4 Reasons Why Every Bible Reader Should Do Word Studies
One of the greatest comedy sequences in a contemporary movie has to be the kidnap and escape scene from The Princess Bride. Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini, a band of mostly-good bad guys, kidnap Princess Buttercup, taking her across the sea and up the cliffs of insanity. They are pursued, however, by the mysterious man in black. When he is first seen and is gaining on the outlaws, Vizzini responds, "Inconceivable!!" Then when the giant Fezzik hauls the other two kidnappers and the princess up the cliffs of insanity by a rope, Vizzini says, "Only Fezzik is strong enough to go up this way!" Then Inigo points out that the man in black is climbing the rope, to which Vizzini responds, "Inconceivable!!" Finally they reach the top of the cliff, cutting the rope, thinking the man in black will plunge to his death. When he doesn't and continues to climb the cliff with his bare hands, Vizzini shouts in exasperation, "Inconceivable!!!!" To which Inigo replies, "That word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Words are strange and wonderful things. They make communication possible, from mundane, day-to-day fact sharing, to the richest literature. Yet, at the same time, the flexibility of words can make us struggle with discerning the exact meaning of a passage of Scripture. Consequently, words demand attention, challenging us to probe their secrets.
In this post I want to make a case for learning the basics of doing word studies, whether we are pulling out the shovel of deeper Bible study or the trowel of basic Bible reading. Here are 4 motivations.
1. Words matter. Words are the threads woven together to make up the fabric of Scripture and thus are foundational to any faith that claims to be biblically based. In a 2010 blog post, Justin Taylor, co-author with John Piper on The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, wrote the following on the importance of words for Christianity:
"What do words have to do with Christianity? Almost everything. At every stage in redemptive history—from the time before time, to God’s creation, to man’s fall, to Christ’s redemption, and to the coming consummation —“God is there and he is not silent” [Francis Schaeffer]."
In other words, without words from God there is no specific revelation; we have no specific understanding of what he is up to in the universe, nor of who we are or our purpose in the world. Words are foundational for the Christian life, and, since we are dealing with God's words, we need to attend to them carefully.
2. Words need to be heard accurately. Since God has revealed truth to us in human language (spoken at particular times, in particular languages, and in particular ways), words in the Bible can at points be unclear to us, or be misunderstood. This should not be surprising, since misunderstanding happens in even the closest of human relationships. For example, my wife and I are communicators, and we know each other wonderfully well. Yet, as close as we are, sharing life and culture now for almost thirty years, we sometimes experience hilarious (or horrendous!) moments of miscommunication. And if this can happen in human relationships, it certainly can happen as we engage an ancient body of literature, written by people very foreign to our situation in time and place. The fact that some places in Scripture—words or phrases or even paragraphs—are not plain in their meaning keeps us humble and seeking God through study and in dialogue with one another in the body of Christ. Certainly, we have the Holy Spirit to lead us into all the truth (John 16:13), but listening well, having "ears to hear," is a basic call of discipleship.
3. Words are wonderfully flexible and can do funny things. Most words in any language have a range of possible meanings. Think, for instance of how flexible the English word "hand" is. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen different possible meanings. "Give him a hand," for instance, can mean either "clap for him" or "help him" depending on the context. You can have a hired "hand" on a farm or or a minute "hand" on a clock. You get the picture. Bible words often work the same way. Context is king, playing a large role in determining a word's particular meaning in various places in Scripture. Further, words don't alway work in a Hebrew or Greek context the way we would expect a corresponding word to work in English. For instance, we normally think of the word "boast" only in a negative light, but the Greek verb kauchaomai can be used either negatively, like our English word, or positively (e.g., "boasting" in the Lord; 2 Cor. 10:17-18). Word studies can help us sort out the range of possible meanings and uses for a word and expose us to uses that may at first not be intuitive in our English-speaking context.
4. Understanding is sometimes in the nuances, and those nuances can be life-changing. One thing I love about word studies is the "ah ha" moments. It is not that I often disagree with the standard translations of a passage (although I do sometimes!!), but I often gain insight into shades of meaning or association, just by looking at how a word is used elsewhere in Scripture, or by consulting a reference tool, and that makes me think more deeply about the passage I am reading.
For instance, when I was writing my commentary on 2 Corinthians, I came to the words normally translated as "comfort" in 1:3-7 (the noun paraklēsis and the verb parakaleō). Interestingly, although I have always loved the "God of all comfort" rendering, I did a word study and came to the conclusion that these words in context are better translated as a particular form of "comfort" more in line with "encouragement," that is, the "act of emboldening another in belief or course of action.” In his excellent commentary on 2 Corinthians, David Garland explains,
The comfort that Paul has in mind has nothing to do with a languorous feeling of contentment. It is not some tranquilizing dose of grace that only dulls pains but a stiffening agent that fortifies one in heart, mind, and soul. Comfort relates to encouragement, help, exhortation. God’s comfort strengthens weak knees and sustains sagging spirits so that one faces the troubles of life with unbending resolve and unending assurance. (Garland, 2 Corinthians: 60)
Thus word studies can help us see important shades of meaning in a text and those nuances can at times change the way we respond to God's Word.
So, friends, here are four reasons for learning the basics of getting at biblical words. In my next post I will talk a bit about how to do just that.