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Hyperbole in the Bible (Part 2)

In the first part in this series, we discussed and reviewed what hyperbole is and what its uses are in the Bible.

When it comes to Scripture, we have many examples which we will now review.

2 Samuel 1:23:

“Saul and Jonathan were beloved and pleasant in their lives, And in their death they were not divided; They were swifter than eagles, They were stronger than lions.”

The National Eagle Centre states that “Eagles can achieve 30 mph using powerful wing-beats and even faster when diving after prey (stoop). Bald eagles can dive at up to 100 mph; golden eagles at up to 150 mph.   However, “The fastest recorded human sprinter ever is Usain Bolt. At the World Championship in Berlin in 2009, he hit 27.78 miles per hour between meters 60 and 80 during the 100-meter sprint. Over the full 100 meters, he averaged 23.35 miles per hour, finishing in 9.58 seconds and setting a new world record.”

Obviously, there is no comparison between the speed that a man can run and an eagle can fly.   In addition, we read in Proverbs 30:30: “A lion, which is mighty among beasts And does not turn away from any.”

In Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible, they explain as follows: “Swifter than eagles; expeditious and nimble in pursuing their enemies, and executing their designs; which is a great commendation in a prince and in a soldier. Stronger than lions, in regard of their bodily strength and the courage of their minds.”

Joseph Benson’s Commentary of the Old and New Testaments observes: “According to Agur’s observation, Proverbs 30:30, the lion never betakes himself to flight, but faces his foe to the last. Courage then seems the most remarkable property of the lion. And since David uses the same word here in speaking of Saul and Jonathan which Agur uses in speaking of this property of the lion, he evidently means to celebrate the courage of his heroes rather than their strength; and to say that, in facing the enemy and braving of danger, they were undaunted as lions.”

It is very clear that hyperbole was used in this verse to make or reinforce a point and to catch the reader’s attention.

Deuteronomy 1:28:

“Where can we go up? Our brethren have discouraged our hearts, saying, ‘The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.’’’

This was making the point that, in human terms, the walls were very high.   In the previous Q&A – “Doesn’t Psalm 139:8 show that we either go to heaven or hell at death?” we answer this question and refer to another Q&A that we have produced showing that the Bible speaks of three heavens.  The first two heavens — the physical heavens — can be divided into the earth’s atmosphere and the space beyond our atmosphere — commonly called the universe plus a heaven composed of spirit — the third heaven, where God lives.   Therefore, in Deuteronomy 1:28, this could only apply to the first heaven as the other two are way beyond the first heaven and any wall could be fortified only up to a certain level.

In Wikipedia, we read “The world’s tallest artificial structure is the 829.8-metre-tall (2,722 ft) Burj Khalifa in Dubai (of the United Arab Emirates). The building gained the official title of “tallest building in the world” and the tallest self-supported structure at its opening on January 9, 2010.”   As modern building techniques have improved exponentially in recent times, even this building in Dubai hardly makes a mark in the first heaven and the “walled cities of the Anakim” would have been substantially smaller than the current tallest structure in the world.

Again, hyperbole is used in this verse to make the point that, except for Caleb and Joshua, the other ten men returned from the land that God had wanted to give Israel and were terrified by the inhabitants and made out that the walled cities were fortified up to heaven to support their case.   God was not pleased by their words and actions and they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land.   Hyperbole in this case simply didn’t work!

Judges 20:16:

“Among all this people were seven hundred select men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss.”

Matthew Poole’s Commentary opines as follows:

“Left-handed, Heb. shut up on their right hand, i.e. using their left hand instead of their right.

“Every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss; an hyperbolical expression, signifying that they could do this with great exactness. There are many parallel instances in historians of persons that could throw stones or shoot arrows with great certainty, so as seldom or never to miss; of which see my Latin Synopsis.”

Job 29:6:

“When my steps were bathed with cream, And the rock poured out rivers of oil for me!”

Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible states:

“…and the rock poured me out rivers of oil; another hyperbolical expression, like that in Deuteronomy 32:13, where honey is said to be sucked out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock; as honey may be got out of a rock, because bees may make their nests and hives there, where it is laid up by them; so oil, in like manner, may be had from the flinty rock, olive trees growing on hills, mountains, and rocks, which yield oil in great abundance; near Jerusalem was a mount called Olivet, from thence: the land of Edom, or Idumea, where abounded with cragged mountains and rocks; and there might be in Job’s estate such on which olive trees grew in great plenty, as to produce vast quantities of oil.”

2 Chronicles 1:15:

“Also the king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedars as abundant as the sycamores which are in the lowland.”

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible – Unabridged

“The king made silver and gold at Jerusalem as plenteous as stones – in addition to the large amount of treasure collected and bequeathed to him by his father David. The great source of Solomon’s immense wealth undoubtedly lay in his trading speculations. For, as a monarch, he possessed advantages and enjoyed facilities for ending into trade, infinitely superior to any of his subjects. His vessels traded to distant shores, and returned laden with the gold and the treasures of every land. The multiplication of gold and silver was prohibited to the theocratic king as well as that of horses (Deuteronomy 17:16-17).”

E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible Notes

“as stones . . . as the sycamore trees. Figure of speech Hyperbole.

Matthew 5:29-30:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

The right eye was generally regarded as the better one, just as the “right hand” is the stronger one for the majority of people. To gouge it out is a graphic hyperbolic equivalent of the apostle Paul’s exhortation to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) or to “mortify (kill) therefore your members …” (Colossians 3:5). Either way, the idea is to refrain from using those faculties or abilities for sin.

This is not meant to be literally applied; it is hyperbole to forcibly make the point that we should do everything possible to make sure we enter the Kingdom of God and such expressive language is used to get our attention!

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explains:

“Pluck it out … – It cannot be supposed that Christ intended this to be taken literally. His design was to teach that the dearest objects, if they cause us to sin, are to be abandoned; that by all sacrifices and self-denials we must overcome the evil propensities of our nature, and resist our wanton imaginations. Some of the fathers, however, took this commandment literally. Our Saviour several times repeated this sentiment.”

Matthew 7:1-3:

“Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”

The Benson Commentary states that “The word here rendered mote, according to Hesychius, may signify a little splinter of wood. This, and the beam, its opposite, were proverbially used by the Jews to denote, the one, small infirmities, the other, gross, palpable faults.”

The Expositor’s Greek Testament makes these interesting comments:  “A beam in the eye is a natural impossibility; cf. the camel and the needle eye. This is a case of tu quoque (a retort accusing an accuser of a similar offense or similar behaviour) or rather of “thou much more”. The faults may be of the same kind: a petty theft, commercial dishonesty on a large scale—“thou that judgest doest the same things” (Romans 2:2); or of a different sort: moral laxity in the publican, pride and inhumanity in the Pharisee who despised him (Luke 18:9-14).— the contrast is not between seeing and failing to see, but between seeing and not choosing to see; ignoring, consciously overlooking. The censorious man is not necessarily ignorant of his own faults, but he does not let his mind rest on them. It is more pleasant to think of other people’s faults.”

The hyperbole used by beam in the eye is, as stated above, a physical impossibility – it can be described as a long, thick piece of wood, metal, or concrete – and very little is able to get in the eye because of its small size.  However, by mentioning a beam it brings an extravagant and exaggerated mental vision that can resonate and remain with the reader denoting, in vivid terms, the much greater fault which we overlook in ourselves.

(To be continued)

Lead writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)