The Figure of Speech – Ellipsis as used in the Bible

The ability to communicate by 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. 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. Recognizing and properly interpreting the figures of speech in the Bible has many advantages. It helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy the richness of the Word of God. 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]

The figure we are going to cover in this article is Ellipsis. The English dictionary correctly defines Ellipsis as the omission of a word or words that are obviously understood but must be supplied to make the sentence grammatically correct. What the English Dictionary does not say is what is important about the figure Ellipsis and why God uses it. Ellipsis leaves out part of the sentence, and in doing so places special emphasis on the remaining part. What God leaves out of the text is de-emphasized, while what is left in gets extra emphasis.

The figure of speech Ellipsis is a very good reason why English versions of the Bible should use italics when they supply words to the Hebrew and Greek text. Sadly, most English versions do not italicize the words they add, and so when it comes to Ellipsis, the translators have painted themselves into a corner. If they translate the verse literally and leave out the Ellipsis, the reader may not understand the verse at all, but if they supply the Ellipsis, the English reader has no hope of seeing the emphasis that God has put in the text. Thus, the use of italicized words in the text is a great argument for reading versions such as the KJV, ASV, Darby, HCSB [2] or the NASB. [3]

Emphasizing what is in the verse

2 Kings 25:4a (KJV)
And the city was broken up, and all the men of war fled by night…

In this case, the verb “fled” (or “ran away,” or “tried to escape”) is, by the figure Ellipsis, left out of the verse and thus de-emphasized. What is emphasized is that the men of war, who were supposed to be so brave, ran away at night.

Psalm 103:9 (KJV)
He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.

By the figure Ellipsis, the words, “his anger,” are left out of this verse, thus de-emphasizing God’s anger at us when we sin, and emphasizing the fact that He will not keep, or harbor, anger against those He loves.

Psalm 120:7 (KJV)
I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.

The italics in the King James Version allow us to see this Ellipsis perfectly. The Hebrew reads, “I peace; but when I speak, they war.” The previous verse shows that the people to whom the psalmist is referring hate peace. The Ellipsis could be filled as the KJV and many other versions do, which is very plausible, or it may be filled like this: “I love peace…they call out for war.” Or this: “I want peace…they vote for war.” The point is that God has emphasized the stark difference between the two parties: “I…peace; they…for war.”

1 Corinthians 10:24 (KJV)
Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.

In this case the translators correctly see the need for an object to complete the sense of what a person is and is not supposed to seek, and the KJV supplies “wealth.” Modern versions say “good” or “advantage,” as does the Holman Christian Standard Bible: “No one should seek his own good, but the good of the other person.” By leaving out the object, “good,” in the Greek by Ellipsis, God emphasizes “his own” and “the other person.”

2 Corinthians 12:18a (KJV)
I desired Titus, and with him I sent a brother….

his is a good example of how unclear a verse can be if the translators do not supply the Ellipsis. The NIV says, “I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him…,” which is much more clear, but would have been better if the NIV had used italics to show that “to go to you” was added to the Greek text. The Ellipsis emphasizes the words “urged Titus,” thus showing the Corinthians how much Paul cared for them.

Galatians 5:13 (KJV)
For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

The KJV supplies the Ellipsis with the verb “use,” which is de-emphasized by its omission. What is emphasized is that Christians do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh.

James 5:3 (KJV)
Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

This translation misses the Ellipsis in the last sentence. It is translated as if “have heaped” is the verb and “treasure” is its noun object. However, there is only a verb in the Greek, which could be translated “heaped up” [as a treasure is heaped up] or perhaps better, “treasured up.” But if the sentence is, “You have treasured up for the last days,” what has been treasured up? From both the context and the scope of Scripture (Rom. 2:5), we can supply the Ellipsis: “You have treasured up wrath for the last days” (the 1899 Douay-Rheims version correctly supplies “wrath”). The way God has artfully written the verse de-emphasizes the wrath that God will mete out, and emphasizes that the wicked will get what they deserve because they themselves are the ones heaping and treasuring up the wrath.

Problems with Ellipsis

One of the problems people have with the figure of speech Ellipsis is that it may not be clear exactly what should be supplied to complete the sense. For example, the Hebrew text of Psalm 137:5 reads, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget.” Translators realize that the verb “forget” in the second phrase has an object, but what is it? The King James and many other versions suggest “skill,” “cunning,” or “ability,” as if the right hand would forget how to move and work. Thus, the KJV reads, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” Some versions, such as the NRSV [4], have taken “forget” as some sense of “be forgotten,” and thus read that the right hand should be forgotten, withered, or crippled. The most likely way to supply the Ellipsis was suggested by E. W. Bullinger, who noticed that the obvious counterpart of a person’s forgetting Jerusalem, i.e., forgetting to support and defend it, was that his hand would forget the person himself, i.e., would refuse to work for, defend, or feed the person. Thus the most likely translation completing the Ellipsis is, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget me.”

Another problem people have is thinking something is an Ellipsis when it is not. For example:

1 Corinthians 15:53 (KJV)
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

It seems that “corruptible” and “mortal” need a noun to fulfill their sense. Thus, some translators think this verse is an Ellipsis, and, like the ESV [5] and NRSV, supply the word “body,” making the verse read, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (ESV). However, the context and Greek grammar indicates this verse is not an Ellipsis. In both English and Greek, an adjective may be given “substance” and used as a noun if the implied nominal object of the adjective is clear. That is not the figure of speech Ellipsis, but a common idiom of the language that grammarians call a “substantive.” A good example in English is the well-known Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. We know from our cultural context that “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” refer to people, but the title, “The Good People, the Bad People, and the Ugly People” would be superfluous and lack punch.

It is common in both Greek and English to use an adjective as a noun if the subject is understood, although sometimes Bible translators add the noun for clarity. For example, Psalm 71:22 (KJV) uses the phrase “…O thou Holy One of Israel.” But there is no “One” in Hebrew, it is understood. The translators supply it, but would not have to do so for the verse to make sense. The word “Holy” is a substantive, not an Ellipsis of the word “One.” Another example is Colossians 3:12 (ESV), which has the phrase, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion….” Again, there is no “ones” in the Greek text; it is understood, and the verse would make sense if the translators decided not to supply it. Grammatically, the verse has a substantive, not an Ellipsis.

In the case of 1 Corinthians 15:53 (KJV), “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality,” the context is speaking of “we,” the people, not just our bodies. Therefore, rather than being an Ellipsis supplied with the word “body,” the verse is a substantive, supplied, if we must, by the word “one” or “person,” thusly: For this corruptible one must put on incorruption, and this mortal one must put on immortality. [6]

Knowledge of Hebrew and Greek grammar is necessary to accurately determine if an Ellipsis is present. For example, Hebrew has no present tense verb, “to be” (our word “is”). A noun in the nominative accompanied by an object of that noun is a simple Hebrew sentence. A Hebrew would say, “The dog big,” and it is equivalent to our saying, “The dog is big.” The fact that there is a missing verb is not an Ellipsis, but a regular part of Hebrew grammar. Greek does have a present tense “to be” verb, but like Hebrew, does not need it to make a sentence. So in Greek, like Hebrew, a missing “is” is not an Ellipsis.


[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).
[2] Scripture quotations marked HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, Copyright ©1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible, Holman CSB, and HCSB are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
[3] Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
[4] Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[5] Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
[6] Translations that supply the word “body” might do so because of the translator’s belief that the soul is already immortal, and therefore only the body needs to put on immortality, however that is not the case. See our book, “Is There Death After Life?

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  1. The video was great. The explanation of ellipsis is extremely helpful and the comments that follow. Thanks and Bless you and the site. Pat Wilson

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