Understanding Figurative Language

A most essential need in Bible study is to distinguish between literal and figurative language. Such will be the aim of this and next week’s bulletin. We will begin with a brief look at metonymy. Metonymy is a figure of speech that involves the exchange of nouns or verbs, where one noun or verb is put for another related noun or verb. The word “metonymy” comes from “meta,” indicating change, and “onoma,” a name (or in grammar, a noun).

Metonymy is a common figure of speech with a wide variety of usages. “The White House said today…” is one contemporary example in which the President of the United States and his staff are represented by the building they occupy. When we say, “Give me a hand,” it is by metonymy that “hand” is put for the many useful was the hand can help.

As we will see, metonymy is integrally involved in understanding many of the verses that seem to make God the direct and active cause of negative circumstances. Metonymy has many forms, and the Biblical examples that concern us here are those related to the concepts of cause and effect, permission and prophecy. In the Old Testament, God often revealed himself as the author of both good and evil. Thus “God” is often put by metonymy as the cause of events that were actually engineered by the devil.

To get a better understanding of the complexities of cause and effect, let us consider the case of “Mr. Smith,” who gets drunk at a party one night and then heads home in his car, driving well above the posted speed limit on a two-lane highway. An oncoming car makes a left turn in front of him, but Mr. Smith’s impaired perception causes him to misjudge the distance and swerve to avoid the other car. He loses control of his car, hits a concrete bridge abutment, and is killed.

A policeman arriving at the scene might say that excessive alcohol was the cause of Mr. Smith’s death. Mr. Smith’s family might say the driver of the other car was the cause. The corner’s report would probably conclude that he died because he flew through the windshield and his head hit the concrete abutment.

In a sense, each of the statements is valid although the coroner’s report seems to most accurately reflect why Mr. Smith actually died. But did the concrete kill Mr. Smith? Not in the active sense in which one person kills another. Yet the concrete was the final cause of his death, for if he had driven into a huge pile of mattresses instead of an immovable object, he might have survived. Nevertheless, we understand that the actual cause of his death was something other than the abutment, which did not jump into his path. The actual cause was whatever made him lose control of his car, which in his case was his heavily impaired faculties and judgment.

It has been said that one cannot break God’s laws, but only breaks himself against them, because they are immovable objects. God has set up the universe to function according to many laws and principles, which he said were “very good” (Genesis 1.31). In reality, physical laws cannot be broken. A farmer who disregards the principles of soil fertility will eventually go broke. The window cleaner with a cavalier attitude toward safety, whose worn-out rope breaks while he is dangling from the roof of a high-rise office building will, because of the law of gravity, be rudely introduced to an unsuspecting pedestrian.

There are spiritual laws also. For example, you reap what you sow; evil associations corrupt good ethics; sin separates man from God. When we break these laws, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we are not actually breaking them; rather we are breaking ourselves against them. Is God to blame because he set these laws into place? No more than a state highway department is liable for fatalities caused by drunken motorists driving into concrete bridge supports.

To be continued next week…