Several times in this writing, we have used the term figure of speech in referring to a
particular word, phrase, or thought expressed in the Bible. At this point, we should pause
briefly to collect our thoughts on just what we mean by the term, “figure of speech” and
how we can know when the bible is employing a figure in contrast to literal language.
Perhaps the first thing we should know about figures of speech is that every speaker and
writer constantly uses them. Bullinger in his NOTE on Figures in General in his book
Figures of Speech Used in the Bible says, "It is impossible to hold the simplest
conversation, or to write a few sentences without, it may be unconsciously, making use of
Just because it is a figure in our English translation does not mean that it was a figure in
the original Hebrew or Greek. Bullinger again, "some figures are common to many
languages; others are peculiar to some one language. There are figures used in the
English language, which have nothing that answers to them in Hebrew or Greek..."
Our interest lies in knowing when to understand words or phrases literally and when to
understand them figuratively. Bullinger again answers, "The answer is that, whenever
and wherever it is possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when
a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed
truth; or seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may
reasonably expect that some figure is employed.... we are at once bound to diligently
examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth.... From non-
attention to these Figures, translators have made blunders as serious as they are
foolish.... Commentators and interpreters, from inattention to the figures, have been led
astray from the real meaning of many important passages of God's Word; while
ignorance of them has been the fruitful parent of error and false doctrine."
Therefore, as Bullinger says, we need to use, "...greater exactitude and care when we are
dealing with the Words of God." As Psalms 12:6 (NKJV) says, The words of the Lord are
pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. In addition, Deuteronomy
32:4 He is the Rock, His work is perfect... We must therefore believe and understand that
there is unerring accuracy, infinite wisdom, and perfect beauty with God's Words. We
can give all our attention to them not fearing that someone has unduly tampered with
them in their original language. Furthermore, we must understand that we cannot take a
word "literally" when it is "figurative" or to the contrary.