A simile is a literary device that describes an experience or object by comparing it to a different experience or object. Similes are always introduced with a comparison word such as like or as. One of the most beautiful examples of simile in the Bible is found in Psalm 42:1: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” David compares the intense longing of his soul for God’s presence to the experience of a thirsty deer panting in desperate need of water.
A similar figure of speech is a metaphor. Whereas a simile is explicit in its comparison, a metaphor is implied; it does not use words such as like and as. For example, Psalm 119:105 contains two metaphors: “Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path” (see also Proverbs 18:10). Apart from the use of like or as, simile is essentially the same as metaphor. Both form an analogy, drawing a comparison to show some aspect of similarity between two different things or experiences.
Simile relies heavily on imagery and is, therefore, often seen in poetic literature. With simile, Solomon paints a vivid picture of his lover: “Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from the hills of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. . . . Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate” (Song of Solomon 4:1–3). Through two similes, the psalmist expresses the preciousness of the unity of God’s people (Psalm 133:1–3).
Similes appear frequently throughout the Bible to teach a lesson, illuminate a challenging concept, or to better illustrate some truth. Since God’s character and ways are difficult for humans to comprehend, Scripture reveals Him as a Shepherd who leads His people like a flock (Psalm 78:52; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 31:10; 1 Peter 2:25). The wisdom of Proverbs is often articulated through simile: “A king’s rage is like the roar of a lion, but his favor is like dew on the grass” (Proverbs 19:12; see also Proverbs 16:14–15; 20:2; 28:15).
Since God’s kingdom is beyond the human ability to conceptualize, Jesus incorporated numerous similes into His parables to help us understand: “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade” (Mark 4:30–32; see also Matthew 13:24, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1).
Jesus used simile to prepare His disciples to face strong opposition: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). The meaning of the simile is that, to be effective ministers for Jesus Christ, Christians must blend God’s wisdom, integrity, and truth with His grace, love, and compassion.
Jesus applied simile in His denouncement of religious hypocrites: “For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity” (Matthew 23:27, NLT).
Simile helps turn abstract concepts into concrete illustrations: “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18). Peter and James (citing Isaiah) compared people to “grass” and “flowers” to express the transient nature of human existence (1 Peter 1:24; James 1:10–11; Isaiah 40:6–8). A godly man or woman is firmly established “like a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3).
The Word of God is filled with imaginative simile because such literary devices grab our attention, capture our imaginations, deepen our understanding, and stick in our memories. They help us conceptualize the Lord’s greatness, power, and love, communicating the mysteries of God in a fuller, richer way than more literal language can.