The Bible’s Vivid Figures of Speech
CAN you imagine life without words? Not only do words convey facts but they arrest our attention, stir our emotions and kindle our imagination. Words have changed the course of history.
This is nowhere so true as in the case of the Bible—the most effective example of the written word in history. Why is it so effective? Because it is the written Word of God, and also because it presents God’s thoughts in a lively way. And this is partly due to the fact that it uses vivid figures of speech.
“Like a Tree”
The simplest figure of speech is the simile. But though simple, it is very effective. What is a simile? When we say a man is as “strong as an ox” or he is “stubborn like a mule,” we are using similes. By means of the words “as” or “like,” we are comparing two things that are really quite different, but which share an outstanding quality, such as strength or stubbornness.
The Bible, for example, tells us that a man who loves the law of God is like a tree. How? “He will certainly become like a tree planted by streams of water, that gives its own fruit in its season and the foliage of which does not wither, and everything he does will succeed.” (Psalm 1:3) True, a man and a tree are very different. But the luxuriance of a tree planted beside a plentiful water source strongly reminded the psalmist of the spiritual prosperity of the man whose “delight is in the law of Jehovah.”—Psalm 1:2.
“The Salt of the Earth”
Metaphors are not unlike similes. They, too, highlight a similarity between two very different things. The simile uses words such as “like” or “as,” whereas the metaphor speaks as though the one thing is the other.
Jesus used a metaphor when he told his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13) No, the disciples were not literally salt. But salt is a preservative, and the disciples had a message that would preserve the lives of many people. By saying, “You are the salt” (a metaphor) Jesus was being much more forceful than if he had said, “You are like salt” (a simile).
Metaphors are very, very common in the Bible. We see some more examples in these other words of Jesus: “I am the door”; “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine.”—John 10:7-9, 11; Matthew 5:14-16.
“Not a Hair of Your Heads”
Another figure of speech is the hyperbole. This is an exaggeration that is so obvious that it makes an unforgettable image. When a mother tells her child, “I’ve told you a million times not to do that!” she is using hyperbole.
Jesus used a startling hyperbole when he warned: “Why, then, do you look at the straw in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the rafter in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) Do you not instinctively blink when you read that? What a forceful way to tell us not to criticize the small faults of others when we have so many big faults of our own! And what about the Pharisees that “strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel”?—Matthew 23:24.
Remember, too, the unforgettable way Jesus described how Jehovah would watch over his servants: “Not a hair of your heads will by any means perish.” (Luke 21:18) No, a Christian’s hair is not somehow sacrosanct. Rather, by this hyperbolic statement, Jesus left no doubt that his followers would be protected in spite of their being “objects of hatred by all people.”—Luke 21:17.
“Death Ruled as King”
Personification is another figure of speech. We use this when we speak of something inanimate as if it were alive. For example, the Bible tells us, “Death ruled as king from Adam down to Moses”; “grief and sighing must flee away”; “true wisdom itself keeps crying aloud in the very street.” (Romans 5:14; Isaiah 35:10; Proverbs 1:20) Death, grief, sighing and wisdom cannot really rule, flee or cry out. But speaking as if they did, the Bible paints vivid mental pictures, easily visualized and remembered.
Misunderstood Figures of Speech
These and many other figures of speech make the Bible live. They make its ideas seem to leap out of its pages. But there can be a problem. Failure to recognize when a figure of speech is being used can lead to misunderstandings.
For example, do you perceive a figure of speech in Jesus’ words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away”? (Matthew 24:35) Many do not. They feel that Jesus was here indicating that one day the earth would be destroyed. But would his listeners have got that impression?
Hardly. They already knew from their reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that the earth would last forever. (Psalm 104:5; Ecclesiastes 1:4; Isaiah 45:18) Thus they would realize that Jesus was vividly emphasizing the permanence of his words. If Jesus’ words are even more permanent than heaven and earth—and heaven and earth are eternal—they are permanent indeed! Even if the impossible happened, and heaven and earth did pass away, Jesus’ words would still be there. A striking hyperbole!—Compare Matthew 5:18.
Again, can you see a figure of speech in these words: “The helper, the holy spirit, which the Father will send in my name, that one will teach you all things and bring back to your minds all the things I told you”? (John 14:26) Some take this to mean that the holy spirit is an actual person. But it is so often mentioned together with other impersonal forces or things that that cannot be true. (Matthew 3:11; Ephesians 5:18; Acts 6:3, 5; 13:52; 2 Corinthians 6:4-8) Jesus was clearly using the figure of speech we call personification.
Yes, the Bible’s figures of speech are powerful devices for teaching and motivating. They make God’s Word live. And they give a good example of how effective teaching can be accomplished.