Figures of speech and symbolic language in the Bible

The Bible, throughout its pages, uses both figures of speech and symbolic language.

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There are many symbols. Some of these, what they represent, and where in Scripture they are found, are:-

Symbol Literal Passage
God’s face His presence Numbers 6:25-26; Psalm 34:16
God’s arm/hand His power Psalm 21:8; Psalm 89:13
God’s eyes His awareness Proverbs 15:3; 1 Peter 3:12
God’s ears His listening Psalm 31:2; Isaiah 59:1
Trumpets God’s speaking Exodus 19:19
Thunder God’s voice Psalm 29:3
Rainbow God’s promise Genesis 9:13
Throne God’s glory Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:26
Arrows God’s judgments Psalm 38:2; Psalm 120:4

There are also some symbolic actions:-

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Symbol Literal Passage
Breaking a jar Destruction of Jerusalem Jeremiah 19:10-11
Cursing of a fig-tree Judgment Matthew 21:18-19; Mark 11:12-14
Washing hands Innocence Matthew 27:24
Being thirsty Spiritual need Psalm 63:1; John 7:37
Baptism Burial Romans 6:3-4
Lord’s Supper Remembrance Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Harvesting Judgment day Joel 3:12-13; Matthew 13:29-30; Revelation 14:15
Tearing garments Anger and sorrow Genesis 37:29,34; Joshua 7:6
Spitting Contempt Isaiah 50:6; Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65
Lifting of hands Prayer Psalm 63:4; 1 Timothy 2:8

There are also animals used as symbols.

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Symbol Literal Passage
Various animals Earthly kingdoms Daniel 7:2-7,17; Daniel 8:20-22
Lamb Jesus’ sacrifice Revelation 5:6

Care is needed sometimes in determining whether a statement of Scripture is literal or symbolic. Some guidelines for this are:-

  1. How the statement is used elsewhere in Scripture;
  2. Whether it is referenced as being part of a dream or vision; or
  3. Whether Bible verses close around it are obviously literal or symbolic (that is, context).

However, sometimes the Bible itself explains what the symbols mean (as in the cases of Daniel and Revelation referred to above).

The Bible also employs many figures of speech. These are departures from the normal rules of grammar or word usage. They are there to give special emphasis, to call attention to the point, or to add force or power to an expression. Some examples of these are:-

Personification: Ascribing human characteristics to something else, such as “the trees will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).

Exaggeration: Saying that things are greater than they are, such as “Saul & Jonathan…they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions”  (2 Samuel 1:23).

Metonymy: Changing one noun for another related one, such as “for where your treasure is, there will your heart (thoughts & affections) be also” (Matthew 6:21).

Name change: Changing a name for a description, such as “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One” – meaning Jesus  (Acts 3:14).

Euphemism: Changing what is unpleasant for something pleasant , such as “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” – died (John 11:11).

Simile: Comparison by resemblance, such as “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church…” (Ephesians 5:25).

Representation: Comparison by one thing’s representing another, such as “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).

Irony: Thought in a form that conveys its opposite, such as “Doubtless you are the people and wisdom will die with you” (Job 12:2).

Oxymoron: A wise saying that seems foolish, such as “Your light will rise in the darkness …” (Isaiah 58:10).

Idiom: Unusual usage of words or phrases “break bread,” “turn to ashes,” “hide from your eyes,” etc.

It can be seen from the above that some phrases in the Bible may not be as clear to understand as they first seem. That is when comparison of one Scripture against another becomes most helpful.

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