It can be confusing when a Bible passage contains words or phrases that can have multiple meanings, or when a figure of speech is used. Today we’ll take a look at a few of the double meanings you might come across in you Bible reading and talk about how to deal with them.
The meaning of a word can change depending its context – cool, isn’t it? When you plug in a definition that isn’t right for the context, it clouds your understanding of the passage. Think about the word saved for example. Your definition of the word saved may be something like this:
- I’m forgiven of my sins.
- God is my Friend.
- I’ll go to Heaven when I die.
How well does your definition work out when you read 1 Timothy 2:15?
“Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” (1Ti 2:15)
Your mind probably does a double take when you read that passage. “Is God saying,” you ask yourself, “that women have to bear children if they want to be forgiven, have God’s friendship, and have a future in Heaven?” How do you interpret this passage? If you read the many Bible verses where the word saved appears, you’ll find that it is used in more than one way.
- Being drawn toward God (Psa. 80:1-3).
- Being delivered from distress (Psa. 107:13).
- Being delivered from physical death (Exo. 1:17-18).
- Entering God’s kingdom (Mat. 19:23-25).
Try plugging in the different definitions and see which one makes the most sense in 1 Timothy 2:15. Also, if you look at cross references for this passage, you may come across this verse:
“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)
John Gill gives, as he often does, a thorough and accurate interpretation of the passage. Notice how it touches on some of the ideas we’ve already talked about.
“In childbearing; which is to be understood not of a temporal salvation, or being saved through childbearing, through the perilous time, and be delivered out of it; for though this is generally the case, yet not always, nor always the case of good women. … But spiritual and eternal salvation is here meant; not that bearing children is the cause, condition, or means of salvation; for as this is not God’s way of salvation, so it confines the salvation of women to childbearing ones; and which must give an uneasy reflection to maidens, and women that never bore any; but rather the meaning is, that good women shall be saved, notwithstanding their bearing and bringing forth children in pain and sorrow, according to the original curse, in Gen_3:16. And so the words administer some comfort to women, in their present situation of subjection and sorrow; though they may be rendered impersonally thus, “notwithstanding there is salvation through the birth of a son”: and the sense is, that notwithstanding the fall of man by the means of the woman, yet there is salvation for both men and women, through the birth of Immanuel, the child born, and Son given; at whose birth, the angels sung peace on earth, good will to men; through the true Messiah, the deed of the woman, through the incarnate Saviour, who was made of a woman, there is salvation for lost sinners: he was born of a woman, and came into the world in order to obtain salvation for them; and he has effected it, and it is in him, for all such who apply to him for it; and with it all true believers, men and women, shall be saved through him.” (John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible)
Figures of Speech
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, a figure of speech is:
“A form of expression used to convey meaning or heighten effect, often by comparing or identifying one thing with another that has a meaning or connotation familiar to the reader or listener.
An integral part of language, figures of speech are found in oral literatures as well as in polished poetry and prose and in everyday speech. Common figures of speech include simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, irony, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and puns.”
“A figure of speech that draws a comparison between two different things, especially a phrase containing the word ‘like’ or ‘as,’.”
For example, “as white as a sheet” (Encarta Dictionary)
“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:” (Mat 13:31)
Similes, metaphors and parables, which are extended similes, look for the point of comparison. What characteristics do the two things being compared share?
“The application of a word or phrase to somebody or something that is not meant literally but to make a comparison.”
For example, saying that somebody is a snake. (Encarta Dictionary)
“I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” (Joh 10:9)
Jesus is not a literal door with hinges and a doorknob. But He is the way to enter God’s kingdom.
“A representation of an abstract quality or notion as a human being, especially in art or literature.”. (Encarta Dictionary)
For example, saying the walls have ears.
“Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets: She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying, How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.” (Pro 1:20-23)
In this passage, Solomon personifies wisdom as a woman calling out in the streets, inviting passers by to come to her.
“Deliberate and obvious exaggeration used for effect.”
For example, “I could eat a million of these.” (Encarta Dictionary)
“Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? (22) Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”
Jesus wasn’t telling Peter to keep a list of offenses and to stop forgiving the offender when he reached his 491st offense.
“In drama and literature, a statement or action whose apparent meaning is underlain by a contrary meaning.” (Encarta Encyclopedia)
“Yet ye have forsaken me, and served other gods: wherefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation.” (Jdg 10:13-14)
God wasn’t commanding idolatry here. He didn’t want His people to pray to other gods. This is an ironic call not to seek other gods.
“A humorous use of words that involves a word or phrase that has more than one possible meaning.” (Encarta Dictionary)
Example: A vulture boards an airplane, carrying two dead raccoons. The stewardess looks at him and says, “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion
allowed per passenger.”
“I would they were even cut off which trouble you.” (Gal. 5:12)
This is a pun about those who were encouraging Gentile Christians to be circumcised.
Describes things as they appear to be, or as they are experienced, not as they really are.
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mat 5:45)
The Sun does not obit the earth, rising each morning and setting each evening. This verse describes things as we experience them. Meteorologists use this phrase ever day.
Read More About It
If you want to learn more about figures of speech used in the Bible and see many examples, take a look at Dr. Allen Ross’ article The Figures of Speech at www.bible.org. You might find the introduction a little boring, and want to jump straight to the Classification of the Figures section.
If you really want to drive yourself crazy, you can look at Bullinger’s Figures of Speech Systematically Classified.