Literal Vs. Figurative

I’m a writer who loves to write about the world in my imagination. But when I write stories, I want people to understand that it is not an autobiography but a version of a reality that I know personally or a combination of real stories that I’ve put together.  It’s important to me that the reader understands where I’m coming from; otherwise, they will miss the important truth that I’m trying to illustrate with my words.

And I have a feeling, if we don’t look at the author’s intended meaning (whether literal or figurative) we are going to (as readers) misconstrue or overinterpret things found in scripture. (See my previous post on the Author’s Intended Meaning.)

Another main thing you must identify when reading through scripture is to ask yourself, “Is this to be taken literally or figuratively?” If you are reading through the Psalms and you are applying it as though it is literal- well, have fun with that. When you’re delving into the prayers of men, interlaced with poetry… you are in for a wild ride.

So, here’s the dealio. There’s a lot of weird stuff in scripture… (valley of dry bones, trees that clap their hands, Jesus is the light of the world… just to name a few.)  When we look at these weird things… the only thing we can do is ask ourselves- Is this for real? Or a metaphor for something? When reading through the Bible, you really need to understand grammar… or your head will be swimming.

Let’s look first at some examples of figurative language in the Bible.

Figurative

Most people, when reading the Bible, whether believers or not, usually can understand the Bible. It’s when the words point to something that they don’t agree with, or whether something seems far-fetched or confusing that brings any issues to the surface. There are ways to decipher the text’s original meaning, however. Take a look below.

Similes in Scripture

Most of us can spot a simile from a mile away. A simile is a phrase found within a sentence with the word, “like” or “as” in order to compare two obviously different things. For example, in Isaiah 53:6 we find it written, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” It’s pretty clear here that the author is comparing us to sheep who have wandered. We are acting like sheep… that wander…therefore, the author uses it to prove a point.

Metaphors in Scripture

When we look at metaphors found in scripture, it can be slightly harder to identify. According to the Merrier-Webster Dictionary, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase pointing to one object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness. John 14:6 is a perfect example of this, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” By making this statement, Jesus was declaring that only through Him (and following His Way) would lead a person to the Father. He also declared that he was the Truth of God… living in the flesh. Finally, he declared that he was the holder of the key to Life… eternal life. Whoa. (Metaphors are the braver, bolder cousin to the simile.)

Other Figurative Language

While researching to write this post, I realized that by writing this, I had opened a can of worms.

There are not only our easily recognized metaphors or similes… but there are also figures of association, personification, illusion, understatement, completion, etc. (Here’s a super detailed article on the many areas of figurative in the Bible if you want to TOTALLY geek out: Click Here!).

And it wasn’t until I was knee-deep in a Psalms Project dissecting them for figures of speech that I realized the vastness within Scripture. If you’re really wanting to thoroughly understand all the nitty-gritty of metaphoric language, Ethelbert Williams Bullinger wrote an intense book for you called, “Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.” If you’re wanting a quicker version that just highlights a couple of examples from each, check out the notes from this class lecture. But here’s the point, Scripture is full of metaphorical language. You cannot just read something and always assume it is literal.

Moral of the story: Remember that the passage of Scripture you’re trying to figure out was written to a specific audience at a specific time by a specific author. Start with historical context and work from there. Check out other commentaries to determine if they believe it’s figurative or literal… but don’t always take their word for it.

Do your research!

What is the Gospel?

Let’s walk back in time for a second. Picture this: It’s 26 A.D in Nazareth (Israel). You’ve spent the week as a stonemason and your arms ache from the back-breaking work you do, day in and day out. This Sabbath morning, you’re sitting in the synagogue listening to...