The Richness of Biblical Metaphor

You can’t get far in Bible study without meeting metaphors, for powerful word pictures are used frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, take these lines addressed to God in Psalm 63:

Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me (Psalm 63:7–8).

How can you help your small group get the most out of a passage like this one? If you use the standard inductive approach (asking people to discuss what the passage says, what it means and what it means to them), you will find that they are apt to summarize the passage in plain prose. They might summarize Psalm 63:7–8 this way: “Because I know God loves and helps me, I can feel happy and secure when I stay close to him.” This paraphrase captures the point of the psalmist’s word pictures, but it has lost their power.

If you allow people simply to translate the Bible’s metaphoric language into ordinary prose, you are encouraging them to think of word pictures as fancy wrappings that writers put around their ideas. Small-group members will think that Bible study means stripping away the fancy language to expose the “real” meaning inside and then discarding the wrapping. But writers don’t use metaphors to decorate plain ideas. They use them intentionally to pack profound meaning into just a few words. Those few words may seem to contain only a tiny seed of meaning at first glance, but because they appeal to our senses and feelings, they can sink into the fertile soil of our own experience and imagination to take root and grow.

We do not understand poetic language by “extracting” the meaning from it, but by letting it develop meaning as it works its way into us. You can help your small group discover the wealth of biblical metaphors when they meet them. Ask, “What do you visualize (or hear or taste) when you read these words? What feelings or memories do they evoke?”

Imagine how your group might respond to the word pictures in Psalm 63:7–8. In reading “I sing in the shadow of your wings,” they might visualize themselves as newly hatched birds, precariously perched in a nest high above the ground without strength enough to fly or feathers enough to keep them warm. They are secure and cozy under their mother’s wing. In reading “your right hand upholds me,” they might recall that as little babies they could not walk on their own, but that they could manage to toddle along pretty successfully clinging to their father’s outstretched hand. Both these pictures could illustrate for group members how God the Father protects, comforts, encourages and supports them.

It’s worth taking time to help your group respond emotionally and imaginatively to the Bible’s metaphors. You’ll watch individual members grow closer to God and to each other as they share the deep feelings and memories that God’s powerful word pictures evoke.

—Margaret Parker

(from Student Leadership journal, vol. 4:2)