The Figure of Speech – Epistrophe 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. In the Bible, God uses figures of speech to emphasize things that He wants us to see as important. Many people read the Bible and never ask themselves, “How do we know what God wants emphasized in His Word?” God uses figures of speech to bring emphasis where He wants emphasis, and therefore recognizing and properly interpreting the figures of speech in the Bible is important. 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. It is important that we become 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 Epistrophe (in English, pronounced i-piss’-tro-fee, and sometimes referred to as Antistrophe). The English dictionary correctly defines Epistrophe as the repetition of a word or words at the end of successive clauses or sentences. It is a related, but opposite figure from Anaphora, which is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. Authors use Epistrophe for rhetorical or poetic effect, and God uses Epistrophe to draw the attention of the reader to something He wants emphasized.

We are familiar with Epistrophe in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which speaks of “…that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” We also see Epistrophe in some of the great literature of the world. Charles Dickens opened his famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with the line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.…” While we are perhaps most familiar with poetry that ends in rhyming words, some stanzas of poetry end with the same word or phrase, thus employing the figure of speech Epistrophe. For example, the last two lines of the first stanza of Susan Coolige’s (1845-1905) poem Begin Again, end in “hope for you,” and Rudyard Kipling ended each stanza of his poem, Mother O’ Mine, with the words, “Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine.”

Below are some examples of Epistrophe from the Bible.

Romans 8:31
…If God is for us, who can be against us?

The repetition of “us” at the end of the phrases catches our attention and makes this verse easy to remember. God could have stated the same basic truth without the Epistrophe by saying something such as, “If God is on our side, who can be against us,” but that obviously lacks the emphasis that God has placed in His Word.

Deuteronomy 32:10
In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye,

As this is worded in the NIV, the Epistrophe is translated out of the English, and so the emphasis is lost. However, in the Hebrew, each phrase ends with hu (him), and given the context set in verse 9, the emphasis shows God’s special care over “Jacob,” who represents both the person, Jacob, and all his people, Israel. Note verse 9 and 10 together (v. 10 is Bullinger’s translation).

Deuteronomy 32:9 and 10
(9) For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.
(10) In a desert land he found him; And in the waste howling wilderness, about, he led him; He instructed him; As the apple of His eye He kept him.

Psalm 24:10
“Who is he, this King of glory? The LORD Almighty—he is the King of glory.”

The Epistrophe emphasizes who God is.

Psalm 118:10-12 (KJV)
(10) All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD will I destroy them.
(11) They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the LORD I will destroy them.
(12) They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the LORD I will destroy them.

The Epistrophe is God’s emphasis that if we are going to win, we must do it in the name of the LORD.

1 Corinthians 13:11 (KJV)
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

The repetition of “child” (perhaps translated even better as “baby”), draws our attention to the verse and powerfully makes the point that God wants made: we are all just “children” seeing things unclearly until Jesus comes again, at which point we will be mature.

Revelation 22:11 (KJV)
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.

This verse, in the very last chapter of the Bible, emphasizes that even in the last times people will go on living according to their own desires, and then on Judgment Day they will get what they deserve (Rev. 22:12).

It sometimes happens that the figure Epistrophe is translated out of the English, as we saw in Deuteronomy 32:10 above. However, it can also happen that an Epistrophe can be put in the English Bible even though it does not appear in the original text.

Acts 19:15 (KJV)
And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?”

In the Greek texts, the two words translated “know” are different, so there is no Epistrophe.

Endnotes

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

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