The Figure of Speech – Tapeinosis 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 is going to cover Tapeinosis, or demeaning. It is the deliberate demeaning, or lessening, of something in order to elevate or increase it. It often comes in the form of an understatement. We are all aware that sometimes the most powerful way to emphasize something is to understate it. That fact is certainly not lost on God, the Author of all authors, and thus occasionally in the Word of God, He understates things in order to emphasize them.

A good example is when Paul preached late into the night and the young man Eutychus, falling asleep, fell out of the third story window and was killed. When Paul laid his hands on him and raised him from the dead, the Bible says the people were “not a little comforted” (Acts 20:12-KJV). “Not a little comforted?!” I would say they probably threw quite a party. The understatement in the text causes the reader to add emphasis that is greater than a plain statement of fact could provide. Thus versions such as the NIV and NASB, which just say, “were greatly comforted,” not only eliminate the beautiful figure Tapeinosis, but also eliminate the emotion that the reader adds.

There are many examples of Tapeinosis in the Bible. Here are a few to consider:

Romans 3:3
What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness?

“Some?!” Oh, if that were only the case, that only “some” did not believe, but “most” did. Sadly, for most of Israel’s history, only “some” believed, while the majority lived in unbelief. Yet those who believed had such a huge impact that it could surely seem like only “some” did not have faith.

Romans 5:6 (KJV)
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.

“Without strength?!” We were dead! We were dead in sins, totally unable to help ourselves, and God, in His grace and mercy, sent Christ, who died for us so that we could be strong in him.

Romans 13:10
Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love does no harm? Is that what it is to love? If I do not harm someone, then I love him? No, a thousand times no. The concepts in this verse are more complex, and the understatement is subtle, so the Tapeinosis here is often not noticed, but love is much more than just not harming someone. The more literal understanding of love is that it does “good” to its neighbor.

Acts 21:39 (NASB)
But Paul said, “I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.”

Paul could have said that Tarsus was a “great” city, or an “important” city, but perhaps the Roman officer would have argued with him (national prejudices can run deep). By understating the fact, and saying that Tarsus was “no insignificant city,” the Roman could hardly argue the point, and still got the message that Paul was therefore traveled and educated.

Studying figures of speech such as Tapeinosis is a fun and exciting way to become sensitive to both the English language and how God expresses Himself in the Bible.

Endnotes

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

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