Metaphors: Beyond A Discussion of Words

When speaking about metaphors we most often spend our time addressing isolated words. However, when dealing with literature, meaning is primarily a function of phrases and sentences; not individual words.

D. Brent Sandy, in his book Plowshares and Pruning Hooks states,

The psalmist asks the Lord of deliverance from his enemies–that God would break the teeth and the arm of the wicked (Ps. 3:7; 10:15). For readers who only think of the lexical meanings of these symbols, the interpretation will certainly be mistaken.

[However] just as misguided are readers who recognize the presence of metaphor yet attempt to determine what break refers to and what teeth and arm refer to. What are the referents for those metaphors? The answer is, there are none. But there is a referent for the metaphor as a whole: God’s judgement. To break the teeth of the wicked is to judge them. Thus the meaning of metaphors may not be a one-to-one ratio of symbols and referents. When we use the metaphor of climbing on someone’s bandwagon, does the metaphorical action we are describing have anything to do with a dictionary definition of a band or a wagon or climbing? Obviously the answer is no.

How does this understanding help us with the Book of Revelation? Let me give you one example.

Revelation 1:12–16 (ESV) — Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

Clearly these five verses are pregnant with metaphor. However, we will be misguided if we try to determine a referent for every individual metaphor. If we focus too narrowly on its minutia we will obscure the impressionistic landscape that John is painting. John wants us to behold the glory of Jesus Christ!
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