The Scripture Interprets Itself: In the Verse—A Word or Words Must Be Interpreted according to Biblical Usage

The Scripture Interprets Itself: In the Verse—A Word or Words Must Be Interpreted according to Biblical Usage

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     The King James Version of the Bible was completed in 1611, nearly four hundred years ago. And although the truth of the Word of God hasn’t changed, language does change over time. During the time the King James Version was being translated, William Shakespeare also wrote some of his works. Look at this blessing for prosperity that he penned in his play The Tempest, written during this same period. These lines from act 4, scene 1, give us a vivid example of just how much language changes.

Earth’s increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty;
Vines with clust’ring bunches growing,
Plants with goodly burthen bowing.

     Although the language is graceful, our knowledge of modern English probably does not allow us to fully grasp the meaning of the passage above. We rarely encounter words like “foison,” which means abundance; or “garners,” which are buildings for storing threshed grain; or “burthen,” meaning burden. To comprehend exactly what Shakespeare intended to convey, we must understand the definitions of these words at the time the play was written.
     Like The Tempest, the King James Version of the Bible differs at times from modern English. To discover God’s intent, we must understand obscure words according to Biblical usage. One aspect of Biblical usage is that the words must be understood according to the definitions at the time the translation was made. Building our understanding of this key will help us to more fully comprehend and enjoy the Bible. And as a result, we will be better equipped to rightly divide God’s Word and get to His intent.
     In II Timothy 2:15, we see a workman’s responsibility to God’s Word.
II Timothy 2:15:
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

     When we rightly divide the Word, we stand approved of God. Rightly dividing the Word involves attention to detail. The meaning of each word in the Bible is important and contributes to our understanding of God’s will. When we lack a clear and accurate understanding of the words of God’s Word, we can experience confusion and lose some of the enjoyment and blessing God intends for us. But when we utilize the keys to Biblical research and study the Word with humility, respect, and believing, we can arrive at God’s original intent and grow in the knowledge of Him.
Colossians 1:10:
That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God.

     The use of a good English dictionary can help us understand the meaning of words according to Biblical usage. In addition to providing the contemporary definition of a word, the dictionary sometimes includes a temporal label, which indicates a meaning that is uncommon in modern English. Specifically, the label “archaic” is used to indicate a definition that was common but can rarely be found in print since 1755. Because the King James Version of the Bible was completed before 1755, a word which may have been common at the time of translation may be rarely used or not used at all today.
     Let’s examine Mark 10:7 and 8 to see an example of a word that is no longer in common use:
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;
And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.

     We rarely see the word “twain” in contemporary English, so we must gain an understanding of its archaic meaning to rightly divide these verses. Looking up the word “twain” in an English dictionary, we find that its archaic meaning is “two.”
     Understanding that the word “twain” means “two” helps us to see that these verses are talking about the one-flesh relationship developed between a husband and wife in marriage. To practice this key to Biblical research, let’s try finding the archaic meanings of the following boldface words in a dictionary.
Luke 15:16:
And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
Acts 23:5:
Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.

     We can see from the dictionary that the archaic definition for the adverb “fain” means “with pleasure.” And the archaic meaning of the word “wist” is “know.” Look how much clearer these verses become when we understand the meaning of these two little words at the time the translation was made!
     The dictionary isn’t the only place to uncover the Biblical usage of words. A lexicon and concordance is another helpful tool for this. Let’s look at a verse of scripture in the Epistle of I Thessalonians. We’ll see how E. W. Bullinger’s A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament can help us gain understanding of a word whose usage has changed over time.
I Thessalonians 4:15:
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive
and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
     In modern English, the word “prevent” means “impede.” This understanding of the word “prevent” does not seem to make sense in the context of verses 16 and 17, which discuss the order of the events of Christ’s return.
I Thessalonians 4:16 and 17:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
Then we which are alive
and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
     Of course, God’s children who are alive and remain won’t keep the gathering together from happening, nor will they impede the dead in Christ from rising. However, to help us make sense of the word “prevent” in this context, let’s look on page 601 of Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon and Concordance.
     We see two Greek words listed for the word “prevent.” Definition “1.” applies to the Greek word that is used in I Thessalonians 4:15. It is clear from the definitions listed that the meaning of “prevent” here is “to come or do before.” Applying this understanding to I Thessalonians 4:15 allows us to rightly divide this verse which now fits with the context. God’s children who are alive and remain at the time of the gathering won’t come before those who are asleep in Christ. Now we understand God’s order when Christ comes back for his Church. Look how using this research tool helps build our Biblical understanding.…

This is an excerpt from the May/June 2005 issue of The Way Magazine.
Copyright© 2005 by The Way International. All rights reserved.
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