The Importance of Repetition in the Bible by Sam O’Neal
Have you noticed that the Bible often repeats itself? I have. In fact, I remember noticing as a teenager that I kept running into the same phrases, and even whole stories, as I made my way through the Scriptures. I didn’t understand why the Bible contained so many examples of repetition, but even as a young man I felt like their must be a reason for it — a purpose of some kind.
And wouldn’t you know it? I was right. (For once.)
The reality is that repetition has been a key tool used by writers and thinkers for thousands of years. Perhaps the most famous example in the past century was the“I Have a Dream” speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. Look at this excerpt to see what I mean:
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
Today, repetition is more popular than ever thanks to the rise of marketing campaigns. When I say “I’m lovin’ it” or “Just do it,” for example, you know exactly what I mean. Right? We refer to this as branding or advertising, but it’s really just a concentrated form of repetition. Hearing the same thing over and over helps you remember it and can build associations with a product or idea.
So here’s what I want you to remember from this article: Looking for repetition is a key tool for studying God’s Word. Think you can remember that? (Hint: if you make it to the end of this page, you’ll have a pretty good shot.)
As we explore the use of repetition in the Bible, we can see two distinct types of repeated text: large chunks and small chunks.
There are several instances in which the Bible repeats larger chunks of text — stories, whole collections of stories, and sometimes even whole books.
Think of the four Gospels, for example: Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of these books essentially does the same thing; they all record the life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are an example of repetition on a large scale. But why? Why does the New Testament contain four large books that all describe the same sequence of events?
There are several important answers, but I’ll boil things down to three key principles:
- First, the use of repetition in the Bible usually emphasizes the importance of a person, theme, or event. This makes sense for the Gospels because the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry and mission is the most important event in the history of the world. The presence of four distinct accounts of Jesus’ life emphasizes His importance.
- Second, the repetition of the Gospels offers greater credibility. In the ancient world, legal testimonies were considered valid if they could be substantiated by at least two or three witnesses (see Deuteronomy 19:15). By having four separate accounts written by four distinct witnesses, the Bible offers a highly reliable portrait of who Jesus was and what He did on our behalf.
- Third, the use of repetition in the Gospels allowed the biblical authors to approach Jesus’ story from different angles and perspectives. I’ve written a separate article that explains the primary purpose and audience for each of the four Gospels. It’s a worthwhile read if you have the time.
These three principles explain most of the repeated chunks of text throughout the Bible. For example, the Ten Commandments are repeated in Exodus 20 andDeuteronomy 5 because of their critical importance to the Israelites and their understanding of God’s law. Likewise, the Old Testament repeats large portions of entire books, including the books of Kings and Chronicles. Why? Because doing so allows readers to explore the same events from two vastly different perspectives — 1 and 2 Kings were written before Israel’s exile to Babylon, while 1 and 2 Chronicles were written after the Israelites returned to their homeland.
The important thing to remember is that large portions of Scripture aren’t repeated by accident. They didn’t come about because God has a lazy streak as a writer. Rather, the Bible contains repeated chunks of text because repetition serves a purpose.
Therefore, looking for repetition is a key tool for studying God’s Word.
The Bible also contains several examples of smaller repeated phrases, themes, and ideas. These smaller examples of repetition typically are typically intended to emphasize the importance of a person or an idea, or to highlight an element of character.
For example, consider this wonderful promise God declared through His servant Moses:
I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. You will know that I am Yahweh your God, who delivered you from the forced labor of the Egyptians.
Now look at just a few of the ways that same concept is repeated throughout the Old Testament:
- “I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7).
- “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people” (Leviticus 26:12).
- “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am Yahweh your God” (Numbers 15:41).
- “However, I did give them this command: Obey Me, and then I will be your God, and you will be My people” (Jeremiah 7:23).
- “Then you will live in the land that I gave your fathers; you will be My people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:28).
God’s covenant promise to the people of Israel is a major theme in the Old Testament. Therefore, the repetition of they key phrases “I will be your God” and “You will be my people” serves to regularly highlight that vital theme.
There are also many examples throughout Scripture in which a single word is repeated in sequence. Here’s an example:
Each of the four living creatures had six wings; they were covered with eyes around and inside. Day and night they never stop, saying:
Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God, the Almighty,
who was, who is, and who is coming.
Sure, Revelation can be a confusing book. But the reason for the repeated use of “holy” in this verse is crystal clear: God is holy, and the repeated use of the word emphasizes His holiness.
In summary, repetition has always been an important element in literature of all kinds. Therefore, looking for examples of repetition is a key tool for studying God’s Word.