How To Study the Bible 3 – Understanding Figures of Speech

If I told you I just let the cat out of the bag, would you believe I let a cat escape from a bag I was holding?  Probably not if you have spoken English for a while.  You would know “letting the cat out of the bag” is a metaphor for revealing a secret.  A large part of the English language is symbolic and hyperbolic so the only way to communicate effectively with the English speaking world is to learn the metaphors, expressions, and figures of speech we use.  

Now let me ask a more difficult question.  Do you believe everything written in the Bible is to be understood literally or figuratively?  A lot of hardcore bible thumping radical Christians say the Bible is meant to be taken literally.  I generally agree with them except where the Bible is intentionally written and intended to be understood symbolically.  When we interpret biblical figures of speech literally we unintentionally misinterpret the Bible.  

A great example is Isaiah 55:12:

12 “For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills

Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

This verse says that mountains and hills will break into singing before you and the trees of the field will clap their hands.  Do you believe this is literally talking about a day where Jesus gives a person direction and mountains and hills will sing and trees will clap their hands?  Of course not! You know this is symbolic language.  Often in the scriptures, people are compared to trees.  Think about it, people clap their hands, trees do not.  The idea this verse is trying to communicate is when we are being led by the spirit we will have peace and symbolically our surroundings will sing and people in our life will rejoice (a picture of clapping their hands).  This is often a way God confirms His will in our lives.  

Another example of metaphoric language in scripture comes from the book of Revelation.  Look at Revelation 1:20:

20 The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.

In this account, Jesus tells the Apostle John the seven stars represent angels (pastors) to the seven lampstands, which are the seven churches.  In chapters 2 and 3 Jesus brings instruction to the seven  stars of the seven lampstands. If we don’t take the time to read chapter 1 and learn what the lampstands and stars represent, we will be absolutely confused with reading the rest of Revelation. This confusion would give us the potential to draw all sorts of crazy conclusions about what the rest of the book is about.

Sometimes the Bible clearly identifies what the symbolic language is like in Revelation with the stars and lampstands, while other times we have to search a little more diligently.  This may be leading you to ask, how do I know whether to interpret a passage literally or figuratively? The best way to determine if a passage is meant to be interpreted as literal or figurative is to recognize scripture should usually be interpreted literally, but when we see statements that are to contrary known facts, the general teaching of the scripture, or our general experience, it is strong indicator the Bible is using figurative language and we need to dig a little deeper. 

In order to get you started with your study of the figurative language of the Bible, here is a list of some words that are commonly used as metaphors to reveal deeper spiritual truths:

  • Rocks are a picture of God. – God is called a rock metaphorically.  Rock’s represent things that are strong and sure.  Jesus is called the rock of our salvation in Psalm 62:2.
  • Clouds are a picture of men and God’s glory and witnesses.  Jude 1:12 refers to clouds who are spots in your love feasts (church services).  These clouds are men.  Hebrews 12:1 talks about the great cloud of witnesses.
  • Water is often a representation of the spirit of God.  Water cleaner, gives life to the body, and removes rough edges from stones to make them smooth.  John 4:10 says Jesus gives living water.  John 7:38 says that out of our belly shall flow rivers of living water when referring to the Holy Spirit. 
  • Earth, dirt, and sand are metaphors for humanity, the flesh, and the Adamic nature.  Flesh is often dirty and defiled.  Adam came from the dirt.  Genesis 22:17 says I will multiply your as the sand which is upon the sea shore.  Sand in this verse referred to people.  
  • Fish often refers to men and harvest.  In Matthew 4:19, Jesus said I will make you fishers of men.  
  • Lion is a metaphor for Christ.  He is the lion of the tribe of Judah according to Revelation 5:5.  

The list above is certainly not a complete list.  I just picked a few symbols the Bible uses to get you started in your study of figures of speech as it pertains to understanding God’s word.  If you would like to study more, check out this list of symbols from Bible Gateway.  

I hope this article has both challenged you and inspired you to dig into the Bible in a deeper way.  

God has more to say than we know and when we learn His language we will be able to understand what He is saying.  This will help you understand your Bible better.  If you would like to learn more about how to understand your Bible, check out this series I’ve written on this important topic.

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