Figurative language is often used to illustrate a point about a truth.

Examples of figurative language:

  • Matthew 5:13 -- Salt of the earth
  • Matthew 20:22 -- Able to drink the cup
  • John 10:7 -- I am the door of the sheep
  • John 10:11 -- I am the good shepherd
  • John 15:5 -- the vine and the branches and fruit
  • 1 Corinthians 12 -- the body of the church, and the bride of Christ

Figurative language in Scripture is essentially true.

Figures we use today give unnatural greatness to things we are describing, such as "she's an angel" or "that's a whale of an idea." The Bible does not exaggerate. It has much more reality than the thing it is describing. It is within the truth, and never beyond it in spiritual truth. Compare Psalm 18:11, 1 Timothy 6:16, 1 John 1:5 on the topic of darkness and light.

The same figurative language may have different meanings in different contexts.

Lion -- used of Christ. Revelation 5:5 (Lion of the tribe of Judah). Compare Hebrews 7:14 and Genesis 49:9.

Lion -- used of Satan. 1 Peter 5:8 (Satan as a roaring lion)

This illustrates another point that Satan often tries to imitate the things of God and of Christ. It is deception by association, and attempts to catch us and trip us when we are unsuspecting.

Figures of speech are sometimes taken from historical facts.

Hebrews 10:22 speaks of "hearts sprinkled"; compare with Hebrews 9:19 and Leviticus 8:6.

Revelation 19:14 speaks of "fine linen"; compare with Leviticus 16:4, 23-24

Classifications of various figures of speech.

Figures of speech are common to any language, and are common issues in any language translation. Let's look at some of the forms of figurative language found in the Scriptures.

Simile -- A formal comparison between two objects which have resemblance or likeness.

  • Isaiah 55:10-11: water and word
  • Jeremiah 23:29: word is like fire and hammer
  • Matthew 7:24-27: the wise and foolish man

Metaphor -- An implied comparison

  • I am the door, shepherd, light, way, vine; you are the branches (John 10 and 15).
  • Genesis 49:9: Judah and lion.

Synecdoche -- A connection between two objects where a part is used for the whole or the whole is used for a part.

  • Genesis 3:8: voice (or sound) walking -- the person of the voice was walking.  Also used as an anthropomorphism.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:2: saints will judge the world -- people or individuals in the world.

Metonymy -- A change of name -- the use of one word for another which it suggests.

  • John 13:8: Wash (purify or cleanse)
  • 1 Peter 3:21: Baptism (not removal of dirt from the flesh) (appeal to God for a good conscience)
  • 1 Corinthians 11:27: The cup (not the cup itself, but the contents of the cup)

Allegory -- Any statement of supposed fact which possibly could be given a literal interpretation which requires or properly permits a figurative interpretation. Pure allegory: No statement of interpretation or application; Mixed allegory: An interpretation given or implied.

  • Luke 15:11-32: Pure (Lost son)
  • Psalm 80:8-19: Mixed

Parable -- Allegory written like a history with things that could be taken literally.  From para (alongside) and ballo (to throw): to throw an illustration alongside as teaching.

  • See Matthew 13 for a series of parables.

Type -- An allegory is a double representation in words. A type is a double representation in action.

  • The literal (physical) event representing a similar spiritual truth or event.
  • A divinely purposed anticipation which illustrates its antitype (example: the Passover)

Symbol -- Outward representation of a spiritual truth.

  • The type prefigures
  • The symbol follows -- Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12
  • Example: the elements of the Lord's Supper, or Baptism
  • See 1 Corinthians 11:23 and following.

Figurative language is often explained by context.

  • Hosea 4:12-13
  • Matthew 26:28-29
  • Matthew 16:6 -- compare to 16:12
  • John 6:57