We could argue at length regarding what is the most misused word in the English language today, but I do not believe we could argue that one of the top ten misapplied terms is the word, “literally.” It literally drives me nuts!
Well, no, not literally. I am still quite sane.
“I literally died laughing.” Really? Then how are you standing here telling me of your recent passing?
“There were literally a million people on the beach today.” Wow, that must have been uncomfortable. The most I’ve ever seen there is a couple of hundred.
“I was so scared, I literally jumped out of my skin.” Whoa! That’s a cool trick. And then you managed to put your skin back on. That’s amazing!
Proper use of language in our own presentations, and an understanding of how others use language, is critical to effective communication. This is true for us today, just as it was true for those who lived in biblical times. Furthermore, this principle is important for us as we strive to understand the biblical writings.
Hyperbole in the Bible
One common misunderstanding of biblical literature is the belief that the biblical writers were conveying literal, verbatim facts to communicate truth. Such is simply not the case. It is no truer for them than it is for us. We do not communicate using explicit, factual language to make our points.
What I’m getting at is the reality that the Bible makes extensive use of idiom and hyperbole. Hyperbole is the employment of exaggerative language to emphasize a point. Idiom is biblical “slang” if you will.
Let’s assume you and I are conversing over coffee, and in that conversation, you say something like, “Wow, can you believe last night’s weather? It was raining cats and dogs!” I respond, “Yeah it was so cool!”
Are you attempting to persuade me that canine and feline creatures were falling from the sky? No. You’re telling me that last night’s rain was heavy, perhaps even a “gully-washer.” Am I attempting to comment on last evening’s temperature? No. I am saying I enjoyed the heavy rainfall.
Following a drive from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, I may comment to you, “You guys made great time. You must have been flying!”
Is it my intent to express a genuine belief that you took to the air on your recent drive? No. I’m just saying you drove at a high rate of speed.
Many modern-day translations tout the extent to which they hold to literal translations from Greek and Hebrew to English. This is a good thing, and it played largely into my purchasing decision thirty-seven years ago as I bought the Bible I would use for the rest of my life. I wanted a literal, yet readable Bible. I landed on the New American Standard Bible.
Other Bible translations do not attempt a literal, verbatim rendering, but rather go for the linguistic nuances to get to the intended meaning.
So, our scenario looks like this:
Translating English to Spanish, the more literal approach translates “It was raining cats and dogs” as, “Estaba lloviendo gatos y perros” – It was raining cats and dogs. That’s literally what we said. However, a translator who wishes convey the true meaning behind “It was raining cats and dogs” will say, “Estaba lloviendo muy duro,” – It was raining very hard.
Which translation is accurate? I would argue they both are, but one conveys meaning while the other strives for literal wording.
Examples of Biblical Hyperbole
Scripture is replete with hyperbolic language, and it is important to know that because not knowing it, and trying to take a passage literally that is not intended to be taken literally, often results in dangerous and harmful doctrine. Let’s look at some examples of such hyperbole in scripture. Some are glaringly obvious while others are more subtle, but hyperbole nonetheless.
You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! – Matthew 23:24, NASB
This is a clear exaggeration by Jesus, and it is such a beautiful example of hyperbole that it has become an idiom common to the English-speaking world. Let’s try that again.
Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. – Matthew 19:24
Another beautiful hyperbolic example from Jesus. A camel cannot get through the eye of a needle, and it is exceedingly difficult to not fall in love with wealth and luxury.
If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. – Luke 14:26, NASB
Jesus is a preacher of love, not hate. Besides, this is a direct contradiction of the command to honor one’s father and mother. The message is that my love for God must outweigh and overrule in every circumstance. It is similar to God saying in Malachi 1, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
Look how the whole world has gone after him. – John 12:19b, NIV-1978
Or, try this one.
And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. – Mark 1:5, NASB
The “whole world” had not gone after Jesus. Not even the whole city, or probably even everyone in one quarter or block. But Jesus did have an impressive following. And neither did all of Judea and all of Jerusalem go out to be baptized by John, but many did.
Here is one of my favorites.
Out of all these people 700 choice men were left-handed; each one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. – Judges 20:16, NASB
They were really good shots!
…the cities are large and fortified to heaven. – Deuteronomy 1:28b, NASB
No, the cities were not fortified or walled up to heaven. But the walls were undoubtedly quite high. That’s the message.
Where It Becomes Difficult
So, these are easy to spot and it is equally easy to grasp the true meaning. There are literally (and yes, I do mean literally) hundreds of these in the pages of scripture. But let’s try one that’s a little more difficult.
All things are possible to him who believes. – Mark 9:23b, NASB
Really? All things?
If I really believe, can I swan-dive from the pinnacle of the Golden Gate Bridge and survive it? I think not.
When we hit a verse like this, one we have heard people quote to their own advantage, or to bolster up a suffering brother or sister, we need to ask difficult questions of the verse or the passage. For starters, what if what I am after doesn’t square with the will or the Word of God? In such a case, it doesn’t really matter how intensely I believe or what the hyper-faith teachers tell me. It isn’t going to happen.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. – James 4:3, NASB
Furthermore, Jesus said elsewhere, “…apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The apostle Paul teaches directly against this word-of-faith doctrine. “For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8).
So taking a verse like Mark9:23 literally and misapplying it to one’s circumstance is both foolhardy and dangerous. We find ourselves demanding of God something he has not promised because we failed to understand biblical hyperbole. Remember, scripture must always harmonize with itself.