In chapter 13 of What’s So Amazing About Scripture? I speak about delving deeply into a Hebrew or Greek word so as to tease out its fuller meaning as it applies to its particular passage.
Of course, the English translation of the word in your Bible may have perfectly captured its meaning. But perhaps it has not got the meaning quite right, or got all of the meaning. The English word may say less than the original word or perhaps less.
As we study the meaning of an original Greek or Hebrew word it often reveals a greater depth and richness to our understanding of the text. Often enough, we find out that the Greek or Hebrew word we are examining into has a landscape of meaning that the English translation has not, or could not capture.
Passio, Rakhum, Splagchnizomai
Nope, I am not speaking gibberish.
These words point us to the example of the word compassion. In English it derives from com (with) and passio (suffer). As rich a word as that is, it hardly does justice to the Hebrew word rakhum that is translated as compassion. The Hebrew word is closely related to the word for womb—suggesting the depth of God’s compassion for us, as well as his ability to carry us in his tender care. Likewise, the Greek word splagchnizomai, translated as compassion, means the stirring of the inward parts, literally the twisting of the intestines. My point is that there is no English word that can seize upon the depth of emotion in the original words. When we consider that 80% of all biblical uses of the word compassion are about God’s or Jesus’ compassion, we realize how a simple word study can lead us into a better understanding of God.
Just to be clear, I am not saying you have to study every word in the language it was originally written to begin to uncover the deeper truths in a passage. What I suggest is that, when you read your English translation, select one or two words that seem to be significant within the context of the text and take those words and more deeply explore them.
All very well, you might say, but what good is it if we do not have knowledge of Greek and Hebrew? Well, you might want to take out a few years of your life and learn those original languages of the Bible. Though, I doubt that many of us have the opportunity to do that.
How to study a Bible word
You will need access to the Internet for this. I recommend two free online word study tools—either www.blueletterbible.org or www.biblehub.com. We will use both. It may be best if you tried it as we go along.
As a case study, let’s imagine you are studying the spiritual gifts mentioned in Romans 12:6-8. It so happens that you believe you might have the gift of leadership so when you read, “If your gift … is to lead, do it diligently” you become curious about that word diligently. You decide to find out exactly what Paul means by the word, and you hope that God will use your study of the word to deepen your grasp on how God calls you to lead.
Here are the steps to take for any Bible word study:
- Establish the range of the word’s possible meanings.
- In context of its passage, select the probable meaning from the range of possible meanings.
- Attempt to paraphrase the word.
- Pray what you have learnt back to God.
1) Establish the range of the word’s possible meanings.
Most words in all languages have “a range of meanings.” Consider the various meanings of the word ‘hand’—“Lift your hand,” “Give me a hand,” “I have been dealt a bad hand.” (We could go on, there are at least six or seven other meanings.) Notice that in all these cases, the context determines the meaning of the word. Ancient Hebrew and Greek words are no different, they carry a range of meanings, and in each usage, the context determines the meaning.
The easiest way to discover the range of meanings is to see how different translators put your word. Using Biblehub, select Romans 12:8. You will be provided with a list of close to 30 English translations of the verse. Now scroll through and notice the ways different translators understand the word. A full 20 of them opt for ‘diligence’ so you immediately know what the consensus is on the meaning of the word. But notice the other ten translations which nuance the word differently—‘taking the responsibility seriously,’ ‘with zeal,’ ‘doing your best,’ ‘enthusiastically,’ ‘with carefulness,’ and ‘energetically and with alertness.’
Also find out how the same word is used elsewhere in the Bible and its range of meanings. Type in Romans 12:8 in to the search bar in Blueletterbible. Then click on ‘Tools’ next to the verse. This should take you to a an English-Greek interlinear study of the Word. Click on the Strong’s number in between diligence and its Greek derivative spoude. Now you have what you are looking for—notice how many times (11 other places) and where else the word spoude and related words are used in the New Testament; and the range of possible meanings (namely, haste, zeal, striving, carefulness, earnestness, persevering, hard work, diligence).
2) Select the probable meaning from the range of possible meanings.
One of the dangers of word-study is overloading a word with meaning. The context always limits the meaning of the word. Paul does not mean, ‘Lead with haste and zeal and carefulness and hard work.”
To select the probable meaning ask yourself if there is anything in the literary context of Romans 12:8 itself that can direct us to the meaning of spoude as it us used here in Romans 12:8?
If we look at the clauses immediately around ‘lead diligently’ we notice also ‘give generously’ and ‘show mercy cheerfully.’ The words ‘generously’ and ‘cheerfully’ evidently parallel ‘diligently’—but notice that those words have more to do with the attitude with which something is being done than the action itself. Based on the interlinear tool of Blueletterbible, we know that the word spoude is used just three verses later. In verse 11 the word spoude is contrasted with an idea of ‘lacking of spirit and fervency’. Based on the contextual evidence, spoude in Romans 12:8 is likely not referring to haste or plain hard work.
3) Attempt to paraphrase the word.
We ask ourselves the question: if we know what it doesn’t mean, what does it mean?
In order to answer our question we have to decide for ourselves which translation gets it more right—‘lead with diligence’ (CSB) or ‘lead with zeal’ (ESV)? We now are sympathetic to both translations, and realize that though the English word ‘diligence’ is probably closest to the original word, it lacks some of the ‘zeal and enthusiasm’ that is probably in Paul’s mind when he uses the word spoude here. Whatsmore, the English word can also connote a ‘painstaking attentiveness’ which is probably not in Paul’s mind here.
We now pull together all the threads of insight we have gleaned and we try to paraphrase it on our own. So what is your offering? Mine is: Leaders must take a serious-minded and whole-hearted approach to leading.
4) Finally, we pray back to God what we have learnt.
So perhaps your prayer is, “God, you have called me to lead, and you have given me the gift of leadership. I pray that I treat the opportunity to serve others in this way with a holy seriousness. I also pray that you will fill me with the zeal and enthusiasm as I apply myself to this holy task. I give my whole heart first to you, then to what you will have me do.”
Voila—word study complete! Now you are ready to follow these steps on any biblical word of your choice.
 Here we have an example of how translators will often struggle to find the right word, because there is not always a word in English that precisely captures a biblical word in the way it is used in a passage.