Understanding Figures Of Speech

Luke 13:3

"And he spake many things unto them in parables..."


In a study of the Bible, it would be well for the student to clearly identify the different kinds of figures of speech. These are used in ordinary literature, and God has employed the same tools for His purpose.

Some Of The Most Common Figures Of Speech And Their Definition

1) Parable

A simple, normal, real life story or illustration used to present some moral or spiritual truth. The Scriptures record at least thirty parables that Jesus used during His ministry, such as the good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37); the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32); and the Pharisee and publican (Lk. 18:9-14). A parable had a way of "concealing truth" from those who would not receive or follow it (Mt. 13:10-16), while dramatically "revealing it" to those eager to listen and trust.

2) Fable

This figure of speech is similar to a parable, but made up of a "fictitious" or "imaginary" story. Its purpose is to teach some moral lesson. It might designate some inanimate object as speaking (2 Kgs. 14:8-10).

3) Simile

A thing or action that is said to be "like" or "as" something of a different kind of quality. You often read such expressions as, "the Spirit of God descending like a dove" (Mt. 3:16); "thought your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isa. 1:18); and "we like sheep have gone astray" (Isa. 53:6).

4) Metaphor

A word or phrase which is said to be something else because of a likeness involved. It is simply calling one thing by another word, more descriptive and figurative. Jesus said of Herod, "Go he, and tell that fox" (Lk. 13:32). And in the upper room He said, "Take, eat; this is by body" (Mt. 26:26).

5) Allegory

A metaphor extended into a complete story to "illustrate" some truth. The writer does not identify all the particular parts, but leaves the reader to infer their meaning. Paul's picture of the Christian putting on his armor for the battle of life is an excellent example (Eph. 6:11-17).

6) Riddle

An analogy written up as a puzzle. To unravel it will thus produce some truth, as in Judges 14:14.

7) Hyperbole

An exaggeration of some statement for the purpose of emphasis. Notice the extreme statements in Psalm 22:6, 14, spoken in such a manner for "effect."

8) Irony And Sarcasm

A sharp remark uttered in contempt or ridicule. These two words are basically the same, the latter being more severe in degree and intensity. A typical case of this is the taunting mockery which the soldiers threw into the face of Jesus just before He was crucified (Mt. 27:29), and which the chief priests and scribes cried out later on as He hung on the cross (Mk. 15:31-32).

9) Interrogation

To question for effect, often "not" seeking an answer. Such a method will bring out a point very strongly, or even argue to the contrary, simply by the way in which the question is asked. Read Hebrews 2:3 and notice that to ask the question is to answer it with deadly force!

10) Metonymy

To substitute one word for another, because they are related. When Jesus spoke of "the cup" (1 Cor. 11:25-26), He was referring to what was in the cup. Or when we read that "Moses...being read in the synagogues every sabbath day" (Acts 15:21), it means that the word "Moses" is used for the "writings of Moses".

11) Personification

A figure where inanimate beings have personal attributes. Read Psalm 114:3, "The sea saw it, and fled."

12) Anthropomorphism

The ascribing of human forms or attributes to God. The Bible speaks of the "hands," "back," and "face" of God (Ex. 33:22-23).


Understanding the definition of these various figures of speech and how they are used in scripture will greatly enhance the Bible student's ability to grasp the full spiritual meaning of a passage or passages under consideration.

--W. Robert Palmer, "How To Understand The Bible" (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1980), 92-93.


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Mike Riley
Montana Street Church of Christ
El Paso, Texas

September 16, 2003