How Should We Understand Metaphorical Attributes of God?

The prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 40, verse 22, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.” Does God literally sit above the earth in a tent? How are we to understand verses that speak of God in this manner?

Theologian Norman Geisler explains the important distinction between metaphysical and metaphorical attributes of God in his Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, God/Creation:

Not all language about God in the Bible is metaphysical (or literal). Scripture does employ many metaphorical and anthropological descriptions of (attributions to) God. God is said to have ‘arms’ (Deut. 33:27), ‘eyes’ (Heb. 4:13), and even ‘wings’ (Ex. 19:4). He is called a ‘rock’ (1 Sam. 2:2), a ‘tower’ (Prov. 18:10), and a ‘shield’ (Gen. 15:1).

The difference between metaphorical and metaphysical attributions of God is found in the nature of God and what is being said of Him. Metaphysical attribution is based on the way God actually is—it results from His efficient causality. It is like its Cause; it is based in an intrinsic causal relation between an efficient cause and its effect. . . .

However, a metaphorical attribution of God is not the way God actually is. It is based on an extrinsic causal relation; it is not like its Cause.

So why do the biblical writers employ metaphors so frequently? Doesn’t this just lead to confusion?

There are several reasons for using metaphorical expressions of God.

First, metaphors often inform us what God can do, not what He is. They often describe His abilities, not His attributes. Thus, He is like a strong tower or shield that can protect us, or He has wings that can hold us up, etc.

Second, metaphors communicate what God is like in an indirect and non-literal way. The nonliteral actually depends upon the literal. We know God is not literally a stone, since we know He is literally an infinite Spirit, and a stone can be neither infinite nor a spirit. But once we know that God is not literally a stone, a metaphor does tell us what he literally is, namely, stable and immovable.

Third, metaphors (similes and other figures of speech) are often evocative, even though they are not literally descriptive; that is, they do not literally and directly describe God. Even so, they do evoke a response to Him (while metaphysical descriptions often do not). Hence, metaphors are frequently used in the Bible because God wants a response from us. For example, compare the evocative power of a metaphorical vs. a metaphysical statement about God:

  • Metaphysical: God is the uncaused Cause of our being.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deut. 33:27).
  • Metaphysical: God is omnipotent.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Who is like me and who can challenge me? And what shepherd can stand against me?’ (Jer. 49:19).
  • Metaphysical: God is omniscient.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Heb. 4:13).

Verse 22 in Isaiah 40 is clearly, then, a metaphorical description of God. Since we know that God is literally an immaterial spirit, then He cannot be physically sitting down under a tent. The verse is trying to communicate the metaphysical attribute of God’s infinite power.