Figuratively Speaking...

Some of the most beautiful and powerful images from the Bible might be considered rather fanciful and absurd if we were to try to understand them as literal references. Consider the words of Psalm 17:8 (NKJV),” Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.” We know that there is not literally an apple in anyone’s eye (ouch!), and that an actual shadow provides poor protection from anything other than sunburn. But we also know that there is more meaning to these words than what meets the eye.

These two statements are figures of speech which are common in our culture. If I refer to someone as the “apple of my eye,” you immediately understand that I mean they are very, very precious to me. Being “under the shadow of [God’s] wings” means that he will protect us, just as a mother bird pulls her chicks in close to her and covers them with her wings to shelter them from a storm. Both of these phrases reveal to us how much God values and loves us, as well as demonstrating His great power to protect us.



But why not just come out and say these things in a direct and straightforward manner? Why the poetic acrobatics? Two good reasons stand out in my mind.

1) Figurative language conjures images in our minds. 

A picture is worth a thousand words. Cliché? Perhaps, but it’s very true. We tend to connect emotionally much more quickly to images as opposed to words. It may take several sentences, even multiple paragraphs, to fully express an idea, whereas an image, whether taken with a camera or penned with the shortcut of poetic text, conveys the same concept much more quickly and intimately.

Not only do images communicate ideas more quickly, we are able to remember them more clearly, and for a longer time, than the words alone. I remember having to memorize a little bit of Shakespeare in high school. Today I can quote little of Hamlet’s remembrances of Yorick beyond, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.” What I DO remember is an image from my textbook which accompanied this passage from Hamlet: a black and white photo of an actor decked out in full Shakespearean regalia, his right foot propped up on a stone, holding the skull of Yorick out in front of him in his right hand.

The image has remained. The words? Not so much. It should come as no surprise that the Bible contains poetic and figurative imagery to help us understand and remember the Word of God; it’s an extremely effective technique.

2) Figurative language opens the door to deeper understanding.

Consider Jesus’ explanation of His Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13

“And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (verses 10-11)

If we are truly children of God, then his Word will teach us great spiritual truths which unbelievers will refuse to accept. This very idea is clearly illustrated in Matthew 21:45. “Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them.” They knew what He meant, but they refused to believe. “And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive.” Matthew 13:14

Dreamstime Stock Photos
Once the door to understanding hidden spiritual truths is opened, we begin to see them in the most unexpected places. For example, consider the book of Numbers. So many lists, genealogies, inventories, census figures… Honestly, and at the risk of sounding irreverent, reading the book of Numbers can be, well… boring. Numbers shows us extremely detailed information about the people of Israel during the time of Moses. Much of it is very mundane, seeming to be little more than bookkeeping. But there is an encouraging revelation hidden in these ordinary, factual, non-figurative records.

God loved these people, and He knew every detail of their lives. He made sure these records were preserved and handed down to us. Why? Because just as He knew everything about these people, so too He knows everything about us. Just as He loved them, He loves us. By sharing His knowledge of them with us, God is letting us know that we also are priceless treasures in His eyes.

The book of Numbers is not a parable, a metaphor, or an allegory. It is written in the form of a history, intended to be an accurate record of people and events from that time. And yet, great spiritual truths are hidden there – many more than just the one I mentioned above.  

Understanding figurative language in the Bible is crucial to our growth as Christians. As we let Christ open our eyes so that we may see, and our ears that we may hear, we come to realize that God’s great mysteries are hidden all around us, just waiting to be revealed. We begin to see His hand at work in our everyday lives.

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