I have more posts to write regarding the types of literature found in the Bible …I still need to cover wisdom literature including a possible separate post on Proverbs, prophecy, gospels, parables, epistles, apocalyptic literature (such as Revelation), and eschatology (regarding the end times), but I figured we’d take a little interlude here to talk about Figures of Speech since the last posts were on poetry— and poetry is full of figures of speech. In order to better understand the Bible, readers need to be able to identify and interpret figurative language… figures of speech.
Literary devices or figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, paradox, types, rhetorical questions, personification, and hyperbole, are found throughout the Bible. These all are by nature poetical, but the thing about the Bible is figures of speech are found everywhere (not just in the poetical books).
It is important to be familiar with some of the common literary devices that are used in the Bible because knowing how they work will spare us from misinterpretations. “For example, exaggeration in a story that purports to be factual history (such as the stories found in historical narratives) would be a form of untruth, while that same type of exaggeration in lyric poetry is called hyperbole and is a standard way of expressing emotional truth.” (From How to Read the Bible as Literature by Ryken.)
A verse that trips up a lot of Christians and non-Christians alike is Luke 14:26, where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This is an example of hyperbole— an exaggeration with the intent of making a point. If you’ve read the rest of the Gospels you would know that to interpret that literally would contradict Jesus’ other teachings to love and serve others. He does not mean we ought to literally hate our family members— instead he’s saying that to be his disciple one has to be willing to give up their life to follow him and that our love for God should be first and foremost— with all other loves paling in comparison. It is figurative (not literal) language, but readers who do not know how to identify and interpret hyperbole will be confused by this verse and will likely misinterpret it.
So here are some of the figures of speech (a figure of speech is a literary mode of expression in which words are used out of their literal sense to suggest a picture or image) frequently seen in the Bible:
~Metaphor: An indirect comparison of two things. Asserts that one thing is another. Substitution of the name of one thing for another. Like a simile but the connectives of like, as, and so are left out. Examples are Galatians 2:9 “pillars”, Proverbs 23:27, Matthew 3:7 “you brood of vipers”.
~Allegory: An extended metaphor that has the form of a story. Example is Galatians 4:21-31. Examples from literature are Pilgrim’s Progress and Screwtape Letters.
~Apostrophe: Addressing or speaking to things, abstract ideas or imaginary objects. Example is 1 Corinthians 15:55 “O death, where is your sting?”
~Hyperbole: Exaggeration, not with the intent to deceive but to emphasize and intensify an impression. Examples are Galatians 4:15 “you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me”, Mark 9:43 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off…”.
~Rhetorical Questions: These are questions posed for which the author doesn’t expect an answer (often because the author already knows the answer. They are said to make a point— often times in sarcasm). Examples are 1 Corinthians 1:13 “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?…”, Matthew 7:16.
~Litotes: The use of understatement. It is the opposite of hyperbole and is often used as irony. Example is Acts 15:2 “no small debate”.
~Synecdoche: Part of something is mentioned but the whole is meant. Example is: Galatians 1:16.
~ Euphemism: The substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for a harsh, blunt one. Euphemisms are used to indirectly discuss such topics as bodily functions, anatomy, or unpleasant topics. Examples are Genesis 4:1, Isaiah 7:20.
~Types: A type foreshadows (prefigures) something or someone to come. A prefiguring symbol such as an Old Testament event prefiguring an event in the New Testament: the Passover foreshadows Christ’s sacrificial death (1 Corinthians 5:7). Often types are explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. Examples are Romans 5:14, 1 Corinthians 15:45, John 3:14-15.
~Symbols: Something that stands for another meaning in addition to its ordinary meaning. It is usually a visual image that represents an invisible concept. In interpreting symbols one is not free to impose his own interpretation but he must discover the author’s intention by taking into consideration the culture, principles of interpretation, the overall message of the book and in many cases the author’s own specific definition. Example are Revelation 1:12 & 20.
~Paradox: A statement that seems absurd, self-contradictory, or contrary to logical thought, but with an underlying truth. Example is Matthew 16:25: “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.”
To get the most out of our faith journeys we truly need to learn to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. Familiarizing yourself with these literary devices will definitely help you better understand the Bible, and it is one small way to exercise your mind, to the glory of God.