Hyperbole (pronounced hye-PER-buh-lee; "HYE-per-bowl" is a common mispronunciation) comes from ancient Greek "ὑπερβολή" (meaning excess or exaggeration) and is a figure of speech in which statements are exaggerated. It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is rarely meant to be taken literally.
Hyperbole is used to create emphasis. It is a literary device often used in poetry, and is frequently encountered in casual speech. It is also a visual technique in which a deliberate exaggeration of a particular part of an image is employed. An example is the exaggeration of a person's facial feature in a political cartoon.
Derived from the Greek ὑπερβολή (literally 'overshooting' or 'excess'), it is a cognate of hyperbola. Antonyms to hyperbole include meiosis, litotes, understatement, and bathos (the 'let down' after a hyperbole in a phrase).
Some examples of use of hyperbole include:
A common source of unwitting humour is when hyperbole is preceded by the word "literally":
Much of the Bible was written in normal, everyday language used by common people of that culture and time. And just as we normally use hyperbole in everyday language, so did they. Just like we exaggerate and say things like, “this is the worst day of my life”, so did they. Let’s take a look at an example of hyperbole used in the Bible:
Note that both verses use “universal negative” statements, something along the lines of, “there was never before . . . and there will never be again”. Now if we take these 2 verses in a completely wooden, literal sense, and if we do not accept the fact that the Bible uses hyperbolic language, then we would have to say that the Bible contradicts itself. But of course that is not the case. King Hezekiah was not absolutely the best king of all time, but he was a very, very good king. And King Josiah was not absolutely the best king of all time, but he also was a very, very good king. The apparent contradiction becomes no problem at all once we realize that such “universal positive” and “universal negative” language is usually hyperbole.
Let’s take a look at some more cases where hyperbole is used in the Bible:
In Ezekiel, God speaks judgment upon Israel before He has them carried off into captivity to Babylon. And God says, “because of all your abominations, I will do among you what I have not done, and the like of which I will never do again” (Ezekiel 5:9). The book of Daniel was written after the Babylonian captivity, and confirmed Ezekiel’s prophecy. “Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem.” Of course, the Babylonian captivity of Israel happened hundreds of years before the Great Tribulation. Nevertheless, even in the light of Ezekiel 5:9 and Daniel 9:12, Jesus says in Matthew that the Great Tribulation is to be unequaled: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21). These sayings by Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jesus do not contradict each other any more than 2 Kings 18 and 2 Kings 23 contradict each other. They are simply using hyperbole to say that what’s happening is really, really bad.
There are many more examples of hyperbole in Scripture. Look at the “universal negative” used in Isaiah 13:20. Speaking of Babylon’s judgment in the Old Testament, it says, “It will never be inhabited or lived in from generation to generation; nor will the Arab pitch his tent there, nor will shepherds make their flocks lie down there.” Yet we know that long since the Old Testament judgment upon Babylon, people have in fact lived there. We also see hyperbole used regarding the judgement of Tyre. Ezekiel 26:14 says, “And I will make you a bare rock; you will be a place for the spreading of the nets. You will be built no more, for I the Lord have spoken.” Yet long afterwards, Jesus ministered there, as did the apostles (Matt. 15:21-28, Mark 3:8, Luke 6:17, Acts 21:3). This is not error; this is hyperbolic, poetic talk regarding powerful judgment. Such language is for dramatic effect, and is not meant to be taken in a wooden, literal sense.
So there is no need to compare all calamities throughout history with the tribulation in 70 A.D. to see what the “worst tribulation of all time” is. If we simply compare Scripture with Scripture, and if we understand that the Bible often uses hyperbole, then it becomes quite clear that Jesus was using hyperbole in Matthew 24:21. The language used there is virtually identical to the language used in Ezekiel 5:9, Daniel 9:12, 2 Kings 18:5, 2 Kings 23:25, etc. So the intention of Matthew 24:21 is not to compare the Great Tribulation with every other calamity of all time. Jesus was simply saying that it was going to be really, really bad.
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 they 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 problems a Bible translation can cause if one if 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.)
“Every one could sling stones at an hair and not miss.” Judges 20:16 (They were very accurate.)
In Matthew 5:30 Jesus’ tells the crowd, And if your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away... The literalist interpretation of these words would suggest if one did not like one’s right hand it should be surgically removed, but this is not the meaning Jesus intended to convey. He is using hyperbole in Matthew 5:27-30 to drive home the concept that nothing worldly is worth compromising our eternal salvation and that one must fight to remain focused on staying on course toward our final goal of heaven without making any concessions and by being ready to sacrifice anything which could put one in the path of offending God and risking the gift of salvation. In searching for what the inspired writer meant to convey, it is necessary to be aware of the different senses of Sacred Scripture.
The Use of Hyperbole in Scripture
The writers of Sacred Scripture sometimes use hyperbole to make a point. In such cases the passage is not to be understood literally but figuratively:
The Use of Irony in Scripture
Look for the use of irony in Scripture, which is meant to compare and contrast people and events. For example in John 18:38, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate pronounced his judgment on Jesus of Nazareth, the man the Jews have brought to him for execution: I find no case against him. In Jesus’ public trial, this pagan Roman has judged Jesus to be without fault. Pilate judged Jesus and three times, using the same words, found Him innocent of the charges leveled against Him (John 18:38; 19:4, 7). The irony is that any animal offered to Yahweh in sacrifice had to be judged as perfect and without flaw. Caiaphas, the High Priest, had chosen Jesus as the sacrificial victim (John 11:49-53), proclaiming that Jesus must die three times (John 11:50, 52; 18:14), but ironically Pilate, a heathen Gentile, has three times judged the intended sacrifice as without fault!
The Use of Patterns and Repetition in Scripture