An Introduction to Bible Figures of Speech

Human beings frequently express their thoughts by means of figures of speech. This procedure is likewise a part of biblical revelation. The person who does not understand the use of figurative language will not fathom many elements of Bible truth. This article explores the necessity of understanding some of the figures of speech employed in sacred scripture.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

How dreary human communication would be were it not for the figures of speech that adorn language. In fact, it scarcely would be possible to convey ideas meaningfully if figurative speech were not a part of our vocabulary.

Adam’s first recorded words contain some thought figures. Of Eve he said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh ...” (Genesis 2:23). This delightful creation was much more than mere “flesh” and “bones,” but on this occasion she was represented by two principal elements of her physical composition.

Some of the initial words of the Creator to Adam were of a figurative thrust. To the first man the Lord warned (with reference to the forbidden fruit): “... in the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). That Adam did not literally die the day of his sin (though the aging process commenced from the time of his expulsion from Eden) is apparent, for he ultimately lived to the age of 930 years (Genesis 5:5). The expression “die” doubtless had a spiritual significance beyond that of physical degeneration. “Death” also signifies a religious or moral separation from fellowship with God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2; Ephesians 2:1).

One should not be surprised, therefore, that the Holy Scriptures abound with figures of speech. This reality does not detract from the value of divine communication through the Scriptures; rather, it enhances the power and beauty of God’s Word.

The Bible abounds with a great variety of figures of speech. In 1899 E.W. Bullinger produced a massive work of more than 1,100 pages dealing with biblical figures of speech. Therein he classified some 200 different figures, many of which were subdivided into different variations, so that the total number finally catalogued was more than 500 terms (Bullinger, p. ix).

A Figure Defined

A figure of speech occurs when a word, phrase, or sentence is employed in a sense other than the usual or literal sense it has normally. Sometimes this type of expression is called a “trope.” The word “trope” derives from Latin and Greek terms that suggest the idea of a “turning.”

Note, for example, the use of trope in the Greek text of James 1:17, where there is a reference to the movement of a shadow, as effected by the “turning” of the earth, in contrast to the stability of God. The term “trope” came to be employed of turning a word from its normal meaning to that of an unusual sense. Since “trope” is somewhat obsolete these days, we simply say: “The word was used figuratively.” One writer has expressed it like this:

“When a word has been appropriated by usage to one thing and is transferred to another, it is said to be used figuratively. When a word is used in its primitive or most usual sense, it is said to be literal. A figure, therefore, is a departure or deflection from the primitive or usual meaning of a word, or the usual manner of expressing ideas” (Lockhart, p. 156).

The purpose behind the use of a figurative expression is to intensify the idea being conveyed. The figure adds force, feeling, and color to the thought presented. It is a mistake to assume that when a figure of speech is utilized, the impact of the statement or argument is somehow weakened; actually, just the reverse is true. For instance, when God is referred to as the “Rock of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:3), a wonderful concept of the security provided by the Lord is emphasized.

The History of Figurative Language

Every language known to man is punctuated with the adornment of numerous figures of speech. The Greeks were so sophisticated in the art of symbolic language that they gave names to more than 200 forms. Scholars have given several reasons why figurative language developed and accelerated across the centuries.

First, all languages are growing entities. There is not always a word to express a specific idea; accordingly, figures develop so that thoughts may be conveyed more precisely and dramatically. Thomas Horne explained it in this fashion:

“Figurative language has its rise in the first ages of mankind: the scarcity of words occasioned them to be used for various purposes: and thus figurative terms, which constitute the beauty of language, arose from its poverty; and it is still the same in all uncivilized nations” (p. 353).

It is impossible to have a precise word for every idea; accordingly, rather than attempting to invent a new term for each expression of human thought, words began to be employed in multiple senses.

Second, the human mind has been so designed as to appreciate comparisons. Thus, the use of analogies accommodates the very way we think. It was but a natural inclination, therefore, that man progressively concocted language patterns to help describe ideas, and to strengthen human communication.

When the inspired writer suggested that the person who meditates continually upon God’s word is “like a tree planted by streams of water that brings forth its fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3), he painted a word picture (by means of the simile) that is as refreshing as it is instructive.

The fact is, it is difficult to convey certain ideas in the sterile atmosphere of pure literalism. For instance, let one attempt to define meaningfully the adjective “cold.” One might say — “characterized by a low temperature.” But does that convey the same impression as “cold as ice”? We need not mention that old saying, “cold as a banker’s heart”!

And how does one express the concept of “hardness” in a practical way unless, perhaps, he says “hard as rock,” or some other such similar expression? The Webster’s Concise Family Dictionary cites seventeen different senses in which the term “hard” may be used, and most of these are figurative, e.g., “hard cider,” “hard water,” “hard of hearing,” etc.

Third, in terms of biblical studies, it must be recognized that many of the great spiritual truths of scripture (e.g., thoughts relating to God, salvation, etc.) involve abstract concepts that require more concrete expressions in order to relate the meanings. Thus, a figure of speech such as anthropomorphism (“man form”), by which God is described in physical terms (e.g., arm, hand, eyes, ears, etc.; see Isaiah 53:1; 59:1; Hebrews 4:13) is helpful in understanding something of the Lord’s nature, e.g., his omniscience, his power, etc.

Similarly, when forgiveness is described as a “washing” (Acts 22:16), or a “cleansing” (Ephesians 5:26), the imagery is refreshingly vivid, while the basic meaning is conveyed.

Fourth, it should be remembered that most of our knowledge is acquired by means of sense perception, i.e., by what we see, hear, feel, touch, or taste. Frequently, we think in pictures. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that graphic images of human languages should be borrowed from the world about us so as to facilitate our communication with one another. Hence we say, “soft as a baby’s skin,” “his voice thundered across the auditorium,” etc. Can we not appreciate why the adoring husband calls his wife “honey”?

Bible Figures

How does this concept apply to interpreting the figurative language of the Bible? In his classic work on biblical hermeneutics, Milton Terry comments regarding this point.

“The principal sources of the figurative language of the Bible are the physical features of the Holy Land, the habits and customs of its ancient tribes, and the forms of Israelite worship. All these sources should, accordingly, be closely studied in order to the interpretation of the figurative portions of the Scriptures” (p. 158).

The truth is, a very strong case can be made for the fact that the land of Canaan was selected providentially by God because of its vast range of flora and fauna. This was due also to its topographical variations, its differentiated climatic conditions, and its rich historical background.

It has been said that there is no spot on earth, from which images could have been collected, that could accommodate so handily the understanding of human beings throughout the globe. W.M. Thompson, who walked the hills and valleys of Palestine for twenty-five years more than a century ago, wrote these stirring words:

“The land where the Word-made-flesh dwelt with men is, and must ever be, an integral part of the Divine Revelation. Her testimony is essential to the chain of evidences, her aid invaluable in exposition. Mournful deserts and moldering ruins rebuke the pride of man and vindicate the truth of God; and yawning gulfs, from Tophet to the Sea of Death, in its sepulcher of bitumen and brimstone, warn the wicked, and prophesy of coming wrath. Even the trees of her forest speak parables, and rough brambles bear allegories; while little sparrows sing hymns to the happy, and lilies give lessons to comfort the poor. The very hills and mountains, rocks, rivers, and fountains, are symbols and pledges of things far better than themselves. In a word, Palestine is one vast tablet whereupon God’s messages to men have been drawn, and graven deep in living characters by the Great Publisher of glad tidings, to be seen and read of all to the end of time” (p. 1).

This delightful paragraph certainly helps one put into focus the reason why the sacred Scriptures are packed with almost countless figures of speech, and why, in the great scheme of revelation, the “Holy land” was selected to be the depository of these vivid images. As one of Israel’s foremost archaeologists once wrote:

“Geography, history, and religion are so inextricably bound together in it [the Bible] that the religious message cannot be truly understood without attention to the setting and conditions of the revelation” (Wright, p. 5).

An example of the versatility of the Bible lands, as a depository of figures of speech, is seen in the great variety of animal life mentioned in the Scriptures, many of which are used for illustrative purposes (cf. Matthew 10:16).

For example, there are 16 kinds of domestic animals, 41 types of wild animals, 55 different flying creatures, 37 creeping or swarming organisms, and 13 different sorts of aquatic creatures — totaling 162 forms of animal life (Klotz, pp. 69-99).

In addition, Prof. Philip Johnson, in calling attention to the 2,300 species of plants that adorned the Bible lands, observed that “the interest and love of nature of the ancient people appears on every page. They lived a life close to nature and their thoughts are expressed in terms of the living world about them” (p. 1353).

Rather than seeing the investigation of biblical figures as meaningless exercises in technicalities of ancient prose and poetry, we must view these colorful symbols as instructive visual aids. They have been purposefully tucked away in the pages of scripture for the sake of leading the Bible student into a deeper understanding of the Mind of God, and lifting his soul to new heights.

Note: The foregoing article is the introductory segment of Wayne Jackson’s latest book, Biblical Figures of Speech — A Practical Guide to Understanding the Figurative Language of the Bible. This is a handy book for class study. There are thirteen chapters with work exercises at the end of each chapter. For ordering information see:

  • Bullinger, E. W. 1968. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Horne, Thomas H. 1841. An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia, PA: Whetham & Son.
  • Johnson, Phillip. 1999. “Plants,” Wycliffe Bible Dictionary., Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Klotz, John W. 1999. “Animals of the Bible,” Wycliffe Bible Dictionary,. Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rea, eds. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Lockhart, Clinton. n.d. Principles of Interpretation. Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing.
  • Terry, Milton S. 1890. Biblical Hermeneutics. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
  • Thompson, W. M. 1863. The Land and the Book. London: T. Nelson & Sons.
  • Wright, George & Filson, Floyd, eds. 1956. The Westminster Historical Atlas of the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster.