When God Speaks Figuratively

September 08, 2016

by Vern Poythress

All the capabilities of language come to us as gifts of God. These capabilities include the capability both for simple description of events in time and for figurative expressions. When God speaks in Scripture, he uses all the capabilities masterfully. We should not despise figurative language, as if it were “inferior” to simple description. God himself in Scripture frequently uses poetic language, and that in itself shows us that it is valuable and not inferior.

We need to resist the modern atmosphere that tells us otherwise. In our modern context many people are heavily influenced by the prestige of science and its achievements. They may begin to think that only precise, literal, scientific description of speech are of value. Figures of speech are then seen as mere adornment, or even as false to the nature of reality.

In fact, God has built the world so that analogies and possibilities for metaphor abound. Scientific analysis offers only one perspective out of many. Some of the most fundamental analogies express God’s relationship to human beings, as when he tells us that he is king or father. Some analogies, like king and father, are easier to digest. Others, like the statement that God is “my rock” (Ps. 18:2), are more startling, but we can still work out what they mean.

All analogies within this world have their ultimate in divine language: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). The Word as the second person of the Trinity, is the ultimate expression of the character of God. He is “the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3) and therefore the ultimate “analogy” in relation to God the Father. God himself is therefore the ultimate starting point for thinking about all kinds of analogies within language. God authorizes both literal and figurative language in our own human communication.

Distinguishing the Figurative

What kinds of figurative language can we expect? First, we should note that, though we can roughly distinguish literal from figurative language, the boundary is not sharp. For one thing, live metaphors can gradually become dead metaphors over time. The first time someone said, “He departed from this life,” the expression exhibited a metaphorical extension of the notion of “departure” as a physical movement. But after continual reuse, speakers of English begin to recognize that “depart” has the meaning “die” as one of its senses. Its use to describe death ceases to be a lively metaphor, but becomes just another instance of one sense of the word depart.

We have another reason to see the boundary between literal and figurative as fluid when we deal with descriptions of God. When we say that God is a king, do we speak metaphorically? Since God is not a king on the same level as a human king, the expression is in a sense metaphorical comparison to a “literal” human king. But why do human kings exist? God made man in his image. And one aspect of the nature of imaging is that human beings can receive authority and exercise authority over other human beings—they can become kings. The ultimate king is God. The subordinate, derivative kings are human beings. So is human kingship a “metaphor” for God’s original, “literal” kingship? In a sense, yet, it depends on what we consider foundational.

God, who gives us language, is master of it.

God is the original king, who always exists. From that standpoint, human beings are kings only by metaphorical derivation from that original kingship. On the other hand, we may choose to start from the standpoint of common, earth-centered thinking, and from the standpoint of immediate visibility. We start with a human king, and in our own mind we think of this king as “literal,” because it is where we start within our own conscious thinking. Both ways of thinking harmonize with one another. They are two perspectives on the same reality.

We can also recognize different ways in which language may build on analogical relationships within the world. Literary people distinguish different kinds of figurative language: metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, hyperbole, sarcasm. They can also study larger literary forms such as allegories, which rely on extensive analogical relationships. Classifications of different kinds of figurative language are useful up to a point, because they help us to become familiar with the possibilities and adjust to them when we come across them in our reading. But I have doubts as to whether any classification could be complete, or whether the boundaries between different forms can be made perfectly precise.

Events and institutions in the Old Testament often have symbolical dimensions, which serve to point forward to the final redemption that God accomplished through Christ. In such cases, symbolical depth exists in addition to  the obvious level of physical objects and visible events in the Old Testament. Symbolical depth does not compete with physicality, but builds upon  it.

Accepting the Literal and Figurative

The main principle should be clear: God, who gives us language, is master of it. We should be open to the full range of ways in which he may choose to address us. We should come to the Bible with no special bias in favor of language with physical reference, or in favor of figurative language. We should be ready to treat each text in the Bible according to the way in which God intends it to function. We treat as figurative whatever he intends to function as figurative. And we accept a reference to physical realities in whatever texts refer to such realities. In addition with symbolical events and institutions we should be prepared to discern both a physical object and a symbolical significance (as in the case of animal sacrifice). The two exist as aspects of a complex whole.

In many cases, the contexts contain clear indications as to whether a particular piece of language is figurative, and in what way is it figurative. But we may also come across more difficult cases, where we must exercise patience. We may sometimes have to say that we do not know for sure. The difficulties in Scripture are also there by God’s design, and may serve as an occasion to grow in humility.

This piece is adapted from Vern Poythress, Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 176–179. Used with permission of the publisher.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

Next Post...

The Promise Is for You and Your Children

September 05, 2016

by Iain Duguid