Introduction to Figures of Speech by A.E. Knoch

PATIENT PLODDING seems to be the only path by which we can attain clear cut conceptions of the facts of God’s Word. Perhaps this is why the figure of a workman is used in connection with the Word of Truth. Although I have taken a special interest in figures of speech ever since I studied them in high school, and have been vitally concerned with those in the Scriptures, I have always felt that the subject needed clarifying in some way before the average student would take to this important study. The reason for this lack of interest lies partly in the inappropriate names given to figures, and partly in a lack of clear definition and classification. Now that I am trying to get the facts in card index form for study, the subject is beginning to clarify.

The study of figures cannot be safely neglected by the student of Scripture. We easily go astray through ignorance in this field. The disciples had much difficulty on this score. When our Lord referred to the doctrine of the Pharisees under the figure of leaven, they took Him literally, and missed the whole lesson. In modern times much mistaken teaching has been based on the failure to see a figure. One great movement, which insists that our Lord has no material body, bases its reasoning on the statement that He is a life-giving Spirit. They could easily say to me, “You don’t believe the Bible, for it says that the Lord is a spirit, and you deny it.” The immediate context should have saved them from this mistake, for there Adam is called a soul. They cannot reason that, therefore, he had no body. When a passage is clearly contrary to facts it is always true to feeling and a figure of speech.

Many imagine that when we “make” a passage figurative we practically deny it. Quite the contrary is the case, for the figure usually emphasizes the truth of a passage at the expense of the facts. Thus, in contrasting Adam and our Lord, the difference lay in the place given to the soul and the spirit. Adam was dominated by his soul, our Lord by His spirit. In one the soul was alive, in the Other the spirit was life-giving. Nothing could excel the splendid terseness and forcefulness of calling one a soul and the other a Spirit, even though, strictly speaking, these statements are not literally true.

Others wish to know how to be sure when a passage is literal and when figurative. Here there is room for help. The student needs proper tools so that he can easily become acquainted with figures and so that he can examine and verify the facts. Something like a concordance seems to be the best implement. Meanwhile we hope to help by indicating the more prominent figures by means of a small superior letter, F for the commonest of all figures, an Implication, as when our Lord is called a Spirit, and A for an Association (as we now call a Metonymy) which also occurs very frequently. In this way the principal figures are pointed out in the text, and most of the figures of a like character are given in the concordance for comparison and study.

Some popular errors rest on ignorance of one of the common figures of speech, Personification. No one questions this figure in the case of the rich man who said to his soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years…” (Luke 12:19). No one reasons from this that the human soul is a distinct person. Instead, it is an exquisite way of addressing oneself when the enjoyment of the senses is in question. So also with the spirit of God. Even a superficial study of the literal occurrences of the word spirit will show that the spirit of a man, or of Christ, or of God, is not a distinct personality! When so used it is figurative. The spirit of Jesus does not let Paul speak the word in the province of Asia (Acts 16:7). Shall we make this a personality distinct from our Lord? Neither should we make God’s spirit a person, when it is used in the figure Personification.

Our Lord could have said to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You are like the progeny of wipers” (Matt.3:7)! This would have been true as to fact. He might have shortened it to “You are the progeny of vipers.” This would not be true as to fact, though truer to feeling. What He did say was, “Progeny of vipers!” How much more terse and trenchant and true to the emotions! Let us learn from this that figures of speech are often false as to fact in order to be fervent in feeling. Figurative statements are not a sound basis for reasoning. We cannot say (as, alas, has often been done in other less obvious cases), that the leaders in Israel were not human beings at all, but vipers. Some even add, If you don’t believe that, you reject the Word of God and make Christ a liar! From this extreme case we may see how easily zealous but ignorant “faith” may fail to understand God’s Word.

But this example was especially elaborated in order to show the true literary nature of figures of likeness. They are all condensed similes. Figurative speech is the language of feeling, and feeling demands terse, vigorous statements. The simile (you are like) when used of objects which are very dissimilar, points out one or two marks of similarity. The metaphor (you are) is more forceful, because it leaves out the word like. The implication leaves out all of the introductory words you are like. As the name shows, the likeness is implied, not stated. It will be found helpful for the understanding of figures of likeness to remember that they are abbreviated forms. It may be well at times to add the proper form of be and the word like. For instance, our Lord said they were fleeing from indignation. They were not literally fleeing. They were like those who are fleeing from some catastrophe, because they sought shelter in baptism. This kind of figure, which implies a likeness, is most frequent of all.

My recent investigations in this realm have impressed me with the fact that figurative language is the shorthand of the emotions. When we are under much stress, or excited, we do not wish to go through all the circumlocution necessary to state facts, but leave out what may be taken for granted. And so we make prominent the points we wish to press. It is a vital method of emphasizing and condensing truth. A few words with fervor convey more than many in cold blood.


In the course of the work, we found it necessary to classify a large number of figures for which there seemed to be no name. For instance, take the expression “Physician, cure yourself” (Luke 4:23)! The Lord is compared by implication hypocatastasis to one who cures others. Further He is compared to one who needs a physician, and the action of curing. It is a combination of figures of likeness. I had defined a parable in just these terms, but can we call this a parable? We usually think of a parable as a longer story, yet I could see no vital difference. It was with considerable satisfaction, therefore, that I found that the Scriptures themselves name this a parable, not a proverb, as in the Authorized Version. ‘Twas a pity this was not correctly rendered. It would have saved much confusion of thought as to the real nature of a parable. Now we know that it is an active likeness, a moving picture, as it were, with like action included.

Moreover, what we call a parable is sometimes a group of parables. Thus the parables of the sowing are four, not one (Matt.13:3; Mark 4:3; Luke 8:5). When our Lord had finished telling the “parable” of the sowing (Mark 4:2-9) the twelve asked him to explain the parables (plural), not the one parable. The roadside seed was one parable by itself, and so was that sown on rocky places, while those among thorns was the third, and the seed sown on ideal (or good) earth was a distinct parable by itself. There were four different parallels or parables.

A list of the parables given in a German Bible Lexicon gives about thirty. This is in accord with the traditional view. But it is more likely that there are over a hundred of these delightful figures, for our Lord was very free with them, and they are not absent from other parts of the Scriptures. It is a joy to find oneself in line with God’s thoughts even on these externals, and it is sure to help us to more clarity in comprehending His mind and heart.


Next to figures of likeness the Scriptures use figures of Association, usually called Metonymy or Exchange. It also seems to be a condensed form, which may be expanded. Thus “drinking this cup” really means “drinking of the contents of this cup” (1 Cor.11:26). We are trying to find names for the figures used in Scripture which really correspond with the facts. That is why we call this Association, which alone seems to seize the true idea, and is broad enough to cover all the varieties. Some object associated with a thing is used for it. Moses is put for his writings, Christ is called the Resurrection. Anything closely connected, as the Circumcision, is used for those who are circumcised. It may actually be a part of it, as when flesh is used for all connected with man’s physical frame.


It is helpful, if we wish to understand a figure of this kind, to know that it is a terse, condensed form, usually a word for a phrase, and then to expand it so that it becomes literal. Thus, we do not read Moses, but [the writings of] Moses. Christ is not Himself the resurrection, but the [One Who effects] resurrection. Circumcision is a rite, but the Circumcision are the [subjects of] circumcision, and the flesh includes all [connected with] the flesh, according to the context. This, and similar figures, especially parts of the body for the whole, as “every eye will be seeing Him” (Rev.1:7), we call Near Association, for they are very close and, indeed, partly literal, for they will see Him with their eyes.

I am more and more impressed with the conviction that figures are vital to the understanding of the Scriptures, and are not an academic plaything of scholars, which has little effect on doctrine and deportment. Next to the meaning of a word, a figure may be the deciding factor in a great movement, so as to determine action. The honest unlettered believer, like the disciples of our Lord, are in danger of taking literally what is clearly and convincingly concerned with higher things. And the imaginative, “spiritual” believer goes to the other extreme and sees symbols everywhere which conflict with the literal facts. To bring system and order into this chaos is worth some effort. The question is how to bring it to the saints in a practical way. Not many of them will take a course in the science of figures, if such were to be had. Even books on the subject are rare and usually expensive and erudite.


My present plan is this. I will note the principal figures, F Implication, M Metaphor, P Parable, V Vision, A Association, N Near-Association, Pn Personification, C Condescension, D Demeaning, and Ir Irony, by means of small superior letters, right on the text, but so small that they will not disturb the ordinary reader. In this way the student will be continually reminded of the figures and will become figure-conscious and form their acquaintance. But in parables and visions nearly every other word would be noted, so here the P and the V indicate whole groups of figures. This has already been done in the manuscript of the German version.


On the other hand I would like to give a concordance of these, as well as other figures. This can be much condensed by indicating the figures in the Keyword Concordance by means of the same letters, and simply referring to these, in most cases, in the concordance of figures. Thus, at very small cost, we could put into the hands of the saints a practical means of mastering this important matter. I did not think I could find time for this work, so hoped to have it done by others. I am glad now that this hope failed, although it has taken a vast amount of time and effort, for it is a task no one should tackle without a long training beforehand.

The importance of figures of speech arises from the fact that, taken literally, as a rule they are not true, hence are very likely to be misunderstood. So, when our Lord said that He would rebuild the temple in three days, this was brought up against Him with convincing effect. Then this element of literal untruth is often made a premise for further false conceptions. The only safety lies in an intelligent and vital sympathy and insight by which to detect figures, which will seize their real intention. Thus, a spiritual man would say to himself, God does not dwell in Herod’s temple, He dwells in Christ. If they destroy Him, He will undo their work in three days.

But perhaps still more mischief is wrought, even by those who recognize figures, in failing to confine them to the actual points of contact. In figures of likeness, particularly, we are tempted to expand the similarity to factors which are not in view and which cause havoc in interpretation. Well do I remember the relief I found when I first saw that the figure of an espoused virgin (2 Cor.11:2) had no bearing on the subject of the “bride.” It had been used to “prove” that the church is the bride. Yet it has nothing to do with marriage, but is limited to the singleness which becomes those who are engaged. So many fine figures such as that of the body of Christ and His headship, are being expanded beyond their legitimate limits, causing much confusion.

Often we hear the expression, “when the body of Christ is joined to its Head.” Here we have a mixture of two distinct figures, the body (including its head) and Christ as Head. In one case the whole body is used to illustrate our union with one another in Christ. In the other a part of the human body, the head, is used to show our Lord’s relation to the saints, as over and superior to them. We cannot intelligently speak of being united to our Head in the future. That relation already exists, so far as the figure is concerned. These precious parallels should be carefully pondered in our hearts and kept each in its own casket. But this deserves an article by itself, so need not be enlarged upon at this time.

We trust that we can claim the sympathy and prayers of our friends as we plan and plod to prepare a smooth path for all of His dear saints who seek to master the message of God’s revelation. We could perhaps please them better by devoting our time to work which shows more immediate results. But we are deeply impressed with a conviction that this is in His will, and may be used for His glory, and has an importance second only to the making of a concordant version. The work is tiring and trying, and few would care to do it unless they were sure of His approval in that day.