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Bible Interpretation >
Genre Analysis > Figures of Speech
FIGURES OF SPEECHNavigation Notes: You may click on the "[TOC]" links to return to the Genre Analysis Table of Contents.
|Figures of Speech|
The best handbook on the subject remains Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated by EW Bullinger, first published in 1898. The ancient Greeks identified and named over two hundred distinct figures of speech from the Bible. The following is a list and brief description of a few of the most common.
Simile - compares two
subjects using the words "like" or "as."
Metaphor - a direct comparison between two or more
seemingly unrelated subjects; usually takes the form: "The [first
subject] is a [second subject]." Generally, the attributes
from the second subject are used to enhance the description of the
Personification - assigns human traits and qualities to a non-personal or non-living thing.
Anthropomorphism - (a form of personification) attributes human characteristics and qualities to God. God is a spirit without a body, but since we have trouble understanding a spirit, the Bible mentions God's face, ear, or his strong right arm etc (2Chr 16:9; Isa 58:14, 59:1; Hos 11:8; Mt 18:10; Jn 10:29 etc). Two other related forms are Anthropopathism, the assigning human feelings or emotions to God such as anger, jealousy, grief, and pleasure (Gen 6:6; Ex 4:14, 20:5; Heb 10:38 ect) and Zoomorphis, the assigning of animal parts to God (Ps 91:4).
Hyperbole - a deliberate exaggeration for effect or emphasis.
See Hyperbole genre for more
Typology - interprets a character(s), story or event in
the OT as an allegory foreshadowing a character(s) or event in the NT.
See Typology - the
Foreshadowing of the New Covenant for more information.
Pleonasm – the redundant use of a word or
phrase to emphasis a statement or idea. We see back-to-back examples in
Rhetorical Question – the use of a question
without the expectation of a reply, often because the answer is so
Principles for Identifying and Interpreting Figures of Speech
Always attempt to interpret the passage literally first. If it makes no sense to apply it literally, then it’s probably a figure of speech.
Next, look at the context to attempt to determine the meaning. Many times the type of literature and historical context will also shed some light on the subject.
Check out the definitions above and look for form, key words, and specific points of similarity and contrasts.
Keep in mind that all figures of speech break down when pushed too far. It is very important that we don't interpret past the author’s intended meaning. This is particularly critical when allegorizing about the attributes of God, that is, attempting to describe something about God or His nature using human speech. While we are illuminated by the Holy Spirit to properly interpret the meaning of Scripture, we do not possess apostolic inspiration or authority.