Have you noticed how often the English language uses figures of speech?
Imagine someone coming home from work saying, “Honey I’m home. I sure hope you don’t want to paint the town tonight because I am one whipped pup. I just want to stay around the crib this evening. I’m so hungry I could eat a horse and my feet are killing me. I want to down some groceries and hit the hay. No sheep counting for me tonight. I bet I’ll be asleep before my head hits the pillow. I’m going to sleep like a baby. Before I ‘catch some Z’s’ though, I’m going to see what’s on the tube, do a little web surfing and catch up on some email.”
Would you have any trouble understanding the meaning of the conversation? Not at all. Consider, however, someone from a different culture or time period hearing these words. I’m sure there would be no small confusion.
“Why would anyone want to paint a whole town? How can feet murder someone? Does an adult really sleep in a crib? What’s this sport web surfing? Either you have big spider webs or very small people.”
We would definitely have to translate the figures of speech for our confused visitor.
“Figures of speech” or idioms suspend the normal meaning of words to convey an emphasized message that is easily understood by people in a particular culture.
The Biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek use figures of speech just like English does. The problem is, we’re thousands of years and miles removed from the Biblical culture. We don’t always quickly identify a figure of speech. Are we really supposed to hate our parents (Luke 14:26)? Was Jesus being rude to His mother (John 2:4)? Does a camel really go through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24)?
We need help recognizing ancient Middle Eastern figures of speech. Bullinger’s classic Figures of Speech Used in the Bible is just that help. He describes hundreds of different types of figures of speech and then presents numerous Biblical examples of each.
"To 'Take the Sword' is used for rashly usurping magisterial power instead of giving obedience and subjection to God Matthew 26:52."
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In his book, Bullinger describes in great detail 217 distinct figures of speech. Each idiom includes the pronunciation and etymology, as well as passages of Scripture in which it appears along with a full explanation. Throughout the work Bullinger covers nearly 8,000 passages with idioms in them in this extensive resource which covers 1,104 pages in print.
How literally do you interpret scripture? When you go to study a passage do you exegete the figures of speech or do you assume they are taken literally? If you recognize a possible figure of speech in a passage do you follow the principles of interpreting that type of figure? E. W. Bullinger’s classic work, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, exhaustively describes and illustrates each figure of speech as it is found is scripture carefully explaining how each one has certain guidelines for proper interpretation. This helps ensure that you are not interpreting by a rigid literalism nor speculatively reading all kinds of meaning into a passage outside of the normal boundaries for interpreting that particular figure of speech.
Jeremiah 29:11 as is translated in these three versions illustrate one example of how a figure of speech properly interpreted rightly clarifies the passage. Jeremiah is not saying the Lord will give them two things: a future and a hope, but one, a future filled with hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 (NASB95) 11 'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord , 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.'
Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) 11 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'
Jeremiah 29:11 (NET) 29:11 'For I know what I have planned for you,' says the Lord. 'I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.'
NET Translators’ Notes: Or “the future you hope for”; Heb “a future and a hope.” This is a good example of the figure called hendiadys where two formally coordinated nouns (adjectives, verbs) convey a single idea where one of the terms functions as a qualifier of the other. For this figure see Bullinger, Figures of Speech, pp. 658–72. This example is discussed on p. 661.