Literal or Figurative?

Speaking about the written Word of God, Jesus Christ said, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). When it comes to spiritual things beyond the realm of man’s five senses, the Word of God is the only credible witness. In stark contrast to the vague, groundless theories and speculations originating in the minds of men, God, the Author of life, presents clear, straightforward answers to man’s most pressing questions. Thus we must diligently look into God’s Word, the literature of eternity, and let Him speak for Himself about the deep issues of life, such as evil, sin and suffering.

The Bible is the standard of all literature, and God the Author of all authors. As literature, the Word of God contains a rich variety of linguistic thoughts, expressions and usages. Like any author, God has the right to use language as He deems appropriate to His purposes. E.W. Bullinger, an eminent British Bible scholar (1837-1913), identified the use of more than 200 figures of speech in the Bible. These figures greatly enrich its literary value, but more importantly are vital to our understanding and application of God’s manual for living.

Each reader of God’s Word is entrusted with a certain degree of personal responsibility. Those who endeavor to study, understand and interpret the Bible must become very sensitive to the literary devices it employs, because its study is not merely for cultural amusement. Our very lives, both temporal and eternal, depend on an accurate understanding of God’s words, which are the very “words of life.”

One’s concept of the Bible determines the attitude with which he approaches it. If you think of it as an impersonal “rulebook,” you will tend to consult it only in regard to “infractions,” rather than be motivated to study it with the intent of establishing a personal relationship with its Author. If you think it is only a history book, you may read it with little more than a detached curiosity.

Some have simplistically attempted to reduce it to a strictly literal document, thus trapping themselves in a maze of contradictions they are forced to ignore or deny. Others have so divorced the words of Scripture from the normal linguistic constraints of grammar, semantics, syntax and logic that the Author’s original intent is lost in a fog of personal speculation.

When God makes statements of fact, or uses language in the way it is normally used, we should surely take note. When He departs from customary usage of words, syntax, grammar and statements true to fact, we must take double note, for such departures serve to communicate truth better than can literal statements of fact. How can we tell when a biblical statement is literal or figurative? E.W. Bullinger asks and answers this most pertinent question:

It may be asked, “How are we to know then, when words are to be taken in their simple, original form (i.e., literally), and when they are to be taken in some other and peculiar form (i.e., as a Figure)? The answer is that, whenever and wherever it is possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed truth; or seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed [Emphasis ours]. And as it is employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized. [1]

One can easily see how critical a knowledge of figures of speech is to understanding God’s written communication to man. Without such knowledge, the honest reader comes face to face with overwhelming contradictions that, if not resolved, cannot but undermine his confidence that the Scriptures are truly “God-breathed.” It is our contention that Scripture being the Word of God presupposes its inherent accuracy and consistency. Thus we must explore the figurative language pertinent to the subject of evil, sin and suffering.

As the only credible witness of eternal and spiritual verities, the Bible gives testimony in a variety of ways — some literal, some figurative. Taking literal statements figuratively and figurative statements literally is a root cause of major doctrinal error in the orthodox Christian Church. This has too often resulted in the Word of God being twisted, distorted and misrepresented. If “God IS love” (1 John 4:8), then He cannot do anything that is not loving, and any verses that seem to indicate that He does cannot be taken literally. As you will see, understanding the figurative language in God’s Word is vital when it comes to reconciling the truth that God is love with the problem of evil, sin and suffering.


[1] E.W. Bullinger, Figures Of Speech Used In The Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1978), page xv.

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