4 Guidelines for Understanding Figurative Language in Scripture

Believing the Bible is the inerrant Word of God doesn't mean taking everything in it literally...
Every word of God is true, but not every word of God is meant to be taken literally. Sometimes God uses figurative language to convey truth.

Some Islamic courts cut off the hands of people caught stealing (source). Christians don’t advocate such harsh punishments, but we would if we took Matthew 5:30 literally.

Scripture contains hyperbole, personification, metaphors and other figurative language. If we insist that every word is literal, we'll need to join the flat earth society.(1)

Four Guidelines for Understanding Figurative Language in Scripture:
1. It's true and accurate in the figurative sense.
2. It's divinely inspired.
3. Some parables are similes or analogies, presented as such: "the kingdom of heaven is like ...." (Matthew 13:24).
4. Stories and narratives are historical fact. Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and God parted the Red Sea.  

It's not hard to discern figurative language in Scripture, but it's important that we do.

(1) A number of passages talk about the four corners of the earth (e.g.Rev. 7:1). If we took those passages literally, then we would have to claim that despite satellite photography the earth is flat. By the way, Christianity never promoted a flat earth - see Flat Earth Lie.

If you want to study this concept more:
The Figurative Language of Scripture
How to Distinguish Literal from Figurative
Bible Study

4 Guidelines for Understanding Figurative Language in Scripture
Today's lesson is more a Bible help, than study, designed to give us a foundation for Bible study.

Don’t be confused by figurative and poetic language in Scripture. Isaiah 55:12 says trees clap their hands in praise of God. We know trees don’t have literal hands but the imagery is beautiful. We trust and believe these are God’s perfect words, but we know they are not meant to be taken literally. 


1. Believing a word is poetic doesn't mean it's untrue, nor does it mean it's not divinely inspired. It means that God speaks to us in creative ways to help us understand some concepts.

2. If a word or phrase contradicts other clear teachings of Scripture, it's poetic/figurative. For example, if God literally "forgot" our sins, he would no longer be omniscient (Hebrews 4:12-13) nor could He rebuke us for our sins (Revelation 3:19).  We should not even desire that God be literally unable to see our sins, our weaknesses, our problems – who wants a god with dementia? That kind of god can’t help anyone.

3. Usually (not always) poetic language is found in portions of the Old Testament prophets and in the "poetic books" - Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon.

4. The narratives and stories in Scripture are real, not fictional analogies. Believing God uses poetic language does not mean He tells stories that aren't true.

5. Parables are not necessarily true stories if they begin with phrases such as: "The kingdom of heaven will be like...."  These are comparisons using the figurative speech called a "simile." 

6. Not everything referred to as a parable is figurative. The Good Samaritan is not introduced as a simile, so we should not automatically assume it is one. However, figurative or factual, it transmits the same truth. 

We must take great care not to interpret a figurative passage as fact when it contradicts other passages of Scripture (#2 above). Nor should we interpret true stories in the Bible as fiction.
copyright 2017, Gail Burton Purath, BiteSizeBibleStudy.com

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1 comment:

  1. All the above is wise and true commentary and makes the Holy Scriptures come on as real like our other experiences and learning processes!