Not a Hyperbole
In our culture, we use more hyperboles than we do words. Everyone knows this. And in case you are wondering what a hyperbole is, read the last two sentences again for examples. A hyperbole is an overstatement or exaggeration that is not meant to be taken literally. Do we really use more hyperboles than words? No. Does everyone know about our tendency to exaggerate? Again, no. But the use of such phrases gives a reader or listener a better understanding of the message being communicated. Overstatements are so prevalent in our speaking and writing that the sentence you are currently reading originally contained a hyperbole until I noticed and changed it! We often use hyperboles to ascribe greatness to things or people:
“You’re the most wonderful person in the whole world!” “That is the prettiest painting!” “That is the cutest puppy I have ever seen!” “Everyone loves you!”
These phrases are essentially used to say, “That person/painting/puppy/item/thing is awesome!” You aren’t likely to conduct investigative research to verify any of these statements. The words are not taken literally, but the message is clearly received.
Our familiarity with hyperboles can easily shape the way we read, ponder, and understand scripture. We are used to seeing and hearing overstatements, so we can unknowingly assume that important phrases in the Bible are simply being used to say something like “God is great!” This is the way I read much of the Bible for a long time. I accidentally glossed over statements that directly communicated his will – that His name would be made known among all nations – and I came to a “hyperbolic understanding” of a literal message. Here are a few examples from Psalms:
1. All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. Psalm 22:27-28
Literal meaning: All nations quite literally will worship God. Hyperbolic understanding: A lot of people will worship God.
2. May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Psalm 67:1-3
Literal meaning: The end goal is that God’s salvation would be known among literally all nations and that all the peoples (nations) would praise him.
Hyperbolic understanding: God is the greatest in the whole wide world, and everyone should think that!
3. All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O LORD, and shall glorify your name. Psalm 86:9
Literal meaning: All nations quite literally will come and worship God.
Hyperbolic understanding: God’s name will be glorified mightily!
4. Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! Psalm 96:2-3
Literal meaning: Tell of his salvation each day. Literally go, literally declare it, to literally all the nations. Hyperbolic understanding: Shout for joy over the Lord and don’t hide it from anyone!
You may notice that all of the hyperbolic understandings listed above are accurate on some level. In fact, many of them are similar to the literal meanings. That is not the problem. The problem is that the hyperbolic understandings are incomplete and communicate something lesser than what is written. We are so accustomed to hyperboles, but none of what scripture says is an exaggeration: We are to literally proclaim our God’s salvation to literally every nation, and we are promised that literally every nation will stand before him and worship him!
There are hundreds more verses just like these throughout the Old Testament, and that is not an exaggeration! If we only read these verses as hyperbolic expressions used to declare that God is glorious, we will miss the point. These verses are giving us a clear picture into the heart of God and a clear picture of the story in which we live. The story is the race of all history to see every people and every place filled with the knowledge of the glory of God.
Jesus continued this vision in Matthew 28:19 when he commanded the disciples to “make disciples of all nations”. He said in Luke 24:47 that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” The same vision is present in Acts 1:8 when he says the Holy Spirit will empower us to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
What he desires is made clear to us, and he promised that it would happen!
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14
We get a glimpse of the accomplished purpose of God in Revelation 5:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” Revelation 5:9
Don’t you see it? If you read all these verses as mere hyperboles used to express the greatness of God, you will miss the story! You will miss the mission and purpose God has set out for us. Instead, let us read these for what they say: The Lord will be worshipped by every nation. We are to tell of his salvation day by day to every nation and to the ends of the earth. The whole story is moving toward the gospel reaching all nations. He most definitely will win. He is worthy of nothing less than people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and he will receive nothing less.
We have an opportunity to join him in this magnificent story! Don’t chase after any lesser thing!