We are currently going over steps to form a better understanding of the Bible, the central text of the Christian faith. Last week I wanted us to learn some tips for reading Laws of the Old Testament. and this week we’ll take a look at some of the figures of speech in the Bible.This is article nine of a thirteen part series. (Here are the past articles in the series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Time to take a “Cat nap”. I had to “bite my tongue”. He was “putting all his eggs in one basket”. I was “falling in love”. Time for me to “hit the books”. These are all examples of idiom or figures of speech. What is an idiom? One dictionary defines an idiom like this. “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own” I like this definition. It really captures the importance of understanding cultural context when seeking to understand an idiom. Did you know that the Bible is full of idioms? In other words the Bible is full of sayings or expressions that cannot be understood in and of themselves because they have a separate meaning of their own. In the book of Job chapter 19, verse 20 we can find a wonderful ancient Hebrew idiom preserved for us from the oldest book in the Bible. “I have been reduced to skin and bones and have escaped death by the skin of my teeth.” Job 19:20
The phrase from Job “By the skin of my teeth” does not mean that teeth have skin. The phrase can only be understood as a figure of speech. A person cannot find its meaning via literal interpretation. It wouldn’t make sense. In order to find the literal meaning of a figure of speech you need to unpack the figurative non-literal meaning of the language being used.
First: There are figures of speech that leave out the meaning or important words. These figures of speech affect grammar or sentence structure.
Here is an example: Matthew 11:18, “For John came neither eating nor drinking.” What does this mean literally? We know John had to eat and drink but this is pointing out that John turned down invitations to have meals with others. Because it didnt contribute to his purpose.
Second: There are figures of speech that add (rather than leave out). Words or meaning is inserted.
Here is an example: Note the duplication in John 1:51? “Verily, verily I say unto you…” What does it mean literally?: This repetition places emphases on a word for effect by duplicating it. The New International Version of the Bible translates John 1:51 in this way “I tell you the truth”. It would be like saying the popular phrase “I guarantee it”.
Here are some other examples of figures of speech that add words for effect. This list is by no means exhaustive.
- Repeating words at the beginning of sequential sentences. Matthew 5:3-11, “Blessed are the poor…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…”.
- Repatative use of the word and for effect. Example: Acts 1:8, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”.
- Repetitive use of the words neither or nor for effect. Example: Romans 8:38 and 39, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God”.
- Repetitive use of the same word or phrase at the end of a sentence. Example: “O Israel, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield. O priests, descendants of Aaron, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield. All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield.” Psalm 115:9–11.
- Bookending a sentence with the same word. Example: Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, rejoice.”.
- Repetition of the same word in various forms in the same passage. Examples:““There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’” John 16:12–15, Ephesians 6:18, “Praying always with all prayer…” Revelation 17:6, “I wondered with great wonder”.
- The use of Exaggeration. Example: 2 Samuel 1:23, “Saul and Jonathan…they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”
Third there are figures of speech that change meaning or words.
- Sometimes the noun is changed. Example: Proverbs 10:20, “The tongue (what they say) of the righteous is choice silver.” Matthew 6:21, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart (what you think and feel) be also.”;
- Sometimes the idea (not meaning of a word) of a word can be exchanged for another related idea. Example: Mark 16:15 “Preach the gospel to every creature (humans).” Philippians 3:19, “Their god is their stomach (they are their own god)…”;
- Sometimes something unpleasant or crewed can be changed to something pleasant. Genesis 15:15, “You, however, will go to your fathers (you will die) in peace…” John 11:11, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep (he is dead)…” One very famous, provocative and controversial euphemism is found in Ruth 3:7-9, “And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet (some scholars believe this is another way of saying she uncovered his sexual organs) and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings (consummate our marriage Ezekiel 16:8) over your servant, for you are a redeemer.””
There are so many figures of speech in Scripture! Here are some more for you to explore.
- Similes: Psalm 17:8, Ephesians 5:22, Ephesians 5:25;
- Metaphors: Psalm 23, Matthew 26:26;
- Implied Resemblance: Matthew 7:6, Mark 1:17;
- Quotations: Matthew 1:22 and 23 quotes Isaiah 7:14;
- Double Meaning: Acts 13:22;
- Irony: (This is when an expression of thought is in a form that conveys its opposite.) Judges 10:14;
- Oxymoron: Isaiah 58:10, 1 Corinthians 1:25;
- Simple Idiom: “break bread,” “turn to ashes,” “hide from your eyes,” etc;
- Presenting non human things as human: 1 Corinthians 12:15 and 16, Leviticus 18:25
For more info in this topic please read E.W. Bullingers’s Book (click here for a PDF copy)