biblical-hermeneutics

 

Figurative language uses or contains a nonliteral sense of a word or words. The Bible is filled with figurative language, such as metaphors, simile, parables (lengthy metaphors), and many other figures of speech. The authors draw on created things, plants, animals, and the heavens, as well as the human experience. It is not difficult to recognize figures of speech. Jeremiah 17:9 says that “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” We immediately recognize that we are talking about our figurative heart because the literal heart cannot be deceitful. If the conservative, evangelical interpretation is a literal interpretation, how are we to interpret figurative language literally? The author intended to convey a message with his figurative language, such as Jeremiah in the above, saying, in essence, that imperfect humans, inner person is deceitful and is desperately sick, and we cannot understand our inner person. Once we discover that message, this is what we take literally.

Figurative language adds a visual image to what one is trying to say. The psalmist could have said, ‘Jehovah is my solid, unmovable source of security,’ or what he did write, “Jehovah is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my rock, in whom I will take refuge; my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower.” (Psa. 18:2) Figurative language also gets our attention, causing us to slow down, and ponder what the author is saying. Paul could have plainly said of the false teachers in the Philippian congregation, ‘watch out for those false teachers.’ No, he chose much stronger language, “watch out for those dogs.”[1] Does the Good News Translation cause us to pause, with, “Watch out for those who do evil things.” Hardly!

Figurative language helps us better understand expressions that are abstract or appreciated intellectually. Moses could have written, ‘The eternal God is a home, and will protect you; and … No, rather, Moses vividly wrote, “The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms; and he drove out the enemy from before you, and said, ‘Destroy!”―Deuteronomy 33:27.

Similes and Metaphors

Figures of speech are word pictures that generally involve only a few words; yet they can result in very vivid mental images. Similes are the easiest figure of speech to use and understand. Generally, they start with the word “like” or “as.” Although comparing two things that are reasonably unlike, similes focus on something they have in common. Metaphors also focus on the similarity between two very unalike things. However, the metaphor is extra powerful, because it expresses the thought as though one element is an element of the other. As a result, it conveys some quality from one thing to the other. The first three texts below are similes, while the second three texts represent metaphors.

Psalm 1:3

 3He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 10:9

9he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket; he lurks that he may seize the poor; he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.

Genesis 22:17

17I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies,

Matthew 5:14

 14“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

James 3:6

6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

Psalm 31:3

 3For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;

Hypocatastasis

Hypocatastasis is a figure of speech that declares or implies a resemblance, representation or comparison. It differs from a metaphor because in a metaphor the two nouns are both named and given; while, in hypocatastasis, only one is named and the other is implied, or as it were, is put down underneath out of sight. Hence, hypocatastasis is an implied resemblance or representation: that is an implied simile or metaphor. A hypocatastasis has more force than a metaphor or simile and expresses as it were a superlative degree of resemblance.[2]

Bullinger gives the following example: one may say to another, “You are like a beast.” (Bullinger 1898, 744) This would be simile, namely stating a fact. If, however, he said, “You are a beast” that would be metaphor. But, if he said simply, “Beast!” that would be hypocatastasis,[3] for the other part of the simile or metaphor (“you”), would be implied and not stated. This figure, therefore, is calculated to arouse the mind, to attract and excite the attention to the greatest extent.[4]

Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which an attribute of something is used to stand for the thing itself, e.g. “laurels” when it stands for “glory” or “brass” when it stands for “military officers.” Some Scriptural example of metonymy,

Psalm 23:5a

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

David is the Psalmist, praising God for the love and protection he has provided him. David is not saying that God prepared a literal table in the presence of his enemies. The table is used to stand for a bountiful meal itself. That is why the GNT reads, “You prepare a banquet for me.”

Joshua 24:15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve Jehovah, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah.

Joshua is not saying that a literal house will serve Jehovah, but rather it is used to stand for his family.

Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which the word for part of something is used to mean the whole, e.g. “sail” for “boat,” or vice versa.

Psalm 63:8

My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

The right hand of God denotes his person, but more specifically, here it is representing his power.

Psalm 110:1 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

1 Jehovah says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

Here the “right hand” denotes God’s prominent position. Another example would be Mark 16:2, where Jesus says, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Proverbs 1:16 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

16 For their feet run to evil
And they hasten to shed blood.

Clearly, this does not mean that only their feet run to sin, as the feet represent the whole, i.e., they themselves run to sin. Another example is found at Romans 16:4, where Paul speaks of Prisca and Aquila, his fellow workers in Christ Jesus, whom he says “risked their necks” for his life. Again, it is not their necks alone that they risked for Paul, their necks are representative of their whole, i.e., their lives.

Merism

Merisms are conspicuous features of Biblical poetry. For example, in Genesis 1:1, when God creates “the heavens and the earth” (KJV), the two parts combine to indicate that God created the whole universe. Similarly, in Psalm 139:2, the psalmist declares that God knows “when I sit down and when I rise up”, indicating that God knows all the psalmist’s actions.[5]

Hendiadys

Hendiadys are figure of speech with “and”: a literary device expressing an idea by means of two words linked by “and,” instead of a grammatically more complex form such as an adverb qualifying an adjective. Everyday examples of hendiadys are the expressions “nice and soft,” rather than “nicely soft,” and “good and tight.” At Acts 1:25, the apostles say, “to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place,” they mean this apostolic ministry.

Personification

Personification is the attribution of human qualities to objects or abstract notions.

Isaiah 55:12

12 “For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing
,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Isaiah is speaking about a time when Israel would be restored in conjunction with nature, which is personified. See also Isaiah 44:23 and 49:13.

 Romans 8:19-23

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

In the above, Paul speaks of the “creation” as though it were a person. Creation is longing, it is not willingly subjected, it was enslaved, it has been groaning, in pains of childbirth, and so on. Jesus calmed a storm by saying a few words. (Mark 4:35-41) Jesus “is Lord of lords and King of kings.” (1 Tim. 6.15; Rev. 17.14; 19.16) Jesus has complete power over creation. In fact, Jesus said, “Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that in the renewal of the world,[6] when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me, you [specifically the disciples] also will sit on twelve thrones …” (Matt 19:18, LEB) The New International Version uses the expression, “the renewal of all things.” Yes, after Jesus second coming, he will renew creation here on earth, restoring the paradise-like environment that Satan, Adam and Eve sidetracked with their sin.

Proverbs 8:22-26 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

22 “The Lord made me
at the beginning of His creation,
before His works of long ago.
23 I was formed before ancient times,
from the beginning, before the earth began.
24 I was born
when there were no watery depths
and no springs filled with water.
25 I was delivered
before the mountains and hills were established,
26 before He made the land, the fields,
or the first soil on earth.

Wisdom is a personified, a literary technique to draw our qualities and characteristics, it also symbolically refers to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, prior to his coming to earth. The apostle John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word.”

There is little doubt that verse 22 commences with a reference to the creation account of Genesis 1 by its use of the word “beginning.” In saying that Jehovah “made” or “created” wisdom at the beginning of his creation, wisdom is emphasizing his age, as compared to the creation of the universe, including earth.

Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of a human form, human characteristics, or human behavior to God, to help us grasp God’s might, majesty, and activities. Therefore, the Bible speaks of God as having eyes, ears, hands, arms, fingers, feet, and a heart.–Genesis 8:21; Exodus 3:20; 31:18; Job 40:9; Psalm 18:9; 34:15.

Like other figures of speech, we do not take anthropomorphisms literally. If it were not for the figures of speech, our comprehending God would be like a man blind from birth trying to understand the description of scenery. This use of anthropomorphisms does not mean that the human authors invented God’s personality. We must remember that man was created in God’s image, not God in man’s image. (Genesis 1:27) The Bible writers were inspired by God, moved along by Holy Spirit. Therefore, their description of God is actually, God’s description of himself. (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21) Instead of being man’s qualities in God, they are actually God’s qualities in man.

Anthropopathism

Anthropopathism is the attribution of human feelings to God. Zechariah 8:2 is a great example of this, “Thus says Jehovah of hosts: “I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath.’”

Zoomorphism

Zoomorphism is the attribution of animal forms or characteristics to God or others.

Job 16:9

He has torn me in his wrath and hated me;
he has gnashed his teeth at me;
my adversary sharpens his eyes against me.

Job believed felt as though God was some ferocious animal that was seeking to do him harm. Job saw him as gnashing his teeth at him, seeking to destroy him.

Apostrophe

The apostrophe is a rhetorical passage in which an absent or imaginary person or an abstract or inanimate entity is addressed directly. Micah 1:2 reads, “pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it, and let Jehovah God be a witness against you.” Here the earth is being called to the witness stand, to testify against not only Israel and Judah but also people everywhere.

Euphemism

Euphemism is a word or phrase used in place of a term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant, or offensive. An affair is a modern euphemism for adultery. At Numbers 5:12-31, In agreement with the Mosaic Law about jealousy, if a husband had alleged that his wife had committed infidelity, she had to drink bitter water and if she was guilty of adultery, God would make her thigh fall away and her body swell. “Milgrom suggests that the ‘thigh’ may be a euphemism for the procreative organs (e.g., Gen 24:2, 9)[7] and thus refers to the physical inability to beget children.” (Cole 2000, 118)

The Power of the Figurative Language

In his chapter, “On Teaching by Parables,” Trench has the following profound observations: “It is not merely that these analogies assist to make the truth intelligible, or, if intelligible before, present it more vividly to the mind, which is all that some will allow them. Their power lies deeper than this, in the harmony unconsciously felt by all men, and by deeper minds continually recognized and plainly perceived, between the natural and spiritual worlds, so that analogies from the first are felt to be something more than illustrations, happily but yet arbitrarily chosen. They are arguments, and may be alleged as witnesses; the world of nature being throughout a witness for the world of spirit, proceeding from the same hand, growing out of the same root, and being constituted forth at very end. All lovers of truth readily acknowledge these mysterious harmonies, and the force of arguments derived from them. To them the things on earth are copies of the things in heaven.” (Archbishop Trench; Parables, pp, 12-13) Parables are simply extended metaphors. Below we will look at only a tiny fraction of figurative language that is found in the Scriptures.

The Figurative Thorn

A thorn is a sharply pointed woody growth projecting from the stem of some trees, bushes, and woody plants. The thorn is found all through the Scriptures, being used in a figurative sense.

Nahum 1:10

10 For they [Assyrians] are like entangled thorns,
like drunkards as they drink;
they are consumed like stubble fully dried.

The Assyrians and their city Nineveh were certainly “like entangled thorns,” in that they felt their city was as impenetrable as one trying to pass through thorny brush. They were trying to conquer the then known world, ‘drunk with ambition.’ However, they were going to be “consumed like stubble fully dried.” Look at the texts below; we will notice that thorns are used to represent people, even rulers, who have acted badly, and are in for condemnatory judgment.

2 Kings 14:9-10 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Jehoash king of Israel sent to Amaziah king of Judah, saying, “The thorn bush which was in Lebanon sent to the cedar which was in Lebanon, saying, ‘Give your daughter to my son in marriage.’ But there passed by a wild beast that was in Lebanon and trampled the thorn bush. 10 You have indeed defeated Edom, and your heart has become proud. Enjoy your glory and stay at home; for why should you provoke trouble so that you, even you, would fall, and Judah with you?”

Here we have “Jehoash king of Israel” responding to “Amaziah king of Judah,” with a sarcastic slur, as he compared the kingdom of Amaziah to a “thorn bush” whereas he associates his own kingdom to a massive cedar of Lebanon.

Isaiah 9:18-19 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

18 For wickedness burns like a fire;
It consumes briars and thorns;
It even sets the thickets of the forest aflame
And they roll upward in a column of smoke.
19 By the fury of the Lord of hosts the land is burned up,
And the people are like fuel for the fire;
No man spares his brother.

The comparison is that of a flame, which spreads from thorn bush to thorn bush, consuming everything in its wake; so too, the violence rapidity spreads out of control, ‘setting the thickets of the forest aflame,’ resulting in a full-scale forest fire of violence. The Bible Commentary on the Old Testament says, “The violence is “the most inhuman self-destruction during an anarchical civil war. Destitute of any tender emotions, they devoured one another without being satisfied.” (Keil and Delitzsch 1996, Vol. 7, p. 17) Thorns are also used to describe persons and things that cause injury and are difficult.

Proverbs 22:5

Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked;
whoever guards his soul will keep far from them.

It is not just the inexperienced, who find themselves walking into the troubles of this imperfect world. It is the wicked or evil ones, who purposely choose to walk down the paths filled with “thorns and snares.” The thorns of life tear at the wicked one’s flesh, causing him or her pain and suffering, hampering them from making any growth, advancement, or improvement in life, or as a person. Moreover, the snares do not just impede but bring their life to a screeching halt. The wicked one could have avoided this path altogether, by choosing to guard his life, avoiding these thorns and snares, by applying God’s Word in their lives.

Ezekiel 28:24

24 “And for the house of Israel, there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God.

God is now declaring judgment prophecies against neighboring nations, who had become painful briers and piercing thorns, as they had a long record of maliciously mistreating God’s chosen people.

Figurative Drunkenness

Isaiah 28:1 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

1 Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim,
And to the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
Which is at the head of the fertile valley
Of those who are overcome with wine!

This must have been a serious blow, what a cutting condemnation! Who were these “drunkards of Ephraim”? What was their “proud crown”? In addition, what is “the head of the fertile valley”?

Of the ten tribes of Israel, Ephraim was the largest, and was often a reference to the whole of Israel to the north of Judah. Therefore, the “drunkards of Ephraim” was a reference to the drunkards of Israel. Samaria was the capital city of northern Israel, and it sat upon an imposing height at the beginning of a fertile valley. Hence, the expression “the head of the fertile valley” was a reference to Samaria. At the time of Isaiah’s penning, these words in the eighth century B.C.E., the northern kingdom of Israel was deeply steeped in false worship. In addition, Israel had allied itself with Syria again Judah, believing they were safe. (Isaiah 7:1-9) Well, this was not going to remain the case, as God said “Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim [i.e., northern Israel].”

What was their “proud crown”? “Most references to “crown” in the OT point to the actual headdress,” a “special headdress worn by royalty and other persons of high merit and honor.” (Brand, Draper and Archie 2003, 372) Therefore, the “proud crown” was a reference to northern Israel’s position as a separate kingdom from southern Judah. Some “woe” was about to take place, resulting in the destruction of Israel’s kingly freedom. As was said in the above, the “drunkards of Ephraim” was a reference to the drunkards of Israel. Certainly, there were literal drunkards in Israel, as Samaria was deeply involved immoral, wicked, shameless, pagan worship. However, Isaiah is speaking of a far worse kind of drunkenness.

Isaiah 29:9 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

Stop and be astonished;
blind yourselves and be blind!
They are drunk, but not with wine;
they stagger, but not with beer.

Yes, Isaiah is speaking of a spiritual drunkenness, a filthy, fatal drunkenness. The leaders in Israel were drunk on spiritual intoxicants, aligning themselves with Syria against Judah, and following false worship, causing a false sense of security. Just as a literal drunk, who is a coward, begins to feel more and more fearless, as they become more and more intoxicated, so too, Israel felt safe, though there was nothing to support such a feeling. As Isaiah made it all too clear, “she would become nothing more than the fading flower worn like a crown by the partygoers. Ripe for the picking, they would soon be swallowed by the Assyrian enemy, a prediction that came true.” (Anders and Butler 2002, 164)

We close out this chapter with some words from Dr. Elmer L. Towns,

The Bible contains much figurative language, such as metaphors, simile, parables (extended metaphors), and many other figures of speech. It is generally clear when figurative language appears that a clear, understandable message is being taught. To interpret the Bible, the reader must search for the literal meaning the author had in mind when he used the figurative language.

The principle of interpreting Scripture according to the meaning of the author should remind us that the Bible has two authors–human and divine. Therefore, we must follow human laws of interpretation to understand Scripture. But we must also follow the spiritual principles of illumination to understand the mind of the Holy Spirit. (Towns, Concise Bible Dictrines: Clear, Simple, and Easy-to-Understand Explanations of Bible Doctrines 2006)

Norman L. Geisler wrote this author, saying,

I agree with Walt Kaiser that there is only one interpretation to a text (sensus unum).  I believe that it is not a matter of perception (by the mind) but of reception (by the will) that hinders persons from understanding and obeying Scripture.  To rephrase the Protestant principle of perspicuity, “In the Bible, the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.”  I also believe that the role of the Holy Spirit, at least in His special work on believers related to Scripture, is in illuminating our understanding of the significance (not the meaning) of the text.  The meaning is clear apart from any special work of the Holy Spirit.  I also believe that a return to the sensus unum view is our only hope to avoid Charismatic chaos on the one hand or the Roman Magisterium on the other hand.

Interpreting Figurative Language

First and foremost, we must remember that we do not interpret figurative language literally, we find the meaning of what the author meant by the figurative language, and this is what we take literally. In order to ascertain the figurative elements, we will have to invest in a study tool of some sort, like a book on figurative language, commentary volumes, or a Bible background book.

2 Timothy 2:3-6

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.

This is not Paul offering advice for soldiers, athletes, or farmers. Rather, it is Paul counseling Timothy, using figurative language,

Paul gave three examples for Timothy to follow: (1) a soldier who wants to please his commander, (2) an athlete who follows the rules of the game, and (3) a farmer who toils faithfully. The three figures of speech used here are found in 1 Corinthians 9:6, 24–27. Paul encouraged Timothy to faithful devotion and self-discipline in his service for the Lord. Again the apostle’s exhortations were grounded in his own experience of suffering. (Dockery 1998, 608)

Matthew 7:6

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

Certainly, Jesus was not talking about literal dogs, pearls, and pigs, as he just referred spoke of not judging others. Matthew 7:1-5 is often taken that we are not to judge others. While it is true, we do not judge whether others are going to receive the gift of life, condemning them ourselves, as this is Jesus role. However, after we have removed the log (figurative language) out of our own eye, then, we can judge the character of others, as to whether we should invest an exorbitant amount of time, trying to evangelize them with our holy things, i.e., the Word of God.

At first glance, this verse is difficult to interpret because the terms what is sacred, pearls, dogs, and pigs are not explained. But the verse does guard against our tendency to oversimplify the do not judge (7:1) statement, instructing us to be discerning about the character of other people.

Dogs and pigs (wild and unclean) likely refer to people who are not only unbelievers but also active enemies of the gospel (15:14; Luke 23:8; 2 Cor. 6:14–18; 2 Pet. 2:22). The most likely interpretation is to take what is sacred and pearls to refer to the gospel or truth, and to take pigs and dogs to mean any person who persistently rejects the gospel or truth, whether Jew or Gentile. Jesus was teaching his people to use discernment when sharing the truth with others. To persist in sharing with a resistant person wastes time and energy. It can also destroy a relationship that might prove fruitful later. It could even (in the climate of growing persecution) result in harm to the believer; it could tear you to pieces.

Taking care with whom and how we share truth is an important principle for believers to grasp in their evangelistic efforts. When we share with our neighbors, we tend to feel we have failed if they do not accept the Lord on the spot. We need to be patient, giving our own lives a chance to speak as a testimony for Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to take his time to work the truth we have shared into the heart and conscience of the unbeliever (John 16:8–11). However, we should not be lazy or inattentive to signs that the unbeliever might be ready for more. There is an art to walking the line between pushiness and apathy. (Weber 2000, 98)

We have to be careful not to assume, because some references are prophetic, not figurative, and what was said was actually meant to be taken literally. If we look at Amos 4:9 below, if the Israelite people failed to heed God’s warnings, they could expect exactly what was declared.

Amos 4:9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

“I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares Jehovah.

If drought did not do the job, then God sent a “scorching wind and disease” (author’s translation) on the crops (Deut. 28:22). “Your vast gardens and vineyards, your fig trees and olive trees the caterpillars (or perhaps locusts) devoured” (author’s translation) (see Deut. 28:39–42). Without basic foodstuffs and without products to put on the market, the rural community failed. So did the proud city folk who owned much of the land. Time was ripe for repentance, but God’s people turned a deaf ear to the call. (Butler 2005, Locations 4764-4766)

If one has done any study into the background of Bible times, they will know that the fig tree played a prominent role. Therefore, we can understand why it is often referred to in prophecy. It carried a great importance to the Israelite nation’s food supply. Therefore, if a fig crop failed to come in, it would be disastrous. It is for this reason that the fig tree was regularly mentioned when destruction, or calamity, was foretold for the Promise Land.—Jeremiah 5:17; 8:13; Hosea 2:12; Joel 1:7, 12; Amos 4:9; Habakkuk 3:17

Again, we need not rush to judgment, assuming everything to be figurative language, as some things that may appear so, are not to be taken so, and are read literally. Please read Isaiah 11:6-8 below and see if it does not sound as though it should be viewed as figurative language.

Isaiah 11:6-8

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.

These should be taken literally. After Jesus return, and he renews the earth, bringing things back to the Garden of Eden environment, none of these things should seem impossible, a sign that something is figurative.

The reader must identify the image and the nonimage. If we look at Psalm 1:3a, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water,” the image is the “tree,” and the nonimage is “he,” i.e., the servant of God. If we look at Isaiah 53:6a, “all of us like sheep have gone astray,” the image is the “sheep,” and the nonimage is “us,” i.e., humanity. Now, after we have identified the image and nonimage, we must also discover the point of comparison. Going back to Psalm 1:3a, we ask ourselves, how are servants of God, like a tree planted by a stream of water? Such a tree can be flourishing and healthy and give an abundance of fruit, as well as safety from the effects of droughts. Notice, I said, “they can be,” because this is like the proverbs, it is no guarantee, no absolute equation, if we do A, we get B. Generally speaking, if a servant of God follows the counsel of verses 1-2, does not walk with the wicked, not stand with sinners, nor sit with scoffers, but rather regularly meditates on the Word of God, he will prosper, be healthy, secure, and fruitful.

With Isaiah 53:6a, the point of comparison, is about the spiritual shipwreck of humanity. “What’s more, every one of us was involved as we went merrily along our own paths like dumb sheep, while God made the servant suffer from a load of sin and guilt that belonged to all of us.” (Anders and Butler 2002, 298) On point of comparison, Zuck writes,

The points of comparison are not always immediately evident in similes or metaphors. When Solomon wrote that the hair of his bride was “like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead” (Song 4:1), the meaning of that compliment may not be immediately transparent to Westerners. In fact, it does not sound at all like a compliment! Goats in Palestine had dark hair, and when seen from a distance in the sunset as goats were descending from a mountain, they were a beautiful scene. Similarly, Solomon’s bride’s black hair was considered beautiful. The similes in the Song of Songs require careful attention to determine what point of similarity would have been understood by people in the Middle East’ in Bible times. If the point of similarity is not stated, the Bible student needs to be careful he does not assume the wrong similarity. The same holds true in the English statement, “John eats like a pig.” Some point of similarity is intended by that sentence between a pig and John. However, does the statement mean that like a pig he eats too much, or eats fast, or eats sloppily? Either an explicit statement giving the point of similarity or an implicit statement found in the context is needed for the interpreter to be sure of the precise meaning. (Zuck 1991, 163-4)

As is true with determining the meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word, like kosmos, which occurs 186 times in the New Testament, which can be rendered “world” in all instances, except 1 Peter 3:3, “Do not let your adorning [kosmos] be external, the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear.” We see how many times we can render kosmos as world but the one exception demonstrates that we never assume it is always the same. Actually, while the literal rendering is world, the meaning can be the whole of humankind, specifically humankind that is alienated from God, the environment in which the human family lives, and the universe. The same holds true with figurative speech, in that we should never assume that a figure always has the same meaning. The eagle, for example, might be used as a symbol of power and sudden and often unexpected attacks in one verse (Deut. 28:49-51; Jer. 48:40; 49:22; Hos. 8:1), and to indicate swiftness and farsightedness in yet another.―Revelation 4:7; 8:13; See Ezekiel 1:10; 10:14.

Review Questions

  • What is figurative language?
  • What are similes and metaphors?
  • What are some other forms of figurative speech?
  • What do we learn under the figurative thorn heading?
  • What do we learn under the figurative drunkenness heading?
  •  What are some rules and principles to keep in mind, when interpreting figurative language?

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[1] Dogs were considered ceremonially unclean by the Jews.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypocatastasis

[3] The Companion Bible: The Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Critical, Explanatory, and Suggestive Notes and with 198 Appendixes. Kregel Publications. 1 August 1994. p. 25.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypocatastasis

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merism

[6] The words “of the world” are supplied as a clarification of “renewal”

[7] Milgrom, Numbers, 41.