A figure of speech is a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or vivid effect. It occurs when a word, phrase, or sentence is used in a sense other than the usual or literal sense that generally applies. Every language, including biblical languages, has them.
It was developed so that thought may be conveyed more precisely; to enhance the understanding of the reader by creating a picture in their mind. However, unless one recognizes where a figure of speech is being used, s/he can easily misunderstand the meaning of the text because a literal interpretation fails in this case if read without context.
In order to find out what a figure of speech is actually trying to convey, you need to not take it completely literally. While working with figures of speech, keep in mind that the author’s intended meaning should not be pushed away.
There are numerous figures of speech used in the Bible. Some of them are :
A simile is a figure of speech used to compare one thing with another often using “like” or “as”. Hyperbole or exaggeration is also used frequently for emphasis. It is used to introduce concrete images with abstract concepts. They follow an easy formula of “X is like Y.”
Psalm 1:3 “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” Here, the comparison is done using “Like.”
Psalm 5:12; 17:8; 131:2 can be taken as examples of similes.
A metaphor is a figure of speech comparing two seemingly unlike things without the use of “like” and “as”.
Psalm 23:1 “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” Here, the comparison is direct.
Psalm 3:3; 84:11; 91:4 use metaphors.
A synecdoche is a literary device in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa. Here, an exchange is made between two associated ideas. One should not confuse it with metonymy.
In Psalm 44:6 when David says, ” I put no trust in my bow“, here the bow stands for all weapons.
In Psalm 1:1, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked”, the word man does not only denote a particular person but rather the whole of humankind.
A metonymy is a literary device where a word, name, or expression is used as a substitute for something else which it is closely associated with. Or simply put, one name or noun is used instead of another but they must be closely related. It is of four kinds: of the cause, of the effect, of the subject, of the adjunct.
Psalm 7:10 “My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.” Here, “Shield” stands for “God’s protection.”
Psalm 22:16 “Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.” Here, “Dogs” stand for “Opponents or enemies.”
Some other verses using metonymy are Psalm 5:9; 18:2; 57:9; 73:9.
A hyperbole is a figure of speech when one uses language to exaggerate. It is used to help understand the emotions, seriousness, sense of humor.
Psalm 6:6 “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” Here, “flood my bed with weeping” shows an exaggeration of sorrow.
An anaphora is a literary device in which a word or expression is repeated at the beginning of a number of sentences, clauses, or phrases. The Song of songs and the book of Psalms contain many instances of anaphora.
Psalm 115: 12-13, “The Lord remembers us and will bless us: He will bless his people Israel, he will bless the house of Aaron, he will bless those who fear the Lord— small and great alike.” We can see the anaphoric repetition of “He will bless”.
Song of songs 4:1 is another example.
Thus, in order to get to the correct interpretation of Scripture, the knowledge of Figures of Speech is necessary. The study of figures of speech might be complex but trust me, you won’t feel the same once started.