Of Metaphors and Wit

Jeremiah’s writing is the product of an extremely clever and active mind. He makes use of picturesque language on every “page” of his scroll.[1] Ponder this extensive quote before proceeding:

“The book of Jeremiah is a cornucopia of metaphor. From the outset it is clear that in order for the reader to properly understand the message of the book, s/he will have to come to grips with its imagery. Chapter two alone contains metaphors of betrothal, first fruits, cisterns, slaves, lions, harlots, vineyards, camels, wild donkeys, thieves, the wilderness, virgins, and immoral women.[2] According to Daniel Bourguet, the number of metaphors in Jeremiah reaches up to nearly 250. It is not an overstatement, therefore, to say that in Jeremiah, meaning and metaphor are inseparably intertwined.”[3]

Metaphors Reproduce like Rabbits [but “rabbits” here is a simile]

Metaphors are a common, world-wide, human phenomena. An integral part of human psyche and expression. So common they are, that even “knuckleheads”, “block heads” and “hot heads” (three metaphors) invent them “on the fly” (metaphor).

Metaphors are common, yes, but there are “blue ribbon” ones. Jeremiah invented good ones. A few will be examined below. The ability to originate superior metaphors can be labelled with the term, “wit.”

What is Wit?

“Wit” in its purest form is creative genius. It requires flexible cerebral acuity, along with a piercing insight into human affairs and human psyche. Wit is inventive thought, cleverly putting two or three things together creating a clash or reverberation of images and concepts both unexpected but clear enough to communicate the point. (Wish there was a good metaphor to define “wit.”).

Jeremiah was an expert. Look at 4 examples:

Metaphors Clash and Produce Spin-Off Ideas

1, In Jeremiah chapter 8, the Lord expresses his frustration over the callous stubbornness of the people. The painful consequences of their sinning should be enough to cause them to change. “Why do these people stay on their self-destructive path?” he asks. “Is anyone sorry for doing wrong? Does anyone say, ‘What a terrible thing I have done?’” This question is then answered with true wit, using vivid imagery:

No! All are running down the path of sin as swiftly as a horse galloping to battle! 8:6b.

Here we have both a vivid picture – horses with armed riders rushing into battle – and a clashing of ideas. Horses don’t choose to rush into pain and danger, they are mastered, trained, and forced to do it. Humans are “out of their minds” to rush into anything as painful and harmful as sin. The point is that the people’s proneness to sin is excessive and nonsensical [anti-sensical? Contra-sensical?].

2, In Jeremiah 50, the great empire of Babylon is described in a future setting. The description of this nation as “the mightiest hammer in all the earth” is a perfect metaphor. Great hammers were used to break open stone walls and knock down stone buildings. Babylon is famous for this. But the metaphor gets carried into the next stage, this “mighty hammer” now “lies broken and shattered.” Carrying vivid imagery into the next statement. “Babylon is desolate among the nations!” 50:23.

3, The Lord’s judgement against the nation of Egypt is peppered with biting wit and only one statement will be examined here. A powerful enemy of Egypt is described as being “as tall as Mount Tabor, or as Mount Carmel by the sea!” They are then told to flee, because the city of Memphis will be totally destroyed. This is then followed by the wittiest, picturesque understatement:

Egypt is as sleek as a beautiful heifer, but a horsefly from the north is on its way! 46:20.

Picture first the nation of Egypt described as young, beautiful, and full of life (the heifer). Now consider the size difference between a cow and a fly. This totally reverses the image from earlier, where the enemy is compared to the size of two mountains. Now picture again this little horsefly pestering the defenseless heifer, biting at it morning to night, driving it mad. This complex image is conjured up through a few brief words. This is wit, and this is masterful use of metaphor and understatement.

4, In Jeremiah 37, Babylon had recently withdrawn from sieging Jerusalem. King Zedekiah sought some assurance that perhaps they were now out of danger, so he sent a couple men to ask Jeremiah about it. Perhaps all our troubles are over!

Jeremiah wanted to douse all false hopes to oblivion. He sends back the message:

This is what the Lord says: Do not fool yourselves into thinking that the Babylonians are gone for good. They aren’t! 37:9.

This was clear enough, but Spokesperson knew these people and wanted to expel any-and-all vestiges of misplaced hope, so he uses vivid, hypothetical exaggeration:

Even if you were to destroy the entire Babylonian army [a total impossibility], leaving only a handful of wounded survivors [oops], they would still stagger from their tents and burn this city to the ground. 37:10.


This is a small sampling of Jeremiah’s acumen. He had the mental wit, the pragmatic knowledge of people’s innards, and a mind-blowing message to communicate.

“The book Jeremiah wrote is a massive labyrinth, the largest (and certainly the most complicated) book in the Bible. He did, however, spike his tome with protein bars and energy drinks at appropriate places to edge the reader on through the maze.”[4] Gems shine brighter when you find them yourself. Happy digging.

[1] There may be a debate as to how much of the messages “from the Lord” are recorded verbatim from Divine speech and how much human personality and choices influence word choice, forms of expression, etc. This is not a forum for such a debate.

[2] 13 metaphors in just the second chapter of the book!

[3] Foreman, Benjamin A. Animal Metaphors and the People of Israel in the Book of Jeremiah. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011, p. 1.

[4] Howard, Reggie, http://jeremiahbenhilkiah.blogspot.com/2013/ ���l�������s���G4

2 thoughts on “Of Metaphors and Wit

  1. robbidenman

    Love this!!!! What a great perspective! I wish I would have had these thoughts myself, yet I am thankful you give me the opportunity to apply your template. Perhaps a metaphor to describe wit might be (albeit lame) a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat…? Roberta Tomoson


  2. Reggie Howard

    Thanks, Roberta, for offering a suggestion. The rabbit certainly provides the “unexpected” part of things, but much of the formula is still missing. You have stirred my interest again to search for an adequate metaphor for wit. Let’s keep working on it. Thanks.


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