Interpreting Scripture requires you to understand the meanings of words in context. Interpreting Scripture also requires you to understand the primary figures of speech. Common figures of speech include simile, metaphor, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, parable, and allegory. Less known and less understood, but just as common, are merism, hendiadys, and sudden silence. Grasping these common figures of speech will help you with meaning. This lesson covers only five of these figures: irony, sarcasm, sudden silence, merism, and hendiadys.
Irony is the use of words to express the opposite of the literal meaning of the words. Sarcasm adds the element of taunt or ridicule. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal with dripping sarcasm, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Baal was no god. In Judges 10:14, God Himself uses irony and sarcasm to upbraid idolatrous Israel, “Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” God knows Israel’s idols will not deliver them.
A standard figure of speech called hendiadys means one through two. This figure may be two nouns connected by “and,” but the two terms refer to one thing. In Genesis 19:24, the words brimstone and fire refer to fiery brimstone. In Luke 1:17, the words in the spirit and power of Elijah refer to Elijah’s powerful spirit. In each case, one thing is meant. So it is in John 6:24. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Jesus is urging one thing, worship of the Father in a truly spiritual manner. Note the hendiadys at the end of Hebrews 12:21, “And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I AM full of fear and trembling’” (italics added). The ESV interprets this hendiadys. “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’” (italics added).
A merism is another standard figure of speech in which two contrasting parts express the totality of something. Genesis 19:4 declares that “the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old”; that is, men of every age. Esther 9:20 says, “Then Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far.” Near and far is the merism.
Finally, another common figure of speech or rhetorical figure is sudden silence, noted by a dash, —, in our English texts. When there is sudden silence, the outcome is left unstated and ought not to be assumed. Exodus 32:31-32 provides an arresting example. “Then Moses returned to the LORD, and said, ‘Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin— and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!’” Whether or not God will forgive the sins of the people is left unstated. The sudden silence accentuates the solemnity of the scene.
Consider how a good understanding of these figures of speech helps you to understand Genesis 2 and 3: “The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die’” (Gen. 2:16-17). What is the knowledge of good and evil? Good and evil is a hendiadys, two words connected by “and” referring to one thing. It refers to the evil enjoyment of good (E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech in the Bible, 659). God presents Adam and Eve with the possibility of learning to use all that is good in the world for evil purposes.
Now the devil comes along, temps Eve, and promises her, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). The devil is lying to Eve. In context, “knowing good and evil” modifies and explains the words, “you will be like God.” Adam and Eve were already like God; they were created in His image. In context, “good and evil” is a merism and not a hendiadys. Remember, context is king. In this case, “good and evil” refers to the entire expanse of knowledge, to all knowledge. However, Adam and Eve cannot achieve all knowledge. They were creatures and will always be creatures. Neither they nor we can be omniscient. The devil changes the meaning of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Rather than a sign warning against the evil enjoyment of good, the devil makes it look like the path to all knowledge. He turns the figure of speech, hendiadys, into a merism.
Now consider Genesis 3:22, “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—. Note the dash is indicating sudden silence. Also note that we once again meet the figure of speech, good and evil. Genesis 3:22 is sarcasm; Adam has not become like God, quite the opposite. With biting sarcasm, God declares, “A goodly god he makes! Does he not?” (Matthew Henry). How is God using the figure, good and evil? God also combines His sarcasm with sudden silence. The standard interpretation that Adam would have been confirmed in his fallen state if he had eaten of the tree of life is unwarranted. Using sarcastic irony, God expresses the opposite of the meaning of the words He states. When there is sudden silence, the outcome is left unstated and ought not to be assumed.
Study the figures of speech the Bible uses. This study will help you to interpret and understand your Bible better.