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Figures of Speech used in the Bible

Julian Spriggs M.A.

V. Historical background VII. Personal application

Figures of Speech used in the Bible

A figure of speech is a literary mode of expression in which words are used to suggest a picture or to create an image in the reader's mind. There are literally thousands of these in the Bible, each of which needs to be identified and interpreted. These are some of the most important types of figures of speech used in the Bible.


A simile is a direct comparison of two things that are essentially different. It is characterised by use of words such as 'like', 'as' or 'so'. "the rich will disappear like a flower in the field" (James 1:10), "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs" (Matt 23:27), "As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens" (Song 2:2).


A metaphor is an indirect comparison of two things. It asserts that one thing is another, substituting the name of one thing for another. It is like a simile, but the 'like' or 'as' are omitted. "James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars" (Gal 2:9), "You brood of vipers" (Matt 3:7), "They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit ..." (Jude 12-13).


An analogy is an extended metaphor giving a full comparison showing several points of similarity between unlike things. An example is Jesus' teaching on the vine and the branches (John 15:1-9), or Paul's teaching on the olive tree (Rom 11:17-24).


An allegory is an greatly extended metaphor that has the form of a story. Several different elements of the story, often the main characters, stand for something else. Examples in literature are John Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim’s Progress' and 'The Screwtape Letters' by CS Lewis. The only example in the Bible is found in Galatians, "This is an allegory: these women (Hagar and Sarah) are two covenants" (Gal 4:21-31). It is sometimes argued that parables are allegories. However although some parables do contain allegorical elements, most parables are not intended to be interpreted allegorically.


Irony implies something different, even the opposite of what is stated. It is used for the effect of humor or sarcasm. "Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!" (1 Cor 4:8), "Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another ...?" (1 Cor 6:5).


Personification is the attribution of life or human qualities to inanimate objects. "And the scripture, foreseeing that God will justify the Gentiles by faith ..." (Gal 3:8), "Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars ..." (Prov 9:1-3).


Apostrophe is when the author addresses or speaks to things, abstract ideas or imaginary objects. "O death, where is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:55).


Anthropomorphism is the description of God as a human being with physical attributes like hands, feet or face, or having human feelings. There are many of these in the Psalms and other poetical writings. "God remembered Abraham" (Gen 19:29), "Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;" (Ps 10:12), "I (God) will change my mind about ... " (Jer 18:10).


Hyperbole is exaggeration, not with the intent to deceive, but for emphasis and to intensify an impression. "you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me (Gal 4:15), "If you hand causes you to stumble, cut it off" (Mark 9:43), "I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth (Zeph 1:2).

Rhetorical questions

These are questions to which the author does not expect a direct answer. They are used to create a question in the reader's mind as part of the author's argument. "Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound?" (Rom 6:15), "Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?" (Matt 7:16). Paul often uses this technique to fire a series of questions one after another. "Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or where you baptised in the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1:13).


Litotes is the use of understatement. It is the opposite of hyperbole and is often used as irony. It is characteristically used by Luke in the Book of Acts, "no small discussion" (Acts 15:2), "no small tempest raged" (Acts 27:20).


Metonymy is the substitution of one term for another, using one term to describe something similar or related to it. "he (God) will justify the circumsised on the ground of faith" (Rom 3:30), "but it says, 'And to your offspring', that is, to one person, who is Christ" (Gal 3:16).


Synecdoche is similar but slightly different from metonymy. It is when a part of something is mentioned which refers to the whole of it. "I did not confer with flesh and blood" (Gal 1:16), "Cleanse your hands you sinners, and purify your hearts you double-minded" (James 4:8b).


An idiom is a familiar expression in the original language, but with a meaning that cannot always be guessed from the actual words. "the mustard seed ... is the smallest of all seeds (Matt 13:31). "Elijah mocked them (the prophets of Baal) ... either he (Baal) is meditating, or he has wandered away" (meaning he is sitting on the toilet) (1 Kg 18:27).


Euphemism is when a mild, indirect or vague expression is used for something that could be offensive, normally concerning sex or death. "Now the man knew his wife Eve" (Gen 4:1).

Figurative language

Figurative language is often used in the Scriptures to communicate spiritual truths.


A type is an Old Testament person, place, object or event which prefigures some particular aspect of the work of Christ. Types should be explicitly defined in the New Testament. One example is Christ being the Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7). Paul uses a series of types from the exodus and wilderness, including drinking from the spiritual rock which is Christ (1 Cor 10:1-5).


A symbol is an object or visual image that represents an invisible spiritual concept. We must be guided by the author's overall intention. He may give his own definition. John does this when he describes Christ being among the seven golden lampstands, which represent the seven churches (Rev 1:12,20). Some symbols are used consistently throughout scripture, like the church being the bride of Christ, and the word of God being like a sword.

V. Historical background VII. Personal application

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John


Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
OT People Search
God the Creator
The Importance of Paradox
The Jewish Calendar
Holy War in the Ancient World
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
Ephah Converter (volumes)
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
What is a created kind?
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah

Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
God the Creator
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?
Paul and the Greek Games

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical archaeology in museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also pages of photographs of important artifacts from the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
British Museum Photos
Israel Museum Photos
Paris Louvre Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS