Metaphors: A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey

Apocalyptic literature is powerful and problematic for one reason: the creative use of language; namely poetic expressions laced with striking and intense metaphors. What is a metaphor? The New Oxford American Dictionary defines metaphor as: “1. a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. 2. a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract.”

D. Brent Sandy states in his book, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, “If figures of speech were sequoias on the landscape of prophecy, prophecy would be densely forested, and the most common tree in these woods is metaphor. On the other hand, if biblical prophecy had been written devoid of figures of speech, all that the prophets said could be reduced to a few pages.” Thus, if we fail to understand the fundamental metaphorical nature of language, then we will fail to understand apocalyptic literature. Therefore, we must also pay close attention to how metaphors work.

Metaphors begin with something nonfigurative and make it figurative by using it to describe something beyond the scope of its normal meaning. That is, metaphors describe x while referring to y. For example: “Some homeowners are sitting ducks for unscrupulous window salesmen.” With the reference to ducks (y), a common conception of vulnerability is applied to people (x). The metaphor is effective because “sitting ducks” brings to our minds a visual image. The same sentence can be defined another way. A nonfigurative (ducks) becomes figurative when it becomes a symbol for a characteristic of another subject (Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, pg. 62).

Why is this imperative for us to grasp in our study of the Book of Revelation? Because metaphors are often used to describe things we do not adequately understand and have difficulty describing.

We have trouble understanding brain activity, so we talk about it in terms more easily understood but certainly less accurate. Take the archetypal metaphor “the mind is a machine.” We may say, “I hear the wheels turning; my mind isn’t operating at full capacity right now; we’re a little rusty on that topic; … I’ve been trying all day to grind out a solution for that problem, but I’m running out of steam.”

As John writes the Revelation of Jesus Christ he used metaphors to describe things he did not adequately understand and had difficulty describing. As a writer, John chose metaphors that his intended audience would have understood. Then, upon the reader identifying the metaphors, the reader had to consider what he knew about John and his culture to determine what John intended to communicate by using that particular metaphor.

The use of imagery is then an act of community, for speaker and hearer are drawn closer together in the communicative process …

… Metaphors as a function of community means that hearers who are not a part of the community will be less prepared to identify and understand metaphors. Bridging the language and culture barriers between the Bible and the twenty-first century is especially urgent for understanding biblical metaphors.


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