In my first two posts regarding how to familiarize yourself with both the Old and New Testaments I briefly touched on what kind of literature is found in the various books. The Bible not only contains various types of literature, it contains a host of literary devices or what we might call “figures of speech.” These same literary devices are the same as those that you would encounter reading secular literature such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You may have learned many of these from your English teachers.
It is imperative as you study the Bible that you not only recognize what type of biblical text you are studying, but the literary devices that may be present within the text itself. Consider the following list of figures of speech that are found in the Bible along with an example; albeit, this list is not exhaustive. Once you learn to spot these in your text, it becomes much easier to study and discern the meaning of the text.
- Anthropomorphism-ascribing human characteristics (physical form, human-like emotion, etc.) to God, in order to make Him more understandable to us. Exodus 33:23: “Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
- Apostrophe-addressing an inanimate object, either real or abstract, as if it was a person. 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”
- Euphemism-a mild or indirect word, replacement of a word, or expression substituted for a word considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing. 1 Samuel 24:3: So he came to the sheepfolds by the road, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to attend to his needs.” (David and his men were staying in the recesses of the cave.)
- Hyperbole-exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally. Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”
- Idiom-a phrase or a fixed expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. An idiom’s figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. Idioms are also known as colloquialisms, and are peculiar to a particular people. Psalm 72:9: “Those who dwell in the wilderness will bow before Him, and His enemies will lick the dust” (i.e. die).
- Metaphor-a comparison made between two or more things using figurative or descriptive language. Metaphors serve to make difficult to understand ideas or concepts more tangible. Metaphors also infuse written text with vivid descriptions. Proverbs 13:14: “The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death.”
- Merism-a listing of opposite parts that stand for a whole. Psalm 91:5: “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day.” (Means “all the time.”)
- Oxymoron– a combination of words that have opposite or very different meanings. John 3:3: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
- Paradox-a situation or statement that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible. Luke 13:30: “And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.”
- Personification-giving human form to inanimate objects or animals. Isaiah 24:23: “Then the moon will be disgraced and the sun ashamed; for the LORD of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem and before His elders, gloriously.”
- Rhetorical question-A question that expects the audience to think and not answer. The audience is forced to come to a conclusion because of the question. Job 38:4: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.”
- Simile-a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid. Judges 6:5: “For they would come up with their livestock and their tents, coming in as numerous as locusts; both they and their camels were without number; and they would enter the land to destroy it.”
This list of literary devices is not complete but it contains the majority of the devices you will find as you study. Learn to spot these as you study. Consider writing in the margin of your Bible when you see one. You can also note these devices in the observation step of studying your text. Being familiar with these will aid you tremendously as you study.