From the Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver, CO, USA
We cannot discuss the literal interpretation of the Bible
without mentioning the term "sensus literalis." The term is Latin
for literal sense.
The word literal comes from the Latin word litera, which
means letter. We also get the word literature from the same root.
The term sensus literally, therefore, has to do with the letters
or literature of the Bible. It calls upon the Bible reader to
submit to the regular rules of grammar and to pay careful
attention to words and their meanings.
As a literary document, even though a divinely inspired one,
the Bible is subject to the same rules of grammar, syntax, and
context as any other piece of literature. Thus, to interpret the
Bible literally means to pay particular attention to the letter
of the text. To do so avoids reading into the text our own
Although the importance of the literal sense of Scripture
has been advocated through the centuries, it was Martin Luther
who gave the principle its strongest voice. The churchmen of
Luther's day were guilty of allegorizing Scripture in order to
justify many of the abuses of the medieval church. During the
Reformation, Luther upheld the literal sense of Scripture to
ensure its proper interpretation against those who would misuse
it to their own ends.
In our own day, too many people read the Scriptures as if
the biblical writers needed help with their words and ideas.
Today's Bible reader is also affected by various subjective
influences, such as environment, cultural practices, and personal
experiences. Depending on a person's experiences, he will tend to
read Scripture in a particular light. He will also come to the
Bible with certain presuppositions.
These factors make careful attention to the literal sense of
Scripture even more important. One word altered or misread
because of carelessness or because of a preconceived notion can
make a world of difference in the interpretation of a text.
In the words of R.C.Sproul, "the principle of literal
interpretation ... calls for the closest kind of literary
scrutiny of the text." Yet the rewards are great. If we will take
the time to read the Bible according to its literal sense, giving
attention to sentence structure and word meaning, its treasures
will open before us.
FIGURES OF SPEECH IN THE BIBLE
The Bible is a literary masterpiece and stands as the
greatest piece of ancient literature. It contains narratives,
history, poetry, parables, wisdom, predictions, and figures of
speech. These add depth, meaning, and effectiveness to the
Scripture. An analysis of these gems of truth causes us to think
a little harder and longer about what God has said.
In this article, we will concern ourselves with the use of
figures of speech in the Bible and their application. Due to
strong emphasis upon exact "literal" interpretation, many get
concerned when Bible teachers say that the Word of God speaks at
times in figurative language. Many feel that seeing something as
figurative means that it is imaginary or unreal, as if to water
down the message. But that is not the case.
In many respects, the word "literal" refers to what a word
or phrase means in its ordinary, customary usage. The word
"figurative" refers to the meaning of a word or expression when
compared to something else. When such comparison is made it is
called an analogy. When Jesus said, "I am the light of the world"
(John 8:12), He was using figurative language - an analogy. He
was stating that He is to men spiritually what light is
physically. Essentially, He is the One to follow in this world of
sin and darkness. Jesus is not saying that He is a light-bulb but
is a light that shines as the light of life. Through this usage
the word "light" has far greater significance than the everyday
Throughout His ministry, Jesus had a wonderful ability to
use the common, everyday customs and experiences to point out
spiritual truths. He used imagery and analogy to convey a message
that would effectively cause His listeners to stop and think
about spiritual matters.
This way of speaking has been common for generations and
exists even in our day. We all use figures of speech in our daily
conversation to get a point across. Comparisons are made in
various ways to express a thought about someone or something.
They come in phrases such as, "He is stubborn as a mule;"
"He eats like a horse;" or, "She is a bookworm." When we make
these statements the meaning is obvious to the hearer. We do not
mean that a person is a literal mule, horse, or bookworm. Such
expressions refer to one important characteristic that an
individual shares in common with that which is being compared. We
understand the comparison being made.
The everyday language and teachings of Jesus drew upon areas
of life familiar to His culture. He talked of foxes, sheep,
birds, mustard seeds, the leafing of trees, fruit growing, and
signs of the weather.
He also used analogies about humans and their relationship
to life. He talked of weddings; parent-child relationships;
qualities of children; parts of houses (doors, keys); household
duties, such as sewing, serving, and cooking.
There is no doubt that throughout the ministry of Jesus and
the writings of the Old Testament prophets figurative language
was used. This language helps us to see how God communicated His
message in human terms. Only as man is touched with the reality
of his world may God effectively enter in and conform him to the
image of His Son. Figurative language is one way in which the
truth of God is expressed.
In order to deepen our understanding of the figures of
speech in the Bible, it is important to see the various forms
they take. Listed below are the frequent figures of speech used
by Jesus and the writers of Scripture.
A simile is an explicitly stated comparison employing the
words "like" or "as." Similes are the most common and easily
spotted figures of speech in the Bible. Notice a few examples:
"And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water ....
The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind
driveth away" (Psalm 1:3,4). Here the psalmist makes a contrast
between the godly and ungodly and describes what each is "like,"
the word which identifies these statements as similes. These two
similes help a person know the critical signs of his spiritual
In Psalm 63:5, the writer expressed his feelings about
praising God. "My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and
fatness." The writer knew the results of his praise for God would
be a sense of health, peace of mind, and well-being.
Jesus was also adept in the use of similes. In Luke 22:31,
He addresses Peter's spiritual condition: "Simon, Simon, behold,
Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat."
Peter had made many bold claims in regards to his standing for
the Lord, yet Jesus could foresee that Peter would fail. Here
Jesus mentions Satan's desire to destroy Peter through Peter's
coming denial. Through this failure he could lose heart and not
fully realize his potential, falling prey to Satan's
discouragements. Many a man has fallen, never able to get up,
resulting in harmful effects to personal ministries and family
Yet Jesus says to Peter, "I have prayed for thee, that thy
faith fail not: and when thou art convened, strengthen thy
brethren." Peter would fail, but he was reminded that this
experience did not signal an end to his ministry but a door to
new and greater opportunities.
Jesus uses another simile in Luke 17:24, "For as the
lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven,
shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son
of man be in his day." The comparison (indicated by "as") is that
the coming of Christ will be as visible as the lightning
displayed during a thunderstorm and seen all across the sky.
Jesus apparently used this simile to point out that His second
coming would be seen by everyone. It would not be a secret event,
but one in which the entire world would experience His triumphant
Much akin to this thought is a simile used by Paul in
1 Thessalonians 5:2, "the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in
the night." Many have taken this verse to assume a secret
rapture. The meaning behind Paul's figure of speech, however, is
that the day of the Lord will appear quickly without warning. The
real message here is that Christians must always be prepared for
the coming of the Lord.
Metaphors are also common in the Bible. A metaphor is a
figure of speech in which the writer describes one thing in terms
of something else,
In Psalm 100:3, the writer states, "We are his people, and
the sheep of his pasture." This metaphor describes God's people
as a flock of sheep which look to the Lord as their shepherd. It
is used throughout Scripture. For example, Luke 12:32 describes
the disciples of Jesus as a "little flock," while John 10:27
talks about Jesus having sheep who hear His voice exclusively.
Jesus also mentions in John 10:16 that the Gentiles would also be
considered His sheep, thus introducing the universal concept of
the church. And the definitive metaphor about the sheep-shepherd
relationship is found in John 10:11 where Jesus says, "I am the
Another metaphor used by Jesus needs our consideration. In
John 10:9, Jesus declares, "I am the door." We know that He is
not a literal door with hinges and doorknobs, but He is the only
means by which we may enter into eternal life.
The Bible also uses several specialized metaphors in
describing God. One such kind of metaphor s anthropomorphism.
These describe God's power in terms of human body parts and
physical movements. For example, "Behold the Lord's hand is not
shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it
cannot hear" (Isaiah 59:1). Another example is, "The eyes of the
Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their
cry. The face of the Lord s against them that do evil (Psalm
The Bible also describes God in terms of animal
characteristics: "He shall cover thee with his feathers, and
under his wings shalt thou trust...." (Psalm 91:4).
The use of such metaphors is not meant to be a treatise on
the form of God. However, they do present a vivid picture of the
power, presence, and protection provided by God.
Another kind of specialized metaphor is anthropopathism.
This metaphor ascribes to God human emotions, feelings, and
responses. In the Bible, we find descriptions of God's grief
(Genesis 6:6), God's wrath (John 3:36), God's anger (Psalm 76:7),
and God's laughter (Psalm 2:4):
We may wonder if this is metaphorical language. God does
experience these emotions but not as we humans do, hence the
metaphorical element. The big difference between human emotions
and God's emotions is that human emotions are tainted with sin,
whereas God's emotions exclude sinful responses.
Anthropopathisms, thus, give us a glimpse of God's true
emotions in terms of human emotions we can understand. Hence,
when we encounter this kind of memphorical language in the Bible,
we must remove all human self-centeredness from these emotions in
order to get a clearer picture of God. We must always remember
that God's greatest emotion is love and that He always performs
in its purest form.
WORDS OF ASSOCIATION
Word association or metonymy also appears in the Bible. An
accurate definition of this figure of speech is the use of the
name of one thing for another thing because the two are
frequently associated together or because the one may suggest the
Word associations are common in our day. In the media one
often hears the cities of Washington and Moscow used as synonyms
for the governmental leaders of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. For
example, "Moscow issued a warning to Washington today concerning
the Star Wars initiative." We understand from this statement that
it was the Soviet government, not the city of Moscow itself, that
issued the warning to the U.S. government, not the city of
Washington itself. Even the term "Star Wars" is a word
association. After such a statement, it may also have been
reported that, "The White House responded to the Soviet threat by
releasing a warning of its own." Here the use of "White House" is
clearly understood to refer to the President or a member of his
staff, not to the building called the White House.
Word substitutions like these are natural to our thinking,
and it was the same for the inspired writers of the Bible. The
only hitch for us today is that we do not always understand the
word associations in the Bible because we do not fully comprehend
There are many examples of word association in the Bible.
The names "Jacob" and "Israel" are often used synonymously of the
Hebrew nation. The term "stranger" frequently refers to Gentiles,
especially those dwelling among the Hebrew people. The term
"Ephraim," one of the tribes of the northern kingdom, is used
commonly as a synonym for the whole northern kingdom, while
"Judah" became the name of the whole southern kingdom, which
included the individual tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon.
Paul used word association in describing the differences
between Jews and Gentiles. Romans 3:30 states, "Seeing it is one
God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and
uncircumcision through faith." The "circumcision" refers to the
Jews, and the "uncircumcision" to the Gentiles.
In this figure of speech personal qualities are given to an
inanimate object or idea. For example, in Proverbs 8 wisdom is
personified: "Blessed is the man that hears me [wisdom], watching
daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whose
finds me finds life, and shall obtain favor of the Lord. But he
that sins against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me
love death" (verses 34-36).
The Psalms are also loaded with vivid personifications. In
Psalm 98, the writer celebrates the greatness of GOD and the joy
that it should bring the world. He writes in poetic form: "Let
the sea roar, ... let the floods clap their hands: let the hills
be joyful together" (verses 7,8).
Euphemism is a kind of understatement often used in the
Bible. It is the substitution of a more indirect or delicate term
for a blunt one that may be offensive or distasteful. We use
euphemisms frequently in our everyday speech. They are a form of
restraint we place upon ourselves to come across less
offensively. For example, a very common euphemism used today is,
"He passed away," rather than "He died."
The Old Testament frequently refers to death in a similar
fashion. Genesis 49:33 is one such example: "And when Jacob had
made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into
the bed, and yielded up the ghost and was gathered unto his
people." The Bible also uses euphemistic language when discussing
such subjects as sexual intercourse ["Adam knew Eve" (Genesis
4:1)] and human execution or capital punishment ["evildoers shall
be cut off" (Psalm 37:9); "that soul shall be cut off from among
his people" (Numbers 15:30ff).
A hyperbole is a conscious exaggeration by a writer or
speaker to gain effect. Many a person has stated, "I could ring
your neck," when he really meant he was rather upset at a
particular action. If a person says, "I've been working like a
slave," we know he or she has probably been working hard all day.
Hyperbole abounds in every language, including the languages of
the Bible. Jesus frequently used it in His teachings. He said in
Matthew 5:29, 30, "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out,
and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of
thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be
cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off,
and cast it from thee."
This hyperbole is obvious. No rational person would chop off
his hand or pluck out his eye, The lesson behind Jesus' figure of
speech is that it is more important to be whole spiritually than
physically. In essence, Jesus is telling us to be on guard
against temptations - to not allow what we see with our eyes or
do with our hands to lead us to sin.
Another hyperbole is found in Matthew 17:20, "... for verily
I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye
shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and
it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." In
this saying, Jesus is stressing the importance of faith. He knows
that we all have our own personal struggles and mountains to
climb, yet though our obstacles be many, we can overcome them by
our faith in God.
One final example of a hyperbole is found in Revelation
14:20, "...and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the
horse bridles." This expression does not literally mean that the
blood of the wicked will run four or five feet deep. Rather it is
an indication of the massive and complete nature of the
destruction which awaits the wicked.
Whenever we read the Bible, we need to give careful thought
to hyperboles so that a proper interpretation can be made.
The figures of speech contained within the Bible enrich its
meaning, effectiveness, and literary value. They provide a means
by which God communicates to us on a personal level. As a result
of their usage, we gain the maximum benefit of the message
presented. Through recognition of figures of speech we see the
fullness and richness of God's literary masterpiece, the Holy
Scripture quotations were taken from the King Jams Version.
TO BE CONTINUED