Figures of Speech and Holy Scripture
By Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1977
Transcribed and edited by David Sielaff, May 2008
How many of you have ever studied a foreign language? If you have you will be acquainted with many idiomatic phrases that if translated into English would be absurd. Indeed, they would be downright laughable. Some of our figures of speech in English, the ones we use all the time in everyday conversation, are utterly ridiculous when understood literally. If you take them down into their elements and look at them exactly for what is said, you would find that many expressions we use in everyday speech are nothing more than complete absurdity if taken literally.
This is especially true with a figure of speech known as a “hyperbole.” Hyperbole is a Greek term but it really means something that is an exaggeration used for emphasis or effect. It is used time and again in all languages. We have it in our English language, and in every language of the world there are certain figures called hyperboles. Since this lecture is about figures of speech and the Holy Scripture, would we expect hyperboles to appear in the Scriptures? The answer is yes. They do occur and in fact they occur with great profusion. In fact I would say that there are more figures of speech within the writings of the Holy Scripture than you can normally find in any English writing or conversation on earth today. That is a fact.
We have and use hyperboles in English. When you take them literally they become absurd, but we all know what they mean and we do not look on them as being something ridiculous at all so long as we understand the context in which they are stated.
Let me give you an example that I think most of us are very aware of. Let us say you have not eaten for two or three meals so you are very hungry. You might say to a companion who is going out for a meal with you, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” You might say something like that. I have said that several times in my life.
In actual fact a horse is an unclean animal as far as the Scripture is concerned, but for decades I have been using that expression, and most all of you have used similar expressions. Did we really mean that we are so hungry that we would eat a horse? Of course not.
You would not eat horsemeat. If you were so hungry that you could eat a horse, well my, a horse could weigh as much as 1500 pounds. I ask you, how in the world could you eat an entire horse including its tail, its mane, and its hooves? Could you possibly do that? No. But on the other hand if you came to me and I was very hungry, I might well say to you, “I am so hungry I could eat a horse.” You would not think anything about it whatsoever. If you did think about it, you would say, “He is just giving a figure of speech.” Of course, that is what I would be doing.
This is in the English language. I could cite many more idiomatic expressions. You would all be aware of them. These expressions do not offend you in any way because we are very well acquainted with them because most of you are familiar with the language and the culture. We use expressions like these all of the time and we think nothing about them. They are simple expressions that are common but they are not meant to be taken literally.
In the Bible there are many such figures of speech. Any common language that is used by any person, no matter what it is, has hyperboles and many other figures of speech, which if taken literally would be very ridiculous indeed.
The Hebrew language is no exception. In the Old Testament we find may figures of speech which are not intended to be taken literally. In the Greek New Testament, the Greek language is not as much influenced by figures of speech as the Old Testament. It still is influenced but not as much. However, most of the writers (with the likely exception of Luke who was a Gentile and who wrote in Greek) wrote through the influence of a Hebrew environment. Though they wrote in Greek, they used Hebrew expressions frequently throughout their writings. 1
In the Hebrew language there are far more figures of speech, frankly an abundant use of them in the Holy Scripture, than you would find in the English language. They very much used figures of speech in ways that you and I would not do today. And they used more powerful and descriptive figures of speech than we use today in English. Not only is this found in the Hebrew language, but it is also found in almost all Semitic languages.
When I say Semitic, I mean those languages which come from the patriarch Shem. This is a misnomer, I realize, but I hope people will understand what I mean by the term “Semitic languages.” It would include languages like ancient Syriac, the Babylonian language, the Arabic language in its various forms today, and of course the Hebrew language we find presently in Israel as well as in the Bible. All of these languages of the Middle East are known in scholarly circles as Semitic languages. It simply means that they have a certain flair or ways of expressing themselves which are fundamentally different than you might find in Indo-European languages like those of the Russians, Poles, French, or English, or the African languages, or the Chinese languages. Languages differ greatly and wondrously one from another. 2
The Semitic languages of which Hebrew is a major part, and indeed the Old Testament, whether the majority Hebrew or in small Syriac sections, we find that they are having in their expressions many, many figures of speech that you and I would not use today.
I personally have been in the Middle East on many, many occasions. I and my family have spent over a year of our lives in Israel at an archaeological excavation on five different sets of years during the summer. 3 While there I got to know many Jewish friends and many Arabic friends. All of them, though they speak different languages, the languages they use are all Semitic. The Arabs speak Arabic, various forms of it, and the Jews speak what is known as Modern Hebrew, which is a reflection of the biblical Hebrew.
I talked to many of my friends there, Arabic friends, who use the Arabic expressions all the time, and I have been amazed that when they translate them into English, how absurd some of those experiences really become. They tell me that some of our English expressions are very absurd also when translated into Arabic.
I knew a man, he is dead now, but he was a great friend of mine and I knew him very well. When I was in Israel, one day I met him on the street. He was a building contractor, a very intelligent individual. I found him to be in a rather distressed state. This was my second year of being on the archaeological excavation. I knew him very well. He came up to me and he said, “Dr. Martin, I am in trouble.” I said, “What’s wrong?”
Before I go into this in great detail let me tell you that several other of his friends and relatives were around when he told me this. He came to me because he felt comfortable with me in some way, I don’t know how, but he said, “I am in great distress.” The others around me heard what he had to say. I asked, “What is wrong?”
He said, “Well, some of the construction has not proved to be exactly the way I want it, and the only way out of it is for me to kill myself.” I said, “Joseph, wait a minute, you should not want to kill yourself. He said, “That is the only way out, I have to kill myself.” I said, “Don’t kill yourself.” He said, “Well, I’m going to.” I said, “When are you going to?” He said, “Tonight I am going to kill myself. I’ve got to kill myself.”
This is humorous to me now [in 1977], when I think back on the whole thing, but it was not humorous at all when I heard him say that, because I was very upset myself. I said, “Joseph, under no circumstances should you do anything like this. It is not that severe.” Indeed it was not. But he said he was going to kill himself.
I noticed that all of his friends and relatives around him did not seem to be too concerned about the whole matter. They just kept talking, chit-chatting, and here I was hearing he was going to kill himself, I was grabbing him by the shoulders, I was shaking him, I said, “Under no circumstance are you going to kill yourself!”
He said, “I am going to. I am going to.” His friends and relatives did not seem to be too interested at all. I said to myself, what in the world is going on here? I finally convinced him, I thought, that he should not kill himself. As we were leaving he said, “I am going to kill myself tonight.”
I went on home to my wife. I told her what the situation was. She was upset about the whole matter, but no one else seemed to be upset about it. I could not do anything about it that evening and he was with his family. The next morning I saw him on the front lawn at his home in Jerusalem. He was happy. He was joyful. There was not any problem whatsoever.
I said to him, “I thought you were going to kill yourself last night?” He said, “Well, I was, but today there was no problem whatsoever.” It was just an expression of speech. He had no intention of killing himself. But the only way he could express his emotions to me and to everybody around him was to go to the extreme, you might say. Really, in Semitic languages, I am giving you this as one example, and of course, it is not necessarily proper in all situations, but at the same time I think it gives a principle.
In Semitic languages, and even in the Bible, they tend to go to extremes. If something is bad, it is the worst you ever heard of. If something is good, it is the best you ever heard of. There does not seem to be any in between. Those of us reared in a Western European environment, having a Germanic or English background, coming primarily through the Greek and Roman influence to a certain extent, we look on things rather practically. We do not like too many figures of speech in our language, but we still use them today, such as “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” You are not that hungry ever, but we use expressions like that.
But in the Middle East they use them quite a bit. Indeed, in everyday speech it is either an extreme one way or an extreme another. I had to learn my lessons on that. Since that time in talking with many of my friends in Israel, in Arabic countries, in Turkey, and in various other places, I have learned generally how they express themselves. They express themselves in extremes.
In the Bible you find the same thing. Where do these people of the Middle East get their expressions of “extremity,” as I could call it? They get them from their ancestors. Where did their ancestors get them? They got them from their ancestors. It goes on back and back and back. You can find the whole thing reflected in the Holy Scriptures which are written in Hebrew or Aramaic which is a cognate language of Hebrew, the Greek of the New Testament is nothing more than a reflection of Old Testament ways of expressing things.
If we can see these expressions of speech that are used by the people of the Middle East, we can begin to appreciate and to understand what they were trying to say. You must comprehend one thing. In the Middle East they tend to exaggerate by figures of speech far more than you and I would ever do.
Do you know the problem with us today, we who are Americans, or British, or Australians, or Germans, or Dutch, or Swiss, or even Italians, we tend to make everything (or try to) very literally understood. Let me tell you we get ourselves into a heap of trouble when we begin to comprehend what the Scripture is telling us, because the prophets of the Old Testament, the patriarchs of the Old Testament, the priests, and the apostles, and even our Lord Himself, used language which was pertinent to the time period in which they were talking and within the linguistic environment in which they lived.
We are living 2,000 or more years away from the time, and indeed, we speak languages entirely foreign to the ancient Hebrew or the Greek of the New Testament, which in a sense is a reflection of the Hebrew. That is where we get ourselves into deep trouble. For example, Semitic languages, of which Hebrew is a part (and the Greek reflection of the Hebrew), are filled with figures of speech which if taken literally would be absolutely absurd. The Bible is no exception.
What type of language did God’s Holy Spirit use to express to God’s people the divine truths? The only language the Holy Spirit could use to express God to Hebrews was Hebrew. Or, for the New Testament if they were greatly influenced by the Hebrew language, the only type of literary understanding that they could use would be that which the people could comprehend at the time.
The trouble with us is that we are living in the 20th century. We do not have the same background as they did and we read the Bible revelation about what God’s prophets, apostles, and even Christ Himself said, in the context in which they do, and in 9 chances out of 10 we will take the things literally when they did not mean it literally at all.
Like my friend I was telling you about. He had no intention at all of killing himself. All of his friends and relatives around were not concerned about it at all. They were a bit concerned about his feelings, but they knew he was not going to kill himself. But Ernest Martin and my wife, we thought he was threatening to do it, because no one acts that way in our environment. We must understand the difference between one type of language and another. If people can just begin to comprehend what the Old Testament and the New Testament, even in Greek, what the apostles and even Christ Himself were saying, I’ll tell, you 9/10ths of the problems would be solved on the matters of punishment, of hell, of reward, and of everything of that nature.
The Semitic languages are prone to exaggeration. We find it in the Bible itself. Let me give you some examples which I think may be very interesting to you.
In 2 Samuel chapter 17 we have the population of the nation of Israel compared to the sands of the seashore in multitude. Read it there:
“Therefore I counsel that all Israel be generally gathered unto you, from Dan even to Beersheba, as the sand that is by the sea for multitude; and that you go to battle in your own person.”
2 Samuel 17:11
As the sand at the seashore equals Israel in multitude, that is what the verse says. I would ask a person to go down to the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv which is on the seashore, look at a mile of shore, start counting all of the grains of sand you can find. Why, before you would get a quarter of the way through a mile of it you would have accomplished the number of Israel before you even got there. If you went throughout the whole coastland of Israel, the sand of the seashore, you would have hundreds of billions of grains of sand. What if you took the sand on the seashore of Egypt? In Syria? Asia Minor? Italy? What of the entire world? You would find so many grains of sand it would be impossible for Israel to equal them.
That passage in 2 Samuel simply means a great innumerable multitude. It is a great exaggeration. It is not meant to be accepted literally by anybody. In fact, in Joshua 11:3–4 the Canaanite peoples in Palestine, that the Israelites were commanded by God to conquer, they were equated as being in number equal with the sands of the seashore. They could not possibly have been that many, but it is an exaggeration.
When you go to Judges 7:12, you will find that an army coming out of the eastern desert had some camels associated with them. They had so many camels that the author of Judges said those camels equaled “the sand by the sea side for multitude.” Again, you know that was not the case at all.
The extent that figures of speech are used and understood can be seen in Jeremiah and Hosea:
“As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured: so will I multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levites that minister unto me.”
“Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered; and it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, You are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, You are the sons of the living God.”
These are some examples of how this expression is being used. I ask you this question: does it literally mean that all of these camels, all of these foreign peoples, all of Israel, and all of the widows of Judah equal the sand of the seashore in a literal sense? The answer, of course, is no. It did not, and it was not intended to be understood in that way. Just as, if I am hungry and I meet you in a restaurant and have not eaten for two or three meals, I might say I am so hungry I could eat a horse. You know good and well I do not literally mean I want to eat horsemeat, and nor do I want to eat an entire horse.
We have other expressions in the Bible which are similar to this.
After the Israelites left Egypt, they finally came to the southern borders of the land of Canaan. The twelve spies were sent to spy out that land. They were in the land for 40 days. They came back to Moses and began to report on the condition of the cities and the people there. If you read Deuteronomy 1:28 carefully this is what you will find. It says in the report of the Israelite spies to Moses that the cities of Canaan had walls around them, and they were very high walls. Do you know how high they were? According to the report they were “walled up to heaven.” Can you imagine such a thing? Have you ever seen any wall “walled up to heaven”? How far is heaven? It is way up yonder.
Those walls, as we know from archaeological evidence, could not have been more, at the highest, than 100 feet. But when they were talking they said they were “walled up to heaven.” They also said we were like grasshoppers. 5 They were not like grasshoppers. Grasshoppers are about ˝ inch tall, the big ones. They were not that way. Compared to these Anakim, these giants that were in the land of Canaan, who had their walls very high, the walls were said to be “walled up to heaven” and they themselves were nothing more than grasshoppers. They were not like grasshoppers, and those walls were not all the way to heaven. But those were the expressions that were used.
Moses when he talks about these cities in Canaan, even he admitted:
“Hear, O Israel: You are to pass over Jordan this day, to go in to possess nations greater and mightier than yourself, cities great and fenced up to heaven.”
They were not “fences up to heaven” literally.
Even our Lord used expressions of exaggeration. We do not like Him doing that because we feel that if you use exaggeration, you are not telling the truth. Yet if you use ordinary language as we do today, you can use exaggerations all over the place as long as you are not deceiving anyone in doing so.
Our Lord used exaggerations time and time again. Let me tell you, some of the major problems when it comes to a theological or prophetical or doctrinal nature of the Scripture has been caused by the English, German, American people and others who do not want exaggerations to be used. We insert our own linguistic thoughts into the thoughts and rules of our Lord who was speaking and quoting primarily in Hebrew or Aramaic, and we have confused the whole issue by putting English usage into the Hebrew thoughts. No wonder we have made so many drastic mistakes when it comes to understanding the Scripture of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.
Yes, even our Lord used expressions of exaggeration because he was speaking in the Hebrew or Aramaic tongue at the time. Look at this in Matthew chapter 11. You are well aware of this Scripture because it is a prominent one of the Bible. Jesus is talking about the cities of Galilee, the cities he lived around, was very well acquainted with, and He preached in their synagogues during His ministry. Here is what Jesus said relative to the city where Peter had his home and where Christ did more of His miracles and more of His preaching than any other.
The city was Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Anyone who goes to Israel today can go there and still see the remnants of that city in existence at the time of Christ. Here is Christ speaking about Capernaum. He preached in it a great deal, very much indeed. In fact, if any city could be said to have more preaching in it by our Lord than any other, it would be Capernaum. Most of the people in Capernaum did not accept what our Lord said. So here is what Christ said concerning the city:
“And you, Capernaum, which are exalted unto heaven, shall be brought down to hell [hades, the grave]: for if the mighty works, which have been done in you, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”
Our Lord said very clearly here that Capernaum had been “exalted unto heaven.” Literally, had it gone into heaven? Could you go up to the streets of heaven where God the Father is, walk all around and find Capernaum there? Of course not. What does it mean “exalted unto heaven”? Simply it means this, and clearly, that they had such prestige, such repute, such riches, such goodness, both material and spiritual by the hearing of the words of Christ, that they had been exalted higher than anybody else in the entirety of Palestine, including Jerusalem. They had been exalted into heaven, almost like they were in heaven itself.
How many of us if we have been in prayer, if we have been studying the Bible intensely and come to a feeling of oneness with God, have said, I feel like I am in heaven myself. You might even say I was in heaven, but you know you may not actually have been there, but you would have said that as a figure of speech. Here we find that Capernaum, our Lord Himself said, it had been exalted into heaven. Capernaum really, the city limits of it, had not gone into heaven, but you can see what is meant there. They had all of the spiritual and physical blessings that could be given to a town or a city in Palestine, and yet what happened? Christ said the city “shall be brought down to hell,” to hades, to the grave. Why? Because no more mighty works were done in any city than in Capernaum. Do you know what the people did? They rejected His words and His works.
Not long after our Lord gave this teaching, in fact about 66 to 68 AD, the city of Capernaum was destroyed. You never hear of it from that time until it was rediscovered about 1896 by some Catholic Franciscan monks. Today we know where it was, and we can see its former grandeur. It was a beautiful city.
But just as Christ said it shall be brought down to hell, that is to hades, to destruction. It was completely and utterly destroyed in the war of the Romans with the Jews from 66 to 70 AD. Perhaps it was destroyed later on also. But we heard nothing of Capernaum after that, but it had been “exalted unto heaven.”
I ask this question, was it literally brought up to heaven? The answer is no. We all know that. Was our Lord lying when He said it was in heaven? Of course not. He was simply using Hebrew type expressions which state carefully and clearly what he meant. No one living at the time would have taken Him literally.
This is also shown in Jeremiah chapter 51:
“Though Babylon should mount up to heaven, and though she should fortify the height of her strength, yet from me shall spoilers come unto her, says the YHWH.”
The city of Babylon had been mounted “up to heaven,” it had gone to heaven. But Babylon had not gone to heaven. It meant that the city had risen to the heights in power, in prestige in the eyes of the people in the world. It seemed like it was in heaven with God’s throne. But that was not the actual truth.
Even the king of Babylon in Isaiah chapter 14, which many people say, because the word Lucifer is used, the passage refers to Satan the devil. 6 Do you know what? It says that this king of Babylon that he would ascend, and did ascend, into heaven:
“For you have said in your heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.”
Capernaum was exalted to heaven. We find also that Babylon as a city in Isaiah chapter 51 was in heaven (Isaiah 51:9, 48, 53). Here in Isaiah chapter 14 we have the King of Babylon ascending to heaven. Do you know what people today do in our Western world? They say, well, that Lucifer is not the King of Babylon, it has to be Satan the devil, and that he actually did ascend into heaven and try to exalt himself “above the stars of God.” What nonsense! I put it that way because the people who say that do not understand the biblical expressions that are being used.
Our Lord exaggerated many points which if taken literally would be absurd. They are not absurd when understood from a Hebrew point of view. Take a look at the mustard seed. He spoke about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. Turn to Mark chapter 4:
“And he said, ‘Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth.’”
Notice that He says that the mustard seed “is less,” He means the smallest, “than all the seeds that be in the earth.” Not just a few parts of the earth, but all the seeds of the earth it is the smallest.
“But when it is sown, it grows up, and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.”
The mustard becomes greater than all plants. I ask this question, is the mustard seed actually the smallest seed that can be found in Palestine? Of course not. The mustard seed is probably about a big as the head of a straight pin. Many of you have seen the type of mustard seed He is talking about here. It is small, it is quite true, but my, there must be at least 500 varieties of seeds, perhaps 1000, maybe more, that were in Palestine at the time Christ said this that were far smaller than any mustard seed. Indeed He says it grows into the largest of herbs or plants. Well, there are all types of plants which are larger in the earth, particularly larger than the mustard seed.
While they did not have bananas in the Middle East at the time, look at a banana seed, just cut open a banana one time and look at one of those tiny seeds in there. I tell you what will happen, you will find a banana (which does grow at the present time in Israel because they import the trees), they grow at least twice as high as any mustard plant would ever grow, and from a much, much smaller seed. Indeed you can see seeds going through the air during the pollen season in Israel. Everyone knew that the mustard seed was not the smallest, and it certainly did not grow into the largest.
Our Lord could be considered as telling a falsehood here. Strictly speaking that is true, but listen, our Lord is not giving any falsehood because He was not speaking literally. 7 He was saying that the mustard seed is very small; it was a proverbial expression He was using that the mustard seed becomes very large. That is all that He meant. But here in the Western world, we do not want to accept Him the correct and natural way that people accepted Him in a Hebrew type of environment. We want to do it our Germanic, or English, or our Greek, or Roman, or American way. As a result of that, we are either going to have Him telling the exact truth literally or we are not going to accept it. What nonsense.
Our Lord used language which was conducive to the understanding of the people at the time. He was doing it in Hebrew. Hebrew is filled with exaggeration. Examples of this are rampant. This is especially true in regard to some of the doctrines of the Bible. Let us look at something here that is important to us. Many of us, and many of our preachers today, will use expressions intended primarily as figures of speech, which most people of the Middle East would have understood clearly. But do you know what we do? We literalize them, and we make God out to be one of the most horrendous persons that you could possibly imagine because we misunderstand Scripture.
I want to show you something here regarding punishments. When our Lord was here on this earth, He preached some 2˝ years and lived for about 33˝ years. He was finally crucified on a tree of crucifixion and then He was put in a tomb. That tomb was a rock-hewn tomb just outside the gates of Jerusalem. He stayed in that tomb, covered with swaddling bands for three days and then on a Sunday morning very early He came out of that tomb alive again after being there for three days. 8 He had been in a condition of death for the 3-day period.
Where was Jesus, from the time He died on the tree and He gave up the Spirit, and the time He came back to life three days later in Jerusalem on that early Sunday morning? We find the apostle Peter telling of the events or some things about all of this. Turn to Acts chapter 2. Peter was speaking to the Jews at the time of Pentecost, some 50 days after the resurrection of Christ. Peter had it proven to him by this time that Christ had been resurrected from the dead and he was telling the people about it. 9
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his [David’s] throne; He [David] seeing this before spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his [Christ’s] soul was not left in hell [hades], neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.”
So David gave a prophecy, and it is quoted by Peter from Psalm 16:10, that Christ’s soul was not to be left in hell. That is what the English translation says. But the Greek says His soul was not to be left in hades. Where was Christ for the 3 days in which He was dead? It says clearly from this Scripture, and there are others to corroborate it as well, that He was in hades.
If Christ was in hades, what type of condition is hades? What would a person be experiencing if he were in hades?
There are some people who would say that hades or hell is where a fire is. A person being in hades would be scorched; he would be in great torment. He would be in flame. He would be in a position of just having flames all around him, encompassing him and all of that, especially if he was in the hades that people think they know of from the Scripture.
Christ went to hades. He was in hades for three days and three nights. When He came out of the grave and appeared to the women there in Jerusalem outside His sepulcher, when He was shown to Peter, and even a week later when Thomas was able to put his hand into Jesus’ side and the wounds in His hand, and see that he was truly the resurrected Christ, the Messiah. You know something? They saw no burn marks on our Lord at all. There was nothing there that would suggest that our Lord, while He was in hades for three days was being burnt all the time.
However, if you go to Luke 16:19–24 you will find the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus was a poor man. He finally went to Abraham’s bosom. Where did the rich man go? If you read it there in Luke chapter 16 it says he went to hades. It says also, and this is our Lord saying it, the rich man was in flame, he was being tormented, and yet he is being able to talk to Abraham who was way over yonder, beyond the great gulf, and all of that. They were able to speak one to another. But the hades where this rich man was seemingly was a place of great fire and punishment. 10
Did our Lord go to the same hades? There is no distinction made whatsoever in the Holy Scripture on hades. He went to hades, but no burn marks were on Him. But in this parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man was in hades, and he was in torment. And he was in torment apparently just after death.
The point is that the whole thing is a parable, and it is a Semitic way of exaggeration to show that people who have sinned on this earth will be punished, but in this hades that this man was, the punishment was extreme torment. It is the same thing in Revelation chapter 14:
“And the smoke of their torment ascends up for ever and ever [the eons of the eons]: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receives the mark of his name.”
That is what hades is in figure of speech. But when it comes down to the understanding of it, in 1 Corinthians 15:55 it says: “O death, where is your sting? O grave [hades], where is your victory?” Jesus Christ now has victory over hades and that hades as a place of punishment will no longer exist in the future. It says that clearly in Revelation 20:14 it says “death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.” Yes, death and hell (hades) are cast into the lake of fire and they themselves are destroyed. Hades will come to an end one of these days.
What we find in Scripture is that the Bible uses, even our Lord and the apostles use, many expressions of exaggeration that people today even in the Middle East use, expressions dealing with rewards, dealing with punishments, complaints, descriptions, with all of these things. You know, the walls of the cities of the Canaanites were not really walled up to heaven. When it says the New Jerusalem comes out of heaven a cube of 1,300 miles on one side and 1,300 miles on another side, it is not intended by God for that statement to be taken literally. 11 Of course not. We find all types of figures of speech in the Scripture.
The problem with most of us is that we do not like figures of speech. Every time we come in contact with them, most of us say that God or somebody is lying unless that individual means it actually. How many times have you heard from the pulpits of this land about hell fire and fiery torment that is there. Let me tell you, Christ was in hades for three days, and He did not come out being scorched. Of course we have this language in the Scripture about fire there, and all of that, but we also have all types of expressions of exaggerations and things like that throughout the Scripture.
We need to know that God is a God of love. He knows exactly what He is doing. His love will be shown when His plan of salvation for all mankind is fulfilled.
He has given us parables. Even the apostles did not understand some of the parables that Jesus was saying until Jesus explained them. Many of those parables have to do with rewards and punishments and things of that nature. God is the God of love. Punishments are only for a time, but there will come a time when we will all know that God will rescue all of us.
Jesus Christ came into this world, as John 3:16–17 says, to rescue the world: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” for that world. When we understand that love is a central key to everything, all of these hyperboles or these figures of speech which seem to say that He is not the way we look upon Him as being, it will all make sense. Let us understand the Scripture in the proper way, and I tell you we will rejoice in it when we do.
L. Martin, 1977
Edited by David Sielaff, May 2008
When Scripture calls you, me, and all human beings “dirt,” is that a metaphor? Is that a figure of speech? Let’s investigate this matter. First, let us look at what we are not as considered by those who think they know. Their understanding is outside of Scripture and has the perspective of the “natural man” that the apostle Paul talks about in First Corinthians:
“But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
1 Corinthians 2:14
God did not create the world out of “nothing.” All creation came out from God the Father Himself, through Christ as is clearly expressed in Colossians 1:15–20. See my Commentary “Was the Creatio ex nihilo?” at http://askelm.com/news/n050924.htm.
In his 1980s television series Cosmos, Astronomer Carl Sagan used to enthrall people by stating, “We are star stuff.” 12 He went even further and made a statement of faith: “We are star stuff contemplating star stuff.” Apparently Dr. Sagan believed in spontaneous generation. He did not believe in God and was widely known as an atheist.
Atheists and most evolutionists generally believe two propositions. Both are false and require an impossible amount of faith: (1) that everything came from nothing and (2) that intelligence came from rock. Thus, they believe in “abiogenesis” which is the scientific term for “spontaneous generation.” They also believe there is no God. Astronomer Carl Sagan had another approach to the first proposition (1) above:
“In many cultures it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must, of course ask next where God comes from? And if we decide this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed?”
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, p. 257 13
God expressed His opinion about people who think that way in Psalms 14:1 and 53:1. The apostle Paul elaborated on that theme in Romans chapter 1. Actually, you are not “star stuff.” You are dirt. You are “of the earth,” not “of the stars.” Lift your arm — dirt. Wiggle your nose — dirt. You are dirt.
Did you ever stop to think that you are, in a very real sense, “animated dirt”? More precisely you are “animated dust,” because that is closer to what the Hebrew term adam means: “ground” or “earth.” Adam is the ancestor of us all, and he was made of dust [aphar] or dirt [adam]:
“And YHWH Elohim formed man [the man, ha-adam] of the dust [aphar] of the ground [earth, ha-adamah], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man [the man, ha-adam] became a living soul.”
“In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return unto the ground [earth, ha-adamah]; for out of it were you taken: for dust [aphar] you are, and unto dust [aphar] shall you return.”
“For he [YHWH] knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust [aphar]. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.”
“Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust [aphar], which are crushed before the moth? They are destroyed from morning to evening: they perish for ever without any regarding it.”
Certainly this is poetic language. These are figurative expressions, but they are also true to fact. You are dust; you are animated dirt. We all are. God says so, repeatedly. Kind of humbling, isn’t it! At funerals it is common for the people to express the concept “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” While this is not a biblical quote, it accurately describes a true biblical concept.
“For that which befalls the sons of men befalls beasts; even one thing befalls them: as the one dies, so dies the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man has no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
Ecclesiastes 3:19–20 [dust is aphar both places]
New Age philosopher and theologian Alan Watts wrote:
“... living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out. So to keep the farce going, the tubes find ways of making new tubes, which also put things in at one end and let them out at the other. At the input end they even develop ganglia of nerves called brains, with eyes and ears, so that they can more easily scrounge around for things to swallow.
As and when they get enough to eat, they use up their surplus energy by wiggling in complicated patterns, making all sorts of noises by blowing air in and out of the input hole, and gathering together in groups to fight with other groups. In time, the tubes grow such an abundance of attached appliances that they are hardly recognizable as mere tubes, and they manage to do this in a staggering variety of forms.
There is a vague rule not to eat tubes of your own form, but in general there is serious competition as to who is going to be the top type of tube. All this seems marvelously futile, and yet, when you begin to think about it, it begins to be more marvelous than futile. Indeed, it seems extremely odd.”
Alan Watts, The Book, p. 9 14
There is some truth to this statement, and in a small way it addresses the wondrous nature of life by reducing the nature of life to a simple concept.
In fact, some Bible passages seem to agree with this assessment. Job’s “friend” Bildad equated man to a worm (Job 25:6). David in his depression felt himself to be a worm: “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people” (Psalm 22:6). In these instances Bildad and David were speaking figuratively.
Alan Watts’ description and understanding of human beings comes from a naturalistic and limited perspective. It presents the perspective of the natural man:
“But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
1 Corinthians 2:14
No offense to Mr. Watts. For all his wisdom, Watts woefully underestimated, as he did throughout his book, the purpose of life, and more importantly he does not acknowledge the biblical concept and purpose of human creation — a creation from God! It is far greater than Watts can conceive in his natural mind.
As a created being you are truly a miracle. Every breath you take is a continuing miracle. Animated dirt you are! Yet you are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). How does that work? 15
Inanimate dust and dirt formed within your mother’s womb, and you become a living soul when you took that first breath of life and at the moment (and not before) you received the spirit of man. Both the breath and the spirit are from God. The result is that your human soul is formed with that first breath. 16 This miracle of you as animated dirt continues until you die, just as God told Adam. Read Genesis 3:19 above again: “… unto dust shall you return.” When you die, your soul dies as the dust returns to the ground, and the spirit returns to God. Deaths and births continue on the earth for other animated piles of dirt. Each person is unique, as the Psalmist says:
“You [God] hide your face, they are troubled: you take away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. You send forth your spirit, they are created: and you renew the face of the earth.”
“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the preacher; ‘all is vanity.’”
In Genesis 18:27 Abraham said to God that “I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, [I] which am but dust and ashes.” Job in his distress and pain set upon him by God said, “He has cast me into the mire, and I am become like dust and ashes” (Job 30:19 see Job 2:8, 42:6). Ash and dust are the same. The entire concept of “sackcloth and ashes” 17 is a symbol of mourning that relates directly to the actual state a person’s body reaches after death.
We will soon receive another gift from God. Soon after our resurrection, almost immediately, we will receive a spiritual body unlike our natural body. We will no longer be animated dirt. We will have a spiritual body, composed of spirit “substance” totally energized by God’s Holy Spirit.
“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam was made a living soul’; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual.
The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.”
1 Corinthians 15:44–49
This is figurative only so far as it is still future. It is sure. Those who grow up on farms understand these words better than you or I might because they are involved with sowing and raising. They are dirt. You are dirt, and so am I. Farm people somehow understand this concept. But as Paul says, we are like Adam, “of the earth, earthy.”
You are dirt. Your body is the clay that God is using to help build a child of God. Once that spiritual mold of character is completed, the clay, the dirt will no longer be needed. Read about God as the Potter in Isaiah 45:9, 64:8; Jeremiah 18:1–11; and Potter for individuals in Romans 9:20–21. Clay, earth, dust. These figures (all literal) are related.
When you receive your spiritual body, the dirt will fall away! Read 1 Corinthians 15:52–54.
This is not brain surgery folks. These are plain, straightforward biblical statements about the nature of man. The Bible says you are animated dirt. Indeed, you are so. Accept it. Be fascinated by it. You are destined to be much more than that. You were created as “dirt” in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). God will complete that image in you.
You are not and were never intended to be merely “star stuff,” but some day you will be “godly stuff” as a child of God. You have the Spirit of God now, which is an earnest, a down payment. Then the figure of speech will be more than reality.
David Sielaff, 2008
1 Dr. Martin writes elsewhere that Matthew was likely written in Hebrew and possibly Aramaic. Recognition of this comes mostly from the testimony of the early church father Papias who is quoted by the historian Eusebius: “Matthew compiled the saying [the logia of Christ] in the Hebrew language ...” (Eusebius, Eusebius, The Church History: A New Translation with Commentary, trans. by Paul L. Maier [Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 1999], p. 130). This means that the base Greek text of Matthew is itself a translation authenticated and authorized by Peter, Paul, and John. See chapter 21: “The New Testament Pentateuch” at http://www.askelm.com/restoring/res027.htm. DWS
2 Remember, the confusion of tongues began at Babel and was caused by a direct intervention of God (Genesis 11:1–9). DWS
3 These were during the summers of 1969 through 1973 at the dig led by Dr. Benjamin Mazar outside the southwest corner of the Haram esh-Sharif. Dr. Martin supervised the students digging at the excavations. DWS
4 The calculation of days “three score and ten” years as a relative maximum length of life after the time of Moses (Psalm 90:10) is as follows: 70 years x 365.25 days per year = 25,567+ days. DWS
5 The account in Deuteronomy 1:28 is Moses’ accurate recollection of their report. Moses’ original account is in Numbers chapter 13:
“And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”
Numbers 13:33 DWS
7 I know several books and organizations that say this very thing, that the figures of speech of the Bible taken literally are falsehoods and therefore the Bible should be rejected as authoritative and true. This is false reasoning from (perhaps deliberately?) misunderstood evidence. Unfortunately all too many Bible students take the figurative to be literal, and the literal to be figurative, and thereby they unwittingly give ammunition to those who deny the Bible. Biblical figures of speech have more truth than the mere words themselves denote. They add meaning to the intended message. DWS
8 If you do not think Jesus’ resurrection took place on a Sunday morning, read the article that shows this was the case. See Bible Secret #34, “When Was Jesus Resurrected” at http://askelm.com/secrets/sec034.htm from Dr. Martin’s book 101 Bible Secrets that Christians Do Not Know. See his more extensive article which also discusses the Sunday resurrection: “The Case for a Thursday Crucifixion” at http://askelm.com/news/n010501.htm, and “The Passover/Easter Controversy” at http://askelm.com/doctrine/d050402.htm. DWS
11 For this example of hyperbole I humbly disagree with Dr. Martin’s 1977 statement here. The new heaven and new earth will be the site of the Great White Throne Judgment during which the bulk of humanity will be physically resurrected to learn the truths of God the Father, particularly His plan through Christ for every human being. This new heaven and new earth may be considerably larger to reasonably accommodate the incredibly large number of people (“like the sands of the sea”) that will be resurrected, housed, fed, and educated. Are there 20 billion people that have been born since Adam that will be resurrected? Will the number be 40 billion? I do not know, but God does.
The structure of New Jerusalem (Revelation 3:12 and chapter 21), whether a cube or a pyramid (either is possible) of 1,300 miles on a side, may indeed be an actual figure on a much larger earth. This New Jerusalem under construction in heaven will be the only “structurtotransition between the old heaven to the new earth. As Dr. Martin shows in his article “The Geography of Heaven” (http://askelm.com/doctrine/d990501.htm) things are apparently larger in heaven than on earth here. For conditions at that time see Dr. Martin’s Chapter 31, “God’s Divine Headquarters” at http://askelm.com/essentials/ess040.htm from his book Essentials of New Testament Doctrine. See my article “New Jerusalem and the Center of Creation” at http://askelm.com/news/n041216.htm. These are subjects about which we can have fun discussing. DWS
12 See the NASA website “X-ray Star Stuff” at http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2000/ast18jul_1m.htm. DWS
13 Quoted Carl Sagan’s book from the website “Quotations on Freethought and Religion, Carl Sagan” at http://atheism.about.com/library/quotes/bl_q_CSagan.htm. DWS
14 Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Vintage Books, 1966), p. 9. DWS
15 Asking this question has led some to conclude that God’s image in humanity cannot possibly include anything physical. God, after all, is Spirit and not dust or dirt. Yes, “God is spirit” (John 4:24, the indefinite article “a” in the King James Version is not in the Greek). Everything about God is Spirit, including His body. You are composed of dust, dirt, earth. That is why the simile of “image” is used to describe man. God’s image will be complete when each human being receives his or her body composed of and energized by God’s Holy Spirit. See 1 Corinthians 14:44–49 quoted below. DWS
16 See my Commentary “Abortions and Miracles” at http://askelm.com/news/n050201.htm, the “February 2005 Newsletter” at http://www.askelm.com/newsletter/l200502.htm, and Dr. Martin’s presentation “Abortion and the Bible” at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d050201.htm, as well as my Commentary “What Does ‘Soulish’ Mean?” at http://askelm.com/news/n050427.htm. In Dr. Martin’s book Essentials of New Testament Doctrine is discussed this subject in “Chapter 13: Just What Are Human Beings?” at http://askelm.com/essentials/ess018a.htm. Finally, look at Dr. Martin’s article “Salvation and the Biblical Doctrine of Deification” at http://askelm.com/doctrine/d040202.htm. DWS
17 See Esther 4:1, 3; Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21; and Luke 10:3. DWS
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