Teaching: An Overview of Figures of Speech used in the Bible (Ellipsis, Polysyndeton, Asyndeton…)

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What is a Figure of Speech?

A departure from the normal rules of grammar or word usage. Examples:

“breadth and length and depth and height”
“The mountains will sing.”

What is the purpose of figures of speech?

To give special emphasis.

To call attention to the point.

To add force or power to an expression. Which sentence is more memorable? “A burglar snuck into my house.” OR “A burglar slipped into my house like a cat stalking prey.”

Why are figures of speech in the Bible?

Figures of speech are universal to human communication. Every language, including the biblical languages, has them.

God used figures of speech to call attention to a point in the scriptures.

Why it is important to understand figures of speech in the Bible?

To get to the correct interpretation of Scripture.

Serious misinterpretations of Scripture come from:

Calling something figurative that is literal. For example, the 6 days of Creation in Genesis 1 are literal 24-hour periods. But many who want to believe Creation couldn’t have happened that quickly say they are figurative.

Calling something literal that is figurative. For example, John 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I am” is used to support that Jesus is eternal and pre-existed Abraham. Really, it is the figure of speech heterosis or switching of word forms (here, verb tense). It emphasizes the certainty of Jesus’ coming.

It is not honest biblical interpretation to call something figurative simply because you don’t understand it or don’t want to believe it.

The words in God’s Word are perfect. God has a reason for everything He says – where He says it; when He says it; to whom He says it; and how He says it.

Figures of speech in the Bible are precise and exact, not haphazard.

How do we know when the words should be taken literally or figuratively?

The Bible should be understood literally whenever possible.

But when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or to the general teaching of truth, then we can expect that a figure of speech is present.

If a word or words are truly a figure of speech, then that figure can be named and described. It will have a specific identifiable purpose.

How can we recognize figures of speech?

The words don’t make sense literally.

1 Corinthians 11:16-21, Paul calls himself a fool. He isn’t one, but is using the figure “sarcasm.”

Isaiah 55:12, “the trees will clap their hands.” Trees don’t have hands and don’t clap. The figure is personification.

The words are clear and literal, but meant to convey a deeper lesson or application, such as in a parable.

The words are clear and literal, but are put together in a grammatical or structural way that brings emphasis to the section. This kind of figure may be lost in translation.

Genesis 2:17, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The Hebrew reads, “dying you will die,” using the figure “many inflections,” that is the same word in different forms.

Ephesians 3:18, “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” The “ands” is the figure “Many ands” and gives separate emphasis to each part, more than a comma would.

Read more here …

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