What kinds of literary techniques are used in the Bible?
There is an incredible variety of literary means and methods used by God in His Word to convey what He wanted to reveal to us. One may wonder, “Why did God use so many different techniques and styles in the Bible? Wouldn’t it have been easier, or even better, to use just one straightforward way of writing to get His message across?”
The simple answer to that question is that God used different people in different ways--each who were free to write in the style they were familiar with as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Examples of chiasmus can be found in the Bible; they’re everywhere in God’s Word. Biblical writers used chiasmus to add emphasis to their writings--to highlight details of particular importance. Here’s an example of that, from the earliest use, in Genesis 9:6 :
- “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed."
Jesus Himself also used chiasmus in Matthew 19:30, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Chiasmus is just one of the many, many literary techniques found in the Bible. These techniques help to make God’s Word become even more memorable.
Here are some of the more commonly used literary devices found in Scripture:
This is a device found in Old Testament poetry in which the successive units of a poem begin with the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The units might be single lines, pairs of lines, or stanzas (as in Psalm 119). This can only be seen in the original Hebrew text.
This is the repetition of the same initial sounds of adjacent or nearby words and is used for narrative effect. This is a literary device that can really only be seen or heard in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages of the Bible. In English, an example would be “alliteration attracts attention.”
This is an indirect reference to something else. The person, thing, or event being alluded to is understood from a personal or cultural context or knowledge.
- John 8:58, "Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
Many people and events from the Bible have become allusions in the English language, such as when we refer to someone as being a “good Samaritan” or having “the patience of Job” or “the wisdom of Solomon” or even having an unhealthy desire for something that is a “forbidden fruit.”
This is a type of personification that ascribes human characteristics (such as human actions, emotions, or physical attributes) to God. This projection of human characteristics onto God was done in order to make Him more understandable to us. It is the language of appearance--of describing God in human terms.
- Genesis 6:6, "And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart."
This is an indirect type of personification where the speaker addresses an inanimate object or himself or herself or others who cannot or do not respond to the statement or question.
- Psalm 43:5, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?"
- Isaiah 44:23, "Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it. Shout, you lower parts of the earth, break forth into singing, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it!"
This is the repetition of the same internal sounds of adjacent or nearby words and is used for narrative effect. This is a literary device that can really only be seen or heard in the original languages of the Bible. In English, an example of this would be “conceive it, perceive it, believe it, achieve it.”
This is a figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through the reversal of the lines of a poetic structure in order to make a larger point. The two clauses display inverted parallelism.
- Isaiah 6:10, "Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed.”
This is a use of exaggeration for emphasis or rhetorical effect.
- II Chronicles 1:15, "Also the king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones."
- Mark 9:43, "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched."
- John 12:19, "The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!”
This is a figure of speech or an expression that is peculiar to a particular language and in and of itself cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its component words taken separately. Examples in English would be “to pay through the nose,” “break a leg,” and “a bee in your bonnet.”
- Matthew 23:24, "Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"
This is the use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas.
- Revelation 12:1, "Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars."
This imagery is reminiscent of Joseph’s dream of the sun, moon, and stars in Genesis 37:9.
This is a listing of opposite parts to signify a whole or a totality. For example, the division of “night/day” and “darkness/noonday” in the Psalm below means “all the time.”
- Psalm 91:5-6, "You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday."
This is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two seemingly unlike things.
- James 3:6, "And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity."
This is a type of metaphor in which something (either concrete or conceptual) is not identified by its own name but by a name of something closely identified or associated with it as in calling a business executive “a suit.”
- Leviticus 26:6, "I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid; I will rid the land of evil beasts, and the sword will not go through your land."
- Revelation 1:18, "And I have the keys of Hades and of Death."
This is a statement that seems to be illogical or contradictory on the surface but in actually conveys a deeper truth.
- Matthew 16:25, "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it."
This is a figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through the lines of a poetic structure in order to make a larger point.
- Matthew 7:7-8, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened."
This is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human objects (usually the divine, inanimate things, or abstract ideas) and is done as a rhetorical device.
- Psalm 77:16, "The waters saw You, O God; The waters saw You, they were afraid; The depths also trembled."
- Proverbs 1:20-21, "Wisdom calls aloud outside; She raises her voice in the open squares. She cries out in the chief concourses at the openings of the gates in the city she speaks her words."
This is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two seemingly unlike things things using “like” or “as.”
- Matthew 28:3, "His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow."
This is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities--giving meaning or character to something.
- Revelation 13:1, "Then I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name."
This is a figure of speech in which: a part is used to represent the whole or the whole for a part or the specific for the general or the general for the specific.
- II Kings 8:9, "So Hazael went to meet him and took a present with him, of every good thing of Damascus, forty camel-loads."
- Ephesians 6:12, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood."
This is a literary foreshadowing where one person or thing serves as a metaphorical prefigure (type) of another that is to come later. In the Bible, this is a person or thing (as is found in the Old Testament) prefiguring another person or thing (as is found in the New Testament). For example, the bronze snake pole that the people looked to serves as a type or prefiguring of the Cross.
- Numbers 21:9, "So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived."
- John 3:14-15, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."
This is the witty use of the meanings and ambiguities of words. Biblical writers made plays on word meanings that can only be seen in the original languages.
- Matthew 16:18, "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." [Petros, the word for “Peter,” means “a small rock, stone, or pebble”; petra, the word for “rock” here, means “a large rock”].
- Philemon 1:10-11, "I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me." [Onesimus means “profitable or useful”].
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This article was initially inspired by my three children, and it turned into an issue of my "Family Matters" newsletter.
Here's the original opening, before moving into the main section of the article, which begins with the section "Acrostic":
There is an incredible array of varying literary means and methods used by God in His Word to convey what He wanted to reveal to us. One may wonder, “Why did God use so many different techniques and styles in the Bible? Wouldn’t it have been easier, or even better, to use just one straightforward way of writing to get across His message?”.
The simple answer to that is that God delights in using His children. He delights in the talents and gifts He has given to us, and in our using them. That even comes down to the way the many human writers of the Bible expressed themselves when inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what God would have them write.
If you think of it on a human level, parents delight in the things their children do. My three kids have always loved words. When they were very young, they unwittingly brought a great amount of joy to their parents’ ears by the things they said.
Stewart, when he was very, very young, was always told to give everyone “a kiss and a cuddle” before he was put in his bed. We were at my Mum & Dad’s house one time, and he was told to “Give everyone a . . . ." And before I could finish my sentence, he said, “ . . . kissle”. He combined the two key words from “a kiss and a cuddle” into one nice, new wee word.
Alasdair once told us all he knew about World War II. He was very enthusiastic and animated as he creatively expounded all his knowledge and research to us. He even rightly identified Hitler the “Nazi German” as being the “Nasty Vermin”.
As for Kirstie, when we lived in Miami, we would often take a wee holiday up to Orlando to visit my sister. One time, as we were about to leave my sister’s house, Alasdair told Kirstie that, “We have to go back to Miami now”. She responded, “Alasdair, it’s not your Ami, it’s Daddy’s Ami!”. She thought that when I said “Miami”, I was saying “My Ami”. In her mind, “Ami” was the place where we lived, and it belonged to Daddy. She was also a bit surprised to later discover that when we visited my sister, the place didn’t really belong to us, as it wasn’t “Our Lando” . . .
These are all nice ways in which my children have played with language. And I love that. Just as God delights in His children.
As I too love to play around with words, one of my favorite literary techniques is a type of figure of speech called “chiasmus”. Chiasmus is defined as, “A reversal in the order of words in two parallel phrases; a crosswise arrangement of concepts or words that are repeated in reverse order”.
Often it’s better to see what something is rather than to be told what it is, so here’s an example:
“Never let a fool kiss you,
or a kiss fool you.”
You’ve probably noticed them before without realizing what they are, as chiastic phrases are everywhere-- especially in the world of advertising. For instance, when a major computer company put out a revolutionary new computer system, their slogan was:
And for something close to my heart, a famous motorcycle company’s slogan once was:
“Live to Ride.
Ride to Live.”
Many examples of chiasmus can be found in literature, and many have to do with life, the nature of true love, and the dynamics of the family. Here are just a few examples of that:
“You can give without loving,
but you cannot love without giving.”
“Home is where the great are small,
and the small are great.”
“Direct your efforts more to preparing the youth for the path,
and less to preparing the path for the youth.”
“People don’t care how much you know
until they know how much you care.”
Examples of chiasmus can even be found in the Bible; they’re everywhere in God’s Word, actually. Biblical writers used chiasmus to add emphasis to their writings--to highlight details of particular importance. Here’s an example of that, from the earliest use, in Genesis 9v6:
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;”
Jesus Himself also used chiasmus in Matthew 19v30:
“But many who are first will be last,
and the last first.”
Chiasmus is just one of the many, many literary techniques found in the Bible. These techniques help to make God’s Word become even more memorable.
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