Do we take the Bible literally or figuratively? This is an honest question that needs answering if we are to rightly divide God’s Word and understand, What does the Word say? The answer is twofold: When we read the Word of God, we take it literally whenever and wherever possible. But when a word or words in the Bible fail to be true to fact, the Word must be taken figuratively and understood in light of figures of speech.
Understanding figures of speech is of great importance in rightly dividing God’s Word. Every language is governed by laws, but sometimes we depart from these laws of language to increase the “power” of a word or the force of an expression. This departure gives the word or words a new form or fashion—a figure. Figures of speech are always more vivid than the literal statement itself. We use figures in our everyday speech. For example, a literal statement is “The man is compassionate and generous.” To state it figuratively, we might say, “That man would give the shirt off his back.” Figuratively, we use this expression to make a more vivid point about his generosity.
Or if a person skipped breakfast and worked through lunch, by late afternoon he might say to a co-worker, “I’m starving!” This person is not literally perishing due to famine, but figuratively he is stating that he is very hungry. See how using this figure of speech gets our attention?
Our heavenly Father gave us His pure, true Word. We can often take it literally. But God also uses figures of speech in the Bible to emphasize what He considers important.
When we read the Bible, we accept the Word of God literally whenever and wherever possible. An example of this is found in Acts 23 where we see the Apostle Paul in the custody of the chief captain in Jerusalem. While imprisoned, Paul was visited by his nephew, who informed him of a plot to kill him. Paul then called a centurion.
So he [a centurion] took him [Paul’s sister’s son], and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say unto thee.
This verse refers to “Paul the prisoner.” Being in the custody of the chief captain, Paul was literally a prisoner. We can take this statement literally. In Ephesians, Paul refers to himself as a “prisoner,” but there it is clear he is not speaking in literal terms.
I [Paul] therefore, the prisoner of the Lord….
At the time Ephesians was written, the Lord Jesus Christ was not living on the earth; thus Paul was not a literal prisoner of Jesus Christ. When a word or words fail to be true to fact, they are figures of speech to add emphasis. Paul’s saying that he was “the prisoner of the Lord” gives us a vivid image to show that, by Paul’s freewill choice, he committed himself to walk as Jesus Christ walked, according to the will of God. His stating it this way added more force than stating it in literal terms such as “I am committed to the Lord.”
Figures of speech always augment, always vitalize the statement. Figures of speech add force to the truth conveyed, emphasis to the statement of it, and depth to the meaning of it. To see this further, let’s look at a Biblical record that can be found in chapter 11 of The Bible Tells Me So, by Victor Paul Wierwille.
Isaiah 49:15 and 16:
Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.
Behold, I have graven [tattooed] thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls [hands] are continually before me.
Even though motherhood is an unforgettable human experience, God says that a woman could forget her baby. God tells us He will never forget one of His own. God follows this dramatic truth by using a graphic figure of speech attributing to Himself the human characteristic of palms: “I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.”
Because God is Spirit, He does not have literal hands, feet, or arms. Whenever human characteristics are attributed to God, it is the figure of speech called condescensio. Not only does God say He will never forget us; He tells us He has tattooed us on the palms of His hands, figuratively. The palms of our hands are very sensitive and delicate. The pain of tattooing on them would be too great to bear. Yet God says, “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” He says that He loves us so much He is willing to bear the excruciating pain of tattooing us on the palms of His “hands,” where He can see us constantly. Since God has no hands, this is figurative. God used this figure of speech to emphasize His great love for us….
This is an excerpt from the November/December 2012 issue of The Way Magazine.
Copyright© 2012 by The Way International. All rights reserved.
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