How many can remember arguing with our siblings and use an expression that our parents heard and we were in trouble. Some of us may have been tempted to use the line “It is just a figure of speech!” as if that helped the matter any. Figures of speech can get us in a lot of trouble if we are not careful to understand what exactly they mean.
The same is true with figures of speech in the Bible—we better recognize figures of speech or it can get us in trouble as well. Wayne Jackson does an excellent job of dealing with two serious mistakes that have led many to serious misinterpretation of the Scriptures—Mistaking the Literal for the Figurative and Mistaking the Figurative for the Literal. He gives very good tools one should use to identify figurative language; e.g., when the sense of the expression contradicts other plain nonfigurative passages.
One may not realize just how large the subject of figures of speech in the Bible can be. E. W. Bullinger’s Figures of Speech Used in the Bible is over 1100 pages. Bullinger catalogs some 200 distinctive figures of speech in the Bible, but estimates there are over 500 instances of figures in the Bible. That makes the study quite daunting. One should have a good working knowledge of this field, and Wayne Jackson’s byline of the book “a practical guide to understanding the figurative language of the Bible” is quite accurate.
Wayne Jackson has chapters dealing with specific types of figures of speech including similies, similitudes, allegories, metaphors, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, prolepsis, parables and typology. For those of us whose eyes begin to glaze over when discussing the difference between a metaphor and a simile, the book gives biblical example of these figures that are very enriching. In the chapter on Metonymy, Jackson writes:
The English term “metonymy” derives from two Greek roots, meta (a change), and onoma (name), hence, “a change in name.” The word has come to signify the process whereby the name of an object is changed to something else for the purpose of intensifying a comparison. An illustration will help clarify the nature of this figure of speech.Biblical Figures of Speech is very practical and informative. It is a work to introduce one to the field of hermeneutics—the interpretation of the Scriptures. If one does not know where to begin in this area of study, this is an excellent book to start with.
A group of Pharisees once warned Jesus that Herod Antipas wanted to kill him. The Lord responded, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today, and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course’” (Lk. 13:32 ESV). Christ might have said, “Herod is like a fox.” Had he expressed it in that way, he would have employed a simile. Or, he could have suggested, “Herod is a fox.” That would have been a metaphor. Instead, he dramatized the matter even more when he said, “Go tell that fox!” The ruler’s name is changed to the animal of comparison; Herod becomes the fox! The Lord may have been capitalizing upon the tendency of the fox toward malicious destructiveness; hence, the expression may be roughly equivalent to our term “varmint.” Such would surely harmonize with the ruler’s character—this weakling who beheaded God’s prophet (John the Baptizer) at behest of an evil woman. (Jackson, pp. 91-92).