Figures of Speech – Aposiopesis (Sudden Silence)

The ability to communicate with words is one thing that sets mankind apart from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use of figures of speech, of which there are more than 200 varieties in Scripture. [1] When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. In the Bible, God uses figures of speech to emphasize things that He wants us to see as important. Many people who read the Bible never think to ask themselves, “How do we know what God wants emphasized in His Word?” God uses figures of speech to put emphasis where He wants emphasis, so it is important that we recognize and properly interpret the figures of speech in the Bible. Knowing the figures of speech God uses in the Bible helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy its richness.

The figure of speech we are going to study in this article is Aposiopesis or “Sudden Silence.” Aposiopesis is a “figure of omission,” and occurs when the speaker suddenly breaks off what he or she was saying, omitting the conclusion. There can be many reasons a speaker may break off his sentence. He may not really know how to finish the sentence, or there may be too much emotion to finish, or words are felt inadequate to fully express the thoughts and feelings, or the speaker may feel that the listener can finish the thought on his own.

An example of Aposiopesis would occur in an old western movie if a “good guy” says to the villain, “Why you dirty dog, I oughtta…,” but then never completes his sentence. Perhaps he could not think of what he would do, or he was unwilling to express it, or perhaps he knew what he was thinking was not really appropriate. In any case, he just lets his thought drop and lets his potential action be filled in by the imagination of the listeners. Or imagine a woman trying to express her feelings about receiving a surprise engagement ring. She says, “It’s beautiful! Oh my goodness, it’s…” In the emotion and intensity of the moment, words fail to accurately communicate feelings, so she just stops speaking and the listener is left to relate to her feelings, and not to any words that she might have spoken.

There is a good example of Aposiopesis in the movie Braveheart. The hero, William Wallace, has been captured and faces torture and death. The Princess Isabelle has come to visit him for the last time. She says, “If you can only live…” She then breaks into sobs, knowing he will not live. Overcome by the thought of his death, she cannot complete her sentence. This leaves the audience to imagine all that could have been if Wallace were allowed to live.

Another example occurs in the movie The Matrix. Two pivotal characters, Trinity and Cypher discuss if the man Neo is the one who can save humankind from the machines. Their leader, Morpheus, believes he is “the one.” Then Cypher poses the question, “Yeah, but if he’s wrong…” He stops midway through his sentence because the consequence of Morpheus being wrong is too awful to contemplate. Cypher’s Aposiopesis also leaves the audience, like the characters in the movie, in a suspenseful foreboding, left to ponder what the consequences may be if Neo is not “the one.”

The figure of speech Aposiopesis places emphasis on the emotion, intensity, and uncertainty in the moment, and gets the reader in touch with the conflicts in life that each of us know only too well. The people who are portrayed in the Bible are not just imaginary characters, but real people who wrestled with the difficulties of life, so it is not unusual that they, like us, have instances of Aposiopesis in their speech.

Aposiopesis has some similarities to other figures of omission, one of which is ellipsis. However, an ellipsis is an omission that can generally be filled in fairly accurately from the context and places the emphasis of the sentence on what is present while deemphasizing the part that is omitted. In contrast, an Aposiopesis usually cannot be accurately filled in from the context and emphasizes the emotion and humanness of the moment.

The Bible has some excellent examples of Aposiopesis. [2]

Genesis 3:22 (ESV)
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—”

God never finished His sentence, and thus the first example of Aposiopesis in the Bible is spoken by God, revealing that He, too, feels emotion, something that becomes abundantly clear as we continue to read through the Bible. God never finished His sentence about what would happen if Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Life in their fallen state because the thought of His people having everlasting life but in a state of sin and sickness was too horrible to express.

Exodus 32:32 (KJV)
Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.

Moses came down Mount Sinai to find Israel worshipping the golden calf and involved in sexual immorality. He dealt with the sin and rebellion in the camp, but still needed God’s forgiveness for the nation. He asked “if” God would forgive their sin, but how could he complete his sentence? It was not as if he could say something like, “then we will serve you,” because there was no guarantee of that, as history clearly shows. In the emotion and uncertainty of the moment he left his sentence unfinished, shortly moving on to the opposite side, saying “and if not.”

Psalm 6:3 (ESV)
My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long?

The psalmist David, like us, was sometimes greatly troubled in his life, and looked to Yahweh for help and deliverance. If David had asked a purely intellectual and philosophical question, it would have been complete and well formulated, such as, “How long before you send the Messiah and rescue us from these evil people and terrible situations?” However, in the emotion of the moment he, like many of us, could only say, “How long….”

Psalm 27:13 (KJV)
I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

Without the italics supplied by the King James Version, the figure Aposiopesis would be clear. How many times have each of us felt, “Unless I had believed to see the goodness of Jehovah in the land of the living…!” (Darby). What is the value of the Hope? It gives us strength to endure, courage to face difficult situations, joy in otherwise dark times, and much more. No wonder David cannot finish his sentence. It would take a book to describe all the good the Hope brings to our lives. The translators of the KJV, and many other versions also, took the verse as an ellipsis, not an Aposiopesis, so they filled in the “missing words.” However, that takes away much of the emotion in the text and also greatly limits the otherwise expansive possibilities that could have been in David’s mind. Also, readers need to be aware that there is a textual variant that is given credence in some versions, but the Hebrew text is not unclear as it stands.

Daniel 3:15 (NASB)
“Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. In a rage Nebuchadnezzar had them brought in and threatened them. In his anger he let the end of his sentence fall off. Most versions, such as the NASB above, add “very well” or something similar to complete Nebuchadnezzar’s thought. But to Nebuchadnezzar, there was no point in saying what he would do if the three Jews decided to obey him, and he probably had not given it any thought anyway. Instead of trying to think of something in the moment, he hurried on to say that they would be burned to death if they did not obey.

Hosea 9:14 (NIV)
Give them, O LORD— what will you give them? Give them wombs that miscarry and breasts that are dry.

Hosea prophesied in some very difficult times. He was the one God chose to bring the message that Israel had become so rebellious and disobedient that God would “put an end to the kingdom of Israel” (Hosea 1:4). Hosea himself was angry with the sinful people of Israel and spoke against them. In his anger and frustration he spoke to God and said, “Give them, O Yahweh…” but then he could not think of what evil they deserved, so he broke off his sentence and took time to think about it before he spoke again.

Acts 23:9 (Darby)
And there was a great clamour, and the scribes of the Pharisees’ part rising up contended, saying, We find nothing evil in this man; and if a spirit has spoken to him, or an angel…

Paul was on trial, and although the Pharisees and Sadducees in the crowd were angry with him, they had a long standing and bitter feud with each other as well. When Paul announced he was a Pharisee and was on trial concerning the hope and the resurrection, decades-old tensions in the crowd erupted and the Pharisees spoke up on his behalf. However, they never finished their sentence. Perhaps that was because the many Pharisee voices agreed on the first part but not on any conclusion, perhaps because they could not bring themselves to say that Paul was correct in his teaching or should be released, or perhaps even because their Aposiopesis was not actually intended but was “forced” because their speech was cut off by the shouting of the opposition. Interestingly, in the centuries after the New Testament was written, some scribes became uncomfortable with the sudden ending of the sentence and added the words completing the sentence that are now in some Greek manuscripts and have made their way into the King James Version as, “let us not fight against God.”

Endnotes

[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).
[2] In this article we quote from different versions of the Bible because different versions represent the original text differently, some much more clearly than others.

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