Personification, Hyperbole, and Metaphor

You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

- Isaiah 55:12

Second Timothy 2:15 exhorts us to make sure that we are “rightly handling the word of truth,” so it is vital that we understand the sound principles of biblical interpretation. The most basic of these is that we read the Bible literally, paying attention to its basic literary forms and genres so that we will not miss what the text conveys. Three more basic literary forms are worthy of our attention since they appear so frequently from Genesis through Revelation: personification, hyperbole, and metaphor.

In personification, an author uses personal descriptions for impersonal things, attributing personal characteristics to impersonal entities. Many people in our culture do this every day by calling their vehicles “she” or “he.” In literature, we often find personification used in poetry, and the poetic passages of Scripture are filled with examples of impersonal entities’ being described with personal attributes. For instance, today’s passage refers to trees clapping their hands and mountains singing (Isa. 55:12). We are not meant to think that trees will actually clap their hands, for trees do not have hands, and it would be silly to think the mountains will sing notes, for mountains lack voices. Instead, Isaiah personifies the trees and the mountains in order to stress the great joy that will result when God’s people return to Him.

Another basic literary form is hyperbole, which is the use of intentional exaggeration to make a point. Hyperbole is not deception, for the author or speaker intends the audience to know he is exaggerating to express a particular truth. When someone says he is so hungry he could eat a whale, no one thinks that person is going to be devouring an actual whale. All the person is doing is stressing his hunger.

One place we find hyperbole is in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31–32). Jesus does not mean that there is no seed smaller than the mustard seed; He is simply pointing to the smallest seed commonly found in ancient Palestine to make a point about the kingdom. The kingdom starts out so tiny as to be all but invisible, but from its small beginnings, it grows into a large realm.

Finally, there is the literary form of metaphor wherein a speaker or author uses a word or phrase that normally designates one thing in order to designate another. For instance, Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7). Jesus does not mean that He has a doorknob on His body but that He is the only means of entry into God’s kingdom, just as a door is the means of entry into a room.

Coram Deo

Some people point to obvious instances of hyperbole, personification, or metaphor in Scripture and use them to accuse the Bible of not telling the truth. That represents a failure to read the text as it was intended by its original author. We should call them to be fair and recognize the use of other literary forms just as these critics would expect others to recognize hyperbole, personification, or metaphor when they themselves speak in such ways.

Passages for Further Study

Song of Solomon 2:1–3
Romans 8:19
Revelation 5:6

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