The Use of Figures in the Bible

While the Bible does use figures of speech, many people today use the idea of figurative language as a cover for disbelieving Scripture.

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Very few people, even in churches, take the words of the Bible seriously today. This is particularly true when it comes to the study of prophecy yet to be fulfilled, many claiming that the book of Revelation is “full of figures of speech.” Such a claim, however, is a cover for unbelief. Yes, it is true that the Bible and the book of Revelation in particular use figures of speech, but the problem is that even if something is a figure, the questions still must be asked as to what kind of figure is being used and what is the literal meaning of the text. We use figures of speech everyday, but only when it comes to the Bible do people think that figurative language is mysterious and unknowable.

For example, the Lord quoted from Deuteronomy (8:3) when He said to the Adversary, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). His use of “bread” is an example of a synecdoche, a figure in which a part is put for a whole or a whole for a part. In this case, “bread” is used for “food,” but more specifically, it is used for the most basic sustenance the body needs to survive. The literal meaning still has to do with nourishment, that no matter how basic and healthy one’s diet is, unless time is spent in the Word of God, a person is dead inside.

Secondly, Revelation 4:6 says that “before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal.” In a case such as this, when the words “like” or “as” are used, we know immediately that we are dealing with a simile. The “sea of glass” is not really “crystal,” but it’s like crystal. So, what does this tell us? Well, when we consider the context, this scene is in heaven before the throne of God, and in the Old Testament, the tabernacle and temple were patterned after God’s dwelling place in heaven. Taking this into account, after the brazen altar in the tabernacle, one arrived at the laver of water to wash oneself before entering into the Holy Place. In Ephesians 5:26 Paul tells us about this that we are made clean by “the washing of water by the word.” Thus, this “sea of glass like unto crystal” is a simile for the Word of God. Now, we must daily wash ourselves in the Word of God, but then, we will be standing on the Word, secure and justified forever in God’s sight.

Third, Hebrews 12:29 says “For our God is a consuming fire.” Now, in such a case as this, the text uses a simple statement without either “like” or “as.” In situations like this, the reader must first ask, does the text make sense as it is? If it does, then take it literally, but if it doesn’t, then ask if it could be a metaphor. If it is a metaphor, then simply ask, what then is this metaphor literally saying about God? Then, look at the context, and we see that it describes God as the sovereign King of heaven and earth Whom we must approach very carefully in reverence and godly fear.

Yes, the Bible uses figures of speech, but we must never use the phrase “figures of speech” as a cover for unbelief. The Bible is clear, Jesus Christ will literally return to this earth to rule for 1000 years with His saints. This is put in several figurative ways, but it always comes back to that literal, physical truth when the type of figure is established.

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