God is Good (with Figures!)

[This is an excerpt from Chapter Five of our book Don’t Blame God!]

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 offending 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 (KJV) 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 in this chapter, 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 high-rise 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 Sam. 31) is exchanged for another subject, the LORD, with which it stands in a definite relation. The relation between Saul and the LORD is that it was the LORD God who gave Saul His commandments, and Saul disobeyed them. Thus the LORD 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 (KJV) 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 19:30). 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.

Permission or Prophetic Declaration?

An idiom is “a phrase or expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the ordinary meanings of the words in it.”3 In other words, the phrase does not mean what it appears to mean. Every language has hundreds of idioms. At this point it is relevant to take note of an idiomin the Hebrew language, in which “active verbs were used…to express not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do.”4

In Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, E. W. Bullinger assigns the permissive Hebrew idiom as the explanation of more than a few Scripture verses in which evil is attributed to God. For example, note the following verse, with Bullinger’s comment:

Ezekiel 20:25 (KJV)
“Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good…”: i.e., I permitted them to follow the wicked statutes of the surrounding nations, mentioned and forbidden in Leviticus 18:3.

God often warned Israel not to follow the pagan practices of other nations, but too often they chose, by the freedom of their will, to disobey Him. In such cases, one could say that God “permitted” them to suffer the consequences of their disobedience, just as He allows us to do. In the above verse, an active verb (“gave”) is used idiomatically. God “permitted” Israel to do that which they were already determined to do.

Bullinger also assigns the permissive idiom as the explanation of a number of such verses. Some of these verses follow:

Exodus 5:22b (KJV)
…Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people?… i.e., suffered them to be so evil entreated.

Jeremiah 4:10 (KJV)
Then said I, Ah, Lord God, surely thou hast greatly deceived this people:… i.e., thou hast suffered this People to be greatly deceived, by the false prophets, saying: Ye shall have peace, etc.

Ezekiel 14:9 (KJV)
…If the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the LORD have deceived that prophet:… i.e., I have permitted him to deceive himself.

2 Thessalonians 2:11 (KJV)5
…for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: i.e., God will leave them and suffer them to be deceived by the great Lie which will come on all the world.

While we recognize the figurative language in the above verses, we differ from Bullinger in our understanding of it, especially in regard to the idea of “permission.”

Although the idea of “permission” may be preferable to thinking of God as the actual cause of evil, it is really a misleading concept, for two reasons. First, it implies that God is passively allowing something bad that He could stop, but chooses not to do so. Second, it also implies that God is not actively working to bring to pass good for His people.

To elaborate upon our differences with Bullinger, let us look at Jeremiah 4:10, which he cites in the above list as an example of the permissive idiom. The fact that he elsewhere cites it as an example of metonymy of the subject seems to indicate that he felt there is room for latitude in its explanation.

Jeremiah 4:10 (KJV)
Then said I, Ah, Lord God! surely thou hast greatly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, Ye shall have peace; whereas the sword reacheth unto the soul.

Then Bullinger wrote:

The people deceived themselves, assuring themselves that they should have peace (5:12 and 31). The Lord had declared by his prophet that they would so deceive themselves, and so it came to pass that they were permitted to be deceived by their false prophets.6

Our understanding of this verse is that God’s “permission” is specifically in the context of His prophetic activity. He did not just sit by and permit His people to be deceived, but rather He warned them in advance through Jeremiah (and other prophets as well). God “deceived” them only in the sense that they refused to listen to His true prophet who foretold of hard times and war, and chose instead to listen to the false prophets who foretold good things for them.7 God did not literally deceive them by sending false prophets to lie to them, for this contradicts Numbers 23:19, which says “God is not a man, that he should lie….”8

The fatherly, loving nature of God is manifest in His faithfulness to prophetically declare to His people whatever they need to know in a given situation, such as the one cited above. One form of metonymy is when an action itself is used instead of a prophecy or declaration that the action would occur.9 Bullinger lists this as one of the forms of metonymy of the subject, specifically concerning verbs. We agree that it is in this category, but due to the very specific nature of this figure, and for the sake of clarity, we feel justified in identifying this as prophetic metonymy.

For example, in Genesis 40 Joseph interpreted the prophetic dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, declaring that the former would be restored by Pharaoh and the latter would be hanged. When the butler was recounting Joseph’s interpretation to Pharaoh, he said:

Genesis 41:13 (KJV)
And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged.

It is not literally true that Joseph himself restored the butler and hung the baker, because it was Pharaoh who did so. But by the figure of speech metonymy, the actions of hanging and restoring are said to be done by Joseph, because it was he who had prophetically declared that they would happen.10

Here is another example:

Isaiah 6:10
Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

This meant that Isaiah was to foretell that the heart of the children of Israel would become calloused, etc., not that he himself was to do this.

The following verse is a very clear example of Scripture attributing to God an action that, in reality, He had only prophetically declared:

Hosea 6:5
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth; my judgments flashed like lightning upon you.

Here we again see God warning His people and declaring to them the consequences that their disobedience to Him would bring upon them. God did not literally cut Israel in pieces—it was the Assyrians who came and did so, because Israel’s sin and idolatry made them very vulnerable to Satan’s assaults. Therefore, “…I cut you in pieces…” is an example of prophetic metonymy, and what God actually means is, “I foretold (and thus warned you) that you would be cut in pieces.”

Another example of prophetic metonymy is Genesis 3:16 (KJV): “…I will greatly multiply thy sorrow….” The context of this statement clearly shows that God is prophesying or foretelling the consequences of man’s sin, not declaring His will for all people’s lives. We cannot fathom a loving God literally and deliberately inflicting a multiplying of sorrow on His children for generations because their ancestors disobeyed Him. We must search deeper in the context and refer to the scope of the Bible for the keys to the proper interpretation of this verse. In the context, we see that “…I will greatly multiply thy sorrow…” is a prophetic declaration meaning “your sorrow will be multiplied as a consequence of your sin.” Much confusion is eliminated by understanding the use of prophetic metonymy.

“I Guess Perhaps You Should Let My People Go, Maybe”

Exodus 4:21, cited by Bullinger as an idiom of permission, is a verse we see as another great example of prophetic metonymy. It says that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not let the people of Israel leave Egypt. Why would God do that when it was His idea in the first place that they leave?!11 “…I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart…” should be understood to mean “I declare or prophesy that Pharaoh will harden his heart in response to my attempt to free my people.”12

In Exodus 3:11, God had declared prophetically to Moses before he ever set foot back in Egypt that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened and that he would not let Israel, God’s “firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22), go free. God knew Pharaoh’s heart and the pride thereof that would cause him to stubbornly resist, even to the extent of the death of his firstborn son.

Though God knew this about Pharaoh, Pharaoh still had freedom of will. God therefore did His best to change Pharaoh’s mind. He righteously and systematically gave Pharaoh plenty of chances and clear demonstrations of His power long before any Egyptians suffered any permanent harm. Several times in the record, Pharaoh appears to have repented.

We believe it is most relevant here to point out that God did not passively sit by while Pharaoh “hardened” his heart. On the contrary, God continued to aggressively act on behalf of His people, through whom the Christ would be born. It was like someone standing in front of someone else and pushing him in the chest with the palms of his hands until the other person decides either to get out of the way or fight. Pharaoh chose to fight, at least until the last plague. His corresponding hardening of heart increased sequentially in defiance to God (Exod. 8:15 and 32).

The plagues were designed to show the impotence of the Egyptian idols, the supremacy of God’s power and the futility of resisting His declared will. The plagues also showed His mercy, being tailored to disrupt and humiliate the worship of their pagan deities without causing loss of human life until the final plague, which occurred only after God had exhausted every other option. When God moves, something has to give. People must decide either to believe and obey Him or to resist Him. There is no middle ground.

E. W. Bullinger’s note on Exodus 4:21 is relevant: “It was in each case God’s clemency and forbearing goodness which produced the hardening. That goodness which ‘leadeth to repentance’ (Rom. 2:4–KJV): just as the same sun which softens the wax hardens the clay.”13 Those who do not recognize a figure of speech in the usage of the phrase “…I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart…” are forced into the unenviable position of explaining how a loving and righteous God can be guilty of causing a man to sin and then punishing him for it in order to accomplish His purposes.

To say that God forces a man (in this case Pharaoh) to repeatedly sin just so that He can “demonstrate” His power by striking the man down is to remove from God any concept of justice that can be grasped by the human mind. In his book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold Kushner deals with this denial of the actual meaning of words. When his own son was suffering and dying, he looked for answers, and noted “…the books I turned to were more concerned with defending God’s honor, with logical proof that bad is really good….”14

As we have stated, the New Testament reveals that Adam gave to Satan the power and authority over this world (Luke 4:6). Satan is called the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4) because of the tremendous power he now wields. That means that people who do not look to the One True God, believe His Word and live accordingly are, in general, vulnerable to the attacks of the Devil. When someone rejects or disobeys God, he is like a soldier who, during a battle, leaves his fortress and walks into the camp of the enemy. He is placing himself in unnecessary danger. The prophet Jonah said that people who choose idols instead of God “…forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (Jon. 2:8). Thus we understand that Pharaoh, by his free will, chose to oppose God’s will and heeded the influence of God’s enemy, the Devil.

Why God Used Metonymy of the Subject

Remember that metonymy of the subject is when one subject is exchanged for another with which it stands in a definite relation. God does stand in a definite relation to Satan, but God could not reveal this relation to people in the Old Testament.

The relation between God and Satan should be clear from what we have set forth thus far in this book. God created Satan as a magnificent angel, Satan rebelled against God, and has ever since been diametrically opposed to all God is doing. The adversarial relationship between God and the Devil, and the battle they are waging, is the underlying reason for much of what we see in the course of human history.

In contrast to Old Testament language, the New Testament plainly identifies the Devil as the one plotting against God’s people (2 Cor. 2:11; Eph. 6:11). It shows the Devil to be the cause of death (Heb. 2:14), sickness and oppression (Acts 10:38), spiritual blindness (2 Cor. 4:4), and opposition to the truth (John 8:44 and 45). Scripture makes plain that the Devil received his authority over the world from Adam, and that God, who can only act legally and righteously, cannot simply step in and take it away. Since the Devil has the authority over the earth, he does not need to ask God’s permission to steal, kill, and destroy. From his track record, even if he did have to ask, and was denied permission, he would try to do evil anyway!

Why would God not plainly reveal to His people in the Old Testament the truth about the Devil? The primary reason is that Jesus Christ had not yet come. It was Jesus who made known God as a loving Father (John 1:18-KJV), revealed the snare of the Devil (John 10:10a), exposed his devices (Luke 8:27–38), and, as the exalted Lord, made available to all men, from the Day of Pentecost onward, the gift of holy spirit (Acts 2:33). It is the supernatural power of the holy spirit, given to each person when he is “born again” (by adherence to Rom. 10:9), that equips and enables the Christian not only to see with spiritual eyes the spiritual battle around him, but also to have power and authority over Satan and his evil spirit kingdom (Eph. 6:10–17). Such was not the case before Jesus lived. God did not reveal to Old Testament believers their spiritual adversary and his hierarchy of henchmen. A record in Luke helps make this very clear.

Luke 10:1, 17–21, 23, and 24
(1) After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.
(17) The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
(18) He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.
(19) I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.
(20) However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
(21) At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
(23) Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
(24) For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

Jesus sent out some of his disciples, and when they came back, they joyfully proclaimed that “…even the demons submit to us in your name.” That statement should catch the attention of every reader. No one in Scripture had ever said anything like that before—not Abraham, not Moses, not David, not Elijah, not any of the Old Testament “greats.” Why not? Because they had not been given the necessary knowledge and authority that Jesus gave to his disciples.

As we saw in the above verses, Jesus told his disciples, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions…” (this refers to evil spirits—see verse 19). He also told them how blessed they were to know what they knew, since “…many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it…” (v. 24). How true! The Old Testament rings with the anguished cries of those who did not understand the truth yet to be revealed about God and His relation to evil. “God has wronged me,” cried Job (19:6). Elijah cried out, “…God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” (1 Kings 17:20). “And Joshua said, ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us?…” (Josh. 7:7).

Today we can look back into the Old Testament, see metonymy of the subject and understand why God had to use this figure of speech. It seems clear that without the power to fight the Devil, people were better off not knowing about him. In His abounding love, God “took the blame” for good and evil, telling His people that if they believed and obeyed Him, they would be blessed, but if they disobeyed Him, He would afflict them. God’s use of metonymy of the subject emphasized His efforts to communicate to His people both the consequences of their sin and the fact that, if they disobeyed Him, He would have to give them up to their disobedience and let them learn the hard way. In the Old Testament, “windows” allowing us to see the spiritual battle going on “behind the scenes” are few, but they do exist (see Chapter Twelve). For example, there is the record in Daniel 10:1–14.

Another window that gives us a view of the actual spiritual conflict in the Old Testament is found in the record of King David taking a census of the fighting men of Israel and Judah. 2 Samuel 24:1 reads, “Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” This seems to blatantly contradict 1 Chronicles 21:1 which says “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David….” For one thing, if the LORD really did incite David to sin, then how, in any sense, can God be said to be holy and loving? The consequence of this particular sin of David’s was the death of seventy thousand people!

God says over and over that He wants people to stop sinning. He also says He loves people and wants people to live, not die. Unless God is just a blatant liar, there has to be another explanation for “…the LORD… incited David [to sin]….” Thankfully, the other explanation is given in the Chronicles record, which fingers Satan as the real culprit. “The LORD” is used in the Samuel record by metonymy of the subject. This serves as a reminder to us that the laws and principles that God has set up are immutable and immobile and that if we “break” them, we will end up being broken against them.

The Old Testament saints did not recognize that God was using such figures of speech as metonymy of the subject to conceal the truth about Satan. God’s people actually thought that God was the cause of both good and evil. It is very important to understand this point, because the people speaking and writing a language are usually aware of its figures of speech. However, when it comes to figures of speech God used in His Word, such as metonymy of the subject, people would have had no way to understand them unless God Himself had explained them. We have seen why He did not do so until He made things clear through the teachings of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. Remember that “truth” came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

What we have set forth in this chapter shows how grievous error can occur when a person is ignorant of the figurative language God utilized in regard to the problem of evil, sin, and suffering. God becomes a tyrannical being who hardens hearts, sends evil spirits, deceives people, gives wicked laws, leads people into temptation, etc. Sadly, some people still think God actually does those terrible things. If He does, the Bible overflows with contradictions in heart and logic. In closing this chapter, we want to emphasize the following principle: Whenever God is said to do something at crosspurposes with His stated character or goals, a figure of speech is involved, which is a legitimate grammatical construction, and can be understood within the scope of Scripture.


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, MA 1969) p. 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, op. cit., Bullinger gives four classes of metonymy: the cause, the effect, the subject, and the adjunct, and spends seventy pages on the subject.

3. The World Book Dictionary, Clarence L. Barnhart, Editor-in-chief (Doubleday and Co. Inc., Chicago, IL, 1970), p. 1037.

4. Bullinger, op. cit., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, p. 823. The active verb used in a permissive sense is widely attested to by scholars. In The Emphasized Bible(RHM), a translation done by the eminent Hebrew scholar Joseph B. Rotherham, the phrase “…I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart…” is translated as “…I will let his heart wax bold…” (Exod. 4:21). In defense of his translation, he offers the following in a footnote: “…the translation in the text above would seem fairer to the average Occidental mind, and is thoroughly justifiable on two grounds: (1) of the known character of God, and (2) the well-attested latitude of the Semitic tongues, which are accustomed to speak of occasion as cause” (p. 87). Rotherham goes on in an appendix to say “…even positive commands are occasionally to be accepted as meaning no more than permission” and he goes on to cite Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar as more support for his translation.

Another source for studying the latitude of the active verb in the Hebrew language is the “Hints and Helps to Bible Interpretation” section in the front of the twenty-second American edition of Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted in 1975). Help number 70 gives eight uses of the active verb in Hebrew, with Scripture verses as examples for further study. The eight uses show that the active verb expresses: a) only an attempt to do the action, b) a permission, c) an announcement, d) giving an occasion, e) a direction or sanction, f) a promise to do, g) a continuation, and h) what is done by a deputy. Although we are primarily interested in the use of the active verb in a permissive sense, it is important for the student of the Bible to be aware that some languages use words in ways that other languages do not, and misunderstanding how a language uses words can lead to misinterpretation and then to wrong application.

5. Regarding New Testament examples, Bullinger explains (op. cit., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, pp. 819 and 820) the use of this Hebraism: “The fact must ever be remembered that, while the language of the New Testament is Greek, the agents and instruments employed by the Holy Spirit were Hebrews. God spake “by the mouth of his holy prophets.” Hence, while the ‘mouth’ and the throat and vocal chords and breath were human, the words were Divine. No one is able to understand the phenomenon; or explain how it comes to pass: for Inspiration is a fact to be believed and received, and not a matter to be reasoned about. While therefore, the words are Greek, the thoughts and idioms are Hebrew. Some, on this account, have condemned the Greek of the New Testament, because it is not classical; while others, in their anxiety to defend it, have endeavored to find parallel usages in classical Greek authors. Both might have spared their pains by recognizing that the New Testament Greek abounds with Hebraisms: i.e., expressions conveying Hebrew usages and thoughts in Greek words. It will be seen at once that this is a subject which has a large and important bearing on the interpretation and clear understanding of many passages in the New Testament.”

6. Ibid., p. 571.

7. This also holds true for 2 Thessalonians 2:11 (KJV): “…God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.” God will permit them to believe the son of perdition after they have rejected Him.

8. We are fully aware that the people believed that God did send evil spirits and cause prophets to lie, as some Old Testament records like 1 Kings 22:19–23 indicate. This is our very point—that the Old Testament must be read in light of the New Testament to be correctly understood. The reader of Scripture must be aware that when the Bible quotes people, what they say reflects their perspective and belief, whether accurate or inaccurate. One of the “miserable comforters” said of Job, “…you even undermine piety and hinder devotion to God” (Job 15:4). This statement, though in the Bible, is not correct, since Job did not “undermine piety.” It represents the belief of the speaker. So there are times in the Old Testament where a person attributes evil to God based on his own understanding. In 1 Kings 22:23, the prophet Micaiah said, “…the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets….” Micaiah spoke according to the way God had revealed Himself to him. Likewise, King Saul’s attendants said to him, “…an evil spirit from God is tormenting you” (1 Sam. 16:15). When the Word of God records people attributing evil to God, it is not an example of God using metonymy of the subject. Rather, it is simply what the people believed and said. We ask the reader to have patience and keep reading to see our explanation as to why the people believed the way they did concerning God and His relation to evil.

9. Bullinger, op. cit., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, p. 570.

10. The King James Version renders the Hebrew text of Genesis 41:13 literally, using the translations “me he restored” and “him he hanged.” Other translations see the difficulty caused by a literal rendering of the text and thus incorporate their understanding of the figure into the translation. For example, the NIV reads: “I was restored” and “…the other man was hanged.”

11. To this question, some would answer that God needed Pharaoh to resist so that He could demonstrate His great power. People who say this often quote the following verse: “But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod. 9:16). We believe this verse is a genuine example of the permissive idiom. “…I have raised you up…” means “I have permitted your rise to power.” Since God did not foretell Pharaoh’s rise to power, this is not an example of prophetic metonymy. In His great resourcefulness, God used the course of human events, in this case Egyptian history, to accomplish His purposes, among which were to provide an example of His power to deliver and of His righteous and holy nature (1 Cor. 10:11).

12. The record of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a good example of why the reader must be very sensitive to the text and the literary devices God is using in His Word. When God says to Moses “…I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart,…” it is God using prophetic metonymy, speaking of what He knew would happen in the future. On the other hand, when Exodus 9:12 (KJV) reads “…the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh,…” it is metonymy of the subject where Satan and/or Pharaoh is actually hardening his heart.

13. E. W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible (Samuel Bagster and Sons Ltd., London, England, Reprinted 1964), p. 77.

14. Kushner, op. cit., When Bad Things Happen To Good People, p. 4.

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