In his book, Figures of Speech in the Bible, E. W. Bullinger describes a staggering 217 different figures of speech in God's Word, each used multiple times. A figure of speech is the stylistic use of language in an unordinary or technically specialized manner. Their use does not merely mark the presence of "fancy language" but rather deliberation on the author's part: He uses a figure of speech because it best conveys his intended meaning. Thus, Bullinger's count should not be surprising, for it demonstrates how God inspired the writers of His Word to compose each verse thoughtfully, writing with consideration and care to ensure the language matches the meaning.
The Bible can be described as a literary marvel, a glorious work of art that matches—indeed surpasses—the brilliance of any secular work. However, artistry does not exist for its own sake, especially the Bible's artistry. The true measure of an artist's skill is the effect on the reader. In Figures of Speech in the Bible, Bullinger merely records instances of figurative language, but he avoids an important question: For what purpose does God employ such language? We must consider this question—one that could potentially lead to a purely literary and non-spiritual reading of the Bible, yet one that, when contemplated spiritually, can deepen our understanding of, respect for, and love of God's beautiful Word.
Before looking at specific examples of figurative language, we must establish a principle: We cannot separate how something is said from what it means. This principle can be demonstrated in no better genre of writing than poetry, which comprises a significant portion of the Bible. Poetry, itself marked by frequent use of figures of speech, is the stylized use of language to express emotions and ideas, a form that requires the writer to choose carefully words that both fit the rules of poetic form and express the poet's intended meaning.
We will consider two figures of speech that occur frequently in the Bible. The first is parallelism, a figure common throughout Scripture. It occurs over two or more lines of text, the first line establishing an idea and subsequent lines expanding, intensifying, or specifying the meaning of the original idea. Consider, for example, Psalm 88:11-12:
Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
Shall Your wonders be known in the dark?
And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
Here, the first half of each sentence parallels the others in describing God's various attributes: lovingkindness, faithfulness, wonders, and righteousness. The author uses these parallels to paint a portrait of God's character. The second half of each sentence mentions places in which a person feels alone or abandoned, intensifying with each line: the grave to the place of destruction to the dark to the land of forgetfulness. These two sets of parallels express the concepts that God remains the same and that His care for us is undeniable despite the growing isolation or alienation we may feel. The parallelism expresses these inspiring ideas through the figurative language in which the verses are written.
The second poetic form is chiasmus, a common figure that is like parallelism but more complex. As we saw, parallelism pairs similar ideas next to each other (for instance, if each letter represents an idea, we can describe the form as AABBCC). Chiasmus, however, inverts the order, presenting each idea by itself and then providing the parallel in reverse order (ABCCBA). We will consider Psalm 58, graphically arranging the verses to emphasize the chiastic structure:
Verse 1 A. Wicked judges.
Verse 2 B. Violence of the wicked.
Verses 3-5 C. Description of the wicked.
Verse 6 D. God's judgment of the wicked.
Verses 7-9 C. Description of the wicked.
Verse 10 B. The righteous will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Verse 11 A. God is judge.
This psalm describes the punishment of wicked judges. The first half sets them up as violent, lying, venomous, and rebellious. After God sends judgment upon them in verse 6, however, the psalmist states that they are really as weak as slugs and as inconsequential as chaff. By the end, the societal condition reverses: Now the righteous rejoice because of God's righteous judgment, and they acknowledge Him as the true Judge of all.
In both Psalms 88 and 58, the psalmists use figures of speech to describe God's character and His justice, respectively. In addition to how parallelism and chiasmus add to the description of God, these two figures of speech also affect us as readers, as both express God's unfailing promises and His unchanging character—in short, His faithfulness. To understand how Scripture does this, we can contrast it with contemporary poetry.
A common technique used by modern poets is the juxtaposition of unrelated images. When read, the result is a feeling of unease, slight confusion, and stress. Parallelism and chiasmus stand in direct opposition to this. Instead of joining unlike images, parallelism pairs two similar ideas together to provide an explanation. In chiasmus, images or ideas may not be next to one another, but an idea is always completed by the end of the figure. As a result, we feel assured.
Parallelism conveys a sense of consistency to the reader. It assures him that, in God's Word, all things fit together. Moreover, God uses parallelism and chiasmus in more than just the poetry of the Bible. The connection between Genesis 1 and 2 is parallelism. Chapter 1 establishes God's macrocosmic nature, while chapter 2 zooms in and develops God's microcosmic nature.
Likewise, chiasmus reassures us that God's promises will always come to fruition, even if a long time elapses between His making of the promise and its fulfillment. Chiasmus can also be found in larger manifestations: God chose the Israelites, who forsook Him, but eventually returned to Him, and He redeemed them. On an even larger scale, the Bible begins with paradise and His ideal relationship with man and likewise ends with harmony restored in the paradise of New Jerusalem. Thus chiasmus, found throughout Scripture, expresses the idea that God will always follow through.
When we study the Bible, we must keep in mind that we are reading the inspired Word of God. Nothing in His Book is done haphazardly or carelessly. In fact, no work of literature ever written or that will be written will match the beauty, complexity, and depth of Scripture. Understanding how God inspired men to use these figures of speech in composing His Word, we can dig deeper into what the Scripture means.
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