Bible study is one of my favorite pastimes. We are blessed to live in an era when all sorts of tools are available that make research fairly easy, and much less tedious than ever before. They also make it much more dangerous. It is easy for me to read a commentary, lexicon, or Bible dictionary and suddenly think I have become a great scholar, when the truth is, not only am I not instantly a Hebrew or Greek scholar, I am not even a good English scholar!
Some of us studied Latin in high school and learned why it is called a “dead” language—it is no longer spoken and therefore no longer changes. A living language changes every day. Take the word “silly.” We know it means “absurd, foolish or stupid.” Did you know that it originally meant “happy and blessed?” How about “lewd?” It now means “sexually unchaste;” originally it meant “a common person as opposed to clergy.” “Idiot” now has the specific meaning of “someone whose mental age does not exceed three,” and a colloquial meaning of “a foolish or stupid person.” Originally it meant “someone in private station as opposed to someone holding public office.” So five hundred years ago, most of us could have been described as silly, lewd idiots and we would not have taken offense!
The same changes are true of every language, including Greek and Hebrew. When you search for meanings in a lexicon, be sure you find out what meaning the word had when it was written in the scriptures. In fact, that is why I usually limit my studies to the various ways a word was translated into English. Psallo once meant “to pull out one’s hair,” but by the time Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 were written it had gone through several changes and simply meant “to sing praises.” That is why we sing to God instead of standing before him pulling out our hair!
Another thing to be careful of is root words. A lot of arguments have been made based on the root of a Greek word. Let me just give you a quick example in English to show you how dangerous this can be. Do you know what the root word for “nice” is? The Latin nescius. Nescius means “ignorant!” Think about that the next time someone tells you how nice you look on Sunday morning.
We do all sorts of other things that we think are so smart and really are not. We talk about compound words as if just knowing the two parts to one will instantly enlighten us to the real meaning of a Greek word. Not necessarily. How about “pineapple?” The bush certainly does not look like a pine, and the fruit neither looks, tastes, nor smells like an apple! Truly, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Then there are those simplistic definitions we often use. “Faithful means full of faith.” Really? Ask someone whose spouse has been “unfaithful” what that word means and you are much more likely to get an accurate and useful definition.
And what does all this have to do with anything? God chose to use his written word to communicate his will to us. I need to be very careful how I use it. Translations are fine. Jesus used one—the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, completed about 200 BC. However, I must be careful in my study lest I think that learning a few things makes me an authority. I know it is a cliché, but it is so true—the more I learn, the more I realize I do not know. But God has made sure I know what I need to know.
We have in our hands the Words of Life. Be careful with them.
Article by Dene Ward