Understanding Figurative Language in the Bible
The poetical language of the Old Testament prophets seems so difficult to those who read it, expecting some literal fulfillment. Unlike those parts of the Bible which are historical and literal, God sometimes speaks figuratively to the imagination and the soul of the reader. The prophet of God saw sin and “rivers of water” ran down from His eyes. Not literal rivers, but the Spirit of God uses this language to touch our souls in such beautiful, poetic language, so different from literal language.
About 600 B.C., Ezekiel, in a vision, saw a valley of dried, lifeless bones, then “the head bone connected to the neck bone, and the neck bone connected to the back bone, and the back bone connected to the thigh bone.” (Did you ever sing this song?) These bones were soon covered with skin, and life entered into the bodies. Taken literally, this seems strange, but knowing the nature of poetic language, we immediately sense that this has far deeper meaning. Ezekiel 37 explains that the bones represent the nation of Israel in Babylonian captivity with little hope in that land. Poetically, God revealed their return from Babylon and the new life they would have. Historical writing speaks to the intellect; poetical writing speaks to the soul!
Jesus Himself used this kind of language to speak to the souls of those who heard Him. He describes Himself as bread (John 6:35), light (John 9:5), a door (John 10:7), the good shepherd (John 10:11), the way, truth and life (John 14:6), a vine (John 15:1), and as the alpha and the omega (Rev. 1:8). In Matthew chapter thirteen, He described the church as a man sowing seeds, as mustard seed, leaven, hidden treasures, a man seeking priceless pearls and as a fishing net. Taken literally, these things might first seem so difficult (and this is why some who do this talk about how hard it is to understand the Bible), but when properly understood, the imagery so graphically enhances spiritual truth.
So how does one decide whether the language of the Bible is to be taken literally or figuratively? The simple answer is that you use the same common sense that is used in any conversation. We always take language literally, unless the context in which it is used demands otherwise. A child is told to go to the store and come back understands what this means. That same child when told he is loved to the moon and back easily understands. The same principle applies when we read the Bible. Historical narrative is factual and literal—Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem. Yet, common sense helps us to see when He speaks of doors, shepherds, sowers and pearls. There is more to be said about this, and next week’s article will address additional matters. This article only gives a bird’s eye view of His life and teaching. Wonder if that bird and his eye is literal?