Figures of Speech

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A figure of speech is a word or phrase that is used to convey something beyond its ordinary meaning. An example of figure of speech would be to say that "The Sun has set." The Sun has not actually set but has become hidden beyond the edge of the Earth due the Earth's own rotation, we say that it has set but we are conveying information of an entirely different sort. It is clear that we are using a figure of speech because the context of the expression has been established over time and it has become understood that the obvious meaning of the figure of speech is not the meaning that is intended and that we are speaking of things as they appear, not as they are. It is important to regard the Biblical context of each figure of speech as it is encountered in order to interpret properly what is being said, for often the opposite of what seems to be true will be used and will only become apparent through reading the surrounding verses. Several types of figures of speech are:

A) Parables and Allegories - stories told for the purpose of driving home a specific idea or collection of ideas.

a) Parable - A parable is a story that is true to life but is not usually an event that has actually occurred (much like the novels of our day) and may be considered to be an extended simile (see below). The parable is usually designed to teach one main point, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan is used by Jesus to teach the concept of loving one’s neighbour. Parables are generally found in the gospels and are usually introduced by a phrase similar to this: "And Jesus spoke this parable," an example is below:

Luke 5:36-39 - 36 Then He spoke a parable to them: "No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. 37 "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 "But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. 39 "And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’"

Some guidelines for interpreting parables are as follows:

Take note of the actual meaning of the story
Study the occasion that prompted the parable if it is given, this is the context
Find the central point of the parable
Compare this point with the teaching of the Bible
If there seems to be some interpretive problem obtain what information you are able relating to the cultural background of the story and the people it was told to
Resist the temptation to allegorize the parable, a parable is a sermon of one point and frequently the details of the parable merely exist to set off the main point and do not have significance in and of themselves

b) Allegory - An allegory is a story that is usually not true to life and may be considered to be an extended metaphor (see below). An example of an allegory is shown below:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you. “In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples.

John 15:1-8

The allegory usually teaches several points but may concentrate upon one or two of significance. Some useful steps for interpreting allegories are as follows:

Note the details and features of the allegory
Note any interpretation that is given by the story teller for the various details
Consider the other features of the allegory and see if a meaning can be derived for them from other passages
Do not try to identify all the details of an allegory, some will just not fit into any interpretive scheme since they exist solely for the purpose of setting off the main points

C) Figures of comparison - one item being compared to an other.

D) Metaphor - an implied comparison between two dissimilar items as in: "But Yahwh has been my high tower, my God, the rock of my refuge." (Psalm 94:22)

E) Simile - a comparison between two things usually using the words like or as, as in: "His heart is as firm as a stone, yes, firm as the lower millstone." (Job 41:24)

F) Figures of relation - the substitution of one word for an other that is related to it.

G) Metonymy - a figure of speech in which an idea is deduced or named through the use of a term indicating an associated idea, as in: "But to this day, when Moses is read" (2 Corinthians 3:15) to refer to the writings of Moses rather than the person of Moses.

H) Synecdoche - the use of a specific term in place of a general term, or vice versa, as in: "If harm happens to him along the way in which you go, then you will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol." (Genesis 42:38) which refers not only to the gray hairs on the man's head but to the man himself.

I) Anthropomorphism – speaking of God, either by man or by God Himself, as though He had human body and formation. Although man has been created in God’s image, and Jesus Himself ascended into heaven in human form, it is not necessarily the case that God looks just as we do. Creation in His image is generally believed to refer to our abilities of reason, self-consideration, intelligence, and our possession of a soul. When anthropomorphism is used it gives vivid imagery to the acts, thoughts, and will of God.

J) Apostrophe - this occurs when the writer directly addresses things or persons that are either absent or imaginary, as in: "Then Joshua spoke to Yahweh in the day when Yahweh delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel. He said in the sight of Israel, 'Sun, stand still on Gibeon! You, moon, stop in the valley of Aijalon!' (Joshua 10:12)

K) Euphemism - the substitution of a more agreeable expression for one less accepted, as in the use of "He fell asleep" in the place of "He died."

L) Hyperbole - a deliberate exaggeration for the purpose of emphasizing the stated point, as in: "I am weary with my groaning. Every night I flood my bed. I drench my couch with my tears." (Psalm 6:6)

M) Interrogation - essentially a rhetorical question to which the answer is obvious and does not need to be given, as in: "Is any thing too hard for Yahweh?" (Genesis 18:14). The question of Jesus upon the cross is also a rhetorical question: "About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani?' That is, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" (Matthew 27:46)

N) Irony - in which the opposite of the intended meaning is stated in order to emphasize or call attention to the intended meaning, revealed by tone of voice in living people and by the context when written. In 2 Samuel 6:20 King David's wife says, "How glorious the king of Israel was today ..." and by the following context of the verse "... who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the servants of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!" shows clearly that she was telling him how she thought he had actually dishonoured himself.

O) Litotes - saying something by denying its opposite, as in the use of "He is not far off" in the place of "He is near."

P) Personification - the writer speaks about, not to, a non-personal or non-living thing as though it had human characteristics, as in: "Let the rivers clap their hands. Let the mountains sing for joy together." (Psalms 98:8)

Q) Pleonasm - the use of superfluous words, as in: "according to all that we have heard with our ears." (2 Samuel 7:22)