the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
Bullinger's Figures of Speech Used in the Bible Bullinger's Figures of Speech
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All language is governed by law; but, in order to increase the power of a word, or the force of an expression, these laws are designedly departed from, and words and sentences are thrown into, and used in, new forms, or figures. The ancient Greeks reduced these new and peculiar forms to science, and gave names to more than two hundred of them.
The Romans carried forward this science: but with the decline of learning in the Middle Ages, it practically died out. A few writers have since then occasionally touched upon it briefly, and have given a few trivial examples: but the knowledge of this ancient science is so completely forgotten, that its very name to-day is used in a different sense and with almost an opposite meaning. These manifold forms which words and sentences assume were called by the Greeks Schema and by the Romans, Figura. Both words have the same meaning, viz., a shape or figure. When we speak of a person as being "a figure " we mean one who is dressed in some peculiar style, and out of the ordinary manner. The Greek word Schema is found in 1 Corinthians 7:31, "The fashion of this world passeth away"; Philippians 2:8, "being found in fashion as a man." The Latin word Figura is from the verb fingere, to form, and has passed into the English language in the words figure, transfigure, configuration, effigy, feint, feign, etc., etc.
A FIGURE is simply a word or a sentence thrown into a peculiar form, different from its original or simplest meaning or use. These forms are constantly used by every speaker and writer. It is impossible to hold the simplest conversation, or to write a few sentences without, it may be unconsciously, making use of figures. We may say, "the ground needs rain ": that is a plain, cold, matter-of-fact statement; but if we say "the ground is thirsty, " we immediately use a figure. It is not true to fact, and therefore it must be a figure. But how true to feeling it is! how full of warmth and life! Hence, we say, "the crops suffer "; we speak of "a hard heart, " "a rough man, " "an iron will. " In all these cases we take a word which has a certain, definite meaning, and apply the name, or the quality, or the act, to some other thing with which it is associated, by time or place, cause or effect, relation or resemblance.
Some figures are common to many languages; others are peculiar to some one language. There are figures used in the English language, which have nothing that answers to them in Hebrew or Greek; and there are Oriental figures which have no counterpart in English; while there are some figures in various languages, arising from human infirmity and folly, which find, of course, no place in the word of God.
It may be asked, "How are we to know, then, when words are to be taken in their simple, original form (i.e., literally), and when they are to be taken in some other and peculiar form (i.e., as a Figure)?" The answer is that, whenever and wherever it is possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed truth; or seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed. And as it is employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized.
From non-attention to these Figures, translators have made blunders as serious as they are foolish. Sometimes they have translated the figure literally, totally ignoring its existence; sometimes they have taken it fully into account, and have translated, not according to the letter, but according to the spirit; sometimes they have taken literal words and translated them figuratively. Commentators and interpreters, from inattention to the figures, have been led astray from the real meaning of many important passages of God's Word; while ignorance of them has been the fruitful parent of error and false doctrine. It may be truly said that most of the gigantic errors of Rome, as well as the erroneous and conflicting views of the Lord's People, have their root and source, either in figuratively explaining away passages which should be taken literally, or in taking literally what has been thrown into a peculiar form or Figure of language: thus, not only falling into error, but losing the express teaching, and missing the special emphasis which the particular Figure was designed to impart to them.
This is an additional reason for using greater exactitude and care when we are dealing with the words of God. Man's words are scarcely worthy of such study. Man uses figures, but often at random and often in ignorance or in error. But "the words of the Lord are pure words. " All His works are perfect, and when the Holy Spirit takes up and uses human words, He does so, we may be sure, with unerring accuracy, infinite wisdom, and perfect beauty.
We may well, therefore, give all our attention to "the words which the Holy Ghost teacheth."
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