Understanding Figurative Language (Part 2)

This is the second article addressing the matter of distinguishing between literal and figurative language. We explained the figure of metonymy last week. This week, we will see how that understanding of the figure will enhance our study of the Bible.

In the Bible, most especially in the Old Testament in regard to the cause of evil, sin, and suffering, we find numerous records where the subject of a sentence is said to be the cause of an event, when in reality, something else (another subject) is the cause. This is the figure of speech known as “metonymy of the subject,” in which one subject is put in place of another subject with which it stands in a definite relation.

A good illustration of how one subject is put for another is found in comparing the two seemingly contradictory biblical accounts of the death of King Saul. Remember that in the Old Testament, as we have noted, Go was perceived as the ultimate cause of both positive and negative circumstances, and as sovereign in the sense that he controlled everything that happened. In 1 Samuel 31.4-5, the word of God states that Saul died by committing suicide, falling upon his sword. Yet, 1 Chronicles 10.14 says that “the Lord put him to death” for disobeying the word of God and for enquiring of a familiar spirit.

How do we reconcile these apparently conflicting statements? We do so by recognizing that the latter statement is the figure of speech “metonymy of the subject.” The actual subject, Saul (as stated in 1 Samuel 31) is exchanged for another subject, God, with which it stands in definite relation. The relation between Saul and God is that it was God who gave Saul his commandments, and Saul disobeyed them. Thus God an, in one sense, be said to be the cause of Saul’s death. By breaking God’s laws, Saul broke himself against them.

By his own choice, Saul separated himself from Go and his blessings, and therefore faced the consequences of his actions without the benefit of God’s grace and mercy. Because of his own sin, Saul found himself in a hopeless predicament, and killed himself. Only in the sense that God’s word was the immovable object against which Saul rebelled could it be said that God “put him to death.” In concluding this chapter, we will see why God used this figurative language in the Old Testament.

Just as there is a relation between Saul and God such that “Saul” can be exchanged for “god” by metonymy of the subject, so there is a relation between Satan and God such that they can be exchanged by metonymy of the subject. This relation is explained later in this chapter.

For the most part, God’s ability to alleviate for people the effects of sin is directly proportional to their obedience to him. For instance, Romans 1.24,26 say that God “gave up” those who turned away from him in the same way Jesus gave up his life, as an act of will (John 19.20). There are situations in which God reaches a point at which he knows it is fruitless to continue to attempt to convince people who are no longer willing to change their behavior. God lets them go on the road to self-destruction, to learn by experience apart from his grace and mercy, much like the father did in Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-32).

Why are people “permitted” to turn away? Because God highly values man’s freedom of will. If one wills to continue in his sinful disobedience, he will suffer the consequences of his unwillingness to listen to God. God is not in the business of forcing obedience, which then becomes meaninglessly mechanical. He does, however, honestly declare the consequences that can result from sin so that all people have a genuine choice. Without choice, there  can be no true freedom. God’s desire is that his people be set free by knowledge, understanding, and wisdom so they can make informed choices. He is fundamentally an educator, not an autocratic puppeteer.