Literary/Rhetorical Devices in the Bible

As a promised in Core Seminars this morning at church, here are those literary/rhetorical devices–their definitions and contemporary and Biblical examples of them.

Definition – Specific conventions of communication.

Importance – Being aware of these devices helps one understand what the text is “doing” and thereby helps one understand the text in light of what it is doing. 

  • Idiom – A figure of speech or an expression unique to a particular language and culture; a group of words having a distinct meaning of its own, not deducible to the meaning of the individual words themselves.

Example: “Break a leg.”

Prov 24:20 –   For there will be no future for the evil man;
The lamp of the wicked will be put out [i.e., he will die].

  • Arguments: e.g., “lesser to greater” and “greater to lesser.” – Making an inference based on an already established (greater or lesson) reality.

Rom 11:12, 15 (“lesser to greater”) 12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!
15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

Mt 6:26 (“lesser to greater”) – Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

Rom 5:8-10 (“greater to lesser”) But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

  • Diatribe – A rhetorical conversation partner, often posing possible objections.

Rom 6:1-2 – What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase [the diatribe]? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it [Paul]?

  • Paradox – A statement often used to prompt deeper consideration that initially appears contradictory but actually contains more profound truth.

Illustration: “The enemy of your enemy is your friend.”

Lk 17:33 – Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.

  • Hyperbole – Exaggerated language, used for the sake of emphasis, not meant literally.

Illustration: “I could eat a horse!”

2 Chron 1:15 – The king [Solomon] made silver and gold as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones ….

  • Irony – Expressing meaning by using language that means the opposite (cf. sarcasm—irony used mockingly; satire—irony used to criticize).

Mt 27:37 – And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

Job 12:1-2 (sarcasm)  1 Then Job responded,
“Truly then you are the people,
And with you wisdom will die!

  • Similes – Describes a subject through a direct comparison (“like” or “as”) with an object.

Illustration: “He is like a bull in a China shop.”

Mt 10:16 – Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

  • Metaphors – A subject is referred to as another object in order to describe the subject by an implied comparison between shared characteristics of the object and subject.

Illustration: “He is a black sheep.”

Psalm 18:2 – The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge;
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

  • Imagery – The use of vivid or figurative language that appeals to the senses in order to represent something.

Ex 3:8 – So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey …

  • Symbolism – The use of a particular object to signify something else different than its literal sense.

Illustration: A red rose stands for romance.

Dan 7:3, 17 – 3 And four great beasts were coming up from the sea, different from one another.
17 ‘These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth.

  • Personification –The attribution of human characteristics to non-human objects.

Illustration: “Time waits for no one.”

Prov 8:1 – Does not wisdom call,
And understanding lift up her voice?

  • Anthropomorphism – The attribution of human characteristics to God.

 Ex 3:20 – So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that he will let you go.

  • Apostrophe – Language addresses to someone not present or something that is personified.

Illustration:   “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.”

Ps 43:5 – Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

  • Metonymy – Something closely associated with an object is used to refer to and represent it.

Illustration: “The White House [i.e., representing the presidential administration] put out a statement today.”

Eph 1:7 – In Him we have redemption through His blood [i.e., death], the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.

  • Synecdoche – A part of something is used to refer to and represent the whole.

Illustration: “I’m going to take out these new set of wheels [i.e., a vehicle] for a spin.”

Gen 3:19 – By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread [representing all food],
Till you return to the ground …

  • Merism – The use of two contrasting or opposite parts to signify the whole of something.

Illustration: “Lock, stock, and barrel” [a whole gun].

Ps 91:5 – You will not be afraid of the terror by night,
Or of the arrow that flies by day. [All the time]

  • Play on words – A witty use of the possible meaning of words.

Illustration: “A good pun is its own reword.”

Mt 16:18 – I also say to you that you are Peter [meaning “rock”], and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

* Wordplays in Greek and Hebrew are often no longer apparent when translated into English.