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Figures of Speech: Keys to Effective Communication

By John W. Schoenheit

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The ability to communicate with words is one thing that sets mankind apart from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use of figures of speech, of which there are more than 200 varieties in Scripture.[1] When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. In the Bible, God uses figures of speech to emphasize things that He wants us to see as important. Many people who read the Bible never think to ask themselves, “How do we know what God wants emphasized in His Word?” God uses figures of speech to put emphasis where He wants emphasis, so it is important that we recognize and properly interpret the figures of speech in the Bible. Knowing the figures of speech God uses in the Bible helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy its richness.

The figure of speech we are going to study in this issue of The Sower is “idiom.” An idiom is the use of a word or words in a way that is peculiar to a language or group of people in that it has a meaning that cannot be derived from the literal meaning of the word or words. An idiom is a legitimate figure of speech that is used for emphasis, although sometimes the idiom becomes such an imbedded part of the language that it is no longer considered an idiom but becomes an accepted meaning of the word, and the emphasis is lost. Idioms are so common that sometimes it can be hard to communicate without using them. Idioms have to be individually learned because the meaning of the words is not literal, but assigned by the culture.

Every language has thousands of idioms, and some idioms are common enough to human experience that they exist in many cultures. Both the Bible and English, for example, speak of the “face” of the earth despite the fact that the earth has no “face.” There are many idioms in the Bible, and if we are going to understand it, we must understand them. Some idioms in the Bible are individual words or phrases, while some involve the way nouns or verbs are used.

The sun of righteousness
An idiomatic phrase in the Bible is the “sun of righteousness.” God is referred to as “light” in the Bible. It makes perfect sense, then, that the Son of God, who revealed the Father and brought light to the world, would be idiomatically called “the sun of righteousness” and the “sunrise from on High.”

Malachi 4:2
But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.[2]
I can remember reading this verse as a new Christian and knowing that it referred to Jesus Christ, but not knowing why he was called the “sun” and not the “son.” The answer is that in the biblical idiom, Jesus was the sun because he brought the light of his Father to the world. Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, referred to Jesus as the rising sun.

Luke 1:78
because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

This verse makes no sense if you do not know the idiom. How can the “rising sun” come from heaven? The sun comes from below the horizon and rises up into heaven. However, when we know the idiom, that the “rising sun” is the Messiah, the verse makes perfect sense.

The Prophetic Perfect
An idiom that we of Spirit & Truth Fellowship have spent considerable time writing about is the “prophetic perfect.” In that idiom, a future action that is certain to occur is spoken of in the past tense as if it had already occurred. Doing this emphasizes the certainty of the event happening.[3] For example, speaking of the return of Jesus Christ, the NASB quite literally translates Jude 1:14 as, “the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones.” Of course saying a future event has already occurred can be confusing to the beginning Bible student. Thus, some translators try to make it easy for the Bible student by translating the verse into English as a present or future tense (cp. the NIV, “the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones).

Hebrew active verbs can express an attempt
The way the Hebrew language views verbs, an active verb does not have to mean the action is accomplished, but only attempted. This seems very strange to the Western mind, and makes some verses confusing.

Exodus 8:16-18 (KJV)
(16) And the LORD said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.
(17) And they did so; for Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice…all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt.
(18) And the magicians did so with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not…

The difficulty in the verses above is that the magicians “did so,” but they “could not.” What we need to understand is that the verb “did so” can idiomatically mean, “tried to do so.” The NIV in Exodus 8:18 translates the idiomatic use of the verb right into the verse, making it easier for us: “But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not.” Another example of this idiomatic use of active verbs is in Ezekiel.

Ezekiel 24:13 (KJV):
…because I have purged thee, and thou wast not purged…

The King James Version translates the verbs in a straightforward manner, but it is confusing. How can God purge the people, but they are not purged? The NIV translates the idiomatic use of the verb into the English so we can understand the verse better: “…because I tried to cleanse you but you would not be cleansed…”

Idioms of the language are one reason that simply having a lexicon and concordance will never be enough to fully understand the Bible. At some point we must read and understand the original languages as they were spoken. Thankfully, we have many very good resources such as critical commentaries to help us more completely understand the Bible.

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