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Figures of Speech Interpreting the Literary Types

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Figures of Speech

Man’s knowledge of God is limited to that which God reveals to us.  A primary method by which God reveals Himself is through His written Word, the Bible.  All languages have a limited number of words to use in expressing thoughts and ideas. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit (through human authors) chose to use all type of expressions (figures of speech) to create pictures in our minds and enhance our understanding.  The following are a few common figures of speech used in the Bible.

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."
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Mt 23:37).   Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1Pet 5:8).

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 first.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want (Ps 23:1).  The Lord is not a literal shepherd, but is described as having attributes of a shepherd (caring for His people).

Personification - assigns human traits and qualities to a non-personal or non-living thing.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands (Is 55:12).

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 information.
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Mt 5:29-30).  In this quote from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, He is not commanding us to amputate body parts, but stressing that we must deal firmly with sin.

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.)
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (Jn 3:14-15).  This refers back to Numbers 21, when God had Moses put a bronze snake on a pole, so that anyone bitten by a snake could look up at the bronze snake and live.  This event foreshadowed Christ on the cross.

Pleonasm – the redundant use of a word or phrase to emphasis a statement or idea. We see back-to-back examples in Psalms 19.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (Ps 19:1). Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. (Ps 19:2).  The terms “heavens” and “skies” in verse 1 and “day after day” and “night after night” in verse 2, although not totally equivalent, are considered redundant due to their intended use.  This can also be similar to parallelism when used in the poetical writings.

Rhetorical Question – the use of a question without the expectation of a reply, often because the answer is so obvious.
If God is for us, who can be against us? (Rom 8:31).

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.

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