There are many things that can cause a person to misinterpret what is written in various translations of the Bible. Many Christians do not realize that some of the most popular Bible translations do not accurately convey the true meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek scriptures. I believe one of the leading causes of stumbling is not being aware that the original language of the Bible (Hebrew) is a highly exaggerative language, sometimes even to the point of what would appear to be lying from a Western point of view. Most Bible translations and Bible teachers do not point this out clearly enough.
Bible translations that try to maintain a literal word-for-word approach are usually the most guilty for not transmitting the true meaning behind the original languages. That is because one cannot get the true meaning behind the hundreds of figures of speech in the Bible which cannot be transferred into English using a word-for-word approach and still convey the true meaning.
For example, “It is raining cats and dogs” is a figure of speech that would probably make no sense in another language if translated literally word for word. Even though the very words do not imply so, Americans know from past usage that this term means, “it is raining heavily.”
Hyperbole, one of over 200 different types of figures of speech found in the Bible, is exaggeration for effect. If these figures of speech are taken literally, one will misinterpret what the scriptures say. Word-for-word literal translations are FULL of phrases and sentences which have NOT been faithfully translated. Even though they may have translated each WORD faithfully and correctly, they have not conveyed the true meaning behind the phrase or sentence.
For example, this verse is a hyperbole, an exaggeration for effect:
“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:24, NIV)
It is not too difficult to determine that this is a hyperbole, an exaggeration. Because the English language is full of Bible terms and phraseology, this Hebrew idiom has become part of the English language. Therefore most English speaking people know the real meaning of that phrase: “You pay close attention to little things but neglect the important things.”
However, here is a hyperbole that the average Bible reader may miss and formulate doctrine from which may end up being harmful to themselves and others.
“Everything is possible for him who believes.” (Mark 9:23b, NIV)
The Bible is full of exaggerations like the one above which are NOT to be taken literally.
Careful attention, comparing scripture with scripture, knowing the Bible and its author thoroughly, making certain not to necessary apply things to ourselves which weren’t meant for us individually and some basics about the original languages are needed to prevent us from misinterpreting various scripture verses like this one. In this case, obviously, if something is against the will of God or if one asks with the wrong motive, no matter how much one believes for something, it won’t happen. (See James 4:2,3; John 5:19; John 15:5; 2 Cor.13:8, etc.) However, someone under a hyper-faith teaching ministry like the Word/faith movement, for example, may take this verse literally. Misinterpreting and misapplying this verse could cause one to do some serious damage to themselves and others due to demanding from God what He never really said He would do because they didn’t bother to find out or were never taught in their church that the Bible is FULL OF HYPERBOLE WHICH SHOULDN’T BE TAKEN LITERALLY!
A few other examples of the many hundreds of hyperboles in the Bible are:
“If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…” Matt. 5:29 (I met a Christian who actually tried to pluck out his right eye because he had a lust problem. This is an example the kind of problem a Bible translation can cause if one is not informed of the various figures of speech found in the Bible.)
“If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother…” Luke 14:26 (The true meaning is one must put God first.)
“Behold, the world is gone after him.” John 12:19 (The whole world at that time did NOT follow after him, but very large crowds in Israel did.)
“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shall be brought to hell (Hades/sheol).” Matt. 11:23 (The city of Capernaum was never in heaven or hell/hades/sheol. But the city was exalted and made prominent because the very Son of God chose that city to do mighty miracles in, but then it went into the dust. The trade routes which made it prosperous changed bypassing the city. It became depopulated, brought to ruins and covered with dirt. It wasn’t until this century that archaeologists unearthed it.)
“The rock poured me out rivers of oil.” Job 19:6 (He had an abundance of good things.)
“The cities are great, and walled up to heaven.” Deut. 1:28 (They were very high.)
“Everyone could sling stones at a hair and not miss.” Judges 20:16 (They were very accurate.)
More from Gary Amirault available at Tentmaker.org