Word Pictures in the Bible—Do You Understand Them?
A PICTURE may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes just one or two words can paint a picture. Word pictures, or expressions that paint a picture in the mind of the reader, are generously scattered throughout the pages of the Bible.* For example, by one count, Jesus used over 50 different word pictures in just one sermon that he delivered—the Sermon on the Mount.
Why should you be interested in these word pictures? For one thing, understanding them will add color and warmth to your Bible reading, enhancing your appreciation for God’s Word. Additionally, if you correctly identify word pictures, you will better understand the Bible’s message. In fact, failing to identify a word picture in the Bible may not only result in confusion but also lead to wrong conclusions.
Understanding Word Pictures
A word picture compares one concept with another. The concept being compared is called the topic, and the concept it is compared with, the image. The comparison between the two concepts is the point of similarity. The key, therefore, to appreciating the true meaning of a word picture lies in your identifying and understanding each of these three elements.
At times, it may be relatively easy to identify the topic and the image. But there may be several possibilities with regard to the point of similarity. What will help you to identify accurately the similarity? Often the answer is found in the context, or the surrounding material.*
For example, Jesus said to the congregation in Sardis: “Certainly unless you wake up, I shall come as a thief.” Jesus was here likening his coming (the topic) to the coming of a thief (the image). But what was the point of similarity? 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) So 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 unexpected, unannounced aspect of his arrival.
Sometimes, though, a word picture that appears in one part of the Bible may help you to understand a similar word picture in another part. For instance, the apostle Paul used the same word picture Jesus used, writing: “You yourselves know quite well that Jehovah’s day is coming exactly as a thief in the night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2) The context of Paul’s words is not explicit in spelling out the point of similarity. However, comparing this word picture with the one used by Jesus at Revelation 3:3 can help you to understand the point of similarity. What a powerful reminder this word picture is that all true Christians must remain spiritually awake!
Word Pictures That Teach Us About God
No human can possibly grasp all aspects of the personality and powers of the Almighty. In ancient times, King David wrote that Jehovah’s “greatness is unsearchable.” (Psalm 145:3) After considering some of God’s creative works, Job exclaimed: “Look! These are the fringes of his ways, and what a whisper of a matter has been heard of him! But of his mighty thunder who can show an understanding?”—Job 26:14.
Even so, the Bible uses word pictures to help you comprehend, in a limited way, the magnificent qualities of our heavenly God. Jehovah is depicted as a King, a Lawmaker, a Judge, and a Warrior—clearly someone you should respect. He is also portrayed as a Shepherd, a Counselor, a Teacher, a Father, a Healer, and a Savior—someone you can love. (Psalm 16:7; 23:1; 32:8; 71:17; 89:26; 103:3; 106:21; Isaiah 33:22; 42:13; John 6:45) Each of these simple descriptions invokes a host of warm images with several points of similarity. Such word pictures convey more than an abundance of words adequately could.
The Bible also likens Jehovah to inanimate things. He is described as “the Rock of Israel,” as a “crag,” and as a “stronghold.” (2 Samuel 23:3; Psalm 18:2; Deuteronomy 32:4) What is the point of similarity? Just as a large rock is solidly placed, unmovable, so Jehovah God can be a solid Source of security for you.
The book of Psalms is packed with word pictures that describe different facets of Jehovah’s personality. For example, Psalm 84:11 speaks of Jehovah as “a sun and a shield” because he is the Source of light, life, energy, and protection. On the other hand, Psalm 121:5 says that “Jehovah is your shade on your right hand.” Just as a place of shade can protect you from the blazing sun, Jehovah can protect those who serve him from the heat of calamity, giving them shadowlike protection under his “hand” or under his “wings.”—Isaiah 51:16; Psalm 17:8; 36:7.
Word Pictures That Describe Jesus
The Bible repeatedly refers to Jesus as the “Son of God.” (John 1:34; 3:16-18) Some non-Christians find this hard to understand, since God does not literally have a wife and is not of human nature. Obviously, God does not produce a son in the same manner as does a human. So this expression is a word picture. It is designed to help the reader understand that Jesus’ relationship with God is like that of a human son with his father. This word picture also emphasizes that Jesus received his life from Jehovah, being created by Him. In a similar way, the first man, Adam, is also spoken of as the “son of God.”—Luke 3:38.
Jesus used word pictures to describe the various roles he plays in the outworking of God’s purpose. For example, he said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the cultivator.” Jesus then compared his disciples to the branches of a vine. (John 15:1, 4) 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.
Make Sure of the Point of Similarity
We may get the wrong impression from just reading a word picture without establishing the point of similarity. Take, for example, the words found at Romans 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing this you will heap fiery coals upon his head.” Does the heaping of fiery coals on a person’s head indicate a retaliatory punishment? No, not when we understand the point of similarity. This word picture is drawn from the ancient process of smelting. Ore was heated on a bed of coals, and some coals were heaped on top of the ore as well. This process melted the ore and caused the pure metal to separate from any impurities. Likewise, exercising kindness will tend to soften a person’s attitude and bring out the good in him.
The correct understanding of word pictures not only enlightens our minds but also touches our hearts. We feel the heaviness of sin when it is likened to a debt. (Luke 11:4) But when Jehovah forgives us and cancels the debt that would otherwise be charged against our account, what a relief we feel! When we are told that he ‘covers over’ and ‘blots out’ our sins—wiping the slate clean as it were—we are reassured that he will not hold such sins against us in the future. (Psalm 32:1, 2; Acts 3:19) And how comforting it is to know that Jehovah can take sins that are as glaring as scarlet or crimson and make them as white as snow!—Isaiah 1:18.
These are just a few of the hundreds of word pictures found in God’s Word, the Bible. So when you read your Bible, take special note of the word pictures. Take time to ascertain the points of similarity and meditate on these. Doing so will enrich your understanding of and appreciation for the Scriptures.
As used in this article, the expression “word picture” refers in a general sense to all figures of speech—metaphors, similes, or some other literary device that involves figurative language.
The two-volume Bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, provides extensive background information that in many cases helps to explain the point of similarity.
[Box on page 13]
How Word Pictures Help
Word pictures help us in several ways. A difficult point may be compared to something that is easily understood. More than one word picture may be used to illuminate several aspects of one particular subject. Important concepts may be emphasized by means of word pictures or may be made more appealing.
[Box on page 14]
Identify the Different Elements
WORD PICTURE: “You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13)
TOPIC: You (Jesus’ disciples)
POINT OF SIMILARITY IN THIS CONTEXT: Preservative
LESSON: The disciples had a message that could preserve the lives of many people
[Blurb on page 15]
“Jehovah is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing.”—PSALM 23:1