A metaphor is a literary device that uses an implied comparison between two unlike things to help explain or expound upon an idea. The Bible uses metaphors heavily, especially when talking about Christ.
A metaphor claims that one thing is another thing. (This is a little different from a simile, which is an explicit comparison using the word like or as.) However, it’s understood that, when metaphor is employed, the two entities are not literally the same. For example, no one who says, “Fred is a couch potato” or “Fred is the black sheep of the family,” actually means that Fred is a tasty tuber or a farm animal. If we were to hear someone say either of these things, we would understand what the statements were meant to convey: Fred spends a lot of time unmoving on the couch and is different, probably in a negative way, from the rest of his family.
The Bible uses multiple literary devices. As a work of literature comprised of many genres from poetry to history to epistles, it’s important to recognize when a statement in the Bible is meant to be taken literally and when it is not so we don’t fall into strange or faulty assumptions.
The Bible uses metaphor to help us make connections that allow us to understand deeper truths. Jesus often used metaphors to make statements about Himself, as in the examples below:
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). This confused some people. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52). But Jesus did not actually mean He was a loaf of bread. Instead, He meant that He gives life and sustains us spiritually, the way bread sustains the body.
“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus did not mean He literally gave light to the world, like the sun. Instead, He pointed to His role of driving back spiritual darkness and illuminating the way of life and truth.
“I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7). This metaphor has several layers. Here, we, humanity, are represented by the sheep—helpless, rather foolish creatures at the mercy of a shepherd to protect them. Jesus is the door to the sheepfold, the safe haven of the sheep. He is the only way to enter into the place of protection and rest.
Jesus also told many parables, stories that were essentially extended metaphors, to get His points across. The Tree and Its Fruit (Matthew 12:33–37; Luke 6:43–45), The Strongman’s House (Matthew 12:29–30; Luke 11:21–23), The Sower and the Seed (Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:1–9; Luke 8:4–8), The Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24–30), The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31–32; Mark 4:30–32; Luke 13:18–20), The Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44), The Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45–46), The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–42), The Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12–14; Luke 15:3–7), and many more.
The psalms are full of metaphors. Psalm 23:1 famously states, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Psalm 18:2 contains multiple metaphors: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Each metaphor provides a truth to ponder about who God is.
The books of the prophets also frequently employ metaphor, as God and the prophets attempt to explain to the people of Israel the reality of their situation, their relationship to God, and often their sin, as in the examples below:
Isaiah 64:8: “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We are not literally clay, but God molds us in certain ways.
Ezekiel 34:15–16: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” The sheep are God’s people. As for the fat and strong, God isn’t saying He hates people who are physically fat or strong. Instead, these are metaphors for those who take from the needy and who oppress the helpless.
The New Testament epistolary writers also used metaphor. Paul likens the Christian life to running a race (Galatians 5:7; 1 Corinthians 9:24) and uses wages as a metaphor for the consequences of sin (Romans 6:23). He calls the church the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:27). Peter said that false teachers are “springs without water and mists driven by a storm” (2 Peter 2:17).
The Bible even uses metaphor to describe itself. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And Hebrews 4:12 explains, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Scripture is not literally a lamp or literally sharp, but these metaphors paint vivid pictures in our minds.
The Bible contains dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of metaphor. We can often discern when this literary device is being used through context clues. Is this a passage written as poetry? Are there two disparate things in a sentence being equated? Does the statement make sense read literally? What can we learn from this comparison? Through metaphors, the Bible illuminates difficult concepts, and we are able to broaden our understanding.