The Figure of Speech – Antonomasia as used in the Bible

God is the Author of language, and the ability to communicate by words is one thing that sets apart man from all other creatures. Figures of speech add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. No one has ever used language as precisely as does its Creator in His God-breathed revelation to mankind. When we recognize the figures of speech in the Bible, we are able to more fully enjoy the richness of the Word of God, and also learn much more truth from it. It is important that we become at least somewhat familiar with the figures of speech in Scripture, of which there are more than 200 varieties. [1]

This article will cover Antonomasia, or “name change.” This is a figure that many people use naturally without realizing it. Antonomasia is the figure of speech in which a person’s proper name is exchanged for another person’s name or an epithet. The new name brings attributes or characteristics that are the reason for the exchange.

When my son was little, he used to love to jump on the couch (and other cushy furniture). When I would catch him, I might say, “Stop that, Tarzan!” By calling my son, “Tarzan,” I imported the characteristics of Tarzan, such as running and jumping around wildly, to my son. Similarly, those watching a basketball game might yell out, “Nice shot, Michael!” to someone who had just made an impressive shot. Someone who made an amazingly long drive on a golf course might hear, “Nice drive, Tiger.” In each case, there was some important characteristic imported into the situation when the new name was used.

When Antonomasia is used among acquaintances, the names are familiar, and so the meaning is clear. We all know Tarzan, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. However, in the Bible we must pay close attention to what is literal and what is not, and learn about the characters and the culture to understand the meaning that is being imported into the situation.

A very good example of Antonomasia occurs in 2 Kings. When Jehu was coming to kill the wicked Queen Jezebel, she looked out her window and said to him, “…Have you come in peace, Zimri, you murderer of your master?” (2 Kings 9:31b). Jezebel knew Jehu was not “Zimri,” so why did she call him that? When Elah was king of Israel, Zimri murdered him to gain the throne, and then had the distinction of having the shortest reign of any king of Israel, a whopping seven days (1 Kings 16:8-15). By calling Jehu “Zimri,” Jezebel hoped she would get Jehu to recall that people who killed the king in order to be king usually did not do very well, and this might save her life. Thankfully, Jehu was not bothered by being called “Zimri,” and killed her and took the throne.

Another example of Antonomasia occurs in the book of Malachi, which foretold that the prophet Elijah would come before the Day of the LORD.

Malachi 4:5
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.

When Jesus’ disciples realized he was the Messiah, they naturally asked why the teachers of the law said Elijah must come first (Matt. 17:10). Jesus told them that Elijah had come first, but the religious leaders did not recognize him (Matt. 17:12). Then the disciples realized that “Elijah” was John the Baptist (Matt. 17:13). Like Elijah, John was a tough man and a great prophet, living in the wilderness, without any recognizable teacher, working directly with the people and in conflict with the political leaders of the day. Calling John “Elijah” certainly fits well, but the Antonomasia can be confusing if we do not pay careful attention to the biblical text.

The last example of Antonomasia we will study occurs in Ezekiel 34:23-25. These three verses mention “my servant David” and “David my servant.” However, a close reading of the context shows that “David” refers to the Messiah, and the prophecy is about the Millennial Kingdom, when Christ rules from Jerusalem. The whole chapter refers to people as sheep, and contrasts this world in which shepherds “do not take care of the flock (Ezek. 34:3) with the Millennial kingdom, when there will be “one shepherd” who will be prince among them and tend them, Israel will be safe from both human and animal threats, the land will be blessed, and “showers of blessing” will fall. Calling Jesus Christ “David” is appropriate because David was a shepherd, and the figure adds richness to the biblical text, but Bible students must read carefully and pay attention to the context to fully understand what God is communicating in His Word.

Endnotes

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

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