Hyperbole in the Bible (Part 3)
We conclude this series with further examples of hyperbole from the Word of God.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 “‘Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 “‘And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
25 “‘But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made.
26 “‘The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.”
27 “‘Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
28 “‘But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, “Pay me what you owe!”
29 “‘So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.”
30 “‘And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.
31 “‘So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done.
32 “‘Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 “‘Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?”
34 “‘And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
35 “‘So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.’”
In the website: learnreligions.com:
“In the New Testament, the term ‘talent’ meant something very different than it does today. The talents Jesus Christ spoke of in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) referred to the largest unit of currency at the time. For example, the ten thousand talents owed by the unforgiving servant would come to at least 204 metric tons of silver, reflecting an astronomical sum of 60 million denarii.
“Thus, a talent represented a rather large sum of money. According to New Nave’s Topical Bible, one who possessed five talents of gold or silver was a multimillionaire by today’s standards. Some calculate the talent in the parables to be equivalent to 20 years of wages for the common worker. Other scholars estimate more conservatively, valuing the New Testament talent somewhere between $1,000 to $30,000 dollars today.
“Needless to say (but let’s say it anyway), knowing the actual meaning, weight, and value of a term like talent can help give context, deeper understanding, and better perspective when studying the Scriptures.”
We can see the incredible difference in this parable – a man was forgiven what he owed – but he went to collect the debt that he was owed which was just 100 denarii after he had been forgiven his debt of 60 million denarii!
We should easily see the hyperbole used in this parable of Jesus to get across in the most graphic terms the need to forgive others. There are those today who say that they will never forgive others for whatever they have gone through and this parable teaches that forgiveness is vital irrespective of the wrongs suffered.
Putting it in today’s terms, someone who is forgiven a debt of £1.2 million, chases a debt of just £20. “Everyone,” C.S. Lewis writes, “says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive” (Mere Christianity, p.115).
“And again I say to you, 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.” (also in Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25)
The website: biblicalstudies.org.uk explains as follows:
“Traditionally it has been said that there was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem called the ‘Needle’s Eye,’ through which an unladen camel could squeeze through with great difficulty. Unfortunately, this interpretation is simply not true, there was no gate in Jerusalem called the ‘Needle’s Eye’ and there never has been. The first reference to this is found in the writings of Theophylact, Archbishop of Achrida in Bulgaria in the 11th century. Jerusalem had been destroyed twice by this time (in AD 70 and 134-136), but Theophylact had never visited it anyway. He simply made up the interpretation to get around the obvious meaning.
“After all, it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of [a] needle, and that was precisely Jesus’ point. It is impossible for one who trusts in riches to enter the kingdom. It takes a miracle for a rich person to get saved, which is quite the point of what follows: ‘All things are possible with God.’
“Jesus was very fond of hyperbole, and used it frequently in His teaching.”
“Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
In the previous verse, Jesus berated the scribes and the Pharisees by stating that they “paid tithe of mint and anise and cummin, but neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
There is quite a difference between a gnat and a camel! It has been estimated that it would take up to seventy million gnats to equal the weight of a camel! The hyperbole used here is the difference of size and showed the religious leaders at that time had lost all sense of moral proportion.
Meyer’s NT Commentary opines:
“The Jews were in the habit of straining their wine in order that there might be no possibility of their swallowing with it any unclean animal, however minute (Leviticus 11:42). Figurative representation of the painful scrupulosity with which the law was observed.”
It is used in this passage as “straining out” or “filtering” gnats out of wine. We should also note that gnats were unclean as mentioned above. The Jews then should certainly have paid close attention to little things but were castigated for neglecting the important things, the larger issues, as we indeed must not overlook today.
“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?”
We can see those who have set out to build businesses of which some have become very successful. Many entrepreneurs succeed; others fail but they will all have great personal ambitions to succeed in business. We ourselves may have had ambitions to become very successful in business before we were called into the knowledge of the truth.
Does it make people happy? Many are always striving for their next success which could bring them millions or billions of pounds or dollars. When the basis for living is purely on the physical but little or no thought for the spiritual, there can be no lasting joy or happiness.
The choice set before us when we are called is to be a disciple of Christ which is not an option but a necessity. We will either fully follow the true Christian way or the way of the world – there is no in- between.
It is impossible to gain the whole world – hyperbole at its highest level, in action – but it presses home the point that even if this were possible, the loss of the truth and the right way to live would be disastrous. The physical life we have is for a short time but the spiritual things are eternal. What real profit is to be derived from even aspiring to gain the impossible (the whole world) and lose out on eternity?
“Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road.”
Patently Jesus didn’t want them to ignore people on their travels, quite the reverse as those were the people to whom they were to take the message of the gospel of the coming Kingdom of God. Further, to be rude to others was neither His way nor how He taught His disciples to deal with others—which was the way of love, kindness and outgoing concern. Simply put, Jesus was emphasising that they had a really important job to do and were not to get caught up in the everyday things that can take up so much time and can be a distraction from the important work they were undertaking, and He taught that they were to concentrate on the vital matter at hand.
There are some very interesting comments by Barnes Notes on the Bible:
“Salute no man by the way – Salutations among the Orientals did not consist, as among us, of a slight bow or an extension of the hand, but was performed by many embraces and inclinations, and even prostrations of the body on the ground. All this required much ‘time;’ and as the business on which the seventy were sent was urgent, they were required not to ‘delay’ their journey by long and formal salutations of the persons whom they met. If two Arabs of equal rank meet each other, they extend to each other the right hand, and having clasped, they elevate them as if to kiss them. Each one then draws back his hand and kisses it instead of his friend’s, and then places it upon his forehead. The parties then continue the salutation by kissing each other’s beard. They gave thanks to God that they are once more permitted to see their friend – they pray to the Almighty in his behalf. Sometimes they repeat not less than ten times the ceremony of grasping hands and kissing.
“They would waste time, distract attention, and in many ways hinder the prompt and faithful discharge of their important mission. The salutation of friends, therefore, was a ceremony which consumed much time; and it was on this account that our Lord on this occasion forbade them to delay their journey to greet others. A similar direction is found in 2 Kings 4:29.”
“The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, ‘You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!’”
The world has gone after Him – this is again hyperbole as this simply couldn’t have happened at that time. Jesus spoke to large crowds in Judah but beyond those borders then, the world would have no knowledge of Jesus Christ until a much later time. At that time, it was a localised “fame” that He had and on the Day of Pentecost a following initially of 120 (see Acts 1:15). Of course, on that day there were about 3,000 people added to the Church (Acts 2:41), but even that number of people would hardly have put a dent in the hyperbolic statement that “the world has gone after Him!”
From Gill’s Exposition of the Bible:
“The Vulgate Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions read, ‘the whole world’, and so Nonnus; the Persic version, ‘all the people’; that is, a very great number of people; for they could not mean, that all the inhabitants of the world, or every individual of mankind were followers of him, and became his disciples, nor even all in their own land; they themselves, with multitudes more of the same complexion, were an exception to this: but they speak in the common dialect of that nation,”
The final one that we highlight in this Q&A is one of the most famous in the Bible.
21 “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’
22 “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’”
It appears from some sources that Jewish tradition limited forgiveness to three times, perhaps based on Amos 1:3, 6, 9 and Job 33:29-30, but the apostle Peter may have thought that he was going way beyond that which others may have mandated by suggesting seven times. Jesus said “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). Here, Peter could be seen as going further than these religious teachers of the law at that time. But Jesus meant something much more than he could ever have imagined.
The sheer logistics of forgiving someone 490 times is mind boggling. In fact, you would have to wonder about someone’s sincerity if they asked forgiveness that number of times. With the Jews of that time, they would count the number of times a person would seek forgiveness and put a very short limit on it, and Peter seemed to want to increase the limit that could be set. Jesus would have none of that. It was to be 70 times 7 if you want to put a number on it but that, in effect, meant a limitless number. It was clearly hyperbole, indicating that there is no end to forgiving others however often they seek forgiveness from us.
As we have seen, hyperbole is a figure of speech that is used to emphasize a point or create a strong feeling in the reader or listener – an amplification or magnification.
As Literary Devices state: “Hyperbole, derived from a Greek word meaning ‘over-casting,’ is a figure of speech that involves an exaggeration of ideas for the sake of emphasis.”
Hyperbole is mainly used to add emphasis and create strong impressions and it is helpful in seeing a far bigger picture, but it is not to be taken literally at this time. The following are words that can sum up hyperbole in many ways and these should excite us to know how great God is and wonderful is His way and plan for mankind: cheerful, vivid, breathtaking, intriguing, dramatic thrilling, colourful, striking, compelling, dynamic, electrifying, gripping, stunning, galvanizing, astonishing and astounding.
Whatever words God uses are those which we can understand, but the reality of the future in store for us in the Kingdom of God is way beyond any description that we are given in His Word. Even the most excessive hyperbole would simply not be enough to give us a full understanding of what is in store for us in God’s Kingdom and what a future is in store for the people of God!
Lead writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)