Hyperbolic language in the Bible

Hyperbolic language in the Bible

Some literature has hyperbolic language. Especially poetic literature. For example:

“One thousand stampeding bison thundering across the plains

Couldn't drown out the sound of my heart beating for you.” (Kelly Roper)

Such language is used to make an emphasis by overstating something way beyond its literal meaning. The Bible is not an exception. It contains books of poetic genre with metaphors, hyperboles and other figures of speech. Here are a few examples:

“I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” (Psalms 6:6)

“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)

Can a human body produce enough tears to drench a bed? And are there many one-eyed one-handed self-mutilators around? If we interpret such passages literally, we may end up with all kinds of rubbish, from mere nonsense to dangerous heresies, which can last for ages and become traditions. Here is a good example:

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

This passage is often used to support the doctrine that people are born already guilty of sin, because, as David wrote, we are “sinful from birth”. But there are several major problems with a literal interpretation of this passage. To begin with, the Septuagint Greek says nothing about the child, but about the parents:

“ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἐν ἀνομίαις συνελήμφθην καὶ ἐν ἁμαρτίαις ἐκίσσησέν με ἡ μήτηρ μου”

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

“Brought forth” is used in a passive (not middle) voice, which excludes any action on the part of the object (the child). This has a completely different meaning from “I was sinful at birth” (where the adjective refers to the object). He also wrote that his mother conceived him in sin (not that he was sinful from birth). For more information, please see the following links: 

Hebrew interlinear

Septuagint Greek interlinear

Greek grammar

So even if taken literally, this passage doesn’t say that David was a born sinner, but rather that his mother conceived him in sin. But even such an exact literal interpretation would be inappropriate for this passage, because (a) it is hardly a sin to have children, (b) there is no evidence that David was born in an unlawful relationship, (c) there is little known about his mother.

Moreover, literal interpretation of this passage has a problem of triple contradiction with the context.

Firstly, it contradicts the context of the Psalm 55. In fact, it is diametrically opposite to it. David has just committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed her husband. Now he is torn to pieces, repenting from the depth of his heart. How do you think such a statement (that he was a born sinner) would strengthen his case, if taken literally?

Note that he didn’t write “even though I was a sinner from birth, I am still guilty”, he rather wrote “for behold, I was brought forth in iniquity”. He is making an emphatic summary of the previous verses, where he clarifies what he has done “I have done what is evil in your sight” (v.4). Verse 5 simply explains and amplifies his guilt, rather than makes an excuse. Consider this argument:

  1. Being a born sinner is a fact that David couldn’t have changed.
  2. Being out of his control, this would be a soothing circumstance in a case for repentance.
  3. Therefore, if taken literally, it weakens his confession.
  4. Therefore, verse 51:5 cannot have a literal meaning.

Secondly, a literal interpretation contradicts other Psalms. Consider the following verses:

For You formed my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are Your works, and I know this very well. (Psalm 139:13-14)

Would it be called “a marvelous work” to create a sinful child in the womb?

The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. (Psalm 18:20-23)

Vindicate me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered. (Psalm 26:1)

How could a born sinner have kept himself from sin and led a blameless life?

Thirdly, a literal interpretation contradicts the evident teaching of the Bible that we are responsible for what we have done, rather than guilty from birth. Consider the following verses:

"I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:10)

“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16:27)

Here are more examples: Psalm 62:12, Proverbs 24:12, Romans 2:6, Revelation 20:12. 

If we take Psalm 51:5 literally, then we are sinners from the moment we are conceived. Conception is the fertilization of an egg inside the uterus. Therefore, we are sinners from the moment we are a fertilized egg. Considering the verses quoted above, what do you think a fertilized egg has done wrong? Which commandment did it break? What a heresy!

Why is this important? Because Psalm 51:5 is the only verse in the whole Bible which may be used to support this heretical doctrine that we are all born already guilty of sin. Of course, one has to completely ignore the God-breathed poetic genre of this passage and all other verses which state the opposite.

And why is this important? Because this heretical doctrine of being born sinners completely destroys the love of Christ. It nails it to the cross. Consider this: can we ask not to be born? Do we have a choice to be born as non sinners? If not, then how can we be held responsible for this and how could a “loving God” condemn us to eternal suffering in hell for just being born? This is insane! It kills the love of Christ, showing Him to be the most cruel and unjust being there ever was.

Without the love of Christ our faith is dead. Without the love of Christ who would be saved? Would you give your life to the one you hate? His love is in His forgiveness. And His forgiveness is built on His justice. This justice comes from the fact that we are guilty for what we have done, not for the fact the we were born in this world. That’s why He is just when He convicts us of sin. That’s why we love Him, because He forgives us (Luke 7:47). If we take away our responsibility for sins, then His love and forgiveness become meaningless.

All Scripture is inspired by God, including its genre of literature. If we love Him, we should respect His choice of genre and obey its rules of interpretation.

I hope this article was inspiring for you and helped you to understand one of the reasons why some presentations of Christianity have become so dead and ineffective. I also hope that it brought some joy to your heart by bringing some light into this contradictory Bible verse, which is in fact a heart-wrenching confession of a convicted sinner, who later on was called “a man after God’s own heart”.

May the Lord be with you!

Author: Sasha Taran