Figurative Language

“The highest function of the teacher consists not so much in imparting knowledge as in stimulating the pupil in its love and pursuit.” –Henri Frederic Amiel
rkelcy.jpgRaymond C. Kelcy served as the chairman of the Bible Department at Oklahoma Christian College from 1962 until his death in 1986. He had a profound influence on my life. A few weeks ago an individual dogmatically stated, “There’s no figurative language in the Bible, for every word is literal.” In response to this statement, I thought back to Dr. Kelcy’s lecture “The Figurative Language of the Bible”. My class notes are now yellow, but here is what he taught:
1. The parable. Oldest and most common. From two Greek words: para meaning “beside” or “alongside” and ballo meaning “to throw or cast.” Hence a placing beside or together for comparison. It is a narrative in which something real in life is used as a means for presenting a spiritual truth. The Old Testament has a few parables and Jesus used them constantly. For his statement of why he spoke in parables see Matthew 13:10 ff.
2. The fable. An illustration made by attributing human qualities to inanimate beings or things. Like the parable, it is put in the form of a story but, unlike the parable, its actors are unreal. It is a fictitious narrative intended to enforce some truth. It is not used in the Bible to a great extent. Examples are Judges 9:6-21 and 2 Kings 14:8-10.
3. The simile. In this figure a comparison is made between two different objects in order to bring out some resemblance. The comparison is by statement rather than by story. See Jeremiah 23:29 and Matthew 23:27.
4. Metaphor. From two Greek words: meta which means “beyond” or “over” and phero which means “to bring.” It is the expression of a similitude without words of comparison. The comparison is implied. Compare the simile of Hosea 13:8 with the metaphor of Genesis 49:27.
5. Allegory. “A figurative sentence or discourse, in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances. The principal subject is thus kept out of view, and we are left to collect the intentions of the writer or speaker by the resemblance of the secondary to the primary subject (Webster).” See Galatians 4:21 ff.
6. Metonymy. From the Greek meta indicating a change and onoma meaning “name”; hence, a change of name, the employing of one word or name for another. Examples: parents are put for children (Genesis 9:25); authors are put for their works (Luke 16:29).
7. Synecdoche. From the Greek words meaning “to receive jointly.” It is the figure in which we speak of the whole by a part or a part by the whole. Examples: Matthew 12:40; Acts 19:27.
8. Proverb. A short and pithy sentence containing a valuable thought. It is used to express the truth with greater forcefulness. It may be constructed several figures of speech, and when they are employed within a proverb the rules that relate to their interpretation should be used.
9. Irony. One thing is said and another thing is meant. See 1 Kings 18:27 and Job 12:2.
10. Hyperbole. A figure in which the expression is an exaggeration of the meaning intended to be conveyed. See Deuteronomy 1:28 and Judges 7:12.
11. Apostrophe. The speaker turns away from the listener and addresses an imaginary listener. See 2 Samuel 18:33 and 1 Corinthians 15:55.
12. Personification. A figure in which the inanimate is spoken of as animate, or endowed with volition; or animals are endowed with the feeling and activities akin to those of man. See Numbers 16:31,32 and Matthew 6:34.
13. Interrogation. A question may be regarded as a figure of speech when it is used for the purpose of affirming or denying with great force. See 1 Corinthians 9:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:29, 30.
14. Apocalyptic. This is a type of literature in which there is a certain amount of obscurity. However, the meaning of the word “apocalypse” is a “revealing” or “unveiling”. The writer’s main purpose is to reveal great truths and to make them especially vivid through signs and symbols. It was intended that those who were initiated would, through careful application, get the truths, and at the same time the ones for whom the message was not intended would not. Many examples of this type are to be found in certain Old Testament books such as Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, and Joel. Jesus used this type of language in Matthew 24. Paul used it in such passages as 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10. The book of Revelation is the best example of this type of literature. The dramatic element is especially noticeable and much is made of visions and symbols.
15. Anthropomorphism. From Greek anthropos meaning “man” and morphe meaning “form”. Passages in which God is described as possessing human parts or characteristics are anthropomorphic. See Genesis 3:8; Genesis 11:4; Psalm 8:3.
Thank God for men with sound analytical minds who are faithful to text of the Bible (James 3:1). When is the last time you’ve thanked a Bible teacher? Christian, are you up for the task?
“O teach me Lord, that I may teach
The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words that they may reach
The hidden depths of my many a heart.”
–Frances Havergal


Raymond C. Kelcy’s lecture notes show the figurative language of the Bible.

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