Literal vs. Figurative

figurative-languageI would like to know the difference in literal language and figurative language used in the Bible.

Let’s begin by looking at the dictionary definition of literal and figurative.  The word literal means “in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical.”  The word figurative means, “of the nature of or involving a figure of speech, especially a metaphor; metaphorical and not literal: The word “head” has several figurative senses.”  A figure, in this sense, is a symbol of something else: “something used for or regarded as representing something else; emblem, token, or sign.”  So, that which is literal is that which refers to itself.  That which is figurative is that refers to something else.  Take the word “horse,” for example.  When I say, “Look at that horse grazing in the pasture.”  I am referring to an animal with four legs that is part of the equine family of animals.  On the other hand, if I were to say, “That man is a horse.”  I am not saying that a certain fellow is a member of the equine family, I am saying that he is big, strong, and tireless.  I could say that he eats like a horse, which doesn’t mean that he grazes in the pasture, but rather, that he has a large appetite.  So, when I am speaking literally, words are being used in their strict sense not to refer to anything other than themselves.  When I am speaking figuratively, words are not being used in a strict sense, but rather, to compare to something else and refer to something else to give a different idea.

How does this help with Bible study?  The Bible uses words in many different ways, sometimes literal, and sometimes figurative.  How do we know which is which?  Let’s look at a few examples.  Psalm 23 is a beloved Psalm and it is a prime example for the use of literal and figurative language.  Is the Lord a literal shepherd tending literal sheep?  Does He literally make us lie down in green pastures?  On the other hand, does He literally restore our soul?  Does he lead us in paths of righteousness?  Some of these statements are figurative, and some are literal.  Turn to Luke 8 and read the parable of the sower.  When we read this parable, Jesus is telling us a story of a person who is planting seed for harvest.  However, when he interprets it, he tells us that the seed is the word of God.  Jesus is not speaking in literal language, but in figures or symbols.  What he literally says means something different than its primary or strict meaning.

One reason why we need figurative language is so that we can better understand some things that we can’t understand directly.  God, angels, demons, heaven, and hell are all spiritual realities that we cannot directly perceive.  If we are going to learn about these things, then they need to be described for us in language that we understand.  So the Lord is compared to being a shepherd.  God is sometimes called a “high tower” in the book of Psalms.  Jesus is a lion who is also a lamb in the book of revelation.  Satan is a roaring lion.  Heaven is described as a city made of gold, pearls, and all kinds of precious substances, very precious.  Hell is described as a place of fire and brimstone, very deadly.  Using figures like this helps us to understand about these things that we can’t directly grasp, and gives us an idea of the meanings of these things.

Having said that, we need to be careful that we don’t interpret the Bible literally where something is figurative in meaning, or vice versa for that matter.  A good rule is to interpret literally unless context indicates otherwise.  We can do this if we will remind ourselves of these things when we sit down to study God’s word.  Another rule is to interpret more difficult figurative passages in light of easier to understand literal passages.  For example, we read that Jesus became human.  However, he is also described as a lamb.  If we were to conclude that Jesus was not a human, then we would be interpreting a literal passage in light of a figurative one.  We conclude that He was a human, then understand the description of Him as a lamb is figurative.