Metaphors are implied comparisons. John 10:7 is a good example, Jesus said, “I am the door.” In other words, Jesus is the way into the company of God’s people. Jesus compares Himself to a door or entranceway. We do not take the language literally. It is a figure of speech.
There are three special metaphors, anthropomorphisms, theriomorphisms, and anthropopathisms. The anthropomorphism refers to attributing human form to the inanimate or the divine. Isaiah 55:12 says, “All the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Obviously, trees do not have human hands; but their waving in the wind is like the clapping of hands. We do not take the metaphor literally. In like manner, the Scriptures speak of God’s hands, His arm, His ears, His eyes, etc. “The eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth.” Second Chronicles 16:9 uses this metaphor to signify that God is all knowing and all seeing. We do not take the metaphor literally. God, who is a Spirit, does not have human eyes.
The second special metaphor, the theriomorphism, attributes animal form to human beings or God. In Luke 13:32, Jesus compares Herod to a fox, “Go tell that fox.” Psalm 36:7 speaks of God’s protection using a theriomorphism, “And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.” Of course, we do not take this special metaphor literally. God, who is a Spirit, does not have wings.
The third special metaphor, the anthropopathism, attributes human emotions to the inanimate or to God. For example, Psalm 96:12 exclaims, “Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy.” We do not interpret this text literally. Trees do not sing and trees do not express the human emotion of joy. Anthropopathisms also impute human characteristics to God, in this case, human emotions. A. A. Hodge explains,
When the Scriptures, in condescension to our weakness, express the fact that God hears by saying that he has an ear, or that he exerts power by attributing to him a hand, they evidently speak metaphorically, because in the case of men spiritual faculties are exercised through bodily organs. And when they speak of his repenting, of his being grieved, or jealous, they use metaphorical language also, teaching us that he acts toward us as a man when agitated by such passions (The Confession of Faith, 49).
Hodge comments on Westminster Confession of Faith 2:1 which says God is “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.” These “passions” are part of the human makeup and human nature, that which makes us human in contrast to the divine. These include excitable impulses of our nature such as fear, anger, love, hatred, etc., human emotions, which are reactive.
When God says, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5), He is speaking metaphorically. Genesis 6:6 says, “The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” Sorrow and grief are human emotions imputed to God to characterize His actions using language to which we can relate. Genesis 6:6 speaks metaphorically using anthropopathisms. Are we diminishing God and undercutting the Bible? No! In fact, we are emphasizing God’s utter distinctiveness. As God does not have humans eyes, ears, or hands, God does not have the human emotions of anger, fear, hatred, or sorrow. Again, He is infinitely distinct from and different than you and me. “God is spirit” (John 4:24). A “spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).
Understanding anthropopathisms brings us to the wonder of the incarnation. What is the connection? In order for the great God of heaven who is a most pure Spirit, without body, parts, or passions, to express human emotions, He must become a man, a human being. In order to feel human sorrow and to shed human tears, God must become a man. It is the man, Christ Jesus, of whom it is written, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). For the God of heaven, a most pure Spirit, to actually bleed, it was necessary for Him to become a man. In like manner, for this infinitely good God to feel human pain, He had to become a human being, a man. To suffer the full range of human emotions in the agony of ultimate abandonment, loneliness, and feeling forsaken, God had to become a man. To suffer the pains of Hell, physically and emotionally, and to feel the weight of wrath, physically and emotionally, it was essential that God become a man.