Personification: Examples in literature and the Bible

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 cover in this article is Personification, which occurs when a thing is spoken of as if it were a person, or takes on the attributes of a person. The Greek word for Personification is prosopopoeia, which, interestingly, has come into English in its own right, and appears in English dictionaries with a meaning that is slightly different from the meaning it had in Greek as “personification.” Today, as well as meaning “personification,” prosopopoeia is when an imaginary person is represented as speaking or acting.

The figure of speech Personification creates more intimacy, identity, or intensity than does a literal expression of fact. For example, if your car will not start, you can dispassionately and accurately say, “Something is wrong with my car,” or you can express more intimacy and intensity by saying, “She’s dead!” The car is not a woman, and cannot “die.” I was on an archaeological excavation in Israel when our team uncovered a large basalt boulder below ground level. It was too heavy to lift out, so an Israeli graduate student tried to break it with a sledgehammer. Worn out and pouring sweat after ten minutes of pounding with no results, he announced, “The stone is laughing at me,” a beautiful Personification.

Poets have long known that Personification expresses relationship and emotion better than simple statements of fact do, and so many poems contain Personification. For example, in My Wage by Jessie B. Rittenhouse, life is a person who pays only what it agreed to pay: “I bargained with Life for a penny, And Life would pay no more…For Life is a just employer, He gives you what you ask…any wage I had asked of Life, Life would have paid.” Ella Wilcox portrays the hills and the world itself as alive and responsive: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone;…Sing, and the hills will answer; Sigh, it is lost on the air….” (Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox). Edwin Arnold won an award in 1852 for his wonderful poem, Belshazzar’s Feast, which contains powerful Personifications, including the following: “The rolling thunder and the raging sea, Speak the stern purpose of the Deity, And storms beneath and rainbow hues above, Herald his anger or proclaim his love; The still small voices of the summer day, The red sirocco, and the breath of May, The lingering harmony in ocean shells, The fairy music of the meadow bells, Earth and void air, water and wasting flame, Have words to whisper, tongues to tell, his [God’s] name.”

The poets are not the only ones who know of the power of the figure of speech Personification. God has been using it in His Word since Genesis.

Genesis 4:10 (KJV)
And he [God] said [to Cain, who had just murdered Abel], What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

In this beautiful Personification, it is not Abel who cries from the ground, but Abel’s blood, which was horribly and unexpectedly spilled from his body onto the dust, where its life force helplessly wasted away and died. Another example of Personification is:

Genesis 9:5 (KJV)
And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.

In this verse, animals are treated as people who have hands and will bring God’s judgment upon those who are disobedient.

2 Kings 3:19 (KJV)
And ye shall smite every fenced city, and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree, and stop all wells of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones.

The Personification in this verse appears in the Hebrew text, because the verb translated “mar” is more accurately “cause pain to” or “grieve.” It grieves the land not to be able to produce crops and thus fulfill its God-given purpose, just as it grieves us (or should grieve us) when we feel that something is keeping us from doing what God would have us do in our lives.

Psalm 77:16 (KJV)
The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled.

This verse vividly portrays God’s interaction with nature when He parted the Red Sea and the Israelites passed over on dry ground. God moved so powerfully that even the water was afraid, and made a path for His people.

Proverbs 1:20
Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares;

The entire book of Proverbs is made more intense and personal by portraying wisdom as a woman who is passionately pleading with people to be wise and not to live as fools who will receive the consequence of their foolish actions.

Isaiah 24:23 (KJV)
Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign in mount Zion….

At this time the sun dominates the earth, shining brilliantly upon all Creation, so Psalm 19:5 compares it to a bridegroom coming out of his bedchamber the morning after his wedding, beaming with delight; and also to a strong man showing up on race day, rejoicing to be able to run. However, when God, in all His glory, comes to reign in Jerusalem, even the sun will be ashamed in His presence.

Joel 1:10 (KJV)
The field is wasted, the land mourneth; for the corn is wasted: the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth.

Some versions, such as the NIV, translate the Personification out of the verse, robbing it of its pathos and power: “The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up; the grain is destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the oil fails.” This verse depicts the land mourning because there is no produce. The Personification creates great intimacy and understanding, because we all know the mourning we feel when we work hard but get no results.

Endnotes

[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).

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