The Figure of Speech – Polar-merismos 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. God invented words so that He could tell us how much He loves us, and vice versa, and so that we as brethren in the Lord can knit our hearts together. Figures of speech are an indispensable linguistic component, and without their emphatic assistance, our verbal communication would be “dull as dishwater.” Hey, there was one! That was a Simile, which is a comparison using “like” or “as.”

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. The failure of Bible students to recognize figures of speech in “the literature of eternity,” the Word of God, has caused confusion as to its contents. It is imperative that we become at least somewhat familiar with the figures of speech in Scripture, of which there are more than 200 varieties.

All of us use figures of speech when we write or speak, but often we are not aware of the figures we are using. That is usually the case with the “Figure of the Month” that we are going to cover now. It is called “Polar-merismos,” and it is a variety of the figure Merismos, which is a figure of distribution. [1] The Greeks called the figure merismos, which means “division,” and also called it diallage, which means “interchange.” The Romans called it distributo, which means “distribution.”

Merismos is a grammatical figure for emphasis, and occurs in its classic form when the whole or entirety of something is mentioned, and then the parts are also mentioned. A good example occurs in Galatians 5:19-21. In this section of Scripture, the whole is mentioned, i.e., “…the works of the flesh…” (KJV). Then afterward, the various parts of that whole are given also. Another example occurs in Isaiah 24:1 and 2. After saying that the inhabitants of earth will be scattered, God individually mentions priests, people, masters, servants, mistresses, maids, sellers, buyers, borrowers, lenders, debtors, and creditors.

One of the forms of Merismos is Polar-merismos. In Polar-merismos, the whole is usually mentioned, but it is also described by mentioning the two extremes that define or delimit it. A good example occurs six times in Genesis 1, and has an important impact on the understanding of this critical chapter.

Genesis 1:5 (NIV)
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

The phrase “…there was evening, and there was morning…” occurs in Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31. God could have said that He did things on the first “day,” and the second “day,” and so forth, but He did not. By using Polar-merismos, “…evening…and morning—the first day,” God emphasized the time period in which He worked and, among other things, displays His awesome ability. After all, it can take a crew of men years to build a building, but God “built” the earth, including the life on it, in six days. I would say that is a pretty impressive display of power.

By itself, the word “day,” can mean any number of things, including: the daylight period of the day, one period of light and dark (“one day”), a period of undetermined length (as in “…the day of small things…” Zech. 4:10), an appointed time, and a time in general (“…the day of Midian’s defeat…” Isa. 9:4). People trying to harmonize the theory of evolution with the Bible often point that out and ask, “If a biblical day can be a period of time, how do you know that the days in the Bible weren’t long periods of time?”

Good question, and there is a good answer. The figure of speech Polar-merismos makes it clear that the days in Genesis were 24-hour periods of dark and light. That is why God said, “…evening…and morning.” Had He simply said, “day,” the door would be open to much longer periods of time in Genesis 1. But when a “day” is defined in the context by an evening and a morning, we know it is speaking of one 24-hour period. We have an amazing and powerful God who organized the earth, as we know it in six 24-hour periods. Furthermore, this awesome Creator is our Father, and there is nothing He won’t do to bless us. God’s love is “off the charts,” figuratively speaking.


[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1999), p. 435. Richard A. Lanham, A Handful of Rhetorical Terms (University of California Press, Berkley, 1968), p. 65 (Lanham spells it with a “u,” merismus).

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