Why are there Metaphors in the Bible? How do I Interpret Them?

by | Jun 12, 2023

When reading the Bible, you’ll often encounter various common literary devices.

One that is commonly used throughout the library of Scripture is known as metaphor. In using metaphors, the author uses common examples to convey uncommon or transcendent truths and ideas.

It’s this literary device that enables us to better understand God, His nature, and His ways.

Throughout the pages of the Bible, metaphors are used to relay various truths about God that would be otherwise difficult to grasp at face value. Because when it comes to God and His nature, our finite minds struggle to comprehend His beauty and majesty and glory.

And “revel in God’s strange abundance” is exactly what the metaphors of Scripture invite us to do.

Let’s look at a few metaphors found in Scripture.

The Vine and The Branches

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

In John 15:5, Jesus is communicating to His disciples the nature of their relationship with Him by using a metaphor.

And in this metaphor, Jesus is the vine and the disciples are the branches.

What does this metaphor communicate?

A vine and its branches implies an organic relationship, one that changes and grows. Such a metaphor tells us that the disciples’ life is not static. It also implies a sense of connectedness, even a sense of extension. In this manner, Jesus’ disciples do not do works of their own power; instead, they must receive strength and ability from the source.

When describing the relationship between a finite people and an infinite God, Jesus chose to use a metaphor involving a vine and its branches. And because of that, we are better able to understand the type of relationship God desires to have with His people. A relationship not characterized by striving to earn God’s love, but one of abiding in the love God already offers to us.

The Potter and The Clay

Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

In Isaiah 64:8 of the Old Testament, God is describing His role in the lives of His people. And in order to effectively communicate His role, God chooses a metaphor involving pottery.

God depicts Himself as the potter, with us being clay in His hands.

Just as a potter shapes and molds the clay based on their own intention and design, so God shapes and molds us as His people.

This metaphor helps us to better understand God’s role as having sole discretion over His design and purpose for our lives.

In a world that leads us to believe that our life is in your hands, with us at the helm, God chooses to use a metaphor to communicate something entirely different.

Our life isn’t in our hands, and it’s not us directing the ship of our lives.

On the contrary, like clay is the hands of a potter, so are we in the hands of God.

The Salt of the Earth

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

In this excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew 5:13 , Jesus describes our role as His people by using a metaphor involving salt. In Famous Metaphors in the Bible-Literary Devices, we read,

In biblical times, salt was very important as a preservative, flavoring, and even as currency.

Because of the cultural context, salt was a great way to describe the role followers of Jesus played on the earth.

As the salt of the earth, followers of Jesus serve to preserve the Gospel message, bring out, in the words of Eugene Peterson, the “God flavors” in the world, and add value to everyone around them.

Rather than making an obscure statement such as “go make a difference,” Jesus communicates to us through metaphor how we are uniquely called to make a difference. And Jesus does this through a common substance such as salt.

How Figurative Language Can Deepen Your Relationship with God

The Bible’s inclusion of so many figures for God is both an invitation and a caution. The invitation is to discovery: discovery of who God is, and what our friendship with God might become. The caution is against assuming that any one image of God, whatever truth it holds, adequately describes God.

Because we are finite and our God is infinite, it’s often difficult to understand every aspect of His nature. And while the mystery of God isn’t removed in its entirety, it is alleviated by way of metaphors.

The various metaphors used throughout Scripture help us to understand God in a deeper and more intimate way.

The metaphors we find in God’s Word invite us to lean into the imagery, while also embracing the mystery. It’s through metaphors that we have the opportunity to swim in the endless ocean of who God is, trusting that as we go we will grow closer to the One who created us and go a little deeper into the depths of His glory and grace.

As you encounter the various metaphors used throughout Scripture, take the time to lean into the imagery, embrace the mystery, and ask God to help you better understand what He is communicating in His Word.

If you’d like to continue on that journey, we’ve created a library of resources just for you.

To check out our online catalog of various courses to help you deepen your understanding of the Bible and grow closer to the Author, click here.

Each course has been created intentionally to help you better understand the library of Scripture, as well as aiding you on your journey of growth and maturity in God’s family.

To learn more about what AWKNG School of Theology has to offer or to sign up for one of our courses, please visit awkngschooloftheology.com.

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