Hyperbole: A Common Biblical Figure of Speech
|by||Kyle Butt, M.A.|
The Bible is by far the most popular book ever printed. As such, it is also the most read. Those who read the Bible are reading the inspired message of God (see Butt, 2007). Yet, even though the Bible is God’s inspired message, it contains figures of speech that commonly occur in secular writings. E.W. Bullinger wrote more than a thousand pages of material describing these figures of speech in his excellent volume Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1968). In order to properly understand the Bible, a basic knowledge of commonly used figures of speech is important. Furthermore, such knowledge is often helpful in refuting erroneous claims, made by skeptics, that the Bible contains errors or discrepancies.
A common figure of speech used in the Bible is that of hyperbole. Bullinger defines hyperbole as: “when more is said than is literally meant” (1968, p. 423). He also calls hyperbole “exaggeration.” We who use the English language are quite familiar with the use of hyperbole, even though we may not be as familiar with the term itself. When a teenager explains to her parent that “everybody” is going to be at the party, does she mean that literally the world’s population of 6.6 billion people will be there? Of course she does not. She is intentionally exaggerating to make a point. When a teacher explains to his class that “everybody” knows who the first president of the United States was, does the teacher believe all toddlers can correctly answer the question? No. Once again, the teacher is simply using a well-understood figure of speech to convey a point.
In a similar way, the Bible uses hyperbole on numerous occasions. Take John 4:39 as an example. In this passage, a Samaritan woman spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (emp. added). Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point.
To illustrate further, consider Mark 1:4-5: “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (emp. added). Taken literally, these verses would mean that John baptized every single person (man, woman, and child) in all of Judea and Jerusalem. But these verses are not to be taken literally. They are utilizing hyperbole, in which intentional “exaggeration” is employed to explain that John’s baptism was extremely popular.
The importance of understanding hyperbole can be seen when comparing another passage to Mark 1:4-5. In Luke 7:24-35, Jesus extolled the righteousness of John the Baptizer. Some of His listeners appreciated Jesus’ comments about John and some did not. Verses 29 and 30 explain: “And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” Are we to conclude that the Pharisees and lawyers did not dwell in Judea and Jerusalem and that is why they had not been baptized—as Mark 1:4-5 would imply if taken literally? That would certainly be a stretch. The best answer in this case is to show that Mark’s use of hyperbole would allow some, such as the Pharisees and lawyers, to have rejected John and not to have received his baptism.
Another example of hyperbole is found in John 3:26. In that context, John’s disciples were telling John about the increasing popularity of Jesus’ ministry. They said to him: “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!” (emp. added). Was it true that literally “all” the people in the world were coming to Jesus? No, it was simply the case that John’s disciples were intentionally exaggerating, using hyperbole, to describe Jesus’ spreading fame. [NOTE: For more examples see Bullinger, 1968, pp. 423-428.]
Honest-hearted Bible readers can benefit greatly from knowing when and how the Bible writers used hyperbole. Many of the challenges of skeptics can also be answered based on such information. After all, everybody knows that great literature always uses figures of speech such as hyperbole to convey its message.
Butt, Kyle (2007), Behold! The Word of God (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).