Dear Associates, Students and Friends:
A “figure” represents something. It is a means by which all thought is conveyed, whether by sounds (by voice or music) or by symbols (letters combined into words or musical notes into sounds), 1 all communication begins with figures. The term “figure” originally applied to marks, lines, used to make a form or shape. All linguistic, mathematical, and musical figures begin by using marks.
In 1898 E.W. Bullinger published Figures of Speech in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated. 2 In this 1100 page book Bullinger noted that figures of speech can expand the meaning and significance of ordinary phrases. Sometimes the understanding of a figure is straightforward; sometimes a figure is not so clear, such as the use of a “figure of speech” when the context and background is incomplete, missing, or misunderstood.
“Applied to words, a figure denotes some form which a word or sentence takes, different from its ordinary and natural form. This is always for the purpose of giving additional force, more life, intensified feeling or greater emphasis.”
E.W. Bullinger, “Introduction,” pp. v–vi (emphasis mine)
Figurative language used for emphasis is employed extensively in the Middle East both today and in biblical times. In fact, it is difficult to hold a conversation for any length of time (in any language) without using a figure of speech of some kind. This is the subject of this month’s presentation by Dr. Ernest L. Martin: “Figures of Speech and Holy Scripture.” It was transcribed and edited from a 1977 audiotape lecture by Dr. Martin, presented with an addendum of my own.
Language can be used to effect change. The most important user of language and the most important “actor” is God Himself. When God speaks, things happen! So, the study of God’s use of language is vitally important to our understanding of Him, His creation, and His plan.
God uses figures of speech. He uses them for emphasis. Note what Dr. Bullinger wrote in his first paragraph to the Introduction to his book. It is still true today:
“Jehovah has been pleased to give us the revelation of His mind and will in words. It is therefore absolutely necessary that we should understand not merely the meanings of the words themselves, but also the laws which govern their usage and combinations.
All language is governed by law; but, in order to increase the power of a word, or the force of an expression, these laws are designedly departed from, and the words and sentences are thrown into, and used in, new forms, or figures.”
Bullinger, “Introduction,” p. v (italics his)
How can we know when a phrase, verse, or passage is to be taken literally or as a figure of speech? Dr. Bullinger gives us a good answer involving common sense. After all, we need to remember that the written Word of God is intended to communicate, to reveal, to enlighten us about God’s thoughts and intentions. The words of Scripture are to be understood literally unless a statement is:
- contrary to experience
- contrary to known fact
- contrary to revealed truth
- contrary to the general teachings of the Bible.
If any such factors become apparent, then you are likely dealing with a figure of speech. In other words, figures stand out because they do not “fit” the normal plain sense of the passage. The meaning is odd.
This should cause you to look carefully at the “problem” passage, because a figure of speech is used only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we should carefully examine and study the figure to discover and from it learn the truth that is thus emphasized. 3
Consider Christ’s use of parables in the Bible as an example. Parables are extended figures of speech in Scripture that were not intended to be taken literally. They are used, within their cultural context, to tell a story that held the attention of the audience while communicating truths greater than the story itself. The parables were not intended by Christ to be understood by the general population at that time. They were explained only to the disciples privately, and were not fully understood until after Christ’s resurrection.
Is this not a contradiction? If, as expanded figures of speech, parables were intended to communicate more truth than the stories themselves, how can they do that if the truth was not understood? The answer comes by understanding the various audiences. The public received truth only on a limited basis. The disciples received truth on a deeper level. The final intended audience of the parables was the ekklesia, as presented through the full message that Christ intended His disciples to present in the Gospels. 4
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David W. Sielaff
1 From there the figures, the letters, and words are made into more complex assemblages such as sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books collections, etc. Each one uses combinations of “figures.” Notes are combined into tunes, melodies, and songs. See Dr. Martin’s presentation “Psalms, Music, and Prophecy” at http://askelm.com/prophecy/p080401.htm. DWS
2 E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated (1809, reprint Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968). This book became a standard for research into biblical figures of speech, exhaustively covering every example that Bullinger could find, label, and explain. Bullinger’s study Bible called the Companion Bible sets forth in Appendix #6, “Figures of Speech” (http://levendwater.org/companion/append6.html) a short list of the major figures of speech in the Bible with just one example of each. Other examples are listed throughout the Companion Bible in the notes. An outline of the Dr. Bullinger’s Figures of Speech book is available at http://rhetoric.byu.edu/figures/Groupings/by%20Author/Bullinger.htm. DWS
3 Bullinger, Figures of Speech, pp. xi and xvi.
4 You may want to review Dr. Martin’s discussion of parables in “The Real Meaning of Biblical Words” at www.askelm.com/doctrine/d040201.htm, my Commentary “Man’s Lies, God’s Wisdom at http://askelm.com/news/n060102.htm, which introduces Dr. Martin’s presentation “The Pagan Immortal Soul and ‘Double Doctrine’” at http://askelm.com/doctrine/d060101.htm discussing the right and wrong ways to present “need to know” information. DWS
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