“Then why do the experts in the law say that Elijah must come first?” The religious leaders of Christ’s day taught that Elijah would come before the Messiah, a doctrine based on a misinterpretation of Malachi 4:5: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” However, Elijah was long dead, and God did not raise him from the dead to live again before the time of the Messiah. To properly understand Malachi 4:5, we need to know that the name “Elijah” in that verse is the figure of speech antonomasia, or “name change” (cp. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible). Antonomasia is the figure of speech in which one person is called by the name of another person in order to ascribe the characteristics of the second person to the one we are addressing. For example, we might say to a child who is jumping on the couch, “Stop that, Tarzan!” We know the child’s name is not “Tarzan,” but by calling him “Tarzan,” we ascribe the jungle behavior of Tarzan to the child. Some examples of antonomasia in the Bible include:
That John would be like Elijah was made clear to Zechariah by the angel Gabriel. When Zechariah was ministering in the Temple, Gabriel appeared to him and said that Elizabeth would have a son they were to name “John,” and he would go before God “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). For those who remembered the angel’s words years later when John started his ministry, it was clear that John was indeed the “Elijah,” who was to come.
Antonomasia is a figure of speech involving a name change, which imports characteristics from one name or subject into another name or subject. We must pay careful attention to what is literal and what is figurative in Scripture and study the context in order to recognize figures of speech and what they convey.
Verses: 2 Kings 9:31; Ezek. 34:22-23; Mal. 4:5; Matt. 17:13
Teacher: John Schoenheit