Strange Figures by James Neil


“I have used similitudes by the hand of the prophets,”[1] cries the Lord, and in doing so uses a “similitude,” for “the hand” here does not mean a literal hand at all, but is employed as a figure for “the ministry” of the prophets.  The extent to which He has so used “similitudes “ has been fully realized by few.  The East, be it known, is the very home of flowery and figurative language.  In Palestine, a knowledge of colloquial Arabic soon reveals the astonishing and charming fact, that the ordinary conversation of the humblest and most uneducated of the people, who can neither read nor write and who have not the scientific knowledge of a well‑taught English child of seven years of age, abounds with figures of speech which, in the West, would be thought worthy of a great poet.  Take the


as a striking instance of this delightful feature; and contrast them with the coarse, hoarse, meaningless cries of our far more highly educated street hawkers.  Here comes the cake‑seller, calling out, “Delicate morsels, buy, O ye children;” and next the vendor of roses, sold in large quantities to distil for perfume, with the cry, “Roses, roses of many odors.”   The sweetmeat man announces his wares with, “Peace to the throat! palm candy;” while he with melons shouts, “O melon pips‑solace of the uneasy.”   The woman with water‑cresses and lily‑roots sings in musical tones, “Daughters of the river‑buy them, buy them.”   Here comes the baker with his tray of bread, crying, “O Thou All‑bountiful! O God! fresh bread! O Thou All‑bountiful!”  The water‑seller tinkles his little copper bowls, or drinking cups, and calls to the passers‑by, “O all ye thirsty ones, come to the water!” or quotes a verse of the Koran which promises heaven to those who give a cup of cold water to the thirsting.  The hawker of henna, the fashionable yellowish‑brown staining for the nails‑a paste made from the leaves of Lawsonia alba, probably the “camphire” of our Bible (Song of Sol. 1:14; 4:13), which has clusters of white, highly perfumed flowers lifts up his voice with, “O henna, henna, fragrance of the fifth paradise! flowers of henna!” The woman with a basket of mulberries on her head thus recommends them, “Sweet, sweet, and black are my mulberries, now shall hhalaweh [sweetmeat] sellers die,” that is, for want of any customers to buy their wares now she has brought her mulberries!  From another fruit‑stall you may hear equally figurative language:  “Dates, dates of the heart! but not for the avaricious;” while stoneless raisins are offered as “Daughters of Damascus.”  Mrs. Finn heard a woman, vending the produce of her vineyard, cry, “Lovely grapes, lovely grapes! Oh how often have the doves made their nests amongst them!” and again, “Look!  They are as good as those of Damascus which men call ‘maiden’s cheeks.’”  The very beggar calls out “Charity, Charity, God will repay it,” and then, “May thy mouth be always filled with sugar,” to which those who refuse an alms invariably say, “Pass on! God will give thee.”  This highly tropical language meets you everywhere, even on the most prosaic occasions, but especially when an Easterner feels and expresses himself strongly.  The humblest and poorest of the people when, like our Savior, they desire to administer a veiled, delicate, but forcible reproof, will speak to you in parables, and that often with great readiness and exquisite skill.


Now the Bible, on its human side and as to the whole letter of it, is entirely an Eastern book.  It was written in the East, about events which happened in the East, by Eastern penmen, and at first, and as to much of it, during long ages, for Eastern readers only.  It follows as a matter of necessity, that both in thought and language it must speak as men speak in the East.  It is therefore most natural and interesting to observe, that, next to a sublime simplicity which is without a rival in any other writing, nothing distinguishes Holy Scripture more, from a literary standpoint, than its exuberant use of highly figurative language.  The modes of thought and speech in Palestine being such as I have said, the Bible could not possibly be genuine if it were otherwise.  Countless surface difficulties which are alleged by the free-thinking objector, or which force themselves on the sensitive conscience of the believer are due to this simple cause.  Take an instance of each out of a thousand others.

Let us glance first at a free‑thinking objection.  “Where,” cries the atheist triumphantly, “is it spoken by the prophets,


Nowhere is Nazareth so much as mentioned in the Old Testament, and Jews as well as atheists, taking this literally, triumphantly point to an error in the Gospel.  But observe the true answer.  In thus claiming a distinct fulfillment of prophecy in Matthew 2:23, the apostle uses a double figure.  First, Enallage, or Exchange, where “he shall be called,” or “his name shall be called,” is put for “he shall be.” This is a common Hebrew idiom.  It occurs very strikingly in Isaiah 7:14, “shall call his name Emmanuel (God with us);” in Isaiah 9:6, “his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,” etc., and in Jeremiah 23:6, “He shall be called Jehovah Tsidkainu (Jehovah our Righteousness).”  Our Lord Jesus Christ has not borne these as His names, but He has borne them as His characteristics.  The idiom “to be called” means not only “to be” but “to be recognized and renowned as.”  It is therefore “He shall be a Nazarene.”  But to “be a Nazarene,” here is the figure of Metaphor, and means “to be like a Nazarene.”  Now the Nazarenes in our Lord’s day were despised, and held in great contempt, and treated as worthless and ignorant people.  Nathaniel, who was a good man, and lived at Cana only some six miles away, and therefore well knew the village where Jesus was brought up, cries, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)  Several of the prophets tell us of the contempt and shame that would cover Messiah, that, as Isaiah puts it, “He is despised and rejected of men, a very sorrowful man [literally “a man of sorrows”] and acquainted with grief, and like one causing men to hide their faces from him; He is despised, and we esteem Him not.”  (Isaiah 53:3)  Hence how clear is the fulfillment claimed by Matthew, in allusion to the character of Nazarenes in his day, “He shall be called “ (that is, “He shall be counted as a Nazarene.”  (Matt.  2:23)  It is as though people had said of a child long years ago, that he would be said to be a wild and wandering man, and I claimed the fulfillment of this prediction by saying “They said he would be counted a Bohemian,” or “They said he would be counted an Arab,” for while they did not use either of these expressions, they said he would be like what a Bohemian or an Arab is like; and this in highly figurative language is saying just the same thing.  Had our Blessed Lord lived in His own city Bethlehem, or even in Judea, He would have been known and esteemed as of the lineage of David; but brought up in Nazareth, in “Galilee of the foreign nations,” or “heathen Galilee,” in the providence of God He came through this circumstance to be looked down upon and utterly despised as, ”Jesus of Nazareth,” or as it should be, “Jesus the Nazarene.”  Now we have seen it was “spoken by the prophets,” that Christ, during His ministry on earth, should bear, a name of shame and contempt; and Matthew, therefore, strikingly sums up and expresses this in the highly figurative but strictly accurate words, “And he [Joseph] came and dwelt in a town called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was, spoken by the prophets, He [Christ, the Messiah] shall be called a Nazarene.”

Again, to deal with a case of sensitive conscience, when I was a child, I felt


in those words of our Savior’s first sermon where we are told “to pluck out” our right eye and to “cut off” our right hand if they make us offend, and so to practice self mutilation. (Matt. 5:29, 30)  Still greater the difficulty seemed in verses 39, 40, 41, where we are told to turn the left cheek to be smitten to him who smites us on the right; to give to “any man” our “coat” who rightly or wrongly sues us and takes away our “ shirt; “and to go two miles for “whomsoever” may force us with unpaid and compulsory labor to go one.  Greatest of all seemed the difficulty of verse 42, which tells us to give to everyone who asks, and not to turn away from any borrower, though if the words are to be taken literally, as I thought, a man could not “provide for his own and specially for those of his own house,” and so would have “denied the faith” and be “worse than an unbeliever,” (I Tim.  5:8) to say nothing of his often giving money to those who would apply it to wrong and even criminal purposes!  In my young heart, taking these words, as I did, in their literal Western sense, and finding them in a plain and most practical discourse, I was led to reject the teaching of Christ as unreal, unpractical, and even immoral!  I know now that these forms of expression are highly figurative, being nothing less than the powerful figure of Hyperbole, or Exaggeration, and mean no more than that we are strongly to avoid a litigious spirit where our own rights are called in question, that we are not to give way to bitter resentment in regard to personal injuries, and that we are to be very ready to lend a sympathizing ear and a helping hand to the suffering and deserving poor.

Having shown the importance of understanding figurative language, let us now ask


Its Greek name, a “trope,” from the Greek word trepo, “I turn,” well expresses the fact that it is the turning a word or words away from its common, ordinary meaning.  In this sense it signifies a word or words put in the place of another word or other words.  This is done by way of illustration and generally on the principle of resemblance.  The name “figure” comes from the Latin word figura, “a shape,” or “form.”   “A word,” says Macbeth, “is used figuratively when it is brought forward in a form, construction, or application different from its simplest form, construction, or application.  Thus, when we speak of the head of an animal, we use the word `head’ in its literal and first signification, as meaning that part of the body in which are placed the eyes, nose, and so forth; but when we speak of the head of an army, we think of the resemblance between an army and an animal’s body, as to the highest or most prominent part in the animal and in the army, and then we apply the name of that part of the animal to the similar the force inherent in this figure, his strong sense of personal weakness and self-distrust in view of the onerous task of being “a prophet unto the nations,” and that with so difficult arid unpopular a mission as “to root out and to pull down, and to ruin and to destroy, to build and to plant.”[2]



[1]  Hosea 12:10.

[2] Jeremiah 1:10  This is of course a species of the figure of Enallage; or Exchange, to which I have already alluded, by which the active verb is put for “to declare a thing should be done.”   Thus what is here intended is that Jeremiah should “declare that the nations should be rooted out and pulled down, ruined and destroyed, built and planted.”