November 21, 2017

Understanding Figurative Language Ronny E. Hinds

By Ronny E. Hinds

Among the very first books I bought, over forty years ago, was Alexander Campbell’s Christianity Restored. I must confess the reason I bought it was for the articles contained in the latter two-thirds of the book. But, through the years that has not been the reason I have gone to it many times. The first one hundred pages contain an excellent discussion on principles of Bible interpretation, especially figurative language. The discussions are usually brief, with numerous Bible examples.

What Campbell understood is important for us to understand when we are reading and studying Scripture. Campbell said, “God has spoken by men, to men, for men. The language of the Bible is, then, human language. It is, therefore, to be examined by all the same rules which are applicable to the language of any other book, and to be understood according to the true and proper meaning of the words, in their current acceptation, at the times and in the places in which they were originally written or translated. If we have a revelation from God in human language, the words of that volume must be intelligible by the common usage of language . . . by the use of the dictionary and grammar. Were it otherwise, and did men require a new dictionary and grammar to understand the book of God — then, without that divine dictionary and grammar, we could have no revelation from God: for a revelation that needs to be revealed, is no revelation at all” (22). I suggest you read again those words and thoughtfully reflect on their implications about our personal, individual responsibility and capability of understanding Scripture. “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17).

The Bible never calls itself “The Bible.” It calls itself “Scripture.” Jesus said, “Have you never read in the Scriptures?” (Matt. 21:42). This is important. Scripture refers to written, not spoken, revelation from God. What God first spoke through men he has caused to be written so we could know with certainty (Luke 1:1-4; 1 Cor. 14:37-38; Rev. 21:5) what he expects of us. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17; note: the ASV and NASB use the words “sacred writings” in verse 15). The value of written revelation is obvious. It can be studied, examined, researched, and reviewed again and again. The Bereans “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Unlike the spoken word, which is forever absorbed into the atmosphere never to be heard from again, Scripture remains forever as the precise expression of God’s eternal words and will. Jesus said, “and the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

All words of human communication are to be under- stood either literally or figuratively. By literal I mean their original, natural, ordinary, simplest meaning. Literal means, “being actually such” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary 836), with no allusions suggesting other meanings. It is usually the first thought that enters our minds upon reading or hearing a word. By figurative I mean there is an additional meaning, where words “are diverted to a meaning which they do not naturally denote” (Horne’s Introduction, T.H. Horne, I:322). But, and this is important, the diverted meaning still has a connection to the original, natural meaning. The American Heritage Dictionary uses the word “resemblance” in defining figurative. Figurative language involves a comparison being made, where something is like what it literally is, but something else is being implied. Let me illustrate. “That argument doesn’t hold water.” “I jumped out of my skin.” “Stand up for the Word of God.” Each of these sentences are obviously figurative yet we cannot correctly understand them if we do not first have a literal understanding of what it means to “hold water,” “jump out of” and to “stand up.”

It is important to understand that identifying a word or words as figurative does not mean we are saying something is not real. There is a tendency in all of us to think that figurative language does not speak with the same force or validity as literal language. That is not so! Figurative language teaches literal truth! I do not think it is an over- statement to say that figurative language teaches literal truth with greater force and strengthened validity. E.M. Bullinger in his book Figures of Speech says figurative language is designed “to increase the power of a word, or the force of an expression” (V). He explains: “We may say, ‘the ground needs rain’; that is a plain, cold, matter-of-fact statement; but if we say ‘the ground is thirsty,’ we immediately use a figure. It is not true to fact, and therefore it must be a figure. But how true to feeling it is! How full of warmth and life! Hence, we say, ‘the crops suffer’; we speak of a ‘a hard heart,’ ‘a rough man,’ ‘an iron will.’ In all these cases we take a word which has a certain, definite mean- ing, and apply the name, or the quality, or the act, to some other thing with which it is associated, by time or place, cause or effect, relation or resemblance” (XV). Without using figurative language our human communication would remain ordinary, limited, and often dull.

Basic Bible Interpretation, by Roy B. Zuck, offers the following reasons for using figures of speech:

1. They add color or vividness. Psalm 18:2, “The Lord is my rock and fortress.”

2. They attract attention. Philippians 3:2, “Beware of dogs”; James 3:6, “And the tongue is a fire.”

3. They make abstract or intellectual ideas more concrete. Deuteronomy 33:27, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

4. They aid in retention. Hosea 4:16, “For Israel is stubborn like a stubborn calf”; Matthew 23:27, “For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

5. They abbreviate an idea. Psalm 23:1, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Multiple ideas are in “shepherd.”

6. They encourage reflection. Psalm 52:8, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God”; Isaiah 1:8, “So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.”

As we think about this, the question inescapably comes, how do we know when we are reading literal or figurative language? Since Scripture is written in human language the same rules (if that is what you want to call them), that govern the discerning of literal and figurative language in our human literature should be used to understand the language of God’s literature.

First, as a basic, general rule “an expression is figurative when it is out of character with the subject discussed, or is contrary to fact, experience, or observation” (Zuck, 145).

It is important to understand that identifying a word or words as figurative does not mean we are saying something is not real. There is a tendency in all of us to think that figurative language does not speak with the same force or validity as literal language. That is not so! Figurative language teaches literal truth! I do not think it is an over- statement to say that figurative language teaches literal truth with greater force and strengthened validity. E.M. Bullinger in his book Figures of Speech says figurative language is designed “to increase the power of a word, or the force of an expression” (V). He explains: “We may say, ‘the ground needs rain’; that is a plain, cold, matter-of-fact statement; but if we say ‘the ground is thirsty,’ we immediately use a figure. It is not true to fact, and therefore it must be a figure. But how true to feeling it is! How full of warmth and life! Hence, we say, ‘the crops suffer’; we speak of a

‘a hard heart,’ ‘a rough man,’ ‘an iron will.’ In all these cases we take a word which has a certain, definite mean- ing, and apply the name, or the quality, or the act, to some other thing with which it is associated, by time or place, cause or effect, relation or resemblance” (XV). Without using figurative language our human communication would remain ordinary, limited, and often dull. 

Basic Bible Interpretation, by Roy B. Zuck, offers the following reasons for using figures of speech: 

1. They add color or vividness. Psalm 18:2, “The Lord is my rock and fortress.”

2. They attract attention. Philippians 3:2, “Beware of dogs”; James 3:6, “And the tongue is a fire.”

3. They make abstract or intellectual ideas more con- crete. Deuteronomy 33:27, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

4. They aid in retention. Hosea 4:16, “For Israel is stubborn like a stubborn calf”; Matthew 23:27, “For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

5. They abbreviate an idea. Psalm 23:1, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Multiple ideas are in “shepherd.”

6. They encourage reflection. Psalm 52:8, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God”; Isaiah 1:8, “So the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.”

As we think about this, the question inescapably comes, how do we know when we are reading literal or figurative language? Since Scripture is written in human language the same rules (if that is what you want to call them), that govern the discerning of literal and figurative language in our human literature should be used to understand the language of God’s literature.

First, as a basic, general rule “an expression is figurative when it is out of character with the subject discussed, or is contrary to fact, experience, or observation” (Zuck, 145).

The literal should always be assumed first, but if that raises difficulties in our comprehension then consider a figurative usage. An obvious example. When John saw Jesus he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God” (John 1:29). Certainly, because it raises an impossibility, a contrary to fact situation, an absurdity, no one would understand Jesus was a literal lamb. But, in using that word, Scripture is intending for us to transfer to Jesus certain qualities (demeanor, behavior, sacrifice) that belong to a lamb. Such language immediately gets our attention and vividly reveals ideas we are to believe concerning Jesus. Literal language could do this, but not as pointedly and with as much interest. Other examples. God said he had made Jeremiah “a fortified city and an iron pillar, and bronze walls” (Jer. 1:18). Isaiah 55:12 says, “the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Second, we must watch for literal interpretations that would put us in conflict with other texts, or involve us in doing things we know Scripture says is wrong. John 6:53, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” compared to Acts 15:29, “abstain . . . from blood.”

Third, study the word’s or verse’s context for qualifying, explanatory adjectives or phrases. John 6:32, “bread from heaven,” and “the true bread.” 1 Peter 2:4, “a living stone.” First Thessalonians 4:13, “those who have fallen asleep” are explained as “the dead” (4:16). Ephesians 2:1, the “dead” here are “dead in trespasses and sins.” Obviously, “the dead” in “let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22), could not be literally dead or else how could they bury them?

Fourth, on some occasions the text itself tells us we are reading figurative language. John 2:19-21, “Jesus answered . . .‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’. . . But He was speaking of the temple of His body.” Revelation 1:1, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants . . . And He sent and signified it . . .” Galatians 4:24, “which things are symbolic.”

I remember well my first “conflict” with someone over literal and figurative language. I had preached on the Lord’s supper and made the statement “the bread represents the Lord’s body.” A visitor, as we shook hands, was quick to correct me that the text did not say “represents”; it said, “this is My body.” What followed was a brief discussion of literal and figurative language. I told him it had to be one or the other. If the bread did not “represent” Christ’s body then it was literally his body. Such was impossible because Jesus had personally taken, blessed, and broke the bread. Furthermore, if he believed the bread he had eaten that morning was literally Christ’s body he was a believer in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. His mistake was failing to see the figurative use of language and it led him to a false idea.

We all must be exceedingly careful when discerning (Heb. 5:11-14) between literal and figurative language. It can reach out and snag any of us. Zuck (146) in explaining that we should always take a passage in its literal sense un- less there is a good reason not to, uses the numbers 144,000 and 12,000 from Revelation 7 as an example of “no reason not to take those numbers in their normal, literal sense.” Apparently, his premillennial views have blinded him to the figurative use of those numbers. Think! If the numbers are literal then why not those whom the text says compose those numbers — “all the tribes of the children of Israel” (7:4). If so, then only literal Jews, no Gentiles, make up the 144,000. Furthermore, according to Revelation 14, this is a male only group, virgins everyone, with the Father’s name written on their forehead (vv. 1-4). Professor Zuck has ignored his rule number three: “The figurative is intended if the literal meaning is an absurdity” (146).

Understanding literal and figurative language is really at the heart of the discussion over what Scripture means by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we speak of it as direct or indirect. No one I know would argue that Scripture teaches the Holy Spirit does not dwell in us — “the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:14). The question, which is usually never asked, is, does he dwell in us literally or figuratively? How are the texts that speak of the Holy Spirit being given to us, abiding in us, etc., to be understood? Literally or figuratively? Those who believe in a personal, direct, actual, physical indwelling must argue from literal explanations or else they are without any supporting texts. But if they are right, then explain the texts that speak of the Holy Spirit as “on” someone? John 1:33, “the Spirit . . . on Him”; Luke 2:25, “the Holy Spirit was upon him”; Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me.” Also, consider 2 Samuel 23:2, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue.” Where exactly were the Spirit’s words? A personal, direct, literal indwelling is not the way we understand the indwelling of God the Father and Jesus the Son, nor (think about this!) our indwelling them (1 John 4:15; Col. 1:27; Gal. 3:27; Rom. 8:9). I am afraid some have been influenced by denominational doctrine more than they like to admit when dealing with this issue. We cannot rightly say, as so many do when discussing this, “that is just what it says and I believe it.” Scripture also says mountains shall sing and trees shall clap their hands (Isa. 55:12)! Such an attitude is not “rightly dividing” the involved texts (2 Tim. 2:15). The question is, are the texts speaking with literal or figurative language?

Much more could be said about this topic because human language (and so Scripture), is filled with figurative usage — more than we realize at first glance. We could at- tempt to discuss all the various kinds of figurative language; but I have no desire for such. Bullinger’s book has a table of contents of 28 pages with over 200 categories! Besides, in my opinion, determining the kind of figure we are dealing with is really not necessary to understand the text. It might be interesting and reveal some additional ideas, but practically speaking, unnecessary for an accurate, understandable explanation of the text. Sometimes we can make things too complex, losing the basic message that God is seeking to reveal. Keeping things simple and understandable must be always kept in mind.

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