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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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Figurative language. Scripture prefers to convey truths by pictorial representations rather than through abstract language. Scripture abounds in word-pictures for God, God's people, and their experience of salvation.

The challenge of theology (“talk about God”) is to express truths about God in human language. Scripture itself witnesses the difficulty of this task, “To whom will you liken me, and make me equal, and compare me that we may be like” (Isaiah 46:5 ). The living God is not to be equated with any one manageable image. Idolatry is essentially the attempt to reduce God to an image or label. The multiplicity of Old Testament literary images for God serves as a corrective of human attempts to box God in. Some images for God are inanimate: stone (Genesis 49:24 ); fortress (2 Samuel 22:2 ); fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13 ). There is little danger of confusing God with such images. Other images of God are personal: father (Malachi 1:6 ); husband (Hosea 2:16 ); shepherd (Psalm 23:1 ); judge, lawgiver, and king (Isaiah 33:22 ); teacher (Isaiah 28:26 ); healer (Jeremiah 30:17 ); warrior (Exodus 15:1 ,Exodus 15:1,15:3 ); farmer (Isaiah 5:2-7 ). With such personal images, the danger of confusing “God is like” with “God is” is real. A challenging corrective is offered by the less familiar feminine images for God, for example, that of a mother bird sheltering her young (Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8 ). Also suggestive of a mother's tenderness are the images of carrying a child from birth (Isaiah 46:3 ), teaching a child to walk (Hosea 11:3 ), child feeding (Hosea 11:4 ), and child rearing (Isaiah 1:2 ).

In His parables, Jesus continued the Old Testament practice of using vivid images for God: a shepherd seeking one lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7 ); a woman seeking one lost coin (Luke 15:8-10 ); a father waiting patiently for the return of one son and taking the initiative to reconcile the other (Luke 15:11-32 ). Images are also used to teach who Jesus the Christ is: word (John 1:1 ); light (John 8:12 ); bread and wine (Matthew 26:26-29 ); vine (John 15:1 ); the way (John 14:6 ).

Imagery is also used to depict the people of God and their experience of salvation. The Old Testament pictures God's people as: a faithless wife (Jeremiah 3:20 ); a wild vine (Jeremiah 2:21 ); a wild donkey in heat (Jeremiah 2:24 ); God's beloved (Jeremiah 11:15 ); God's bride (Jeremiah 2:2 ); God's servant (Jeremiah 30:10 ); and God's son (Hosea 11:1 ). New Testament images include: light (Matthew 5:14 ); salt (Matthew 5:13 ); vine branches (John 15:5 ); a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17 ); God's temple (1 Corinthians 3:16 ); and a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9; compare Exodus 19:6 ). Images for salvation are drawn from all walks of life: the law courts (Romans 7:3; Hebrews 9:16-17 ); slave market (Titus 2:14 ); marketplace (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23 ); and the family (Romans 8:17 ,Romans 8:17,8:23 ). The multiplicity of images again witnesses the rich experience of God's people. See Anthropomorphism; Parables .

Chris Church

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Imagery'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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