Figures of Speech

Jason Dulle


I believe we are to interpret the Word of God literally, but how do I explain to someone who asks me how I take the Word of God literally when the Bible says that God will hide us under his wings, or other such references? We know that God is not a big bird.



A literal historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture is not the same as a hyper-literal interpretation which cannot interpret figures of speech for what they are. We recognize that the Scripture contains many figures of speech. Every language consists of such literary devices. They are such a part of our everyday language that they often go unnoticed by those who speak the language because the figures are automatically interpreted to uncover their underlying reality. These same figures of speech sound quite strange to a person whose second language is English, and does not know the meaning of our English figures of speech. How would a Korean interpret, "I am having a ball right now!"? I would venture to say that would imagine a man holding a ball, but such an interpretation is false, even though it is literal. If someone centuries down the road was to read the American figure of speech, "Are you down with that?," and interpret this in a spatial fashion, rather than the actual cultural meaning of "Are you OK with that?," they are misinterpreting the statement. To eliminate figures of speech, similes, euphemisms, etc. from language would severely impoverish the vividness of the language. Because they are part of every language, we must be able to recognize them, and interpret them accordingly.

The Bible is full of figures of speech. The Scripture speaks of "being gathered to the fathers" (Genesis 49:29; II Kings 22:20), and "sleep" (Job 7:21; Daniel 12:2; I Corinthians 15:8; I Thessalonians 4:14) to refer to death, whereas Americans commonly refer to death as "passing away." We do not understand our American figure of speech, "pass away," to literally mean that someone has been passed somewhere like a football. Other Biblical figures of speech include "uncover thy nakedness" (Leviticus 18:6-19; 20:18-19). This figure refers to sexual relations. "All who piss on the wall" (I Samuel 25:22; I Kings 16:11) is a figure of speech used to indicate all males, and "his joints were loosed" is a euphemism indicating that one has emptied their bowels! If we interpret these Biblical statements literally without reference to their cultural and linguistic meaning, we are actually guilty of misinterpreting the Scripture.

Now concerning the Scripture which says God has wings in which we can hide (Psalm 17:8), we must interpret this in light of the way people use language. It should also be considered that this statement is found in the psalms, which is a poetic genre. The Bible often speaks of God in human terms. He is said to have a right hand (which also is a figure of speech denoting power, authority, and prestige), eyes, and nostrils. All such references are called anthropomorphisms. Figurative language like this is not to be taken as literal descriptions of Godís appearance (seeing He is a spirit), but is a literary device used to communicate a reality about Godís person. God does not have feathers, but is being compared to a mother bird who protects her young by covering them with her wings. It speaks of Godís protection, not His physical nature. God is also said to have eyes which are in every place (Proverbs 15:3). This is not intended to portray a physical reality, but is a figure of speech used to convey the reality that God is everywhere, and knows everything. To interpret these descriptions of God in a hyper-literal sense is actually to miss the literal meaning as indicated by the literary device, and thus misinterpret the Scripture. So to interpret the Scripture literally does include discovering the literal meaning being portrayed by figures of speech and symbols.

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