looked at five of the main ones in Part One, and here I will look at another nine of these. I only provide a brief explanation of each, with a handful of examples. Those wanting to take this much further are advised to consult the bibliography I linked to in Part One.

The use of hyperbole has to do with overstatement or exaggeration for special effect. Proverbs, poetry and prophecy especially use this often. It helps the author to convey feelings and emotion. Two people in love for example use it regularly. They don’t just use scientific language to describe their feelings – they wax eloquent! Biblical examples include:

John 21:25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
2 Samuel 1:23 In life [Saul and Jonathan] were loved and gracious, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
Job 37:1 At this my heart pounds and leaps from its place.
Psalm 119:136 Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.
Mat 23:24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Mark 10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Acts 17:21 All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.

Care must be taken here. Consider Luke 14:26 which says: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” This is hyperbole of contrast. Christ must be our top priority. And Matthew 10:37 makes it more clear: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

The same with Matthew 5:29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

The point is to deal with sin seriously, even ruthlessly – not necessarily to physically maim yourself. I know of some committed believers who do not have the internet because they struggle with pornography. I think that is a good application of what Jesus was talking about.

There are various ways to identify hyperbole:

1. Often the statement is literally impossible.
2. Usually the statement will conflict with another statement found elsewhere in Scripture.
3. The statement can conflict with the actions of the speaker.

Thus we may need to understand Matthew 10:34, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” in light of Mark 14:48 “‘Am I leading a rebellion,’ said Jesus, ‘that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?’”

Another figure of speech is personification in which a thing, quality or idea is expressed as a person. We find this often in Scripture, especially in Hebrew poetry. Some examples of this are:

Deuteronomy 32:1 Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
Psalm 77:16 When the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
Psalm 98:8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy.
Psalm 114:3-4 The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back; the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.
Isaiah 24:23 Then the moon will be abashed, and the sun ashamed.
Matthew 6:34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

And then we have irony in which words are used to denote the exact opposite of what you mean. Some examples include:

2 Samuel 6:20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”
Amos 4:4 Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
1 Corinthians 4:8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings–and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!

Another figure of speech, pleonasm involves the use of redundancy or repetition of expression to emphasise or exaggerate a point:

Genesis 40:23 The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
2 Samuel 7:22 How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.
Acts 2:30 Knowing that God had sworn with an oath.
And the phrase “he answered and said” is used often in the gospels.

An idiom is an expression that is peculiar to one particular language. As a secular example, in Hindi people say, “it’s the difference between 20 and 21” – that is, hardly any difference at all. In English we might say, “six of one, half dozen of another”.

Hebrew idioms are found more often in the older English versions such as the KJV. That is because most newer versions have made them clear by putting them into our own idioms. Here is one verse in the KJV and then in the NIV:

Ezekiel 44:12 Because they ministered unto them before their idols, and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity; therefore have I lifted up mine hand against them, saith the Lord God, and they shall bear their iniquity. (In a court of law the hand was raised to take a solemn oath.)
Ezekiel 44:12 But because they served them in the presence of their idols and made the people of Israel fall into sin, therefore I have sworn with uplifted hand that they must bear the consequences of their sin, declares the Sovereign Lord.

An anthropomorphism is a type of metaphor in which human terms are used to describe God (anthropos is the Greek word for man, and morphe is Greek for form). Many references to God in the Old Testament for example utilise human body parts. We find this literary device used often in Scripture, such as:

Exodus 24:9-11 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
2 Chronicles 7:16 I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.
Psalm 18:8-9 Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet.
Isaiah 59:1 Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.
Jeremiah 21:5 I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath.

But as mentioned in Part One of this article, God is a spirit (John 4:24). He has no physical body, and therefore no body parts. So these verses are making use of anthropomorphisms.

Closely related to this, but perhaps a bit more controversial in terms of how we understand it, is anthropopathism. This is a type of metaphor in which human emotions and feelings are used to describe God. Examples include:

Genesis 6:6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.
Psalm 95:10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.”
Jeremiah 31:20 “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,” declares the LORD.
Hosea 11:8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.
Hebrews 3:11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’
Revelation 14:10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.

But, as mentioned, there can be some real debate here. Are these merely metaphors, and nothing more? Briefly, we can perhaps answer this with a ‘yes and no’. I think God does have these feelings, but they are not necessarily like our feelings.

Our emotions are often tinged with sinful conditions, like self-pity, bitterness, a desire for revenge, and so on. But God is obviously free of these sinful responses. He is however a God who feels, is moved, cares, shows tenderness and compassion, gets angry, etc. So care is needed here.

The issue has a theological term: the impassibility of God. Is God passible, that is, is he able to be affected from something or someone outside of himself, or is he impassible? Classical theism has long affirmed that God is not capable of being acted upon or effected emotionally by anything in creation. But many theologians today are questioning this.

That massive debate cannot here be entered into, But I have dealt with it elsewhere, eg.: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/07/a-review-of-god-is-impassible-and-impassioned-toward-a-theology-of-divine-emotion-by-rob-lister/

A euphemism is a delicate way of speaking about an indelicate subject. Sometimes we can use it in a misleading way to speak about unpleasant things. An example of a modern euphemism is “a woman’s right to choose” or “terminating a pregnancy” when speaking of the ugly reality of abortion or baby killing. Biblical examples would include:

1 Kings 18:27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (The italicised phrase could be put more bluntly: ‘maybe he is out taking a leak!’)

John 11:11-14 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”

One final figure of speech: a synecdoche involves using a part to stand for the whole, or using the whole to stand for a part. Sometimes this can also involve hyperbole. Some examples are these:

Genesis 3:19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground. (Bread here refers to all foods a person might eat.)
2 Kings 8:9 So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, even of every good thing of Damascus. (He took a lot, but not every single thing possible.)
Jeremiah 26:9 And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD. (Not ALL people, as the context indicates.)
Luke 10:27 He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.’ (Quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5, these individual parts refer to the whole person – to the totality of one’s being.)
1 Thessalonians 5:23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Again, the parts stand for the whole person.)

All up, these are just 14 common figures of speech found throughout Scripture. There are many more that could be discussed. But hopefully you can see the widespread use of figures of speech, and the importance of identifying them and taking them into consideration as you read and seek to understand the Bible.

A failure to properly interpret Scripture in general, and to be aware of figures of speech in particular, has resulted in all sorts of horrid interpretations and applications of the Bible. And that is a hallmark of cults and heretics. All biblical Christians need to do much better. We need to be good students of Scripture, and that includes doing the hard yards of careful interpretation.

Part One of this article is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/20/hermeneutics-and-figurative-language-part-one/

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2 Replies to “Hermeneutics and Figurative Language – Part Two”

  1. Bill, thank you for this!!
    I am currently teachings figures of speech to my daughter, and I hadn’t thought too hard yet about how the Bible is also literature. I am printing out your articles to help us.

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