Figure of speech vs literal interpretation

When do we say a verse should be understood as a figure of speech, and when do we take it to mean as it is in plain reading or literal interpretation?

Take the word “all”, in particular.
It occurred in 4664 verses in the KJV according to the BLB app. And 4696 times according to
BibleGateway - Keyword Search: “All”

When do we say the word ALL and all its synonymous phrases should be understood as an hyperbole, and when can we take it to mean as it is (as in all, everything, without exemption—unless otherwise excluded explicitly or implicitly)?


Hi @dennis,

This is a great question!!

It is very hard to propose general rules because so much interpretation depends on context.

One challenge is if we believe “Divine inspiration” = “literal, factual interpretation.”

However, I don’t believe the Bible itself teaches this principle.

For instance, how can I most truthfully tell my wife that I cherish her?
“Your smile makes my heart sing”
“When you smile, I see eight of your upper teeth, and it looks like you regularly floss and brush them.”

The literal approach fails in a way that the poetic one does not.

And the Bible is vastly more concerned with how we relate to God and one another than with “bare facts.”

Another challenge is that, because we love God’s word, we need to understand the culture within which it was written.

Take Genesis 2:24. It reads:

This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.

I am not a doctor, but it appears that when a husband and a wife get married, they do not become one flesh. Imagine how distorted and awful it would be if marriage created a permanent physical union between a man and a woman. Since it doesn’t happen, it is funny to think about! :sweat_smile: :joy: :smiley:

However, no one can hold this up to say, “Aha! The Bible is false!” Instead, we all instinctively understand that “one flesh”, though it talks about flesh, speaks to a spiritual union that encompasses within it occasional physical union.

I recommend that we consider each verse on a case-by-case basis to more carefully investigate the unique nature of the passage’s language, topic, context, and purpose. One reason? Part of the artistry of literature is how an established convention can be subverted, contradicted, or exaggerated to make a point. So especially if we create a “general rule” this paradigm might be utilized in another place to make a point more emphatically, precisely because the normal way of doing something is broken or adjusted.

Are there particular passages where you are weighing whether to interpret certain words as hyperbole or literally?


Ah good question. I think as @Carson said, context is everything. For example, Mark records aspects of Jesus’ ministry:

Mark 1:32–34 (ESV): That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.

Now, we can be pretty sure this isn’t literally the whole city at the door…I’m not sure that’s physically possible! They’re using this turn of phrase to emphasise that the crowds would have been heaving and that space would have been limited. We do the same thing in our language all the time :slightly_smiling_face: (not literally though :grin:)

Actually, understanding the use of the word ‘all’ in Ancient Near Eastern literature has been very helpful for me to understand how literally we are to take it in the Bible.

A useful thing to understand is textual criticism of other ANE texts that record battle conquests. Kings of Persia inscribed into stone stele that they wiped out all of this or that nation. Archaeologists know that the defeated nation still survived from artefacts and other recorded events, so it wasn’t a literal ‘all’. I’m afraid I’m being fairly vague here, but Paul Copan writes about this in far better detail in his book ‘Is God a Moral Monster’ which I don’t have to hand right now. (I’m away from home and don’t have my reference books close at hand!)
All this to say, it was a common practice back in the time of the Bible writers to use hyperbole to convey and emphasise a particular point. They never expected their readers to take their use of ‘all’ literally.

I’m trying to think of examples when ‘all’ means all though :thinking:. Will get back to you on this!