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Figures Friday

Pleonasm1 or Redundancy

God bless you and greetings in the name of Jesus Christ whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:28).

The figure pleonasm is when more words are used than the grammar requires.  It can be identified when there appears to be a redundancy of words in a sentence, and the sense is grammatically complete without them.  Of pleonasm, Bullinger writes:

“Sometimes the substantive appears to be redundant when its idea is already implied in the adjective; or when two nouns are used where one appears to be sufficient.  But this redundancy is only apparent.  These words are not really superfluous when used by the Holy Spirit, nor are they idle or useless.  They are necessary to fill up the sense, which without them would be incomplete and imperfect.

This figure is used to set forth the subject more fully by repeating it in other, sometimes in opposite, terms.  What is first expressed affirmatively is sometimes repeated negatively, and vice versa.  It is also used for the purpose of marking the emphasis; or, for intensifying the feeling; or. for enhancing in some way what has been already said.  The term pleonastic may therefore be applied to all similar figures of repetition or addition.  But we have endeavoured to classify them according to the object in view in the repetition; whether it be definition, or interpretation, or for mere emphasis by amplification, etc.

We have reserved the term pleonasm for this latter class, where what is said is immediately after put in another or opposite way to make it impossible for the sense to be missed; and thus to emphasize it.”2

There are certain words used idiomatically that are only there to emphasize and enhance the force of another word.  One example is “face/faces” when used to increase the force of the word it proceeds as in “faces of the deep” (Genesis 1:2), “the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:8).  Sometimes “face,” [Hebrew, panim] remains untranslated.  Exodus 7:10 should read, “before the face of Pharaoh.”  Leviticus 23:40 should read, “before the face of the Lord your God.”  Judges 11:3 should read, “before the face of His brethren.”  My Cambridge Bible has a note on Judges 11:3 which adds “face” in the margin.”

A second example is the phrase, “Children of men.”  It is used redundantly to describe the whole human race (Genesis 11:5; I Kings 8:39; Psalms 36:7).  However, my favorite is the phrase, “and it came to pass.”  Of course, it came to pass because the narrative of God’s Word tells us so.  Using the phrase “and it came to pass” and then telling us what came to pass is redundant.  Omitting the phrase doesn’t change the sense of the record.  However, it is not really redundant or unnecessary because it is used to draw our attention to the fact that it did come to pass.  Whenever I read it, I usually chuckle and say, “of course it did.”  Let’s look at a couple examples to see how God draws our attention to certain passages.

Acts 16:16-18:
And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: 17 The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation. 18 And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour.

I Kings 18:36:
And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

Judges 16:15-17a:
And she [Delilah] said unto him [Samson], How canst thou say, I love thee, when thine heart is not with me? thou hast mocked me these three times, and hast not told me wherein thy great strength lieth16 And it came to pass, when she pressed him daily with her words, and urged him, so that his soul was vexed unto death; 17 That he told her all his heart. . . .

Luke 5:1-2:
And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. 3 And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land.  And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship.

Suffice it to say, there are no unnecessary words in God’s Word.   When something appears to be redundant, it really is not.  It is just the Holy Spirit marking something as important so we do not miss it.

  1. See Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, E. W. Bullinger, pages 405-418.
  2. See Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, E. W. Bullinger, page 405.