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Metaphors and God

By Richard Gunther


A metaphor is a figure of speech. As soon as you know what it is you can spot it easily, yet the use of metaphors in ordinary English is so deep-rooted that it is difficult to avoid them. Deep-rooted is a metaphor. The metaphor I used was based on the picture of a plant with long, tough, deep roots, gripping a quantity of soil tightly. An idea can be deep-rooted. So can prejudice.


   Another metaphor is “The evening of life”. As people grow older and approach the final years, for some of them at least the idea of a quiet, ambient sunset somehow helps to describe those final years.


   There was a time when the world was not aware of such a thing as “clockwork devices”. The mechanism, which is now common to most people in the Western world anyway, comprises a number of spindles, or wheels, cogged disks, axles and so on, all working together precisely. Each wheel regulates the turning of other wheels, and the whole machine (sometimes as small as a lady’s wristwatch) may be constructed to fit inside a toy, a wall, or a building.

   But what would people, who had never heard of a clockwork mechanism, think of you if you told them the solar system worked “like clockwork”? The metaphor would be wasted on them. They would have nothing to hang the metaphor on, and the whole analogy would fall to the ground. Just for a moment, pause to consider what sort of analogy you might use to describe the solar system. You see how difficult it is to convey something like this accurately by comparing the orbiting of planets around the sun non-technical language?


   A metaphor therefore needs a common understanding before it can convey anything useful. If you have never seen a deep-rooted plant you would not understand how certain parts of speech could be anything like plants with long roots. If you have never seen an evening, you would have to guess at how old age compares to it.


   The dictionary says a metaphor is “A figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison, or analogy.” The Greek word means “transference”. We transfer something we already know into something else, and if the metaphor is applicable, the ‘something else’ suddenly sprouts wings and soars into our imagination, showering gifts of understanding onto the fertile earth of our mind.


   The Bible is full of many different parts of speech. Just like any good author, God has availed himself of a wide range of devices which all languages contain, in order to express Himself as clearly as possible. The Bible is not a dry, technical historical narration, like a machine catalogue. It is bursting with expression and deep with layers of meaning. This makes it enjoyable to read, as well as the many other things which Bible students will gladly talk about. It is a very ‘full’ book.


   But God designed His Book with a multitude of plans. Some of these plans include history, geography, sociology, psychology and so on. Thread after thread can be followed through the Bible, each interweaving with the other threads, to produce a multi-layered, multi-threaded rope of wisdom, and while all the parts of speech used are very important, the metaphor takes center stage.


   But just as we need to have an understanding of a clockwork mechanism before we can grasp the motions of the planets, we need to know about many other real things before God can use them as metaphors for other real things. This article does not pretend to be anything more than a simple introduction to the Bible metaphors. I encourage readers to do their own studies to further explore this wonderful line of enquiry.



   In the book of Genesis, the book of beginnings, we find many solid and real things. Genesis is an historical account, a narrative of history. There is nothing imaginary or mythical about it, although there are a few expressions used which are there to underline the literal nature of the account. We learn about light, and an Earth which emerges from the darkness. We learn about waters being divided, and evenings and mornings. We hear of the first herbs with seeds, and seeds producing new herbs. Great lights and small lights, stars and a moon, sea creatures and birds. We also find Adam and Eve, formed from the ground, and a Satan, who acts like a serpent in that he is crafty and devious, beguiling and furtive, and from whose mouth comes the poisonous venom of rebellion.


   The most important aspect of this Genesis account is the fact that God is laying the groundwork for later applications. He tells us about literal darkness and literal light, so that later on, when he talks about spiritual darkness and light, we have something to use to help us understand the second meaning. By describing material things first, God prepares is for the metaphors.


   For example, look at Genesis 1:3  “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light”.


   By this simple statement we learn that *light comes from God, *light must be created, *God is the source of light, *God speaks light into existence. Now moving from the literal to the spiritual, we find that the messiah is described this way: 2 Samuel 23:4  And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun rises, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain”


   Notice the use of the words “as the light” and “as the tender grass”. As means like, or similar to, but we wouldn’t understand the metaphor if we did not already know about cloudless mornings, tender grass and a morning after rain.


   Psalms 27:1 Expresses the dual meaning by simply stating “The LORD is my light”


   Isaiah 5:20  Explains the dual meaning but setting one thing against another: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”


   And when the Messiah comes, we are told that: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men”. John 1:4. We understand some of the properties of light: it always streams from a source, it illuminates, it exposes, it penetrates by reflection, it can be amplified into laser power . . . so now we can transfer some of this knowledge to the Lord Jesus and interpret the metaphor in other terms.


   Other metaphors.


   The Bible is packed with variations of the metaphor. Allusions, similes, analogies and so on, abound everywhere, the reason being that God wants to express Himself as well as possible within the confines of the language He uses to communicate with. Apart from visions (rare) and direct speaking (also very rare), God has limited Himself to the language of humans. This alone ought to make us wonder at the enormous condescension and love of God toward us. He has not spoken to us in a technical or ‘scientific’ way, or in a way suitable for glorious heavenly beings, but in the words and expressions which we are familiar with – just as an adult might use ‘baby language’ to communicate with a two-year old.


   But while we may understand this metaphorical usage, we usually work with it without even noticing how saturated our language is. Take for example, this passage from “The Horse and His Boy” by C.S.Lewis, page 103 “Then suddenly the sun arose and everything changed in a moment. The grey sand turned yellow and twinkled as if it was strewn with diamonds. On their left the shadows of Shasta and Hwin and Bree and Aravis, enormously long, raced beside them. The double peak of Mount Pire, far ahead, flashed in the sunlight . . .”


   If we were not already familiar with certain concepts, we would not understand this passage. To get the most out of it, we need to know something of such things as “the sun arose”, “a moment”, “grey sand”, “yellow”, “twinkled”, “strewn with diamonds”, “enormous”, “raced”, “far ahead”, “flashed”. If we cannot attach meanings to these words and expressions, we cannot understand what the writer is trying to convey.


   When we come to the Bible, just as a simple example, let us look at these passages from the Old and New Testaments on the subject of the thorn and thorns:


Job 41:2  “Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?” – this shows us an ancient use for some thorns, and suggests the hardness or size of the jaw bone of the creature. We need to understand something of the sharpness and hardness of the thorn, and perhaps a little of the drilling process. If we did not know what a thorn was we would not know what God meant.


Proverbs 26:9  As a thorn goes up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouth of fools.” A drunkard stumbles about and plunges his or her hand into a thorn bush. The drunkard injures himself and cannot speak clearly – an analogy of the person who does not understand God’s wisdom. If we knew nothing about drunkenness, or stumbling, or slurred speech, we would wonder why God used these things to illustrate a person with a parable. A drunken person doesn’t feel pain (alcohol is still used sometimes as a painkiller) so the wisdom of the parable is wasted on him. He really misses the ‘point’.


Isaiah 55:13  “Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Thorns and thistles are a sign of the fallen creation. By describing a change in Nature, God is indicating a spiritual renewal. If we did not know about the beautiful fir tree, or myrtle tree with its lovely smell, we would not fully appreciate the meaning of this verse.


Ezekiel 28:24  “And there shall be no more a pricking brier unto the house of Israel, nor any grieving thorn of all that are round about them, that despised them; and they shall know that I am the Lord GOD.”  By describing the wicked nations bordering on Israel, God is indicating that they will no longer be a threat, or a temptation to sin. We can understand this better if we have experienced the annoyance and pain which comes from having a pricking brier thorn stuck in our skin – a constant source of discomfit.


Hosea 10:8  “The high places also of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed: the thorn and the thistle shall come up on their altars; and they shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us.” God here alludes back to the original curse on creation when the beautiful Earth became infested with unpleasant plants, and depicts the dramatic change the land will undergo, from lush and plentiful to barren and desolate but the application is spiritual, based on the preceding literal  foundations in Genesis. The allusion to mountains falling brings to mind huge earthquakes, volcanoes and so on – perhaps an allusion to the great Flood and other cataclysms.


Micah 7:4  “The best of them is as a brier: the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge: the day of thy watchmen and thy visitation comes; now shall be their perplexity.” Here God describes the character and attitudes of certain people. They are so difficult to live with they are like thorn hedges.


2 Corinthians 12:7  “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” Apparently a demonic attack was permitted by God, to help keep Paul humble. This would be a very unusual thing to happen to anyone, but Paul was a unique messenger for God, so he probably needed something special like this to keep him in line. But we understand the “thorn in the flesh” better when we have real thorns and their effects on people, to base our understanding on.



      The reader may like to pursue this subject from here if they wish. Many hundreds of metaphors could be found and described, and the search would be lengthy but edifying. I hope this little article has been a useful sample, turning some soil and opening the ground for the diligent spadework of other gardeners.

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