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Operations of the Spirit: Part 6 of 12, Extracting Meaning from Metaphors


This is the sixth of twelve parts to an essay entitled
"Operations of the Spirit." The entire essay is 
just over one hundred pages if printed out, so it is 
presented serially in this blog. These parts should 
be read sequentially, because each builds on the previous 
parts. Hopefully, readers will have comments, suggestions 
and criticisms. The twelve parts are as follows: 
I. Introduction, Part I 
II. Confusing Terms, Part II 
III. Metaphors and Meaning, Parts III through VI 
     A. The still small voice, Part III 
     B. The heart and reins, Part IV
     C. Light and burning, as in a burning in the bosom, Part V 
     D. Extracting meaning from metaphors,, Part VI 
IV. The Scriptures and the Spirit, Parts VII through X 
     A. The Oliver Cowdery revelations: D&C 6, 8 and 9, Part VII 
     B. Other modern-day scriptures, Part VIII 
     C. Ancient scriptures about the Spirit, Part IX 
     D. Extraordinary events, Part X 
V. The Spirit and Individual Affectations, Part XI 
VI. Conclusion, Part XII 

There are footnotes in this work. You can read the footnotes 
by hovering your cursor over the note, or you can click 
on the note to read it as text. There is a symbol at the end 
of each footnote that allows you to return to the text 
by clicking on it.


D. Extracting Meaning from Metaphors

The tenor of metaphors describing the Spirit must be understood. Still small voice refers to the thoughts one has, and heart is a metaphor for the mind, and bosom is a metonym for the mind. The seat of emotion is the kidneys or reins, and bowels or loins is the metonym for kidneys, the seat of emotions. Every scripture containing one of these metaphors should be read from this perspective if the meaning is to be understood. Indeed, what seems convoluted or obtuse is not when the tenor of these metaphors are understood.

Re-formatting scriptures usually clarifies what is at work and the relationship between different words used to express the same nuance of thought. For example:

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that

you must study it out in your mind;

then you must ask me

if it be right, and

if it is right,

I will cause that

your bosom shall burn within you;


therefore you shall feel

that it is right. But

if it be not right then

you shall have no such feelings . . . .

The reformatted presentation of this scripture underscores what is at work. The first chiasmus in the foregoing requires identification of the antecedent of it, which must be knowledge because knowledge is the result of study, and the illumination that comes by study is best represented by a burning, the only way to get light in a world lit only by fire.

The burning-within-the-bosom metaphor, in other words, refers to the illumination of one’s mind as a result of study and the mental processing that comes with reflection upon what has been studied. The message of the ask-me-I-will-answer prayer is that the answer requires the one seeking knowledge to stand back and consider whether new conclusions make sense. The meaning to be gathered from this scripture can be distilled to the following:

knowledge comes to the mind by study—study it out

Prayer is a gut check—you must ask me

knowledge—if it be right

knowledge—if it is right

God will respond to prayer—I will cause

knowledge of the mind is illuminated—bosom burns

The student goes from dark to light when he or she studies out a problem or question, prays, and the answer seems—feels—right.1  One does not feel right or the conclusion does not seem right unless the thought-out conclusions pass the gut check of reflection or pondering or prayer. Hence the followup chiasmus about feeling right or not about the particular conclusion. This followup chiasmus can and, perhaps, should be recast using a synonym for feel2 in this figurative context:

therefore you shall realize

that it is right. But

if it be not right then

you shall have no such realization . . . .

Of course, realize and realization do not quite capture the power of the burning-in-your-bosom metaphor, the sense of illumination that comes when one realizes the answer to a question is correct.

The genius of a metaphor is the enhanced depth it gives to what cannot be adequately expressed in words. Words can result is a flat, sterile presentation. For example, the adjoining picture can be described as the view of a fireplace and ceiling in a house, but the description hardly does justice to this Jacobean architecture. Walls were art during the Jacobean Era. The picture conveys more than the description in words; likewise, a metaphor enhances understanding.

Understanding, though, is only enhanced if the reader sees the vehicle of the metaphor as the means of conveying the image intended. The image is the vehicle of the metaphor and the meaning intended is its tenor.

A metaphor can, also, be compared to poetry, which uses words to express more than the meaning of the words. It is the rhythm, the nuance of the words, the order of the lines and verses that compact far more meaning in a poem than the number of words in prose could ever do. Emerson said,

Every word was once a poem. . . . Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.

The reader of a metaphor must appreciate the poetic-like origin of the metaphor and unpack the compressed thought. The vehicle and tenor together form the figure, trope, or turn in meaning that must be understood. Sometimes metaphors have a referential or emotive character that goes beyond a mere allusion and becomes a direct means of expressing a truth that is otherwise ineffable. The metaphor in such an instance becomes a symbol.

Whether a symbol or a sort of poetry, the reader must read slowly and think carefully about the meaning attending the use of a metaphor. For instance, is or are there metaphors in this observation made by Nephi about his father’s vision, “And it came to pass that as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him.”3 If the reader does not see the two metaphors in this sentence meaning is lost and the reader thinks this actually happened.


  1. The dichotomy between dark and light is a common metaphor that is used in the scriptures to address what happens when an individual gains knowledge. A few examples among many more are as follows: “With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding. With him is wisdom and strength, he hath counsel and understanding. . . . the deceived and the deceiver are his . . . . They grope in the dark without light . . . .” Job 12:12–13, 16, 25. “Give glory to the Lord your God, before he cause darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains, and, while ye look for light, he turn it into the shadow of death and make it gross darkness.” Jeremiah 13:16. “We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.” 2 Peter 1:19. Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his . . . he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding . . . he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth in him.” Daniel 2:20–22. “ And thou, child [speaking of John the Baptist], shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt . . . prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of sins . . . to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:76–79. “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:6. “Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word . . . .” Alma 5:7. “Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock, wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.” 2 Nephi 32:4.
  2. The figurative definition of feel is “To test or discover by cautious trial; to ‘sound’ (a person, his feelings or intentions”. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. on CD-ROM (Oxford University Press, 2009) s.v. feel. The quasi-passive sense of feeling is “That is deeply or sensibly felt or realized, heart-felt, acute, vivid.” Id. s.v. feeling. Webster’s Dictionary (1828) defines feeling as, inter alia, the “Faculty or power of perception; sensibility.”
  3. 1 Nephi 1:6.

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