Hyperbole, Metaphor, and Personification
by Ligonier Ministries
Proper biblical interpretation requires we take basic literary forms into account when reading a passage of Scripture. Yesterday we looked at the Bible’s use of phenomenological and anthropomorphic language. Today we will spend our time covering three other basic literary forms found throughout Scripture.
Hyperbole. A hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration used to make a point. It is not the same as a lie or a distortion because the speaker expects his audience to understand he exaggerates the truth to make a point — not that he is giving a specific statement of fact. One clear example of hyperbole in Scripture is Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31–32). In this parable, He says the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds. However, it is well known that there are seeds smaller than the mustard seed. Thus, if we do not understand the use of hyperbole, we might think Jesus is teaching error. However, hyperbole demonstrates that Jesus’ primary point in this parable is not to give a precise, horticultural fact. Rather, He is pointing out that the Kingdom of God starts very small but will grow to be very large.
Metaphor. This language makes implicit comparisons by using a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing to another. One example of this in the Bible is when Jesus says about Himself: “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7). In this statement, Jesus is not teaching He is made out of wood, has hinges, and so forth. He uses the word “door” to show His disciples that He is the entryway into the presence of God, much like normal doors are entryways into various rooms and other areas.
Personification. Personification occurs when personal forms of description are used for impersonal things. When we impart human characteristics to inhuman things, we engage in personification. A good example of this is in Isaiah 55:12. This verse speaks about mountains singing and trees clapping their hands. Obviously, Isaiah does not think the mountains will literally sing or the trees literally clap. Rather, he uses poetic license to vividly express the tremendous joy that will come to the whole world when the people of God repent and turn back to the Lord.
CORAM DEO Living before the face of God
Many critics read the Bible differently than they read other books. Thus, passages like Matthew 13:31–32 are sometimes wrongly viewed as examples of error. Remind the critics you know the Bible is a literary work, and, like other works, we must read it with hyperbole, metaphor, and personification in mind.