The psalms are poetry. By definition poetry is full of figurative language. The psalms, therefore, must be full of figurative language.
Simile: As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God, 42:1.
Metaphor: The Lord is my rock, 18:2. The Lord is my shepherd, 23:1.
Personification: When the waters saw you they were afraid, 77:16.
Hyperbole: God looks down on the children of men to see if there are any…who seek after God. They have all fallen away…there is none who does good, not even one, 53:2,3.
We all use figurative language every day of our lives: “He’ll give you the shirt off his back.” “I need a new set of wheels.” “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.” But for some reason we don’t get it when we find it in the scriptures. We make up some weird gate in Jerusalem that archaeologists have never found, nor that the disciples had ever heard of, instead of understanding that Jesus was using hyperbole when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” We are not any better than our religious friends who want every item in the book of Revelation to be literal. Maybe we should take the log out of our own eyes before we talk about them.
We do the same thing with our hymns. Granted there are lines in some hymns that we probably should not sing. They teach religious dogma that is not found in the New Testament. But far more often I have picky brethren who ignore the authority the book of Psalms gives us to use poetry, the hallmark of which is figurative language. We follow the examples of our neighbors and make it all literal, then ban it from our assemblies. Hymns are poetry set to music just as the psalms were. We should treat them as such.
It would be helpful if we recognize that a figure of speech is meant to address only one specific point and stop trying to carry it beyond reason. “A sower went forth to sow,” Jesus taught. The point of the parable was how the seed grew based on the ground it fell on. Who would be so silly as to ask what the bag in which the sower carried seed represented? The same ones who wonder about camels and needles. The same ones who want a literal thousand year kingdom on the earth instead of an eternal kingdom in Heaven. The reason one group didn’t fall for the other fallacy was not their understanding of how to use figurative language, i.e., the same way we use it every day of lives. The reason they stayed “sound” on one and not the other is they were indoctrinated otherwise. It’s time we fixed that problem.
Even denominational preachers understand the uses and abuses of figurative language when it comes down to brass tacks. Just read Dungan’s Hermeneutics. He has a great list of exactly how to interpret figurative language (Chapter 8). If you follow it, you won’t fall for the strange gate OR the millennium.
So let’s stop being ridiculous with our hymns, too. We would not stand for anyone interpreting the things we say the way we interpret those poets. “Whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do you also unto them.”
And, more to the point, if we banned poetic language, we would miss a whole lot of wonderful teaching that reaches the heart in ways that straight prose never could. Funny how God knew that so many thousands of years ago.
Jehovah, I have called upon you; make haste unto me: Give ear unto my voice, when I call unto thee. Let my prayer be set forth as incense before you; The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Jehovah, before my mouth; Keep the door of my lips. Incline not my heart to any evil thing, To practice deeds of wickedness with men that work iniquity: And let me not eat of their dainties. Let the righteous smite me, it shall be a kindness; And let him reprove me, it shall be as oil upon the head; Let not my head refuse it: For even in their wickedness shall my prayer continue. Their judges are thrown down by the sides of the rock; And they shall hear my words; For they are sweet. As when one plows and cleaves the earth, Our bones are scattered at the mouth of Sheol. For my eyes are unto you, O Jehovah the Lord: In you do I take refuge; leave not my soul destitute. Keep me from the snare which they have laid for me, And from the gins of the workers of iniquity. Let the wicked fall into their own nets, While I escape. Psalms 141:1-10