The Figure of Speech – Metonymy as used in the Bible

[This article was taken from our book “Don’t Blame God! A Biblical Answer to the Problem of Evil, Sin, and Suffering.”]


There is no question that the Bible is replete with examples of God acting in ways that seem to contradict His loving nature, not to mention offend our sense of decency, justice, and common sense. These instances must be carefully analyzed and weighed against the whole of the biblical revelation, as well as compared to all the clear scriptures that reveal God’s essential goodness, fairness, and love.

Learning is an exciting adventure, especially when what you are learning is fundamental to your relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth. In mathematics, knowing calculus allows you to accomplish very beneficial things you cannot do knowing only algebra. Yet algebra is a pre-requisite to geometry, geometry to trigonometry, and trigonometry to calculus. Calculus will make no sense without these other foundational subjects.

In this chapter we are going into the subject of figures of speech — legitimate grammatical constructions employed by an author for reasons of emphasis. Most people have been taught little, if anything, about figures of speech, yet one’s unfamiliarity with something does not make it invalid. It is up to him to rise to the challenge of learning whatever the subject is, and then applying his knowledge for practical benefit.

Although this chapter may be a challenge for you, learning what it sets forth is integral to your understanding of God’s goodness, and thus to your faith in and love for Him. We encourage you to proceed with aggressive anticipation.

If he is ever to truly understand the heart of God’s Word, each reader of Scripture must understand that its pages are punctuated with figures of speech. In such figurative language, the words used do not mean what they would mean if they were taken literally. [1] For example, Isaiah 11:12 speaks of gathering people from “the four corners of the earth.” This statement obviously cannot be taken literally, yet its meaning is clear.

The reader is strongly encouraged to refer to E.W. Bullinger’s seminal work Figures of Speech Used in the Bible to begin to develop a sensitivity to the wide variety of figures God employs. Give particular attention to Heterosis, Metonymy and Idiom, for these figures show how much customary usages of words can be changed when employed by the Author of Holy Writ.

As we will see, Metonymy and Idiom in particular hold the keys to understanding many of the difficult passages that seem to contradict God’s loving nature. As stated earlier, the reader must be sensitive to the various literary devices that God uses in the text. There is not just one explanation that will then be true in every case. For example, God uses various forms of both Metonymy and Idiom regarding the subject with which we are dealing.

The figure of speech Metonymy involves the exchange of nouns or verbs, where one noun or verb is put for another related noun or verb. The word “Metonymy” comes from meta, indicating change, and onoma, a name (or in grammar, a noun). Metonymy is a common figure of speech with a wide variety of usages. “The White House said today…” is one contemporary example in which the President of the United States and his staff are represented by the building they occupy. When we say, “Give me a hand,” it is by the figure Metonymy that “hand” is put for the many useful ways the hand can help. [2]

As we will see, Metonymy is integrally involved in understanding many of the verses that seem to make God the direct and active cause of negative circumstances. Metonymy has many forms, and the biblical examples that concern us here are those related to the concepts of cause and effect, permission and prophecy. In the Old Testament, God often revealed Himself as the author of both good and evil. Thus “God” is often put by Metonymy as the cause of events that were actually engineered by the Devil.

To get a better understanding of the complexities of cause and effect, let us consider the case of Mr. Smith, who gets drunk at a party one night and then heads for home in his car, driving well above the posted speed limit on a two-lane highway. An oncoming car makes a left turn in front of him, but Mr. Smith’s impaired perception causes him to misjudge the distance and swerve to avoid the other car. He loses control of his car, hits a concrete bridge abutment and is killed.

A policeman arriving at the scene might say that excessive alcohol was the cause of Mr. Smith’s death. Mr. Smith’s family might say the driver of the other car was the cause. The coroner’s report would probably conclude that he died because he flew through the windshield and his head hit the concrete abutment.

In a sense, each of the statements is valid, although the coroner’s report seems to most accurately reflect why Mr. Smith actually died. But did the concrete “kill” Mr. Smith? Not in the active sense in which one person “kills” another. Yet the concrete was the final cause of his death, for if he had driven into a huge pile of mattresses instead of an immovable object, he might have survived. Nevertheless, we understand that the actual cause of his death was something other than the abutment, which did not jump into his path. The actual cause was whatever made him lose control of his car, which in his case was his heavily impaired faculties and judgment.

It has been said that one cannot “break” God’s laws, but only breaks himself against them, because they are “immovable objects.” God has set up the universe to function according to many laws and principles, which He said were “very good” (Gen. 1:31). In reality, physical laws cannot be broken. A farmer who disregards the principles of soil fertility will eventually go broke. The window cleaner with a cavalier attitude toward safety, whose worn-out rope breaks while he is dangling from the roof of a highrise office building, will, because of the law of gravity, be rudely introduced to an unsuspecting pedestrian.

There are spiritual laws also. For example: you reap what you sow; evil associations corrupt good ethics; sin separates man from God. When we “break” these laws, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we are not actually breaking them, rather we are breaking ourselves against them. Is God to blame because He set these laws in place? No more than a state highway department is liable for fatalities caused by drunken motorists driving into concrete bridge supports.

In the Bible, most especially in the Old Testament in regard to the cause of evil, sin, and suffering, we find numerous records where the subject of a sentence is said to be the cause of an event, when in reality something else (another subject) is the cause. This is the figure of speech Metonymy of the Subject, in which one subject is put in place of another subject with which it stands in a definite relation.

A good illustration of how one subject is put for another is found in comparing the two seemingly contradictory biblical accounts of the death of King Saul. Remember that in the Old Testament, as we have noted, God was perceived as the ultimate cause of both positive and negative circumstances, and as sovereign in the sense that He controlled everything that happened. In 1 Samuel 31:4 and 5, the Word of God states that Saul died by committing suicide, falling upon his sword. Yet, 1 Chronicles 10:14 says that “the Lord put him to death” for disobeying the Word of God and for enquiring of a familiar spirit.

How do we reconcile these apparently conflicting statements? We do so by recognizing that the latter statement is the figure of speech Metonymy of the Subject. The actual subject, Saul (as stated in 1 Samuel 31) is exchanged for another subject, God, with which it stands in a definite relation. The relation between Saul and God is that it was God who gave Saul His commandments, and Saul disobeyed them. Thus God can, in one sense, be said to be the “cause” of Saul’s death. By breaking God’s laws, Saul broke himself against them.

By his own choice, Saul separated himself from God and His blessings, and therefore faced the consequences of his actions without the benefit of God’s grace and mercy. Because of his own sin, Saul found himself in a hopeless predicament, and killed himself. Only in the sense that God’s Word was the “immovable object,” against which Saul rebelled, could it be said that God “put him to death.” In concluding this chapter, we will see why God used this figurative language in the Old Testament.

Just as there is a relation between Saul and God such that “Saul” can be exchanged for “God” by Metonymy of the Subject, so there is a relation between Satan and God such that they can be exchanged by Metonymy of the Subject. This relation between Satan and God, and why “Satan” is exchanged for “God” is explained later in this chapter.

For the most part, God’s ability to alleviate for people the effects of sin is directly proportional to their obedience to Him. For instance, Romans 1:24 and 26 say that God “gave up” those who turned away from Him in the same way Jesus gave up his life, as an act of will (John 19:20). There are situations in which God reaches a point at which He knows it is fruitless to continue to attempt to convince people who are no longer willing to change their behavior. God lets them go on the road to self-destruction, to learn by experience apart from His grace and mercy, much like the father did in Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

Why are people “permitted” to turn away? Because God highly values man’s freedom of will. If one wills to continue in his sinful disobedience, he will suffer the consequences of his unwillingness to listen to God. God is not in the business of forcing obedience, which then becomes meaninglessly mechanical. He does, however, honestly declare the consequences that result from sin so that all people have a genuine choice. Without choice, there can be no true freedom. God’s desire is that His people be set free by knowledge, understanding, and wisdom so they can make informed choices. He is fundamentally an educator, not an autocratic puppeteer.


[1] Although it is common to think of figures of speech as words that do not mean what they say, many figures of speech give emphasis in other ways. Figures such as Polysyndeton, Ellipsis and Polyptoton are good examples of this. The error to be guarded against is the common misconception that if something is figurative, any wild or fanciful explanation of the text is valid. This is not the case. The Bible is “God- breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), and God has the right to use figures of speech as He sees fit. It is the responsibility of the reader to learn to recognize these, as he must do with, say, geographical references throughout the Bible. It is up to the reader to take the time to learn about the geography so those references can be properly understood. The reader does not guess at geographical references and hope he is right. The same is true with figures of speech.
[2] One kind of Metonymy is the exchange of one noun for another related noun. For the most part, our use of this figure of speech is so natural that we do not even realize we are using it. We say “the whole school showed up for the senior prom” when we actually mean the students, not the “school” itself. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [William Morris, ed., (American Heritage Pub. Co., Inc., Boston, 1969) page 826] gives the following example: “The words sword and sex are metonymical designations for military career and womankind in the example ‘He abandoned the sword and the sex together.’” In his work Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, E.W. Bullinger gives four classes of metonymy: the cause, the effect, the subject, and the adjunct, and spends seventy pages on the subject.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this instruction. He helped me a lot and the same in two ways.

    (1) Now I know on which figures of speech I can keep myself: heterosis, metonymy and idion. I had always asked myself, where do I start. I then started and have frittered me. Although it is a lot of work, but I want to understand it. So I started over and over again.

    (2) And an answer to Romans 1: 24, 26 I have now received even after a long time.

    Now I have a clarified picture and understanding again about the father and his freedom and love. I’m the opposite was educated thereof and it is often difficult in relationships. When I came to the word of God, it was for me an deliverance and relief, that I received a free will from God. This all reminds me of Hebrews 12: 9-11

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