The Figure of Speech – Hyperbole as used in the Bible

God is the Author of language, and the ability to communicate with words is one thing that sets apart man from all other creatures. Figures of speech add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. No one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible. When we recognize the figures of speech that He employs, we are able to more fully enjoy the richness of the Word of God, and also learn much more truth from it. It is important that we become at least somewhat familiar with the figures of speech in Scripture, of which there are more than 200 varieties. [1]

In this article we are going to cover (define and list examples of) hyperbole (pronounced “hi-per-bow-lee,” with the accent on the “per.” This figure has come into English, and hence we will not capitalize or italicize it), or “exaggeration.” The Eastern people loved to express themselves in colorful and powerful language (we Westerners do too), and nothing does that quite so well as the figure hyperbole. It comes from the Greek huper, which means “above” or “beyond,” and bole, a casting or a throwing. Hence, hyperbole is “a casting beyond,” or an exaggeration. People today use this figure of speech all the time even though they may not know its name. Often it is used to gain an advantage in an argument:

“You do that every time!”
“I do not!”
“Yes you do, you never put the dishes in the dishwasher!”

The above argument shows one of the problems that people, and Bible students, have when dealing with possible hyperboles. If in fact the person in the argument above never did put the dishes in the dishwasher, then we are dealing with a literal situation, not a hyperbole. It is more likely that the person did put the dishes away sometimes, but the other person was using hyperbole to make the point that they were left out most of the time. Thankfully, most of the time that hyperbole occurs in the Bible, the exaggeration can be ferreted out so the literal meaning of the text is clear. Let’s look at some examples of hyperbole in the Bible:

Matthew 5:29
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away…

Of course Jesus would be horrified if someone actually blinded himself, but the hyperbole makes the point well: we should not tolerate sin in our lives, and take whatever aggressive action we need to in order to stop sinning.

Luke 10:4
Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

Jesus said this to his disciples as he was sending them out to evangelize. He did not expect them to be so terse that they would not even return a “Hello.” By exaggerating, he was communicating to them that they had a job to do, and thus they were not to get involved in long greetings, which were customary, and conversations that would only distract them.

Luke 9:25
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?

No one could ever own so much that he became the sole owner of the world, so the suggestion is an exaggeration. However, the point is made that even if he could, it would not matter if he lost his life.

2 Chronicles 1:15
The king [Solomon] made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills.

Well, silver and gold may not have been as common as rocks, but the point of the figure is that Solomon was very rich, and his kingdom luxurious.

John 12:19
So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

This is a great example of how envy and jealousy cloud the mind. The fact was that many people did not follow Jesus, and many others were confused about him. But in the minds of the envious Pharisees, the number of people who followed Jesus was greatly exaggerated, so when they saw Jesus with a crowd, they called it the “whole world.”

There are many examples of hyperbole in the Bible, and as we read it with a growing sensitivity for what is literal and what is figurative, the oriental manner of speech and their use of this figure of speech will stand out more and more clearly.

Endnotes

[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).

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