In our recent Bible Study meetings we have been going through Revelation in some depth. It has been a very difficult series, and we have felt so inadequate to unlock the meanings of the visions John saw. However, much has been learned of spiritual value in our daily walk, regardless of whether we reached any meaningful conclusions about the future. We were encouraged to read in chapter one that God has a blessing for those who READ and those who KEEP the words of “this prophecy”, but He didn’t say “those who UNDERSTAND”! However, to lead on to the main purpose of this paper, we found that Revelation was overflowing with superlatives. John found it difficult to contain himself when writing of the glories he’d seen, and expressions like “King of kings, and Lord of lords”, and “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands round the throne,” and “Him who lives for ever and ever,” were just a few examples of grandiloquent speech. This led us on to investigate the way in which the House of Israel in Old Testament times used HYPERBOLIC LANGUAGE. The Apostle John was immersed in that culture, and wrote Revelation as an Israelite, as one who knew and thought in Hebrew, one who had spent many hours reading the Old Testament Scriptures. Might it be of some assistance to us to know how the idioms of that day operated? Would it enable us to interpret Scripture more accurately? Above all, would it prevent us from making fools of ourselves by insisting on a LITERAL meaning, when in fact the idiom demanded a more FIGURATIVE understanding?
Scholars of languages know literally dozens of recognisable figures of speech, whereas most of us are more or less aware of just a few, like SIMILE, METAPHOR, PARABLE, and ALLEGORY. Having access to a scholarly tome on FIGURES OF SPEECH FOUND IN THE BIBLE, I have been amazed at what I have found, and believe that it will be of great interest and enlightenment to others if a couple of items can be shared, mainly on this subject of superlative, or grandiose expression. The first is called POLYPTOTON, and the second HYPERBOLE.
POLYPTOTON. Polyptoton is as old as Genesis chapter one. In usage, it repeats a word for the sake of effect. The A.V. (and indeed many other versions) instead of presenting the original, interpret it instead. This is a good practice, as long as it is recognised and understood by the reader. Let us see a few of the examples in Genesis. I’ll give the literal rendering from the Hebrew to begin with, and follow it with the manner in which WE would speak today.
1:11 Herb SEEDING SEED. (Herb YIELDING seed.) 2:16 EATING you shall EAT. (You may FREELY eat.) 2:17 DYING you shall DIE. (You shall SURELY die.) 2:23 BONE of my BONE, and FLESH of my FLESH. (Of my VERY bone and flesh) 3:16 MULTIPLYING I will MULTIPLY. (I will GREATLY multiply) 8:21 The Lord SMELLED a sweet SMELL. (Received ABUNDANT satisfaction) 9:25 Canaan shall be a SERVANT of SERVANTS. (the LOWEST of servants.) 27:3 HUNT me some HUNTING. (Fetch me some SAVOURY GAME.) 28:20 Jacob VOWED a VOW. (Jacob made a SOLEMN vow.) 28:22 TITHING I will TITHE for you. (I will MOST SURELY tithe.) 35:14 Jacob PILLARED a PILLAR. (Jacob SET UP a pillar.)
From these few examples, we can begin to understand the idiomatic manner of speech of the ancients, and learn to interpret it correctly. Because of the abundance of references in Genesis, the Figure is very ancient, and a little searching will reveal that its force has remained throughout the rest of the written Scriptures, even in the New Testament. Here is a small cross-section of other examples in the Bible.
Exodus 16:23 A SABBATH of SABBATISING. (A most SOLEMN, or IMPORTANT, rest time. This expression is found in connection with the weekly Sabbath on four occasions, twice with the Day of Atonement, and once with the Sabbatic Year.) Exodus 26:33 The HOLY of HOLIES. (The MOST holy place.) 1 Kings 8:27 The HEAVEN of HEAVENS.(The MOST EXALTED or HIGHEST heaven.) Ecclesiastes 1:2 VANITY of VANITIES. (The MOST PROFOUND emptiness.) Canticles 1:1 SONG of SONGS. (The MOST BEAUTIFUL of songs.) Micah 2:4 LAMENTATION of LAMENTATIONS. (A DEEP and SOLEMN lament.)
Philippians 3:5 A HEBREW of the HEBREWS. (A THOROUGH GOING Hebrew) 1 Tim.6:15 [And also in Revelation] KING of KINGS, and LORD of LORDS. (The MOST EXALTED of kings, and MAJESTIC of lords.) Rev.5:11 MYRIADS of MYRIADS, and THOUSANDS of THOUSANDS. (An EXCEEDING GREAT NUMBER, PAST COUNTING.) Rev.4:9 [“For ever and ever” in the A.V.] Unto the AGES of the AGES. (To the MOST DISTANT, or to the REMOTEST, or even THE MOST EXALTED of ages.)
The translators have obviously done a good job of rendering this figure throughout the Bible, for the most part. I think the only place where they have fallen down badly is in the expression “for ever and ever.” It is not even a good rendering of the original “unto the ages of the ages.” And because the Bible has a lot to say about ages, past, present, and future, they could well have given us something more realistic to get our teeth into. One thing is certain. The expression cannot mean “for everand ever”. It refers to some future age or epoch in which things will happen that have not as yet received any further exposition from the heavens. In one place in Revelation, John speaks of “God who lives unto the ages of the ages.”Please don’t imagine I’m saying that when the “ages of the ages” are complete, God won’t live any more!! It is only necessary to state that TIME ITSELF is a creation of God, to realise that He lives OUTSIDE time. That may be a very difficult concept for the likes of us, who are encapsulated within a time-frame, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t accept the truths relating to higher and more wonderful things. If we try to imagine God within the limited dimensional framework in which we exist, then we shall have visualised a God who is too small, a mere concept of our own impoverished brain, rather than the Grand Creator of All. HYPERBOLE The word “hyperbole” comes from Greek, and means “thrown beyond.” It describes a certain type of speech, where the speaker wants to make a point, and force it home with as much “muscle” as he can avail himself of. And although the first examples of this are found in Genesis, we find ourselves just as prone to using hyperbole today as six thousand years ago! Let me gather a few modern examples before we look into the Bible. First of all, with regard to speed – “lightning speed”, “greased lightning”, “whirlwind visit”, “whistle stop tour”, “in a split second.” Then with regard to size – “mammoth”, “skyscraper”, “jumbo-jet”, “stupendous”, and very new expressions like “Ginormous“, “Humungous”, and “Mega-“. Other common expressions – “making a mountain out of a molehill”, “making mincemeat of someone”, “It cleans like a white tornado”, We even use POLYPTOTONS! “It was a big big country”, “this was the event of all events.”
No one mistakes the meaning of these expressions. No one imagines for a minute that a person can travel as fast as lightning. No one thinks that tall buildings actually “scrape the sky”. No one imagines putting a human being through a mincing machine, or that a literal tornado has cleaned the kitchen sink! But suppose our language were to be transmitted to another planet (a “think experiment”) where our words had just been translated into their means of converse. What would they think? Would they be puzzled by the above quotations? I’m sure that in due course they would conclude that we just exaggerate for the sake of effect, and learn to understand the force of meaning accurately. They would learn to take our HYPERBOLE, our GROSS EXAGGERATIONS, “with a pinch of salt.”
How many stars are in the sky? Under very clear conditions one may be able to count perhaps 3,000. Before the advent of telescopes, that’s about the limit of what man could achieve. But based upon the use of the world’s greatest telescopes I find estimates in astronomy books such as “100,000,000,000 stars in our Galaxy,” and “1,000,000,000 other Galaxies like our own.” The mind boggles at such figures. They are meaningless. Beyond comprehension. How many grains of sand are there on your local beach? Have you ever tried to count grains of sand? I have. I took a small cup full and decided to count how many there would be in that. Before I had got very far I began to realise what a hopeless job it was, even for a cup-full. How many specks of dust are there on the earth? It’s pointless asking questions like these. We KNOW that we cannot begin to count. So what’s the point of asking these questions?
In Genesis 22:17 we read, “I will multiply your (Abram’s) seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand on the seashore.” Elsewhere the Lord spoke in terms of “the dust of the earth.” (Gen.13:16) And He said to Jacob, “I will multiply your seed as the sand of the seashore, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Gen.32:12) How true! It cannot be numbered. I find this type of remark quite fascinating. First of all, NO ONE ever accuses God of lying, when speaking in this manner. We all know that it is idiomatic, and that “never in a hundred thousand million years” will the Lord ever multiply human beings to such uncountable numbers. But in the second place, Abram might have been forgiven if he thought the two statements contradictory. He could see a few thousand stars, but he knew he couldn’t count the sand grains. The Lord’s own “telescopic eyes” could see what was invisible to Abram.
It might be instructive to stay on this figure for a bit. The Lord was in the habit of using this gross exaggeration on a number of occasions. So also His people. Here are a few more. Gen.41:49 Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the seashore.Josh.11:4 All the Canaanite’s armies went out, much people, even as the sand of the seashore in multitude. Judges7:12 The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the children of the East lay along the valley like locusts for multitude, and their camels were without number, as the sand of the seashore for multitude. 2 Sam.17:11 I caused that all Israel be gathered for battle, as the sand that is by the sea for multitude. Psalm 78:27 God rained flesh upon them (in the wilderness) as the dust, and feathered fowls as the sand of the sea. Deut.1:10 (To the nation of Israel) –You are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude. 1 Kings 4:29 God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand which is on the seashore. Psalm 139:17-18. How precious are Your thoughts to me! How great is their sum! If I could count them, they are MORE in number than the sand of the seashore! Jer.15:8 (The Lord was speaking about His people, who were in sore distress) – Their widows are increased to Me ABOVE the sand of the seas.
There are many more examples throughout the Old Testament. Enough has been displayed to make the point. Clearly the Lord achieved the word He spoke to Abram, because by the time of Deut.1:10, the number had become “as the stars of heaven.” We need not look for further multiplication. The promise had been kept in accordance with the meaning of the idiom. Another point here. Even the grossest form of exaggeration loses its clout after repeated usage. Hence we find the Lord resorting to a higher dimension of idiomatic language in Jer.15:8 “Their widows are increased to Me ABOVE the sand of the seas.” It may come as a shock to some, that the Lord God Almighty should use such gross exaggeration for effect. Would it not have been sufficient for Him to say to Abram, “I shall increase your seed so much that in the end you will be unable to count the number of your offspring.” And I would answer, saying, “But that is EXACTLY what He DID say, in the idiom of the day!” So universal is the usage of this figure that it is found from Genesis to Revelation. In Rev.20:8 we are told that after the Millennial Rest is over, Satan will be loosed, and he will gather the people “as the sand of the seashore”.
Another gross exaggeration is found in Exodus 20:5. I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generation of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands (of generations) of those who love me and keep my commandments. It is quite legitimate to add the words “of generations” in this text, because when it is repeated in Deut.7:9 we read, The Lord your God – – – keeps covenant and mercy with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations. What does the Lord mean when He uses language like this? What is “a thousand generations”? How long would it be? The ultra-literalist would calculate it on the basis of perhaps 40 years for a generation, so that the Lord has predicted a period of time in the future amounting to some 40,000 years. But this is nonsense. It is the figure HYPERBOLE, whereby the overflowing largesse of God’s mercy may be understood. He so much wants His people to love Him and obey Him that He has not language great enough to show the richness of His blessings to them. But when it comes to those who disobey, their evils will be cut short after four generations at the most. How gracious is our God. Whether to those who obey, or those who disobey, His mercy is seen to shine like the midday sun.
The use of “thousand” in Hebrew became synonymous with untold largeness. The Lord used it, so also His people. In Gen.24:60 we read of Laban saying to Rebecca, “You are our sister; become the mother of thousands of millions!” No doubt Rebecca received this compliment in terms of a known idiom. In fact she became the mother of Jacob and Esau. ButLaban was referring, not so much to her own children, but to all the future generations as well. He was using a figure of speech equivalent to “the sand of the seashore for multitude.” “One shall chase a thousand, but two shall put ten thousand to flight.” (Deut.32:30) “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands.” (1 Sam.18:7) “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousand rivers of oil?” (Micah 6:7) “The first man owed ten thousand talents” [About 300 million pounds, if taken literally] (Matt.18:24). “Although you have ten thousand teachers, you have not many fathers.” (1 Cor.4:15). “I had rather speak five words with understanding, than ten thousand in an unknown tongue.” (1 Cor.14:19) These are some of the examples of the figurative use of “thousand” and “ten thousand”. In the Apocryphal works the figure is also found. Here are two useful quotes. “Man forgets that the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times as bright as the sun, observing every step men take, and penetrating every secret.”(Ecclus.23:19) And in the days of Messiah’s Kingdom, “The earth shall yield its fruit ten thousand fold, and on each vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster shall produce a thousand grapes, and each grape a cor of wine.” (Baruch 29:5) I might add, just to magnify the effect, that the COR was the largest liquid measure, being assessed variously from 75 to 120 gallons! Even today one finds a perpetuating of this richness of language amongst Jewish people. They know what they mean. Let’s hope the message reaches others as well. Literalists are in for a hard time if they insist that God must fulfil His word to the letter!
Another form of exaggeration has to do with height, whether literal or metaphorical. It is found in such texts as these:-Gen.11:4 Let us build a tower whose top may reach to heaven. Deut.1:28 (The spies said, on returning) The cities of Canaan are great, and walled up to heaven. 1 Sam.5:12 the cry of the city went up to heaven. Ezra 9:6 Our trespass is grown up to the heavens. Jer.51:53 Though Babylon should mount up to heaven – – –. There are many others of this sort. The meaning is obvious, once the figure is appreciated.
Here is an assortment of other exaggerations, all of which are the by-products of a rich oriental language. Numb.13:33 (The spies again) We were in our own sight as grasshoppers (to the giants). [In point of fact the giants were about 9ft tall, perhaps some reached 10 feet, awe-inspiring no doubt, but not as the spies said literally.] Numb.14:8 I will bring you into a land flowing with milk and honey. [We are so used to this expression, that even the literalists are content to allow it to be figurative. Otherwise the land would have been a sticky mess.] Exod.8:17 All the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt. [Incorrect, taken literally. Only a small part of Egypt was involved. But the exaggeration has its desired effect from the point of view of hyperbolic language.] Zech.12:8 Even the feeble shall be like David, and David shall be as God. Judges 20:16 Every one could sling stones at a hair and not miss! 2 Sam.1:23 (Saul and Jonathan) were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions. Job 29:6 The rock poured me out rivers of oil. Job 29:18 I shall grow old as the palm tree, and multiply my days as the sand (of the seashore). Judges 5:4-5 the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, and the mountains melted from before the Lord. 1 Kings 1:40 And the people rejoiced, and the earth was rent with the sound of them (at the anointing of Solomon as King.) Eccl.12:5 the grasshopper shall be a burden (to an old man). 1 Kings 10:27 In those days silver and gold were as abundant as stones. Lam.2:11 My liver is poured out upon the earth.
And the New Testament has its share as well. John 12:19 See, the world is gone after Him. Matt.11:23 And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven shall be brought down to hell. Matt.25:29-30 If your right eye offend you, pluck it out. – – If your right hand offend you, cut it off. [I have never heard of anyone taking this literally. But it is strong figurative language.] Matt.23:24 You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Matt.19:24 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. [I can remember being told that the Lord was speaking about the “eye gate” of the great gates of the city wall, a small gate just big enough for a man to get through but not a camel. But there is no need to force the point. The Lord was using a gross exaggeration for effect. By their answer, the disciples understood what He was saying.]
In all of these examples, there is no literal truth expressed. It could not be otherwise. If we are looking for a Bible which can be taken THAT literally, then we are in for a “mountain” of trouble. But once the language is properly understood, then we begin to understand what the oriental mind was (and still is!) like. I was assured of this by an Iraqi lady only a few days ago, and have observed it amongst Jewish people. We of the Western World need to understand the mind of the Orientals before passing judgment on certain passages of the Bible, and thereby making fools of ourselves in the process.
Here is an amusing little snatch of conversation, which was overheard as a lady was phoning her friend.
“Is that you Gladys? – – -Yes, I thought I might catch you just now. What d’you think of the latest bombshell to hit the neighbourhood? – – – – Yes it is, isn’t it? – – – But you know, I got wind of something last year, and my Jack says he’s smelled a rat for a long time. Oh well, the handwriting’s on the wall now, as they say. – – – – – Yes dear, I know, the place is simply buzzing with the news – – – Exactly, they’ve shown themselves up in their true colours, haven’t they? – – – – – – No, well, living next door as we are, you can’t help it. Mind you, they’ve always given us the cold shoulder, very off-handed people. – – – – – Yes, I know dear. There’s Maisie who lives opposite. It’s a different kettle of fish for her. – – – That’s right. She says they really take the cake, behaving as though butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. – – – – – – That’s right. Exactly, dear. And now they’ve cooked their goose, haven’t they? – – – – – – Yes, quite likely from what I hear. Oh well, every dog has his day. – – – – – – What? Oh no dear! I don’t think so. I’m sure you’ve got the wrong end of the stick there. – – – – You think she had her nose put out of joint then? Got to the end of her tether, as they say? – – – – – Well my dear, if he did, then it certainly put the fat in the fire, didn’t it?- – – – – – I know. It’s awful, isn’t it. He must have been up to his eyeballs in it, lock, stock and barrel as they say. – – – – – – – No indeed she hasn’t!! She’ll have to eat humble pie before she gets a word out of me! – – – – No, no, dear, now don’t get me wrong. I’m not sitting on my high horse. YOU haven’t seen the way she looks daggers at me. – – – – – Oh Gladys love, you know I’m not one for picking holes, but I can’t let her ride roughshod over me. – – – – -Exactly dear, and when she comes to her senses, be sure she’ll taste the milk of human kindness. – – – – – Oh no! You MUST be joking! It doesn’t ring true. If I were you I’d take THAT with a pinch of salt. – – – – – – – Well, yes, I can believe THAT. He’s been sailing close to the wind for years. Had a good run for his money while it lasted I suppose —- Oh I say, Gladys, young Benny’s just come in from school, so we’ll have to mind what we say, as the saying goes, ‘little pitchers have long ears.’ – – – – – – – Yes, I know. Ah well, it turned out to be his swan song, didn’t it? – – – – – – I know. Remarkable, wasn’t it? Just got off by the skin of his teeth. – – – – – – It was a close shave. Touch and go, right up to the verdict. – – – – – Right-O dear. Yes, it’s our tea-time now as well.- – – – – You can count on me. I’m a clam. – – – – -That’s right. We’ll just have to mind our Ps and Qs, won’t we? – – – – – What?!! With HER little urchin? I’m certainly not letting my Benny out to play with that little bag of tricks! – – – – – Yes, dear. That’s right. It’s best to let the dust settle first. – – – – – Bye bye Gladys. I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.”
Over 40 examples of figures of speech have been used in this sketch. Although, on reading it, WE can get a vague idea of what might have been the subject of their conversation, just think if it was translated literally into Swahili or Chinese! Some years ago I was able to take a teaching post in Kenya. We were posted to a semi-desert area in Machakos, and worked in a residential school for about 400 boys of the Masaku tribe. It was only that then we began to realise just how much colloquial English we spoke.
Finally in this paper, we must get back to Revelation once again. The study started there because of the superlatives that John used. And one of the examples focussed on the expression “for ever and ever.” I have already spoken about this briefly as we reviewed a number of examples of POLYPTOTON, but a little extra attention might prove to be useful. A number of writers have seen just how bad is the A.V. translation of the Greek words “Unto the ages of the ages”, but no one seems to know exactly how to translate it into meaningful English. I saw in the French Bible that it was rendered “auxsiecles des siecles“, which was better, allowing the French-speaking people to make up their own minds about the probable meaning. The German and Spanish Bibles also have more literal renderings. It seems that it is only the English Bible that has perpetuated the idea of “for ever and ever.” The more you think about it, the more crazy it becomes. If “for ever” means an eternity of time, then how can “and ever” be added to it? Another howler, if I can call it that, may be found in Eph.3:21, where the A.V. reads “throughout all ages, world without end, Amen.” In the Greek, it is “to all the generations of the ages of the ages.” These are difficult constructions to translate, but it would have been better to provide the English reader with a more literal rendering, and leave him to decide, prayerfully before the Lord, what it means. However, the key word in all these texts is AGE, from the Greek AION. And it is found in the N.T. used for the following time-zones.
1. PAST. Eph.3:9 The mystery which was hidden from the AGES in God.
2. PRESENT. Rom.12:2 Be not conformed to this AGE.
3. THE END OF THIS AGE. Matt.13:39-40. The harvest is the completion of THIS AGE, and the reapers are the Angels.
4. THE COMING AGE. Mark 10:30. He shall receive 100-fold now – – and in the coming AGE, AGE-LIFE.
5. THE COMING AGES. Eph.2:7. that in the AGES TO COME He might show forth the exceeding riches of His grace.
6. AGES IN GENERAL. God’s Son, – – – through Whom He designed the AGES.
Hence, when we read about ETERNAL LIFE, (literally Age-life), we should think in terms of the special privilege of living in the COMING AGE, the Age of God’s Kingdom, His Millennial Rest. The expression doesn’t contain within itself the idea of TIME, but rather of superlative quality. The endlessness of this life is proved elsewhere by Paul’s use of the wordIMMORTALITY, meaning “deathlessness.”
“The ages of the ages” is therefore best interpreted AWAY FROM the idea of time, and related to coming ages, probably those BEYOND the Millennium, in which God has much further work to do. The sense of the expression is again that of quality, or intensity, or grandeur, rather than the time during which it applies. Beyond that, I find it difficult to think up an expression which contains the fulness of meaning.