Hyperbole and overstatement as tools for deeper Bible study

go deeper 10-23-15

Hyperboles on the Porch

A sister and her brother stand on the porch as she rings the doorbell.

“Just don’t tell any of your 500 jokes,” she tells him. “Not one of them is funny.”

“You laughed the first hundred times I told them.”

“But not the next 900.”

“You’re exaggerating. You love my jokes.”

“I’m not exaggerating. They make me want to throw up.”

“You just completely spoiled the party for me. When I want to tell a joke, I’ll think of puke instead. Thanks a million.”

The door opened revealing the sister’s best friend. “And I’ll have the best time of my life,” she said. As they walked in, they left ten hyperboles still hanging in the air of the porch.

Hyperbole defined

As I have attempted to illustrate, we use the figure of speech known as hyperbole or overstatement quite often in ordinary conversation. We overstate what we intend for the sake of emphasis or to make our statement colorful and memorable. Usually, our partner in the conversation immediately detects and unconsciously translates the overstatement. We accept it as a normal component of our communication.

Hyperbole occurs often in the Bible as well, but our detachment from biblical culture and language makes us prone to miss this figure of speech and take it literally instead. As a result, we misunderstand yet another biblical text. We may need help identifying hyperboles and distinguishing them from literal statements of fact.

When the author of 2 Kings wants to emphasize the piety of King Hezekiah, he says, “There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him” (2 Kings 18:5). When later he describes Josiah in a similar way, “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did….” (2 Kings 23:25), we wonder if a subtle difference distinguishes Josiah from Hezekiah. Both verses employ hyperbole to emphasize the unusual devotion these two kings had for God.

Some have taken literally the hyperbolic statements of Jesus about gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand (Matt. 5:29-30) or about self-castration (Matt. 19:12), with tragic results. Jesus is using hyperbole to emphasize the importance of resisting sin rather than blaming our transgression on our ability to see and touch or on our power to reproduce.

Identifying Hyperbole in the Teaching of Jesus

Robert H. Stein proposes a number of principles by which we may identify statements of Jesus as exaggerated terminology. We should memorize these principles and apply them whenever we suspect Jesus is exaggerating.

  1. If taken literally, is the statement impossible?

    Stein distinguishes hyperbole from overstatement. He defines hyperbole as exaggeration that is literally impossible. Overstatement is a lesser exaggeration that is literally possible, but not likely so. Having a log protruding from your eye (Matt. 7:3-5) is hyperbole. Forgiving your brother seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22) is overstatement.

  2. If taken literally, does it conflict with what Jesus says elsewhere?

    For example, Jesus teaches you must hate your parents or you are not worthy to follow Him (Luke 14:26). Yet He criticizes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for allowing people to devote funds to God that they would have used to support their parents (Mark 7:9-13). This confirms that Jesus believed in loving one’s parents in a very practical way, and His attention to the needs of His mother while on the cross (John 19:25-27) demonstrates His love for her. The overstatement that you must “hate” your parents emphasizes in a striking way the priority that love for Him must have in your life as His disciple. It takes precedence over even the most natural and intimate loves in your life.

  3. If taken literally, does the teaching conflict, not with what Jesus teaches, but with His behavior?

    For example, Jesus says when you pray you should go into a room and close the door (Matt. 6:6). Yet we see him praying one many occasions out of doors (Mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32-42), in the presence of His disciples (Mark 14:22-23, 32-42; John 17:1-26), and sometimes very publicly (Mark 6:41; John 11:41-42). This convinces us that the prayer-room statement is an overstatement that has the meaning that we should always make God our only audience, not others.

  4. If taken literally, does the statement conflict with the teaching of the Old Testament?

    Jesus says not to take oaths (Matt. 5:34-37), but in the Old Testament, God Himself takes an oath (Ps. 110:4; see Heb. 7:20-21). The “swear not at all” of the Sermon on the Mount is exaggerated language for “Be so honest that taking an oath is unnecessary.”

  5. If taken literally, does it conflict with the teaching of the New Testament?

    For example, compare “Give to anyone who asks of you” (Luke 6:30) with “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat’ ” (2 Thess. 3:10). Giving freely is not a command we must take absolutely, but a description of our general attitude of generosity toward others.

  6. Does the gospel writer in a parallel passages understand the statement in a non-literal way?

    For example, when Jesus in Matthew says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34), the parallel passage in Luke says, “No I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51). Luke helps us to understand that Jesus did not seek to start a military revolution. Plus, the context in Matthew is talking about how loyalty to Jesus could divide a family.

  7. Does the statement uses universal language, with no exceptions?

    Then it may be an overstatement. For example, Jesus challenges us in our prayers to “Ask… seek… knock….” (Matt. 7:7-8). He doesn’t focus on the exceptions—cases in which obviously God is not going to grant our prayers (see James 4:3), but He is emphasizing that point that God wants to bless us, just like a father seeks to bless his children (see Matt. 7:9-11).

If these questions help us to identify Jesus’ use of exaggerated language, then we should ask ourselves, what is so important about what Jesus is saying here that He employs this kind of terminology? What does He want me to remember? When you determine the answer, then you have taken a step closer to knowing the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).

Want to go deeper?

Other Hyperboles in the Synoptic Gospels

The examples given above are only some of the hyperboles found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here are additional examples. Look up each one and think of what the non-exaggerated way of stating it would be.

Hyperbole in the Rest of the New Testament

Here are some New Testament examples of exaggerated language outside of the Synoptic Gospels.

Hyperbole in the Old Testament

Rather than a list of dozens of examples, here are just a few to analyze:

For further reading:

Here is Robert H. Stein’s two-part lecture concerning identifying hyperbole in the teaching of Jesus: Part One | Part Two

The detailed discussion is here:

Robert H. Stein. Difficult Sayings in the Gospels: Jesus’ Use of Overstatement and Hyperbole. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1986.

For more on hyperbole and overstatement:

Ethelbert W. Bullinger. “Hyperbole, or Exaggeration.” Figures of Speech Used in the Bible Explained and Illustrated. (first published in 1898 and still in print)

Essays by J. P. Holding (Tekton Apologetics Ministries):

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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