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 Vol. 6, No. 8 

August 2004


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What Is Figurative Language?

By Robert Rushmore

Webster's Dictionary defines figurative as "representing by means of a figure, symbol, or likeness." Webster also defines language, "human speech." Therefore, figurative language is the use of human speech to represent things by means of a figure, symbol, or likeness. There are several types of figurative language including, but not limited to simile, metaphor and hyperbole. A correct understanding of figurative language will enable us to correctly understand the Bible when it uses figurative language.

A simile is a comparison by resemblance. This type of figurative language can be identified by the words like, as, like as and even as. The Bible uses the simile in such places as Psalm 1:3, "And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." The psalmist is using this simile to liken a man who meditates on God's Word to a planted and protected garden tree as opposed to a tree growing in the wild. The New Testament also uses similes. An example is Matthew 9:36 where a multitude of people are likened to a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

Metaphor is another form of figurative language used in the Bible. A metaphor is basically a simile that does not use the easy to recognize catchwords. Jesus used metaphors when he called King Herod a fox (Luke 13:32) as well as when he called himself a door (John 10:7, 9). In these instances, Jesus was not calling Herod a red-tailed, four-legged animal resembling a dog, but referring to the sneaky, sly behavior they both posses. Nor was Jesus indicating that he was an actual door. He was stating he figuratively resembled a door in that both Jesus and a door allow entrance into a particular place.

Another type of figurative language used in the Bible is hyperbole or exaggeration. Hyperbole is used over and over again in the Old and New testaments. Judges 20:16 uses the phrase, "every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss." This just simply denotes the accuracy with which these people could use their slings. John 4:39 records the Samaritan woman telling her friends and neighbors that, "He told me all that ever I did." The Lord did not actually tell her everything she had done in her life from birth until confronted at the well. The Samaritan woman was just relaying that Jesus knew things he could not have known without divine intervention.

The entire Book of Revelation is known for its use of figurative language. Chapter Twenty-One, for example, talks about heaven. Verse sixteen says that New Jerusalem, heaven, is twelve thousand furlongs long as well as wide. Verse seventeen continues that the walls are one hundred forty-four cubits tall. Verse eighteen tells us that the wall is made of jasper, the city itself is pure gold, and the foundation is made of precious stones. Now the questions: Does heaven actually have dimensions? Is heaven actually made of physical riches? The answer to both is obviously "No." This chapter, like much of the rest of the book, is speaking in figurative language. John, the human writer of the book, was guided by the Holy Spirit to write these things to give us a picture of how beautiful heaven must be.

Figurative language is used throughout the Bible. Therefore, the understanding of figurative language is important to understanding the Bible. Without the proper understanding of figurative language, serious misconceptions about the Bible will result.Image

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