Most have heard the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ However, the Bible has a real knack for painting a picture with just a few words. The word pictures found in God’s Word create an image in the reader’s mind that will likely never be forgotten. The phrase that I am using, ‘word picture,’ is to be understood as all of the different figures of speech found in God’s Word: metaphors, similes, and other literary devices that involve figures of speech. If we were to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount meticulously, we would discover that he used over fifty different word pictures.
Significantly, we learn how to find the meaning behind these word pictures. Without learning their true meaning, we will misinterpret the Bible and misapply it in our lives. As we have already seen in the above, misapplication cannot only cause one not to have the success that the Bible holds out but can be dangerous at times, like the rod of the shepherd and the many proverbs which talk about the disciplining of a rebellious boy. Of course, these word pictures throughout God’s Word are not to be taken literally, but the message they convey by the picture is to be taken literally.
Correct Mental Grasp of Word Pictures
A word picture is one thing used or considered representing or express something in another manner. The topic is compared with the image. Something about the topic and the image are similar. In order for us to discover the real meaning, we must find the similarities. The danger is in finding more than was intended by the author.
18Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: 19the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.
There is a similarity to the above list. An eagle soars through the sky; the way of a serpent on a rock is that it crosses the rock, the way of a ship on the high seas as it cuts through the waves. The similarity is that none of these three leave a trail, which does not allow anyone to follow their path. This now helps us establish the similarity of number four, where the proverb was leading us, “the way of a man with a virgin.”
A man may engage cunning ways of using insincere flattery and pleasantness, especially in order to persuade somebody to do something, to capitalize upon the friendliness of an innocent virgin. She is innocent and untested; she would not be able to discover his charms. It is near impossible for her to see the trail or path of a seductive man, yet he has a goal just as “the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas.” The seductive man has the objective of exploiting her for sex.
3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
Jesus said, “I will come (topic) like a thief (image).” There must be a similarity. The context of verse 3 answers the question for us, as it reads: “you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” Therefore, we can rule out that the verse is telling us why he is coming, but instead tells us of how he will come. It will be like a thief, unforeseen and without warning.
The context helps us. Jesus went on to say, “You will not know at all at what hour I shall come upon you.” (Revelation 3:3) Therefore, the comparison does not point to the purpose of his coming. He was not implying that he would come to steal anything. Rather, the point of comparison involves the unforeseen, without the warning aspect of his arrival.
2For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
While the context here does not offer us a spelled out explanation of the similarity, like the words of Jesus, it is best to use one part of the Bible to interpret the other. So, then, let us wake up!
Word Pictures and God
Psalm 145:3 (Updated American Standard Version)
3Great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.
God’s greatness is unlimited. Even in perfection, we could spend hundreds of trillions of years and never even come close to understanding, comprehending, or measuring his greatness. There are many examples within Scripture that point to his greatness. When we look up at the starry heavens and realize that it would take 100,000 years at the speed of light to cross just our galaxy. Then, we reflect on the fact that there are over 100 billion galaxies in our universe. Moreover, it boggles our mind when we contemplate that there are countless universes, at least 10 to 500 billion universes, which is a 1 followed by 500 zeroes! Then, we are certainly confounded at the idea that space itself is expanding at an accelerating pace!—Isaiah 40:26
14Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?”
As we can see from the above, the study of our physical creation only touches ‘the outskirts of God’s ways,’ and is but ‘a small whisper,’ in comparison to “the thunder of his power.” However, this is even truer of God’s creation of spiritual and physical life and the salvation that he has offered his fallen people. Yes, the thoughts of God are so deep that the ungodly are unable to understand the significance (not the meaning) of his Word.
It is impossible for us to understand the greatness and the power of God fully. However, the Bible paints the best picture, for our limited minds. Walk with me as I list just a few of these word pictures: a King, a Lawmaker, a Judge, and a Warrior, obviously, someone we should esteem and revere. He is also described as a Counselor, a Shepherd, an Instructor, a Teacher, a Father, a Healer, Lawgiver, and a Savior, One we can hardly resist loving.
Psalm 16:7 Updated American Standard Version
7I bless Jehovah who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart [or mind] instructs me.
See footnote. The kidneys are deep inside the body, so this text means that the counsel of God has reached the deepest part of the inner man, correcting his deepest thoughts and emotions.
1Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The Middle Eastern shepherd of Bible times would care for each of his sheep as a group and individually, even naming every one of them. Each day he will call every one of his sheep to him, and as he strokes it, lovingly calling out its name, talking to it, he will look to see if it has suffered any injuries. If he happens upon an injury, he will apply oil or an ointment to accelerate the process of headlining. There may even be times when a sheep is sick that the shepherd will have to force medicine down its throat, holding it throughout the day and night, making sure it does not lie down and die. This word picture perfectly demonstrates God’s love and tenderness for each of us.
8I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Our heavenly Father has a school of success, where all are welcome to join and have him as their Grand Instructor. Yes, we have access to the greatest instructor, as well as his head instructor, the Son, who will teach and counsel us, with their eyes always upon us. In addition, we are privileged to have the opportunity to be a sort of admissions counselor, so that others may gain access to this Grand Instructor.
Are there any requirements to be in this school of success? Yes, if there are requirements to enter a seminary, certainly, there are requirements to enter a school where God Himself is our instructor. There are two major requirements to enter this school. “‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’” (Mark 12.30-31) Moreover, the head instructor of the school, Jesus Christ also said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21) Therefore, if we are to enter into the school of success, we must do it willingly, and we must be willing to apply the rules and principles within the textbook, i.e., the Holy Bible. The students must choose to willingly serve God out of love, agree to do his will, and be willing to be molded into a new person. (Col. 3:9-10; Eph. 4:22-24) The greatest thing about this school is, there is not graduation date, as it runs for an eternity.
‘In all that the student does, he prospers.’ (Psa. 1:1-3) This is nothing like the former way of things, nor any human institution. Some are very proud to have studied under some of the greatest Christian instructors of the 20th century, such as Norman L. Geisler, Gleason L. Archer, or John Gresham Machen. However, every human has the opportunity to study under the Father and the Son, and to be taught by Holy Spirit, and no greater privilege exists. There is no grander experience, with everlasting benefits. Moreover, what human instructor has ever cared intimately for the needs of each student individually, being there for them 24/7/365? He says of himself, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;” (Isa 48:17-18) We are told of his textbook, that it is ‘inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.’ – 2 Timothy 3:16-17
God is here described as “the Rock of Israel,” as “my rock,” and as “my stronghold,” thus carrying the sense that God is a rock-solid source of security.
11For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
God is the Source of light, life, energy, who protects his people.
If any have ever been to Death Valley, “which is a desert valley located in Eastern California. Situated within the Mojave Desert, it is the lowest and driest area in North America, and currently the hottest in the world. Death Valley’s Furnace Creek holds the record for the highest reliably reported air temperature in the world, 134 °F (56.7 °C) on July 10, 1913.” If stranded, when the sweltering sun is beating down at midday, a place of shade could mean the difference between life and death. In the same way, God can protect us from the heat of the disasters of this human imperfection, and the evil world that surrounds us.
8Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,
The Hebrew word ʼishohn′ (Deut. 32:10; Pro 7:2), when used with ʽa′yin (eye), it literally means “little man of the eye”; likewise, bath (daughter) is used at Lamentations 2:18 with the idea “daughter of the eye,” both denoting the pupil. The two are joined for emphasis at Psalm 17:8 (ʼishohn′ bath-ʽa′yin), literally, “little man, daughter of the eye” (“pupil of the eyeball”). “The black center of the eyeball, formally, “the little man (of the eye),” often translated as “the apple of the eye,” an idiom of care and love.” The allusion is obviously to the small image of oneself, which can be seen reflected in that part of another’s eye.
The eyes are one of the most tender and sensitive parts of the human body, and even a microscopic piece of dust can cause serious irritation if it gets between lid and eyeball. Even the slightest damage to the cornea covering the pupil, it will become cloudy through disease, resulting in distorted vision or possible blindness. Proverbs 7:2 reads “Keep my commandments and live, And my teaching as the apple [lit., pupil] of your eye.” This means that God’s laws and teachings are to be guarded with paramount care. In the above Psalm, 17:8, David is asking God to be quick to come to his rescue when the enemies attacked, just as we would quickly react if some foreign object is getting in our eye.
18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
“Eyes of your heart” is a Hebrew Scripture expression, meaning spiritual insight, to grasp the truth of God’s Word. So we could pray for the guidance of God’s Spirit, and at the same time, we can explain why there are so many different understandings (many wrong answers), some of which contradict each other, as being human imperfection that is diluting some of those interpreters, causing them to lose the Spirit’s guidance. When we say spiritual guidance, we are not saying the Holy Spirit is guiding the Christian along, but that the Word of God is inspirited, and it is a guide. Therefore, if we objectively apply biblical interpretation rules and principles in a balanced manner, Holy Spirit guides us.
A person sits down to study and prays earnestly for the guidance of the Holy Spirit that his mental disposition be in harmony with God’s Word [or simply that his heart be in harmony with . . .], and sets out to study a chapter, an article, something biblical. In the process of that study, he allows himself to be moved, not by a mental disposition in harmony with the Spirit, but by human imperfection, by way of his wrong worldview, his biases, his preunderstanding.
7How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
God’s “steadfast love” is nothing like any human ruler could ever hope to possess. Rather, there is a strong and secure sense, as well as loyalty essential in it. This quality is displayed naturally toward all, but especially to those, who remain loyal to him. An eagle is a large bird of prey, and any eaglet that might sour beneath its wings would have no need of fearing anything. King David received such protection from God on many occasions, so well could David write the words found in Psalm 36:7.
12as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
We will notice in Psalm 103:12, that God removes the sins of the repentant one as far as the east is from the west. The picture being painted is, to the human mind that is the farthest we can remove something, as there is no greater distance.
17 Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back.
In Isaiah 38, we are given another visual, God throwing our sins behind his back, meaning he can no longer see them, as they are out of sight, thus out of mind.
19He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.
In Micah, our last example, we see that God hurls all of the sins of a repentant person into the depths of the sea. In the setting of the ancient person, this meant that retrieving them was literally impossible. In other words, God has removed them, never to be retrieved or brought to mind ever again. This was the viewpoint that he had before Jesus ever even offered himself as a ransom sacrifice.
Word Pictures and Jesus
34And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.
Of course, God, the Father, does not literally have a wife, producing a Son, as he is Spirit. So this expression, Son of God, is a word picture, to better help us understand the relationship between two different persons.
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
These are word pictures, used to help us better understand the Son’s role in the outworking of the Father’s will and purposes. What point is this word picture making for us? If a literal branch is to remain alive, it must remain connected to the trunk. In this same way, a disciple of Christ must abide in Jesus (remain in him). Yes, ‘apart from Jesus, we can do nothing.’ (John 15:5) In addition, the cultivator of a vine expects that it will produce fruit, the ‘Father is glorified, that we bear much fruit and so prove to be Jesus’ disciples.’–John 15:8
What important points does this word picture teach? To remain alive and fruitful, the branches of a literal vine must remain attached to the trunk. Similarly, Christ’s disciples must remain in union with him. “Apart from me you can do nothing at all,” Jesus said. (John 15:5) And just as a cultivator expects a vine to produce fruit, Jehovah expects those in union with Christ to produce spiritual fruitage.—John 15:8.
Word Pictures and the Similarity
One can never find the meaning of the word picture, without finding the similarity. In fact, as our example below illustrates, to miss the mark is dangerous, if taken the wrong way.
20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Are we to infer that Paul was suggesting a retaliate attitude? No. Here we have to go back to the historical setting of the first-century. The melting of ore in order to get metal from it was accomplished by heaping the hot coals on top of the ore. This process was to soften the metal to cause impurities to separate. The similarity is that we are to soften the enemy with loving kindness, rapport and bring out the good in him.
4and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
Do our sins feel like a debt to us? Therefore, we are moved emotionally, when God ‘forgives our transgressions and covers our sins.’–Psalm 32:1
The word picture is capable of taking a difficult concept and using an easier one, to help us wrap our mind around the difficulty. There can be multiple word pictures, to highlight the different aspects of the subject. The word picture may be used to emphasize the concept the author is trying to bring out, more memorable, more appealing.
Recognizing the Different Features
WORD PICTURE: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.” (Psalm 1:3)
TOPIC: Us (those of us who love God’s Word, vs. 1-2)
IMAGE: tree planted by streams of water
SIMILARITY IN CONTEXT: life is drawn through the root from the water; we draw spiritual vitality through God’s Word
LESSON: Just as a tree that is most healthy by being next to its life-sustaining element of water, we are most healthy when we are in the Word of personal study, meeting, ministry, and evangelism.
- How do biblical word pictures help us grasp the immensity of God as a person with infinite power, love, justice, and wisdom?
- What do the expressions “his greatness is unsearchable” and “the thunder of his power who can understand” stress?
- How are we to understand the word picture Psalm 145:3?
- Explain the word picture of Psalm 23:1.
- What does the book say about the word pictures of Psalm 32:8?
- What is the import of the word pictures in Psalm 121:5 and Isaiah 51:16?
- How would we explain the word picture of Psalm 17:8?
- How are we to understand the word picture of Ephesians 1:18?
- Walk through the remaining word pictures, giving the gist of each.
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 The Milky Way galaxy is some 600 quadrillion miles [about a quintillion km] in diameter, yes, 600,000,000,000,000,000 miles, and this one galaxy contains over 400 billion stars! The average distance between stars within the galaxy is about 36 trillion miles.
 Literally kidneys, figurative for inner man
 William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 893.
 Preunderstanding is all of the knowledge and understanding that we possess before we begin the study of the text.