Interpreting Figures
of Speech

Σ2005 G. Lee Griffith, Ph. D.

The Problem

•       This skill is one of the most misunderstood in interpreting the Bible.

•       When Jesus says, "I am the door" does he really mean it?

•       No of course he does not mean that he has a handle and hinges.

•       He does really mean that he is the doorway to God.

•       When you speak about spiritual realities you must use analogies to physical realities.

•       God is not located in one place so we cannot expect that a physical door will lead to him. But just as we need doors to enter rooms, and need to know where they are and which is the correct one, Jesus tells us that He is the door to God and that is really true and very important.

•       When a writer or speaker refers to something that is not directly perceivable by the senses the author will use a figure of speech.

•       There are many different types and learning to recognize and interpret them is a very important skill.

•       Study carefully the lists below so you will easily recognize the most common figures of speech.

The Solution

1. Identify the fact that the author is using a figure of speech.

2. Determine the type of figurative language used.

3. Interpret what the author meant by his [or her] use of that particular figure of speech.

4. Translate the figure into nonfigurative language.

(Arthur, Kay. How to Study Your Bible. 1994)



•       (Note: The material below has been extensively modified from notes supplied by Rod Jamison based on a class taken at Biblical Theological Seminary)

•       Other links:

•       Extremely Detailed Categorization System for Figures of Speech

•       List of figures with some examples

•       Long technical discussion with examples

•       Worksheet with examples

•       Short article with examples

•       Explanation of 8 Figures

•       Figurative Language in the Poetry of Robert Frost

•       Interesting Non-biblical examples

•       Good Visualization of Relationship of Figures

The List
















•       A figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by like or as, as in “How like the winter hath my absence been” or “So are you to my thoughts as food to life” (Shakespeare).

•       Amos 2:9 "Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them,  Though his height was like the height of cedars  And he was strong as the oaks;

•       Isaiah 53:6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. (NASB)

•        Luke 13:34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

•       Jeremiah. 23:29 "Is not my word like fire?" declares the Lord, "and like a hammer which shatters a rock? (NASB)

•       Revelation 1:14-15 His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters.

•       Psalm 42: 1 As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God


•       Compares two items and gives the point of similarity, but differs from a simile in that the comparison is not made explicit (formal) by the use of words such as "like" or "as". Rather, the comparison is left inexplicit (direct). The two items being compared are apparently equated.

•       Isaiah 56:10 Israel's watchmen are blind,  they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs,  they cannot bark; they lie around and dream,  they love to sleep. [The watchmen were not dogs but apparently they were useless]

•       Matthew 10:6 but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (NASB) [The disciples were not to go to the sheep of Israel but to the people who were like sheep.]

•       1 John 1:5. And this is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. (NASB) [God is not light but is like light in some respects]

•       John 15:5 Jesus says, "I am the vine, you are the branches." [Jesus is a person not a vine but our relation to Him is like vine to branch]



•       me·ton·y·my (mə-tŏn'ə-mē)  A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of Washington for the United States government.

•       The associative relation may temporal, spatial, or logical. The pen (written word) is mightier than the sword (violence).

•       Luke 16:29  “But Abraham* said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.‘ (NASB) [Moses and prophets represents the Old Testament Scriptures]

•       Romans 3:30 Or is God {the God} of Jews only? Is He not {the God} of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. (NASB) ["circumcised" = Jews "uncircumcised" = Gentiles]

•       1 Corinthians 11:26 For whenever
you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the Lord's death
until he comes [You do not drink
the cup but the contents of the cup]


•       syn·ec·do·che (sĭ-nĕk'də-kē)  n. A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).

•       Genesis 42:38 But Jacob said, "My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.“ (NASB) ["my gray head" = whole body]

•       Luke 10:23 And turning to the disciples, He said privately, "Blessed {are} the eyes which see the things you see, (NASB)

•       Acts 5:9 Then Peter {said} to her, "Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out {as well}.“ (NASB)

Metonymy vs. Synecdoche

•      Metonymy: close relationship

–  White House says= President says






•      Synecdoche: part to whole or whole to part

–  Give me a hand=you actually want the whole person


•       An agreeable word or expression substituted for one that is potentially offensive, often having to do with bodily functions, sex, or death; for example, rest room for toilet, lady of the evening for prostitute. The Nazis used euphemism in referring to their plan to murder the world's Jews as “the Final Solution.”

•       Used in NT of God, death, the Gentiles, and sex.

•       John 19:11 Jesus answered, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has {the} greater sin. "(NASB) [“Above” is an indirect way of referring to God.]

•       Philippians 1:23 But I am hard-pressed from both {directions,} having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for {that} is very much better; (NASB) [“Depart and be with Christ” is a less direct way of saying die.]

•       Acts 2:39 "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.“ (NASB) [“All who were far off” is a way of referring to the Gentiles without using the word.]

•       Matthew 1:25 And kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (NASB) [“Kept her a virgin” is  a less direct way of saying they did not have sexual intercourse.]


•       A figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities or are represented as possessing human form, as in Hunger sat shivering on the road or Flowers danced about the lawn.

•       Numbers 16:32  And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah, with {their} possessions. (NASB) [The earth does not have a mouth like a person.]

•       Matthew 6:34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. [Days do not worry like people.]

•       Psalms 114:3-6 The sea looked and fled; The Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, The hills, like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? (NASB) [Each of these natural phenomenon are described as people]

•       Romans. 7:11 for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. (NASB) [Sin does not deceive people deceive.]

•       Psalm 73:9 They have set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue parades through the earth.
[Tongues do not parade people do.]

•       Genesis 4:10 And he [Cain] said, "I do not know.
Am I my brother's keeper?" And He said,
"What have you done? The voice of your brother's
blood is crying to Me from the ground.
[Blood does not cry, people cry].


•        Figure of speech in which an absent person, a personified inanimate being, or an abstraction is addressed as though present. The term is derived from a Greek word meaning “a turning away,” and this sense is maintained when a narrative or dramatic thread is broken in order to digress by speaking directly to someone not there, e.g., “Envy, be silent and attend!”—Alexander Pope, “On a Certain Lady at Court.”

•       Psalms. 114:5-7 What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, before the Lord, Before the God of Jacob, (NASB)

•       Zechariah. 4:7 "What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of 'God bless it! God bless it!' "

•       2 Samuel 18:33 And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And thus he said as he walked, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!“ (NASB)

•       Revelation 18:10 Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:  " 'Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!'


Personification vs. Apostrophe

•      In both inanimate objects are
portrayed as human

•      In personification the characteristics
of the objects are stated directly.

–   Gershwin-- “ love walked in”

•      In apostrophe the object is addressed as if it were a person (or as if the person was present)

–   Simon-- “ hello darkness, my old friend”

–   Hart -- “ blue moon, you saw me standing alone;”

–   Mercer-- “ Moon River, I’m crossing you in style someday”

Litotes (ly’ ta tees)

•       Figure of speech in which a statement is made by indicating the negative of its opposite, e.g., “not many” meaning “a few.” A form of irony, litotes is meant to emphasize by understating. Its opposite is hyperbole.

•       Mark 9:41 I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward. [Actually will gain a reward.]

•       Acts 21:39 Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people." [Tarsus was an important city.]

•       Romans 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. [Paul was proud of the gospel declaring it to everyone.]

•       1 Corinthians 1:26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. [Not many just a few.]



•       Figure of speech in which exceptional exaggeration is deliberately used for emphasis rather than deception*

•       Mark 9:43-47 "And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, [where \their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.] "And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell, [where \their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.] "And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, (NASB)

•       Luke 14:26 "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. (NASB)

•       John 12:19 The Pharisees therefore said to one another, "You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him."(NASB)

•       John 21:25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they* were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself* would not contain the books which* were written. (NASB)

•       Exodus 8:17 All the dust of the earth became gnats...

•       Deuteronomy 1:28 The cities are large and fortified to heaven

Examples of Hyperbole

•        "Your sister is so dumb, she walked by the YMCA and thought they spelled MACY'S wrong" Alicia, from Shannon Elementary School, in Pinole, California, USA

•        "I think of you a million times a day" Vern Sal, from Jose Rizal Memorial State College, in Dipolog City, the Philippines

•        "The test was so hard, by the time I finished it I was 100 years old!" Ranada, from Larose M.S., Larose, Louisiana, USA

•        "Saskatchewan is so flat, you can see your dog run away for 4 days!" Jenna, from Olympic Heights School, Calgary

•        "Your momma is so dumb, she got locked in the grocery store and starved to death!" Vicky Moreno, from T.C. Marsh M.S., Dallas, Texas, USA

•        "Your momma is so dumb, she thought TACO BELL was a Mexican phone company." Mrs. Jonas' 4th Period Class, T.C. Marsh M.S., Dallas, Texas, USA

•        "It was so cold, even the polar bears were wearing jackets." Elizabeth, from Covington, USA

•        "Our library is so old, its book pages are numbered with roman numarals ... written by the Romans!" Bobby W.

•        "My girlfreind is so popular, she has her own 900 number." Ed, from Lebanon, USA

•        "That boy's eyes are so big, they look like they're going to jump out and grab you! Ashley Clarke

•        "My best friend is so forgetful, I sometimes have to remind her what her name is!" Katie Holmes

•        "The Eiffel Tower is so big, when I looked up I nearly got whiplashed!" Kerri, from Dexter, Missouri

Litotes vs. Hyperbole

•      Litotes is understatement for effect

–   He is no Einstein = he is not very smart

•      Hyperbole is overstatement for effect

–   "Your sister's so skinny, she has to run around in the shower to get wet" Cliff, from Valley View Elementary School, in Richmond, California, USA




•       Figure of speech in which what is stated is not what is meant. The user of irony assumes that his reader or listener understands the concealed meaning of his statement. Perhaps the simplest form of irony is rhetorical irony, when, for effect, a speaker says the direct opposite of what she means.*

•       1 Kings 18:27 And it came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.“ (NASB) [Elijah does nor believe he is a god.]

•       Job 12:1-2 Then Job replied: "Doubtless you are the people, and wisdom will die with you ![Job does not think them wise or that it will die with them.]

•       1 Corinthians 4:8,10 8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!. . .  10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!

Hyperbole vs. Irony

•      There is overlap between these two.

•      Hyperbole is used when there is some truth to the statement but it is being exaggerated.

–   "My history teacher's so old, he lived through everything we've learned about ancient Greece" Ryan, CFS, Willingboro, USA [The teacher is old but not that old.]

•      Irony is saying the opposite.

–   The Jewish leaders said of Christ: Hail, King of the Jews! [The Jewish leaders did not regard Christ as their king.]


•       An image transferred by something that stands for or represents something else, like flag for country, or autumn for maturity. Symbols can transfer the ideas embodied in the image without stating them*

•       Symbols can be ambiguous if no "key" is given to their interpretation, e.g., the number of the beast, 666, is an ambiguous symbol.

•       Exodus 13:21-22. And the \Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22 He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. (NASB)

•       Genesis 9:13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

•       Matthew 26:26-28  While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." 27Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. 28This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.


•       A poetic story that illustrates a moral or teaches a lesson, usually in which animals or inanimate objects are represented as characters.*

•       Judges 9:6-21  Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelech king. 7 When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, "Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. 8 One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, 'Be our king.' 9 "But the olive tree answered, 'Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honored, to hold sway over the trees?' . . .

•       2 Kings. 14:8-9 Then Amaziah sent messengers to Jehoash son of Jehoahaz, the son of Jehu, king of Israel, with the challenge: "Come, meet me face to face." 9 But Jehoash king of Israel replied to Amaziah king of Judah: "A thistle in Lebanon sent a message to a cedar in Lebanon, 'Give your daughter to my son in marriage.' Then a wild beast in Lebanon came along and trampled the thistle underfoot.


•      A simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson.*

•      An extended simile—the kingdom of heaven is like. . .

•      Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 Parable of the soils

•      Luke 10:25-37 Parable of the Good Samaritan

•      Luke 15:11-32 Parable of the Prodigal Son

List of Biblical Parables

•        Name                                Matthew             Mark                  Luke                  John

•        The Wise and the Foolish Builders                   7:24-27               -                       -                       -

•        The Sower 13:3-23               4:1-20                8:5-15                -

•        The Tares  13:24-30             -                       -                       -

•        The Mustard Seed               13:31-32             4:30-32               13:18-19             -

•        The Leaven                        13:33                 -                       13:20-21             -

•        The Hidden Treasure            13:44                 -                       -                       -

•        Pearl of Great Price             13:45-46             -                       -                       -

•        Drawing in the Net                13:47-50             -                       -                       -

•        The Lost Sheep                   18:12-14             -                       14:3-7                -

•        Unmerciful Servant               18:23-35             -                       -                       -

•        Laborers in the Vineyard        20:1-16               -                       -                       -

•        The Two sons                     21:28-32             -                       -                       -

•        The Wicked Husbandman      21:33-44             12:1-12               20:9-18               -

•        Marriage of the King's Son     22:1-14               -                       -                       -

•        Leafing Fig Tree                  24:32                 -                       -                       -

•        The Ten Virgins                   25:1-13               -                       -                       -

•        Ten Talents                        25:14-30             -                       -                       -

•        Seed Growing Secretly          -                       4:26-29               -                       -

•        The Leafing Fig Tree            -                       13:28-29             -                       -

•        Man Going On a Far Journey -                       13:34-37             -                       -

•        The Two Debtors                 -                       -                       7:41-47               -

•        The Good Samaritan            -                       -                       10:30-37             -

•        The Friend at Night              -                       -                       11:5-8                -

•        The Rich Fool                     -                       -                       12:16-21             -

•        Servants Waiting for Their Lord                       -                       -                       12:35-40             -

•        The Barren Fig Tree             -                       -                       13:6-9                -

•        The Great Supper                -                       -                       14:15-24             -

•        Lost Money                        -                       -                       15:8-10               -

•        The Prodigal Son                 -                       -                       15:11-32             -

•        The Unjust Steward              -                       -                       16:1-9                -

•        The Rich Man and the Beggar Lazarus              -                       -                       16:19-31             -

•        The Importunate Widow        -                       -                       18:1-8                -

•        Pharisee and the Publican      -                       -                       18:9-14               -

•        Parable of the Pounds           -                       -                       19:11-27             -

•        Good Shepherd                   -                       -                       -                       10:11-18

•        The Vine    -                       -                       -                       15:1-5


•      An extended metaphor

•      The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form. *

•      Isaiah 5:1-7 Allegory of the Vineyard

•      John 10:1-16 Allegory of the Sheepfold
[Jesus is the Good Shepherd]

•      John 15:1-6 Allegory of the Vine and Branches
[Jesus is the Vine, we are the branches.]

Examples of Allegories

•      John Bunyan Pilgrim's Progress

•      George Orwell Animal Farm

•      William Golding Lord of the Flies

•      Herman Melville Moby Dick

Allegory vs. Fable vs. Parable

Sample Exercise:  Interpreting Figures of Speech

•      1. Verse: Matthew 5:14

•      2. Text: 14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

•      3. Type of figure: Metaphor

•      4. Explanation of figure: Christians are not literally light. Christians are to be like light in a specific way. Light is meant for others to see something other than the light itself. We are to let our light shine, meaning do our good deeds so that by the "light" of our good deeds others will see God and glorify Him.