Figures of Speech – Eironeia (Irony and Sarcasm)

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 referred to by E. W. Bullinger as Eironeia (Ā-rō-nā-ŭ), or “irony,” and it includes sarcasm. Irony is using words to express a meaning other than their literal and straightforward meaning; usually the opposite meaning. “Sarcasm,” which we might define as “biting irony,” comes from the Greek sarkasmos, “to tear the flesh” (from the Greek root sarx, “flesh”), and it is a remark meant to cut or give pain. It may seem strange that the Word of God contains sarcasm. That is because when most people use sarcasm it is just to hurt others, with no motive beyond that. Sarcasm is a way for an angry, unkind, or prideful person to inflict pain or humiliate someone. However, irony, and even sarcasm, can be redemptive if they are used to cause pain in order to “wake someone up,” and cause him to repent. When it comes to irony and sarcasm in the Bible, we must keep in mind who is speaking. Some of the irony and sarcasm in the Bible is God speaking and some of it is God quoting what people have said:

Judges 10
The Israelites abandoned Yahweh [2] and worshiped idol gods. When they went back to Yahweh for help, He replied sarcastically, “Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress” (Judg. 10:14, ESV). Yahweh’s sarcastic remark had its desired effect, and the people redoubled their effort to win His favor, putting away all their idols.

1 Samuel 26
While Saul was chasing David in the desert regions, David snuck into Saul’s tent at night and could have easily killed him. The next morning, David chided Abner, who was responsible for guarding Saul. David said to Abner, “Are you not a man? Who is like you in Israel?” (1 Sam. 26:15, ESV). This is pure sarcasm. David did not really want Abner to improve his protection over Saul. He did, however, want to show Saul that he had no intention of harming him.

2 Samuel 6
Michal was a daughter of Saul and one of the wives of David. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, he took off his royal robes and danced before Yahweh with all his might. This offended Michal, who felt that as the king, David’s behavior was not appropriate. In anger, she made a sarcastic remark about his honoring himself. “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” (2 Sam. 6:20, ESV).

1 Kings 18
The prophet Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal as to who was the true God, Yahweh or Baal. In a contest that was to be determined by fire from heaven, Baal was not making himself known. Elijah used biting irony against Baal’s prophets, which no doubt terribly embarrassed them, but Elijah’s words were really designed for the people of Israel, to show them how pointless it was to worship Baal. “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27, ESV).

Job 38
Job had been speaking very confidently about his situation, as if he really understood it, until God showed up and started asking him questions. God said, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” This mildly sarcastic question, and the questions that followed it, were designed to get Job thinking more correctly about how little he really knew, and it worked well. After God had finished speaking, Job said, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you…I will proceed no further” (Job 38:4 ff and 40:4 and 5, ESV).

Amos 4
“Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days” (Amos 4:4, ESV). The people of Israel were worshipping pagan gods at places such as Bethel and Gilgal, and so, via sarcasm, God invites them to continue their practices and “multiply” their transgression. Since Israel had been plagued with famine, drought, blights, molds, locusts, and more, as is clear from the context, it should have been apparent to them that worshipping idols had not done them much good. God’s sarcastic statement was meant to highlight that fact, but the people missed the point of God’s statement and continued their idolatry until eventually the nation of Israel was destroyed.

1 Corinthians 4
Some of the people in the church at Corinth were arrogant and out of touch with how much they needed to improve. The Apostle Paul used a sarcastic remark to get their attention. “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!” (1 Cor. 4:8, ESV). A few verses later he wrote: “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor. 4:14).

1 Corinthians 14
Some of the prophets in Corinth were putting too much weight on the revelation they received, without listening to the other prophets. Prophets are not flawless, so every prophet needs to be meek to correction, and others must carefully weigh his or her message. Also, all the prophets who receive a revelation need to be given a chance to speak; there should not be too much emphasis put on the message of one or two prophets. Paul reproved those prophets who overemphasized the revelation they received by a mildly sarcastic remark: “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Cor. 14:36, ESV). No prophet would want to say he or she was the only one who got a revelation message, so Paul’s remark would wake people up to the fact that they needed to listen to others. [3]

Endnotes

[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).
[2] “Yahweh” is the personal name of the God of the Old Testament. It is translated LORD in most English versions, and “Jehovah” in some.
[3] Although 1 Corinthians 14:36 seems to apply to the women, it applies to all of the prophets of verses 29-33. See our article on “Should Women be Silent in the Church?” by John Schoenheit.

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