One major factor that hinders us in understanding what the Bible is truly saying is when we do not realize what figurative language is all about especially in the Bible. Some of us may believe that the Bible should only be interpreted literally. This can cause us to have a major problem in biblical interpretation if we will think that figurative language is not true while the ‘literal’ is more true—or the only truth found in the Bible. So, what is figurative language anyway?
Figurative Language Explained
In his book, “The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God,” Dr. J. Michael Feazell, relates how he and Dr. Kyriakos J. Stavrinides explained this matter regarding figurative language on pages 30-31:
“During one discussion about the anthropomorphic references to God in the Old Testament, a panel member asked, ‘What does ‘figurative’ mean?’ It’s a sad day when a senior member of a church’s doctrinal review team doesn’t know the difference between figurative and literal.
‘Well,’ Kyriakos Stavrinides began to explain in his characteristically patient manner, “when a word or expression is used in a figurative sense, it is painting a picture of a reality that cannot adequately be described in literal terms.’
‘But why don’t we just take the Bible for what it says?’ was the sincere response.
‘When the Bible uses figurative language, that is what the Bible is saying,’ I offered in response. ‘Figurative language doesn’t imply that the statement is less true. It simply means that the statement is to be understood figuratively, not literally. In other words, it is a true statement, and it is to be understood figuratively, not literally.’
‘I’m totally lost. I guess I just don’t understand how something that isn’t real can be true.’
‘Let me give an illustration,’ Stavrinides offered. ‘If I say to my wife, “You are a rose,” I have made a true statement, and I really mean what I say. She is lovely and pleasing, just as a rose is lovely and pleasing, though in different specific ways. I do not mean she is literally a rose. I mean that there are certain important characteristics of a rose that my wife shares.”
Literary Context Important
An example of figurative language is a song like the lyrics, “You are the sunshine of my life.” We can all easily understand that this song by Stevie Wonder should not be interpreted nor should be understood literally. It is meant to be understood figuratively. And it doesn’t have to mean it’s falsehood or lying. It’s figurative language!
It is also important that we understand the literary context also—aside from the historical, cultural, grammatical and other background contexts of Scripture. Jesus himself gave parables (stories he made up!) to explain truth. It doesn’t mean he is lying by using figurative language. Just because parables are made-up stories doesn’t mean it cannot convey truth. Jesus used parables (fiction!) to explain the truth!
If it is a parable, we should interpret or understand that part of Scripture as a parable—within its literary context. If it is an epistle or letter, it should be understood bearing in mind that it is part of a letter or epistle. The same thing could be said of the Psalms which are songs, the Acts of the Apostles or maybe Genesis and Exodus which are narrative histories. Based on its own context, we should figure out whether a passage is literal or figurative or vice-versa. The point is, literary context should be considered in the understanding and interpretation of Scripture.
- Literal and Figurative by Dr. Mike Morrison
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