Introduction to Figures of Speech
All language is ruled by laws, but to convey special emphasis of a word or group of words, these general laws of language are purposefully departed from, and other laws of language are invoked, giving the single word or group of words a new form. The Greeks called these departures from normal language use, schemata, meaning “change of forms,” from which the term “figure of speech” originated. When a word or words fail to be true to fact, they are figures of speech and bring an added emphasis to the basic truth of a sentence.
E. W. Bullinger stated in the beginning note of his book Figures of Speech Used in the Bible:
…whenever and wherever it is possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed truth; or seems to be a variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed. And as it is employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized.
One phrase above that should be noted is specially designed emphasis. The study of figures of speech needs to be integrally linked with a search for this emphasis. In How to Enjoy the Bible, Bullinger clarified how important this emphasis was: “the Figures, when used in connection with the ‘words which the Holy Ghost teacheth,’ give us the Holy Spirit’s own marking, so to speak, of our Bible…calling our attention to what He desires us to notice for our learning, as being emphatic, and conveying His own special teaching.” Every author has used figures for emphasis on what is important, but it is crucial to our understanding of the Bible to know what God intended to be emphasized in any particular passage. Thus, the search in this field should be to find out what each type of figure emphasizes and how it is used in a verse or passage.
The Aramaic Peshitta New Testament Translation is filled with footnotes and markings in the text itself of the common figures of speech. It is not marking every single figure of speech possible, but marks the ones which contribute to an added understanding of the text. Light of the Word Ministry is developing a simple classification system that will clear up many of the misunderstandings in this field and enable the Bible student to understand what the emphasis from the Holy Spirit is in a particular passage. A figure is always used to add force to the truth presented, emphasis to the word or words and depth of meaning to the entire context. The type of figure determines the emphasis in the following five general ways:
- Illustration: this category includes all types of comparisons. The emphasis is on the points of comparison.
- Repetition: The repeated word is what is emphasized. The closer the repetition, or the more frequently it is used, the greater is the degree of emphasis.
- Meaning: Although this category is broad, the underlying meaning is always emphasized.
- Grammar: This category covers all uses that have a grammatical basis. Each figure has an individual emphasis, but is always employed with consistency.
- Rhetoric: The general rule of this category is that the word or phrase used with the figure is what is emphasized. There are two subcategories, interjection and parenthesis.
Now that we have looked at the general categories, please study the Table of Figures of Speech chart and pay particular attention to the column about emphasis. We have listed both the Greek/Latin name and also the English name in order to help with this study.