Quintilian defined a figure of speech as “any deviation either in thought or expression, from the ordinary and simple method of speaking . . .”  or “. . . a form of speech artfully varied from common usage” (Instit. Orat. IX, i, 11).   These forms were called by the Greeks Schema, and by the Romans Figura.  Both words mean “shape” or “figure.”   P. J. Corbett, however, divides figures of speech into two main groups‑‑the schemes and the tropes (Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student [New York: Oxford Press, 1971]).  He writes: “A scheme ... involves a deviation from the ordinary pattern or arrangement of words.  A trope involves a deviation from the ordinary and principal signification of a word” (p. 461).


In this discussion we shall survey the most important types of tropes and schemes.  More attention will be given to the tropes than the schemes because they are more difficult to learn.  The types listed below are those encountered most frequently in the study of the Psalter.  The student may find it helpful to use E. W. Bullinger (Figures of Speech Used in the Bible) for the less common types and problematic passages. But this book should not be used simply for finding obscure figures or technical jargon.  The table of contents and the Scripture index will provide the student with a beginning for the use of this reference tool.


Before surveying the common types of figures one must briefly, at least, consider a basic issue‑‑the tension between the literal and the figurative.  Many students of the Bible think that if something is figurative it means that no one can be sure what is being said (for this, see Bullinger’s preface).  Others, however, insist on a “literal interpretation” of the Bible to the exclusion of figures of speech.  If “literal interpretation” is taken literally, then there are all kinds of problems‑‑God would be a block of granite, Jesus a piece of wood on hinges, and believers grazing sheep or growing wheat.  The problem is confronted enough to warrant a survey of how the issue has been handled in the interpretation of the Bible.


Students of the Bible are perhaps aware of Augustine’s concept of multiple senses of Scripture, whereby both words and the things they signify point to spiritual or allegorical meanings.  Yet Augustine gave careful attention to the words of Scripture, the literal sense, as the ground for the spiritual significances.  Attention to the words involves knowledge of the original languages, of logic (rules of valid inference), or history, and especially the rhetorical figures.  He says,


Lettered men should know, moreover, that all those modes of expression which the grammarians designate with the Greek word tropes were used by our [Scriptural] authors, and more abundantly and copiously than those who do not know them . . . are able to suppose or believe.  Those who know these tropes, however, will recognize them in the sacred letters, and this knowledge will be of considerable assistance in understanding them . . . .  And not only examples of all these tropes are found in reading the sacred books, but also the names of some of  them, like allegoria, aenigma, parabola (De Doctrina, III, xxix).


Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the senses of Scripture in Summa Theologica rationalized Augustine’s account of figurative meaning into the Catholic formula: a literal sense, and a spiritual sense having three levels‑‑allegorical or typological, tropological or moral, and anagogical  (I. Q. 1, Art. 10, Basic Writings, I, 16‑17).  With regard to the literal sense, Aquinas says,


By words things are signified properly and figuratively.  Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense.  When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely, operative power (ibid).


While Aquinas classifies the meaning of the trope as the literal sense, he suggests that the poetic language often obscures the truth, making the reader look beyond the figures for the true meaning.  There is no real emphasis on the meaning conveyed by the metaphor itself.  Neither Augustine or Aquinas place great value upon the poetic language of Scripture as such.


The Reformation surfaced a new emphasis on literalism in the Scripture, along with the emphasis on the one sense of Scripture.  But a study of the writings of the Reformers shows that this was no prosaic literalism.  Tropes now became God’s chosen formulations of the revelation which must be understood correctly, in themselves, and not as a means to a higher, allegorical vision.  Calvin’s discussion of the doctrine of the sacraments, especially the expression “This is my body” is instructive:


[Those who state that] the bread is the body . . . truly prove themselves literalists . . . .  I say that this expression is a metonymy, a figure of speech commonly used in Scripture when mysteries are under discussion . . . .  For though the symbol differs in essence from the thing signified (in that the latter is spiritual and heavenly, while the former is physical and visible), still, because it not only symbolizes the thing that it has been consecrated to represent as a bare and empty token, but also truly exhibits it, why may its name not rightly belong to the thing? . . . Let our adversaries, therefore, cease to heap unsavory witticisms upon us by calling us “tropists” because we have explained the sacramental phraseology according to the common usage of Scripture (Institutes IV, xvii, 20‑21).


The irony here is that the Roman Catholic position on the sacrament (transubstantiation) is achieved by taking the text literally.  The figurative sense (metonymy) communicated by the physical signs was taken by the Reformers.


Based on such ideas the Protestants’ writings in the subsequent centuries systematized the study of the rhetorical devices used in Scripture.  The importance of understanding the tropes and schemes became paramount.  It was not that they were now taking the text literally whereas the Church had taken it allegorically or mystically; rather they were now studying the figures used in the Bible as means of communicating the divine revelation.  Because the Scripture made widespread use of figurative language, scholars realized that skillful use of the various types of figures was necessary for exegesis.  Handbooks on the figures of speech and interpretation appeared throughout Protestantism.  It was prompted by the recognition that figures of speech served as vehicles of truth; they were chosen by God for His revelation of himself to people.


The concept of God as a magnificent poet who uses figurative language to communicate His literal Word is graphically expressed by Donne:


My God, my God, Thou art a direct God, may I not say a literall God, a God that wouldst bee understood literally, and according to the plain sense of all that thou saiest?  But           thou art also . . . a figurative, a metaphoricall God too; A God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions . . . .   O, what words but thine, can expresse the inexpressible texture, and composition of thy word (Sermons, VII, 65).


So the concept that figurative language is the character of the literal Word of God in many places, and not some mystical sense, came to be the important distinctive of biblical exegesis after the Reformation.  Unfortunately, modern  “expositions” have not taken the time to understand much of this, but rather stand closer to some Puritan interpretations which considered rhetorical devices to be minimal or deceptive.  Each student of the Bible must recapture this important relationship between the figurative and the literal.  One must learn that not only is the figurative the means of communicating the literal, but that the figurative is the literal in its chosen means of expressing the truth, a means that includes intellectual and emotional connotations, allusions and sounds.  The figure is both unified in its communication, and diverse in its aspects.




The Classification of the Figures


Because writers turn their words in various ways, literary critics have attempted to analyze and categorize these deviations in the use of words in order to gain better control over the intended thought and feeling of the author.



I.  Figures Involving Comparison


In these figures of speech the author transfers a word into a foreign semantic field to illustrate or picture his thought and to evoke the appropriate feeling in his reader.  In this way the writer draws a comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common.  The subject matter is real, but that to which it is compared is present in the imagination.  That which the subject and things compared have in common is not stated and must be guessed at and validated by the interpreter from other indications in the composition.  The interpreter must also try to articulate the mood evoked by the figure.


1.       Simile: Resemblance, an explicit comparison (using “like” or “as”) between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common (see Bullinger, pp. 726‑733).


“Silence settled on the audience like a block of granite.”


“Silence” settling down is here compared to a “block of granite.” The image is one of suddenness and absoluteness.  There is a contrast implied between the roar of an audience before a performance, and the sudden silence when the safety curtain goes up.


“All flesh is like grass.” (1 Pet. 1:24)


In this verse “flesh,” which is also a figure of speech representing all living creatures, is compared to “grass.”  The point is that grass is transitory‑‑it withers and dies easily.  This figure must be seen in the context of grass in Israel--in the heat it completely disappears from the hills until the rainy season.  The feeling that this simile evokes is one of pathos and futility.


“He shall be like a tree planted by rivers of waters.”  (Ps. 1:3)


The psalm is describing an individual who meditates in the Law of the LORD.  The comparison is now made to a tree.  Here, as is often the case, the simile is qualified: the tree produces fruit in season and does not wither because it is planted by water.  The qualifications lead us to conclude that the water represents the Law, and the fruit righteousness.  The common thought between the tree and the person is life or vitality.  It creates a positive feeling of desirability.



2.       Metaphor: Representation, an implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common; a declaration that one thing is or represents another (see Bullinger, pp. 735‑743).  This description will serve the purpose of this introduction, but it must be acknowledged to be a simplification.  Pure metaphors are essentially figures of transference (for a detailed study, see Gustav Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, chapter xi).  That is why many prefer to use “metaphorical language” as the equivalent of “figurative language” without further qualification of types.  The study must be aware of this; some commentaries will use the word “metaphor” to mean any figure of speech, when the actual figure under consideration is not a metaphor.


“The question of federal aid to education is a bramble patch.”


The idea of “federal aid to education” is now stated to be a “bramble patch” (not “like” a bramble patch).  The point is that it is tangled, not easily solved, “thorny.”  The metaphor conveys the feeling of frustration,

complexity, pain.


“The LORD God is a sun and a shield.” (Ps. 84:12 [11])


The LORD God is being compared to both a “sun” and a “shield.”  Each metaphor supplies different information about the LORD.  The “sun” conveys light, warmth, provision for growth among other things; the “shield” primarily represents protection.  So the line brings a feeling of security in God’s provision of and protection for life.


“The LORD is my shepherd.”  (Ps. 23:1)


In this line a comparison is expressed between the LORD (a spirit) and a shepherd (a human being who tends   flocks).  The essential qualities of the shepherd are transferred to the LORD so that a greater understanding of his nature may be achieved.  The subsequent lines of  the psalm (verses 1-4) extend and qualify the metaphor, so that the shepherding activates of feeding the flock, leading them, and refreshing them, are all brought to bear on the communication of the LORD's spiritual ministries to His people, i.e.,  teaching them the truth, cleansing them from sin, and leading them in righteousness.  So we can see that the context must be considered in explaining a figure.


The figure of “shepherd” was used frequently enough to achieve lexical status, and so dictionaries often list the figurative use as one of the categories of meaning.  Even in English dictionaries under “shepherd” you will find “ecclesiastical use for minister.”  When this    happens the figure is classified as a dead metaphor, or an idiom.  However, in your exegesis you must interpret it as you would any metaphor, because it is a figurative use of a term.


3.       Hypocatastasis: Implication, a declaration that implies a comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common.  Unlike the above, however, in hypocatastasis the subject must be inferred (see Bullinger, pp. 744‑747; Bullinger, however, does not give enough attention to this very common figure).  It may be simpler to refer to this as an implied metaphor if the title sounds too technical or difficult.  The main feature is that in the text, the figure will be expressed fully, but the true topic or subject will be suppressed.  For example, “Smite the shepherd and the flock will be scattered” is a statement that remains on the figurative level.  The exegete must discern from either the context or usage of the terms what is meant by “shepherd” and “flock.”


Dogs have surrounded me.”  (Ps. 22:17 [16])


The psalmist is comparing his enemies to dogs.  There are no dogs surrounding him; the context will state it is a company of evil‑doers.  If he had used a simile, he would           have stated explicitly “my enemies are like dogs.”  A straightforward metaphor would have said “my enemies are dogs.”  But he simply says “dogs have surrounded me,” and you are left to determine if they are real dogs, and if not, what are they.  Once this has been done, you have to return to the figure and ask why he compares them to dogs.  Dogs in the ancient Near East were scavengers‑‑they ran in packs and scoured for food.  Much like the vultures in the desert they would pick at carcases.  So the psalmist is saying a lot about his enemies, and a lot about his condition‑‑he is almost dead.


“Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them”  (Ps. 127:5)


In the context the psalmist has used a simile to compare children to arrows in the hand of a warrior.  Building on that point the psalmist uses “quiver” to refer to his household.  If the children are “like” arrows, then the house is like a quiver‑‑but house is not mentioned.  So the comparison is implied.


“My frame was not hidden from You,

     When I was made in secret,

  and skillfully wrought

      in the depths of the earth.”  (Ps. 139:15)


In this passage the psalmist is describing how God formed him in his mother's womb‑‑but he calls it the “depths of the earth.”  He is thus comparing the womb to the deepest recesses of the earth, stressing remoteness and hiddenness (this is before sonograms).  But he does not state the comparison; he merely uses the figure to imply the comparison.  One reason for this strange comparison is rhetorical: he wants to form a link to the preceding strophe in which he described God’s presence in such remote areas (see Ps. 139:7‑12).


“A lion has gone up from his thicket.”  (Jer. 4:7)


The context will make it clear that the idea is the king of Babylon who has left his domain.  The comparison with a lion stresses the fierce and brutish nature of this pagan power, and conveys a feeling of fear of attack and death.  Writers frequently use animals or beasts in their hypocatastases for rulers to stress such brutish power.  In fact, Daniel's visions of such grotesque beasts prepares for his vision of “one like the Son of Man” who will replace them  (Dan. 7:12, 13).


4.       Parable: a placing beside (from para = beside, and ballein = to cast) of two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common; an extended simile, an anecdotal narrative designed to teach a lesson.  The extent of the comparison must be guessed at and validated by other indications in the literature (see Bullinger, pp. 751‑753).


“Parable” is used about 30 times to translate lvmmasal, and of no other word; but the most famous examples are those found in the New Testament.


“The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man that sowed good seed in his field.”  (Matt. 13:24ff.)


The parable is essentially a story based on a simile, i.e., an extended simile.  It is not always easy to determine how much of the story should be interpreted as part of the simile.  It is safe to say the main point of the parable is what was intended; but along the way other comparisons are obvious (e.g., the elder brother representing the Pharisees).


5.       Allegory: (from allos = another and agourein = to speak in the agora [i.e., where people assemble]); an extended metaphor   (see Bullinger, pp. 748‑750).


Expositors often say that an allegory refers to something non‑historical in the comparison; but this may be more apologetic than factual, designed to defend against the almost unlimited allegorical use of Scripture by some Church Fathers.  But in the classical sense an allegory is an extended metaphor; the thing used in the comparison could be historical or fictional, each allegory requiring specific attention.  Thus, Paul's use of the term in Galatians 4:24 is perfectly legitimate‑‑it does not deny the historicity of the Old Testament event.


There are not many examples of allegories in the Old Testament; and of those that come to mind, the images are not historical or actual.


The Allegory of the Fig, Olive, Vine, and Bramble (Ju. 9:7‑15):


This is not a parable because there is no similitude expressed explicitly.  Rather, it is a continued hypocatastasis, only one of the two things in the comparison is clearly stated.  In the context the point is that only the worthless one, the bramble, wants to rule over the nation.


The Allegory of the Unproductive Vineyard  (Isa. 5:1‑7):


The LORD is compared to the faithful gardener, the Beloved One, and Israel to an unproductive vineyard (v. 7).  The common thought between Israel and the vineyard is that of an unjust return, and the common feeling is contempt or disgust.  Israel should have produced “fruit” under the careful work of her “gardener.”


6.       Personification:  Personification: (From Latin persona: actor's mask, person + facio = to make; the making or feigning of a person); the investiment of non-human subjects (e.g., abstractions, inanimate objects, or animals) with human qualities or abilities.  With all the figures discussed thus far, this figure also belongs to the sub‑group of figures involving resemblance.  Here, too, the things compared are of  unlike nature, but the thing to which the comparison is made is always a person.  The figure is used to stir emotions and to create an empathy with the subject (see Bullinger, pp. 861‑869).


“The land mourns‑‑the oil languishes.”  (Joel 1:10)


The human traits of mourning and languishing are attributed to the land, thus making a comparison.  But the thought is the extreme agricultural disaster, and the feeling is sadness and grief.


“The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.”  (Gen. 4:6)


Abel’s shed blood is personified as a voice crying out.  The point is that the blood is a witness that a murder  has been committed.  It is a demand for vengeance; and it conveys a feeling of condemnation and indignation.


“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  (Ps. 23:4)


Here the human ability to provide comfort in time of  trouble is ascribed to the LORD’s rod and staff.   Of course, “rod” and “staff” are also figures, carrying through the comparison of the LORD’s activities with those of the shepherd (so they are hypocatastases).  The line essentially affirms that the means of protection that the LORD uses brings comfort to the worried psalmist.  This is a good example of how some figures build on other figures.


7.       Anthropomorphism:  An implicit or explicit comparison of God to some corporeal aspect of mankind.  By this comparison the author does not intend to be evocative but to be didactic,      viz., to communicate a truth about the person of God.  The author will choose that part of human life which best corresponds to some characteristic of God’s person: e.g., the face denotes His presence, the eyes denote His awareness, the        ears signify His attentiveness, the nostrils signify His anger, and the heart speaks of His moral purpose (see Bullinger, pp. 871‑881, 883‑894).  Revelation of the Godhead demands the use of anthropomorphic language,  i.e., to communicate the nature of God in language people understand.  Throughout the OT God is described as if he has all such human parts and functions.  This is probably why Jesus is described as the complete revelation of God, the alpha and the omega, the Logos‑‑in the incarnation the Word (or should we say “the words”?) became flesh.


“His eyes behold, his eyelids try, the sons of men.”  (Ps. 11:4)


The psalmist, wishing to reveal God’s close examination of all human affairs, uses the expressions “eyes” and “eyelids.”  God is a Spirit and not corporeal; moreover, divine omniscience does not need to squint the eyelids to look more intently.  But what these mean for human life enables people to understand the divine activity of investigation and judgment.


“Incline your ear to me.”  (Ps. 31:3 [2])


Again, the expression is human‑‑one leaning over to listen more intently to what someone says.  God does not need to do this (nor does he have an ear that he lowers to the one praying).  Such anthropomorphisms are for our benefit‑‑it is an urgent cry for God to hear the prayer.


Hide your face from my sins.”  (Ps. 51:11 [9]).


This is in David’s confession of sin.  He prays that God would forgive him and not hold his sin against him.  The  human activity of “hiding one’s face.”  i.e., not looking at something, graphically conveys his wish and brings him comfort.


The Scriptures are filled with anthropomorphic expressions about God that will have to be interpreted clearly (and carefully since many people simply take these literally).  God is described as having “everlasting arms,” “saving hand,” “consuming breath of his nostrils,” “feet”; he is portrayed as “sitting enthroned,” “hurling a storm,” “blotting out of a book,” “putting tears in a bottle,” and a host of other figurative expressions from the human realm.  They are all meant to reveal the person and work of the LORD in terms that we can understand and appreciate.


But note this:  Many authors distinguish this figure from the description of God’s passion(s) which they designate as anthropopatheia: an implicit or explicit comparison between the nature of God and human passions.  Doing this may give the impression that God may not in fact possess passions or  emotions.  This notion greatly limits God's personality, traditionally defined as intellect, sensibility and will.  And so I do not use this category at all, but maintain that God’s passions are literal (see Bullinger includes it on pp. 882, 883).


8.       Zoomorphism:  An explicit or implicit comparison of God (or other entities) to the lower animals or parts of the lower animals (see Bullinger, pp. 894, 895;  Bullinger lists this under anthropomorphism).


“In the shadow of your wings I used to rejoice.”  (Ps. 63:8)


Of course, God is not a bird with wings.  Divine protection is frequently

expressed in zoomorphic terms,  e.g., trusting under the shadow of his wings.  It speaks of safety and security.


N.B.  Often animals take on a symbolic significance.  Bullinger cites Genesis 4:7 (“Sin crouches at the door”) as an example of personification.  Although the verb rabats, “to couch,” may signify human activity, it more frequently is used of animals, especially of lions, ready to pounce.  Moreover,     the figure should also be interpreted in light of the command to mankind to have dominion over the animals.  If so, then God is commanding Cain to rule over sin which threatens him like a lion.  If this interpretation is right, the figure employed is a zoomorphism.


We can see by this that zoomorphism is not limited to descriptions of God.  Psalm 139:9 says, “If I take the wings of the dawn, and settle in the remotest part of the sea,”  comparing the rays of the sun to wings of a bird that fly from the east and land in the distant west.  His point in the context is that no matter how fast or far he might “fly” (i.e., with the speed of light) God is always there.


9.       Proverb: (from pro + verbum = more at word); a brief popular witticism; a specific illustration to signify a general truth      about life.  “The wit of one is the wisdom of many”  (see Bullinger, pp. 755‑767).  The idea of comparison is often explicit (“like father‑‑like son”), but more often subtle.


“Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 10:11)


The action of Saul is like that of the prophets‑‑but he is the king.  The axiom is that they are amazed over his reversal of roles.  The comparison idea comes through clearly in an analysis of the usage of masal.  Psalm 49, a wisdom psalm, uses the verb in the repeated expression that the worldly man “is like” the beast that perishes.


“The fathers eat the sour grapes,

   but the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  (Ezek. 18:2)


The comparison is clear in the figure; the general truth expressed by the saying is that children unjustly receive the penalty earned by parents.


Proverbs are very complex in Hebrew literature.  The student of the Bible must research them further, especially when studying a book like Proverbs.  Proverbs will not figure predominantly in the study of the Book of Psalms, however.


10.     Idiom: the regular occurrence of figures of speech.  Any figure (including those to follow) can become idiomatic when by frequent use it achieves lexical status.  Bullinger offers many examples of idiomatic expressions of the Bible such as “breaking bread,” “open the mouth,” “the Son of Man,” “turn to ashes,” “three days and three nights” and many more (see Bullinger, pp. 819‑860).  An idiom is also called a dead metaphor, low figure, or a common use of a figure.  It may be easily activated if used in a fresh way. 


Even though idioms may be readily classified as idioms, the expositor will still have to evaluate what figure originally was involved.  Once this has been done, the interpretation will apply to subsequent usages.  For example, “way” is idiomatic.  It may also be metaphorical (“way” or “road” compared to pattern of life), a basic point that often needs to be made.  Do not assume biblical idioms are generally understood.



II.  Figures Involving Substitution


11.              Metonymy:  Change of Noun (or any idea), the change of a word naming an object for another word closely associated with it.  From meta indicating “change” and onoma meaning “a name, noun”; but a  metonymy can word with a verb as well, or a whole line.  The substitution of some attributive or suggestive word for what is meant.  For example, “crown” for “royalty,” “mitre” for “bishop,” “brass” for “military officer,” “pen” for “writer,” “bad hand” for “poorly-formed characters.”  In contrast to many of the above figures which are based on resemblance, metonymy is founded on relationship.  Whereas in figures based on resemblance, that to which a comparison is made is imaginative; in metonymy the word that triggers an association is historical reality--there really is a crown, a mitre, brass, pen, and the like.  But much more is meant.


This is important, because you will have the most difficulty in distinguishing metonymy from hypocatastasis.  If we say,      “the White House said today,” that is a metonymy, “White House” being substituted for the President in the White House. But there is a White House.  If we say “Uncle Sam wants you,” we have a hypocatastasis.  There is no Uncle Sam.  The letters U.S. have been taken and compared to a person (actually a personification as well).


Bullinger analyzes metonymy into four kinds; viz., of the cause, of the effect, of the subject, of the adjunct.  These are helpful, but it will be seen that the analysis cannot always fit neatly into one of them alone (see Bullinger, pp. 538‑608).


a.         Metonymy of the Cause:  When the writer states the cause but intends the effect (Bullinger, 540‑560).  The way to test this is that if you call something a metonymy of cause you must state what the intended effect would be.


Examples where the instrument is put for the effect:


“And the whole earth was of one lip.” (Gen. 11:1)


The verse means that everyone spoke the same language.  “Lip” is the cause, the instrument--so the expositor must state the effect, “language.”


“At the mouth of two or three witnesses”  (Deut. 17:6)


The intended meaning is the testimony of the witnesses; “mouth” is the cause, the instrument of giving testimony.


Examples where the thing or the action is put for the effect:


“Pour out your anger upon the nations.” (Ps. 79:6)


“Anger” is the emotion behind the judgment.  The psalmist wants God to pour out (also a figure, an implied comparison) acts of judgment.  So the cause is stated, the effect--judgment--is meant.


“Continue your loyal love to those who know you.” (Ps. 36:10)


The attribute is stated, but the spiritual and material blessings that God’s loyal love brings are intended.  In most cases the attributes of God will be metonymies of cause, because the communication of those attributes is meant (hence: communicable attributes).


Example where the person acting, the agent or actor, is put for the effect:


“They have Moses and the Prophets.”  (Luke 16:29)


What is meant is that they have the Scriptures that Moses and the Prophets wrote.  The cause is stated, the effect is meant.  It is a way of saying two things at once; it stresses the authority by giving the identification of the authors, but it clearly indicates that Scripture is meant (they do not have Moses).


b.         Metonymy of the EffectWhen the writer states the effect but intends the cause producing it (Bullinger, pp. 560‑567).


Sometimes one line of poetic parallelism will give both the metonymy of cause and the metonymy of effect to express the complete idea: “Then he will speak (cause) to them in his anger, and terrify (effect) them in his fury.”  (Ps. 2:5).


Examples where the effect is put for the thing or action producing it:


“Entreat the LORD your God, that he may take away from me this death only.”  (Exod. 10:17)


Locusts!  That is what the Pharaoh wanted removed.  But if they were allowed to remain, they would utterly destroy the land and its inhabitants.  To make the request more vivid he substitutes the effect for the cause.


“Cause me to hear joy and gladness.” (Ps. 51:10[8])


The entire line is a metonymy of effect.  The psalmist desires to hear the oracle of forgiveness from the prophet.  The effect of being forgiven is that the psalmist can once again join the congregation with shouts of praise to God and hear all the congregational rejoicing.  He wants both to be forgiven and to enter the praise; he states the effect and implies the cause.


Example where the effect is put for the material object from which it is produced:


“You split the fountain and the flood.” (Ps. 74:15)


He split the rock in two, and water came out.  The use of metonymies here is very economical, for it is obvious that God did not split the water.  The reader would know that the cause, the rock, is intended, but the effect, water from the rock, is stated.  “Fountain” and “flood” are also figurative expressions of water.  So the line is “saying” far more than what is literally expressed.


Example where the effect is put for the instrument or organic cause:


“Awake, my glory”  (Ps. 57:9[8])


The stated effect is “glory”; the intended cause is the tongue that sings praises to glorify God.  It is also possible that “glory” represents the real person (compare Exodus 33:18, “show me your glory,” which may mean “show me yourself” [ = LXX], the real you).


Example where the effect is put for the person or agent producing it:


“But you, O LORD, be not far off;

   O my help, hasten to my assistance.”  (Ps. 22:19[181)


The stated effect is help, what the psalmist will receive.  The intended cause is the LORD.


c.         Metonymy of the Subjectwhen the subject or thing is put for the attribute or adjunct of it, i.e., the place or the container is put for that which is contained (Bullinger, pp. 567‑587).


Examples where the container is put for the contents:


“The grave cannot praise you.” (Isa. 38:18)


This is a common motif in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The prophet means that a dead person in the grave cannot praise God.  To use the word “grave” heightens the tension and motivates God to keep the individual alive to praise Him.


“You prepare a table before me” (Ps. 23:5)


The stated subject‑idea is “table,” but the intended ideas are food and drink on the table.  The literal meaning of preparing a table, i.e., carpentry, would be most inappropriate here, for the psalmist is enumerating the LORD's spiritual and physical provisions for life.


“The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness.”  (Ps. 29:8)


As a metonymy of subject “wilderness” signifies the flora and fauna in the wilderness.  In the sentence “voice of Yahweh” is also figurative, either a metonymy of cause for the storm (God commanded it), or hypocatastasis for the similarity of thunder to a voice.


Examples where the thing or action is put for that which is connected with it (the adjunct):


“Soul” [if that is the translation, which is a misleading translation of the Hebrew word vp,n,, nephesh,  that means the whole person, body and soul] for desires, appetites; “heart” for thoughts, understanding, courage, will; “kidneys” for conscience, affections, passions; “liver” for emotions, center of immaterial part (see Bullinger, pp. 567‑570; see also Hans W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament).


“You are near in their mouth (i.e., words [met. of  cause]) but far from their kidneys.”                         


            The Hebrews associated the visceral organs with the will and the emotions,  much like the modern western world would use “heart” for strong will (“believe with your heart”) or strong affection (“love with all my heart”).  All these we classify as metonymy of subject, and then interpret the corresponding adjunct‑‑will, desire, thoughts, etc.


Example where the possessor is put for the thing possessed:


“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  (Acts 9:4)


The stated subject‑idea is “me,” i.e., Jesus; but the intended idea is His Church.  The point is a common one in Scripture‑‑to persecute the Church is to persecute Christ.


Examples where the sign is put for the thing signified:


“The scepter shall not depart from Judah.” (Gen. 49:10)


The point of the oracle is that Judah (here the tribe and not the patriarch [met. of cause]) will retain the tribal supremacy or rulership.  The sign of the rulership is a scepter, so we classify that as metonymy of subject because it signifies far more than (literally) retaining a scepter.


Kiss the son”  (Ps. 2:12)


In this example we have a verbal idea used as a metonymy.  This is not too common, but does happen.  The stated idea of kissing the son is intended to convey the adjunct, that is, what is connected to the act‑submission, showing homage.  “Son” also is figurative in the psalm, an implied metaphor here, but stated metaphor earlier in the passage (“you are my son”).


d.       Metonymy of Adjunct: The writer puts the adjunct or attribute or some circumstance pertaining to the subject for the subject (Bullinger, pp. 587-608).


Example where the attribute is put for the thing or object:


“Then shall you bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” (Gen. 42:38)


Now we have the opposite of the metonymy of subject. Here the adjunct‑‑gray hairs‑‑is put for the subject‑‑old Jacob.  Obviously more than the gray hairs will be brought down to the grave (“grave” is a metonymy of subject for death).


Example where the time is put for the thing done in it:


“For the shouting for your summer”  (Isa. 16:9)


The intended idea is the harvest that takes place in the summer.  By substituting summer the prophet has economized his description and conveyed more than “harvest” alone would convey.  “Summer,” the time of the harvest, is an adjunct idea (something descriptive connected to the idea).


Example where the contents are put for the container:


“And when they had opened their treasures”  (Matt. 2:11)


They opened the chests that were holding the treasures.  Here the adjunct is stated (contents of the containers) but the subject is meant (containers).


Example where the appearance of a thing is put for the thing itself:


“His enemies shall lick the dust.”  (Ps. 72:9)


This is a vivid description of the defeat of enemies.  The intended subject‑idea is that the enemies be defeated, be in a state of humble prostration; but the stated description is an adjunct of that defeat.


Example where the thing signified is put for the sign:


“because the separation is on his head”  (Num. 6:7)


This expression comes from the chapter on Nazirite vows in which the person would not cut his hair.  The intended sign of the vow would be uncut hair (the subject), but the thing that is signified is stated--separation.  “Separation” is not a metonymy of effect, because that would say that long hair causes the vow.


Example where the Name of a person is put for the person:


“May the name of the God of Jacob protect you.”  (Ps.  20:2)


The stated title is “name”; but the intended meaning is the LORD Himself, or better, all the attributes of the LORD.   This would be the same for “ask anything in my name.”


12.     Synecdochethe exchange of one idea for another connected idea.  In this figure one word receives something from another which is unexpressed but associated with it because it belongs to the same genus.  Like metonymy the figure is based on a relationship rather than a resemblance.  But whereas in metonymy the exchange may be made between related words belonging to different genera (and so only loosely connected by contact or ascription). in synecdoche the exchange is made between two words related generically.  For example, “ends of  the earth” as a metonymy of subject would mean the people living in the ends of the earth, but as a synecdoche it would mean distant geographical locations as part of a larger mass of land--soil, not people.    


As a general guideline, one may use synecdoche for figures that are actually a part of the whole, or the whole for a part--more strictly connected to the thing intended than a metonymy would be.  The use of Genus and Species may not be as frequent as Whole and Part, but is serviceable for those things actually related generically.


a.       Synecdoche of the Genus: The genus is substituted for the species: e.g., weapon for sword, creature for man, arms for rifles, vehicle for bicycle (Bullinger, pp. 613‑656).


Words of wider meaning for a narrower sense:


“The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” (Isa. 40:5)


The general word “flesh” is used in place of the specific idea “mankind” (they stand in a genus‑species relationship).  Metonymy will not work (cause? effect? subject? adjunct?); if you think it might be a metonymy, you would need to state the intended idea to substantiate it.


“Preach the gospel to every creature.”  (Mark 16:15)


The stated genus is “creature”; the intended species is “people.” Recall how St. Francis took this literally.


“All” for the great part:


All the people were gathered to Jeremiah.” (Jer. 26:9)


This use of “all” might just as easily be handled as a lexical matter.  The stated genus here is “all the people,” but the intended sense is “the greater number of the people.”


“All” for all kinds:


“It contained all fourfooted animals.”  (Acts 10:12)


One would doubt that the vision contained all fourfooted animals.  What is meant no doubt is that all kinds of four‑footed animals (i.e., every kind) were represented.


Universal for a particular:


“Saul said nothing that day.” (1 Sam. 20:26)


The synecdoche is “nothing,” but the intended meaning is “nothing about David.” We find even in English that universals most often are intended to signify something more specific.  I am reminded of the line attributed to Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore, the place is too crowded.”



b.       Synecdoche of the Species: The species is substituted for the genus, a part for the whole; e.g., bread for food, cutthroat for assassin (Bullinger, pp. 623-635).


Words of a narrower sense for a wider meaning:


“I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save  me.” (Ps. 44:7 [6])


This type of synecdoche is more helpful exegetically.  In this psalm “bow” and “sword” are stated, but the intended meaning is “weapons.”

The meaning then is broader than the stated figures‑‑but includes them.


Species for genus proper:


“A land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8, 17)


Often a tour bus in Israel will take its people to a location where there are cows and beehives in a field and then quote this verse.  But much more is meant: the intended genus is all luxurious foods.


“Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matt. 6:11)


The intended meaning is “basic food.” “Daily bread” is a species of the genus food.



c.       The Whole is put for the Parts:  (Bullinger, pp. 636‑640).  Many of the samples listed in Bullinger might better be treated as lexical matters, especially when “all” is used for parts.


“Behold, the world has gone after him.”  (John 12:19)


The synecdoche of the whole is “world”; the intended meaning (the part) is people of all sorts.


Many of these figures also involve metonymy of  subject‑‑the container for the contents.  Usually it is enough to classify it is a metonymy and then explain the meaning.  That explanation will show that the whole is put for the part.  It is worth noting that synecdoche is also frequently hyperbolic, or even understatement.


“And he shall serve him forever.”  (Ex. 21:6)


The whole is “forever”; the intended part is “as long as the slave lives.”  But again, this may be a lexical matter, or the way it has been translated that has to be discussed.


d.       The Part for the Whole  e.g.,  sail for ship, canvas for  sail (Bullinger, pp. 640‑656).  These could also be classified under “species for genus,”  moreover, many of these are close to metonymy.  This is the most common use of synecdoche.


Part of man for the whole man:


“Their feet run to evil.”  (Prov. 1:16)


The part stated is the “feet”; the intended whole is “their entire bodies” = evil people.  The point is that heart and soul they are into evil deeds.


“The one who lifts up my head.”  (Ps. 3:4 [3])


For the stated part, “head,” the meaning is the whole person in dignity.  But “to lift up the head” may better be explained as either metonymy of effect or adjunct, i.e., restoration to dignity and honor.


A part of the thing for the whole thing:


“Your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.” (Gen. 22:17)


The stated part is “gate.” But the intended whole is the city.  As a synecdoche “gate” represents brick and mortar‑‑the actual city.  If you think gate means people in the gate, then that is metonymy of subject, because people and gate are not generically connected.


An integral part of men for others associated:


“Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up your  might.” (Ps. 80:2)


By these parts the psalmist means the northern tribes, southern tribes, and tribes of Transjordan.  In other contexts the patriarchal names could be metonymies of cause (e.g., “Judah gathered against him” means either the descendants of Judah [met. of cause] or the people living in Judah [met. of subject]‑‑but not Judah himself.  Words like “seed” and “sons of” will receive similar considerations.


13.     Merismthe use of two opposite statements to signify the whole; e.g., day and night, springtime and harvest, hell and high water (Bullinger, p. 435).  Note that Bullinger lists these passages under synecdoche, for merism is a kind of synecdoche.  But we shall use a separate category.


“You know when I sit down and when I get up.” (Ps. 139:2)


The ideas of “sitting down” and “rising up” are opposites; the intended whole is all the activities with reference to time‑‑including sitting down and getting up.  It means, “You know every move I make”--including these of course.   Here the expressed ideas are indeed literal, but more is meant.


“If I ascend to heaven, You are there;

If I make my bed in  Sheol, You are there.”  (Ps. 139:8)


“Heaven” and “Sheol” are opposites; the intended whole is universal

space and all the situations in it.  This line, then, expresses a vertical merism-‑everywhere from heaven above to Sheol below.


“From the rising of the sin to the place where it sets,

the  name of the LORD is to be praised.”  (Ps. 113:3).


This verse could be interpreted in one of two ways: it could mean everywhere‑‑from east to west; or, it could mean all the time‑‑from sunrise to sunset (“the place” is added by the NIV, the Hebrew simply having “its going in”).


14.     HendiadysTwo for One, the expression of one idea through two formally coordinate terms joined by “and,” instead of a noun and an adjective, or a verb and an adverb.  One component specifies the other   (Bullinger, pp. 657‑672).


“I will greatly multiply your pain and your conception.” (Gen. 3:16)


Two nouns are joined with a conjunction, but the next line clarifies it is a hendiadys: “in pain you shall bring forth children.” So the single idea is painful labor in bearing and rearing children (“conception” would have to be a synecdoche, a part for the whole process, since there is no pain in conception).


“My soul shall be satisfied with fat and fatness.” (Ps. 63:6[5])


The single idea is expressed better by making one of the nouns a modifier: “abundant fatness.”  This is how one tests the category.


“But Abel, he also brought from the firstborn of his flock and from the fat of them.”  (Gen. 4:4).


I have rendered this very literally so you can see the starting point of the interpretation.  Our interpretation would signify: “he also brought the fattest firstborn of his flock.”


“Who is like Yahweh our God? He makes high to sit." (Ps. 113:4).


The text has a participle followed by an infinitive; the hendiadys should

 be given a smooth reading‑‑“He sits on high.”  The idea of “sitting” is anthropomorphic as well, signifying in the idea of sitting enthroned his dominion over the earth.


15.     Euphemismthe substitution of an inoffensive or mild expression for an offensive one (Bullinger, pp. 684‑688).


“Then his wife said to him, Do you still hold your integrity?  Bless (= curse) God and die.”  (Job 2:9)


The text has substituted the word “bless” because it is more appropriate

with “God”; but “curse” is clearly required in the context.  Probably most

of the euphemisms have entered the text through scribal activity and were  not part of the original writing.  But since they exist, they must be understood.


16.     Apostrophea turning aside from the direct subject‑matter to address another who may be present in fact or in imagination (Bullinger, pp. 901‑905).


David turns from his prayer in trouble to address those who had brought the trouble upon him: “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” (Ps. 6:9[8]).


“Your glory, O Israel, is slain upon your high places . . . .  You mountains of Gilboa . . .” (2 Sam. 1: 19‑21)


“When Israel went forth out of Egypt . . . What ails you, O sea, that you flee?”   (Ps. 114:1‑5)


17.     Type:  a divinely prefigured illustration of a corresponding reality (called the antitype) (Bullinger, p. 768).  Typology is a form of predictive prophecy, the major difference being that the passage can only be understood as prophetic once the fulfilling antitype has come into full view.  This topic will be discussed at length in the notes on the royal psalms.


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Ps. 22:2 [1])


The words of the psalm hyperbolically describe the suffering of David, but become historically true in Jesus.  Several of the verses from this psalm are used in the New Testament to describe the sufferings of Jesus.



18.     Symbol: a material object substituted for a moral or spiritual truth, a visible sign of something invisible.  The visible sign stands as a constant resemblance to some spiritual truth.


“I will appoint you . . . a light to the nations.”  (Isa. 42:6)


“Light” becomes a symbol for spiritual and moral instruction (contrast “darkness” in the next verse).  Actually, this symbol originated as a figure of comparison.


19.     Irony: the expression of thought in a form that conveys its opposite (from eironeia = dissimulation).  The word’s meaning is reversed by juxtaposing it into a semantic field of thought inappropriate to the speaker and/or subject.  By this casting of the word into an obviously inappropriate context the writer stimulates a mental response (Bullinger, pp. 807‑815).


In Greek comedy the character called the eiron was a “dissembler” who characteristically spoke in understatement and deliberately pretended to be less intelligent than he was, yet triumphed over the alazon‑‑the self‑deceiving and stupid braggart.   In most of the diverse critical uses of the term “irony” there remains the root sense of dissimulation, or of a difference between what is asserted and what is actually the case (Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms).


“Where are their gods, their rock in whom they trusted?” (Dt. 32:32)


The word “rock” (a hypocatastasis indicating strength and stability) is used here with the opposite intention.  Their gods lack stability and are not dependable.


“Cry louder, for he is a god.”  (1 Kings 18:27)


Obviously Elijah did not believe that Baal was a god, for if he was a god they would not have had to cry louder.  The point of the irony is that they should recognize that he is no god, and stop crying out to him.  The whole line is also an example of mockery (see below).


20.     Chleuasmos Mocking, an expression of feeling by mocking and jeering (Bullinger, p. 942).


“He who sits in the heavens laughs,

The LORD holds them in derision.”  (Ps. 2:4)


In addition to forming chleuasmos, this line is boldly anthropomorphic, both in the expression of sitting and of  laughing/mocking.  The line means that God considers their futile plan utterly ridiculous.


21.     Maledictio:  Imprecation, an expression of feeling by way of a malediction or execration (Bullinger, p. 940).  See the discussion of the imprecations in the notes on lament psalms and prayers.


“When he shall be judged, let him be condemned,

                             and let his prayer become sin;

Let his days be few,

                             and let another take his office;

Let his children be fatherless,

                             and his wife a widow;”  (Ps. 109:7f)


The psalmist is filled with zeal for God’s program, and so prays for divine judgment on those who oppose it.  The judgment should take the form of graphic curses; but curses are only effectual if they are God's will.



III.   Figures Involving Addition or Amplification



22.     Parallelism Parallel Lines, the correspondence of one verse or line with another (for full discussion see the introductions to the Psalms).   Be careful in using Bullinger because he discusses these differently (pp. 349‑362).  We would follow the classifications given in Anderson’s commentary of the Psalms.


23.     Repetitionthe repetition of the same word or words in the passage.  This phenomenon has many variations; and the expositor must state the type and purpose of repetition  (see Bullinger, pp. 189-263, which a rather extended section).


“Whom shall he teach knowledge  . . . for it is precept upon precept, precept

upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little . . . .”  (Isa. 28:10)


“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”  (Ps. 22:2[1])


The intense pathos of the verse is enhanced by the repetition beyond what one expression would convey.  Note also the irony--my God should not be forsaking me.


24.     Paronomasiathe repetition of words similar in sound and frequently in sense or origin as well (Bullinger, pp. 307-320).  If the words are etymologically connected, then it is a paronomasia in the classical sense; if the words are not so related, then it is a loose paronomasia, or, phonetic word          play.  You really need to work with Hebrew to notice this figure.


“Now the earth was waste and void.”  (Gen. 1:2)


The two words are tohu wabohu, a phonetic word play.  They sound like they might be related, but they are from different words.  The catch-phrase assists the memory and organizes the chapter.


“Therefore, the name of it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused (balal, i.e., turned into a babble) their language” (Gen. 11:9).


The name Babel is not etymologically related to the Hebrew verb balal, “to confuse”--they are different languages.  Bab-ili is a Babylonian word that means “gate of God”; but the verb in Hebrew captures the sounds of the name and makes a comment about it in the context.


“God has taken away (’asaph) my reproach; and she called his name Joseph (yoseph), saying, ‘May Yahweh add (yoseph) to me another son’.”  (Gen. 30:23, 24)


The paronomasia yoseph is a true one, being both etymologically connected (from yasaph) and morphologically identical‑‑both are hiphil jussives meaning “may he add.”  But the paronomasia with ‘asaph is merely a phonetic wordplay, in spite of attempts by some scholars to trace the root of “Joseph” to ‘asaph.


25.     Acrostic: repetition of the same or successive letters at the beginnings of words or clauses (Bullinger, pp. 180‑188).


Psalm 119 is the passage with which most people are familiar;  each line of each section begins with the sequential letters of the alphabet.  In Psalm 34, each verse is begun with a letter of the alphabet in sequence, omitting the waw and ending with verse 21.  Verse 22, beginning with a pe’, is outside the series and probably stressed.  See also the Book          of Lamentation; each chapter has 22 verses for the sequence of the alphabet, but the third chapter triples each letter’s use.  Acrostics served mnemonic purposes as well as rhetorical ones.


26.     Inclusio: the rhetorical figure in which a literary unit begins and ends with the same (or similar) word, phrase, or clause.  This repetition serves as a framing device, iterating the theme of the section.  It usually appears with chiastic constructions.


“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth!”  (Ps. 8:2[l] and 10[9])


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”   and

 . . .  “You are my God.”  (Ps. 22:2[l] and 11[10])


27.     Hyperbole: the use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of  emphasis or heightened effect; more is said than is literally meant (Bullinger, pp. 423‑428).


“The cities are great, and walled up to heaven.”  (Deut. 1:28)


The intent of the statement is that the cities are very high, formidable and awesome.


“I am worn out from groaning;

                             all light long I make my bed swim with weeping

                                                and drench my couch with tears.” (Ps. 6:6).


Flooding and drenching the bed with tears is probably not literally true.  But it certainly does signify a night of intense pain and uncontrollable weeping.



IV.   Figures Involving Omission or Suppression



28.     Ellipsis:  Omission, the omission of a word or words in a sentence (Bullinger, pp. 3‑113).


“When you shall make ready [       ] upon your strings.” (Ps. 21:13[12])


“Your arrows” is not in the text; it must be supplied from the context.  Sometimes words are left out because they are unnecessary to the context; other times they are left out for emphasis, such as in the next sample.


“there is in my heart [          ] like a burning fire” (Jer. 20:9b).


The NIV supplies the omitted subject: “your word is in my heart.” The context shows that this is the correct and most important subject.


29.     Aposiopesis:  Sudden Silence, the breaking off of what is being  said, with sudden silence (in anger, in grief, in deprecation, in promise) (Bullinger, pp. 151-154).


“My soul is greatly troubled; but You, O LORD, how long‑‑?”    (Ps. 6:3)


The sentence is not complete because of the intense emotion involved.  The psalmist simply breaks off the sentence and leaves it all in the care of the LORD.  Another good example is Isaiah 1:13 which expresses how “fed up” the LORD is with Israel’s hypocritical worship‑‑although the NIV smooths it out quite a bit.


32.     Erotesis also called Rhetorical Question, Interrogating, the asking of questions without expecting an answer (to express affirmation, demonstration, wonder, exultation, wishes, denials, doubts, admonitions, expostulation, prohibitions, pity, disparagements, reproaches, lamentation, indignation, absurdities--you must decide which of these is the point [see samples in Bullinger]).  By using the figure one seeks to persuade an audience to adopt a point of view.  The response desired must be guessed at and validated from the composition (Bullinger, pp. 943‑956).


“Is anything too hard for the LORD?”  (Gen. 18:14)


The point of the question is that nothing is “too hard” (literally “marvelous, wonderful, surpassing”).  The question form is used to force Abraham and Sarah to realize the point.


“Who can find a virtuous woman?”  (Prov. 31:10)


The intention is to evoke a feeling of desire for  something so rare; it is not a literal question to be answered.  “Virtuous” in the line is a little misleading for Hebrew khayil, unless we think in terms of virtuoso.


“Why do the nations rage?”  (Ps. 2:1)


The psalmist is expressing amazement, possibly indignation, that the nations would rebel against the LORD.



33.     Meiosis: a be‑littleing of one thing to magnify another (also called litotes) (Bullinger, pp. 155‑158).


“And we were in our own sight as grasshoppers,

and so were we in their sight.” (Num. 13:33)


Note that this is also a simile, comparing people to grasshoppers.  The be-littleing is meant to enlarge the size and strength of the enemy.


34.     Tapeinosis: a lessening of a thing in order to increase it (Bullinger, pp. 159‑164).


“A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  (Ps. 51:19 [17])


We would have expected “you will joyfully receive.”  But an understatement is used to express two ideas: one idea is that God will receive and take pleasure in a broken heart‑‑that is the intended meaning; the other is that if one does not have a broken heart God will despise.  Of course, “broken” and “heart” are figures as well (hypocatastasis and metonymy respectively).



Summary and Illustration



There are several of the above figures of speech that can be easily confused at first glance.  The broader classification of the figures into four groups has proven helpful, for one may ask if the writer is comparing, substituting, adding, or omitting in the sentence.


The figures of comparison that appear most often are simile, metaphor, hypocatastasis (or implied metaphor), anthropomorphism and zoomorphism.  These essentially do the same thing, i.e., make a comparison; but they do it differently.  If we were to diagram how they work, we would have to represent the comparison of one genus and another.



GENUS                                    GENUS


 LORD                                       shield


The properties of one semantic field are transferred to another, forming a comparison, either stated or implied.  Many times the context will restrict or qualify the metaphorical language, limiting the range of the comparison or transference.  The task of the exegete is to determine the point of the comparison.  One way to do this is to write a new GENUS that would embrace both words, thus making them each species.  The above metaphor would be diagramed as follows:



                                                   (posited genus)


LORD                      =                         shield


The figures of substitution that demand attention are primarily the synecdoche and the metonymy.  The figure of synecdoche may be diagramed fairly easily because it involves the relationship of a GENUS (or WHOLE) and SPECIES (or PART).


GENUS                >       e.g., military weapons/

 peaceful implements


SPECIES              <       e.g., swords/ploughshares


So if the figure is synecdoche, one must think in terms of substitution in the direction of the genus or larger group to which the figure belongs, or the direction of the species (or part) intended by the mention of the genus.


One of the most common figures used in the psalms is the metonymy.  This is also a figure of substitution, but whereas the synecdoche is actually a part for the whole or the whole for the part, the metonymy is more loosely connected to the thing meant‑‑but it is connected, and this is where it differs from the figures of comparison.  With metonymy there is contiguity between the figure and the topic.  In the following diagrams I have tried to illustrate the four basic types (actually two types with reverse directions).  The sample figure is boxed.


CAUSE                     EFFECT


Moses          >      the Law Moses wrote


“They have Moses” is not to be taken literally.  They have the Scriptures that Moses wrote.  Thus, the cause (author) is stated, but the effect is meant.  Between an author and his literature there is a real connection, but not in the sense of a synecdoche.


       CAUSE                       EFFECT


the rock Moses hit      <        fountain



“You split the fountain” substitutes the word “fountain” for the rock that Moses struck, out of which came the fountain of water when he did it.  There is a real connection between the figure (fountain) and what is meant (rock) by it.


    SUBJECT                      ADJUNCT


       grave              >      the dead person in it


“The grave cannot praise you” substitutes the container for that which is contained in it (and so my diagram is designed to show the subject encompasses the reality meant).  There is a connection between “grave” and “dead”; but not a comparison.  “Grave” as a synecdoche would represent dirt, or the earth, or Sheol.


    SUBJECT                      ADJUNCT


  long hair signifying vow       <       separation



“The separation is on his head” substitutes a descriptive term for what is meant, the long hair of the vow.  The full statement would say that the long hair which represents his separation to the LORD is on his head.


In actual practice it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these major types, but the more that one works with them the easier they come.  Of course, there will be times when different interpretations are possible, depending on how the passage is viewed.  The Lord’s Supper illustrates this, for a Roman Catholic position would take Jesus’ words “This is my blood” literally (yet with qualifications), a Lutheran  metonymically, and a Baptist metaphorically.