Figures of Speech

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

Text: Matthew 13:10-17

I.         A common confusion in reading the Bible is understanding text when figures of speech are used

A.        A bit odd because all languages of men contain figures of speech, so you think that people would be used to understanding figures

B.        Statements with literal meaning are said to be figurative when someone doesn’t like or believe the literal meaning

1.         Genesis 1 speaks of the world being created in six days.

a)        People have claimed that this has to be figurative because they want to match the Bible to popular beliefs

C.        Statements with figurative meaning are said to be literal if it matches a favored doctrine

1.         Example: The thousand year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:4

D.        Statements with figurative meaning are assigned seemingly arbitrary meaning to support a doctrine

1.         Often done with prophetic statements that are full of symbols, such as Revelation

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

II.        What is a figure of speech?

A.        Prior to modern styles of bold, italics, underline, superscripts, and subscripts, it was the text itself that called the attention of the reader to what was important

B.        A departure from the usual rules of grammar or word choice becomes a figure of speed

1.         It is the departure that becomes important. It is what calls our attention

2.         Ephesians 3:18 – Wait a minute! There are only three dimensions, not four!

3.         Isaiah 49:13 – Wait! How do heavens, earth, and mountains sing?

C.        The Greeks classified over 200 figures of speech

D.        Some named in the Bible

1.         Allegoroumena (Allegory) – Galatians 4:24

2.         Antitupon (Figure) – I Peter 3:21

3.         Tupos (Figure) – Romans 5:14

4.         Homoimati (Similitude) – Romans 5:14

5.         Parabole (Figure) – Hebrews 11:19

6.         Parabolais (Parable) – Matthew 13:13, 34-35

7.         Semaino (Signify, indicate) – Revelation 1:1

III.       How do you recognize a figure of speech?

A.        In general, we read the Bible literally when possible

B.        When the literal doesn’t make sense

1.         Isaiah 55:12 – Mountains and hills don’t sing. Trees don’t have hands or clap

2.         II Corinthians 11:16-21 – Paul calls himself a fool, but he is anything but a fool.

C.        When there appears to be more being communicated than what the literal words convey

1.         Parables are of these forms of figurative speech

2.         Matthew 13:33 – The words are clear and have meaning literally, but because of the comparison we realize that there is more the kingdom of heaven can’t be yeast, though we are told it is like yeast.

D.        When the grammar or structure of the statement emphasizes something

1.         Genesis 2:17 – The Hebrew is moth tamuth, two words that are the same but in different form. It literally reads “dying you shall die.”

2.         II Corinthians 5:6-9 – There is a play on the Greek words: endemeo (in your own country) and ekdemeo (out of your own country)

3.         These types of speech is generally lost when translated.

IV.      Classification of figures of speech

A.        Omission – something is left out

1.         Missing words that the grammar should require to be there

a)        Matthew 11:18 – John had to eat and drink. What is left out is that John decline to attend parties where there was eating and drinking (this is an Ellipsis)

2.         Missing sense or meaning

a)        Acts 5:36 – All people are somebody. But this is lessening or understating the intended meaning that Theudas claimed to be someone great.(this is an Tapeinosis)

b)        Psalms 84:11 – Using a negative to emphasize a positive (this is an Antenantiosis)

B.        Addition – something extra is inserted

1.         Added words that are not necessary

a)        Duplication – duplicate word

(1)       Isaiah 40:1 – double “comfort” at the beginning

(2)       John 1:51 – double “truly” at the start of what Jesus said

b)        Anphora – duplicate start to sentences

(1)       Matthew 5:3-11 – “Blessed are …”

c)        Epistrophe – duplicate sentence endings

(1)       Psalms 115:9-11

d)        Polysyndeton – Many “ands”

(1)       Acts 1:8

e)        Paradiastole – Repeating “neither … nor”

(1)       Romans 8:38-39

f)         Polyptoton – Repetition of the same word in different forms

(1)       Ephesians 6:18 – Praying … prayer

(2)       Revelation 17:6 – ending is literally, “I wondered with great wonder”

2.         Added sense or meaning

a)        Hyperbole – exaggeration

(1)       II Samuel 1:23

C.        Change

1.         Different meaning

a)        Metonymy – change one noun for another

(1)       Proverbs 10:20 – tongue for words, heart for thoughts or desires

(2)       Matthew 6:21 – heart for thoughts or desires

b)        Transfer – change one idea for another

(1)       Mark 16:15 – creation (or creature) for mankind

(2)       Philippians 3:19 – stomach for personal desires

c)        Hendiadys – two words used for one idea

(1)       I Timothy 1:17 – honor and glory = glorious honor

(2)       Luke 1:17 – spirit and power = powerful spirit

d)        Name change

(1)       Acts 3:14 – the Holy and Righteous One = Jesus

e)        Euphemism – referring to the unpleasant with something pleasant

(1)       Genesis 15:15 – go to your fathers = die

(2)       John 11:11 – has fallen asleep = died, wake him up = resurrect him

2.         Different order of words

a)        Transportation – putting a word out of its usual order

(1)       John 6:60 – literally, “hard is this word”

(2)       I Timothy 3:16 – literally, “great is, of godliness, the mystery”

3.         Different application of words

a)        Simile – comparison by resemblance

(1)       Ephesians 5:22,25 – use of “as”

b)        Metaphor – one thing representing another

(1)       Psalms 23:1 – use of “is”

(2)       Matthew 26:26 – A metaphor Roman Catholics try to take literally

c)        Implication – one thing implied to resemble another thing

(1)       Matthew 7:6 – certain types of people as dogs and pigs

(2)       Mark 1:17 – men as fish

d)        Double meaning - Both being true

(1)       Acts 17:22 – “very religious” = devote followers of a different religion, or superstitious

e)        Irony - saying the opposite of what the words mean

(1)       Judges 10:14

(2)       Job 12:2

f)         Oxymoron – Wise saying that seems foolish

(1)       Isaiah 58:10

(2)       I Corinthians 1:25

g)        Personification

(1)       I Corinthians 12:15-16

V.        This is not a complete list, but a sample to help you begin to spot figures of speech and to see how they enhance the meaning of communication in the Bible



  • E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech in the Bible
  • Luther W. Martin, Examples of Biblical Figures of Speech
  • Figures of Speech,
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