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Back to the Basics: Define Keywords of the Bible

A friend shared a story about her two-year-old son. For dinner, she and her family enjoyed plates of spaghetti and meatballs, which her son found delicious. The following day, he brought his stuffed bunny to breakfast. He rubbed the bunny’s nose repeatedly, repeating the words, “Spooky Daddy.” Her husband wondered why his son was referring to himself as spooky. Although my friend found it humorous, her hubby was a bit troubled. It wasn’t until pulling out leftover spaghetti and setting it out for lunch that the confusion was solved. When the toddler saw the spaghetti, he declared, “Spooky Daddy!” As much as they tried to correct his pronunciation, “spuh·geh·tee,” they continued to hear: “spooky daddy.” On Little Bunny’s nose was a bit of dried tomato sauce from the previous night’s spaghetti, hence, “spooky daddy, spooky daddy.” Oh, the power of words! How do we define keywords of the Bible?

Keywords and clearly defining words are essential to understanding the meaning of the Bible.

For our Back to the Basics series, we’ve discussed observation and now are tackling the interpretation of a Bible passage. How do we understand the meaning of the passage? We left off in our last blog discussing context and common sense. These provide an excellent first step and often go hand in hand. When we seek to interpret a Bible passage, asking questions—who, when, where, what, how, and why—will help us keep the passage in context. Using the answers to these questions and common sense goes a long way toward understanding.

But next come words and language itself. Although evident, we don’t often consider the gift! God created us to communicate. Maryanne Wolf, a scientist of the reading process and formation, states in her book Reader, Come Home: the Reading Brain in a Digital World:

Oral language is one of our more basic human functions… This is why a young child, placed in any typical language environment, will learn to speak the language virtually without instruction. That is a wondrous thing.[1]

Words and language are a gift. Without words, we would not have a Bible. And how would we know God without the Bible? Words are inherent to knowing God.

Language development is one thing. Reading and interpreting is another. Wolf says:

We human beings have to learn to read.

Different from language acquisition, we need to be taught to read. Learning to read is quite a process. Wolf spends two entire chapters in her book trying to describe the incredible fireworks that occur in our brains as we read words and sentences. Reading increases the plasticity of the brain. Studying the Bible is not only good for our souls but also good for our brains!

So, if learning to study the Bible inductively still feels awkward, be encouraged. Wolf explains that, scientifically, this type of reading creates new pathways in the brain. With practice and time, it gets easier.

I love words!

Seriously, I come by them, honestly. My dad refers to himself as the king of gab, and he has often referred to me as the queen of gab. Oh dear! Even as I write this, I am reminded of Solomon’s admonishment that many words involve vanity.

The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? Ecclesiastes 6:11

God’s Words are different from ours. SIMPLY BIBLE was created to eliminate my words or an author’s words to engage with God and His Words directly. God’s Word is powerful. He was the first and original speaker of words:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. Gensis 1:3-5

We’ve discussed countless times how when God speaks, it is so. He does not mess around with words. When He says, “Let there be light,” guess what? There is light. When He says, “Lazarus, come out,” Lazarus comes. Yes, a dead man walks out of the grave. God’s Words are powerful, potent, and priceless.

The same holds for God’s Words as recorded in the Bible. Powerful. Potent. Priceless.

Jonah Berger, a Wharton professor and natural-language processing expert, explains in his book Magic Words that certain words, when used in the right way at the right time, are more impactful than others at changing minds, engaging audiences, and driving action. This being most true for God’s Words, which are more than “magic.”[2]

Again, God knew what He was doing when He inspired His Word, the Bible. Yet our challenge to understand the potency of God’s Words relates to language. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. Most of us did not grow up learning these languages, nor are we Hebrew and Greek scholars. These languages of the Bible are “spooky daddy” to us!

Instead, we read our Bibles in modern translations and our respective languages. When we seek to understand and interpret the words of the Bible, we sometimes come across unfamiliar words we don’t use every day. Thankfully, we have tools like Bible dictionaries, concordances, and cross-references to help.

Each two-page spread includes a tool kit with keywords, definitions, and cross-references within the SIMPLY BIBLE study daily format. This tool kit helps us highlight and define words to illuminate their meaning in their original language. Defining words helps us master interpretation.

What exactly is a keyword?

A keyword is subjective. Any word from a Bible passage can be essential to better understanding its meaning. Sometimes, it might be an unfamiliar word. For instance, Paul pens the word justification frequently. I would jot it down this unfamiliar word in the keyword column and then define it. Other times, a keyword relates to the main point of a paragraph. Even if it is a familiar word in English, I often jot it down and define it. Is a word repeated in a passage? This word is significant. Still, a keyword can be any word that popped out while reading or re-reading and seemed meaningful. It’s always good to slow down to seek to understand. That’s the beauty of studying with God and listening to His Spirit.

As something new to try, we will study Bible verses in our social media posts, particularly on Instagram and our Facebook page. Please consider following us each week for a little snippet of Simply Bible.

Let’s consider the shortest verse in the Bible found in the Gospel of John:

            Jesus wept. John 11:35

Which keyword should be defined?

Well, there is no right or wrong answer here. I find both words are important, and I put them in my keyword box to define. To define we use a Bible dictionary or a concordance, or sometimes another Bible translation works. These are easily accessible online, or you can download your favorite apps like Blue Letter Bible, Bible Gateway, Bible Hub, Step Bible, or Logos. (These apps are much easier than the ten-pound Strong’s concordance book a lugged around before mobile phones!)

We likely know that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world, but here’s what I found in my Bible dictionary:

For the word wept, I used a concordance to define the word according to the Greek language. (If you are new to a concordance, consider checking out a tutorial on using a concordance. I created this a few years ago while leading an Ephesians study.)

Here is what I found for wept:

To weep is to cry, to shed tears because of sadness, rage, or pain.

In the passage’s context (a few verses before), John describes Jesus as deeply moved and troubled in spirit.  Have you ever been moved, grieved, or enraged over evil, brokenness, or death to the point of shaking and crying out? So has Jesus.

After understanding the two words of the verse, we can put the verse back together. Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the Word in the Beginning, wept. He cried real, human tears because He felt deep sadness, rage, and pain over the death of His friend. He entered into the grief of Lazarus’s friends and family.

If we ask our golden question: “What do I learn about God?” We are stunned to see God feels what we feel concerning the death of a loved one. He weeps as we weep.

Friend, how might we apply Jesus weeping to our own lives?

Today, I am humbled and comforted that God Himself took on flesh and blood to enter into my grief and our grief and weep with us. Here is a God, my God, our God, who understands sadness, rage, and pain. He sees us and knows and offers empathy and compassion. Yet, His empathy is not powerless. No! By His Word, His powerful, priceless, and potent words, Lazarus walks out of that tomb. When we trust in Jesus, we have hope that our bodies will be resurrected, too.

Do you see the beauty of digging into the words of the Bible? As I said earlier, I love words! I love how words help me admire God and draw my heart into union with God for knowing and enjoying Him as a Friend. With the help of dictionaries and concordance, the Bible never needs to sound like “spooky daddy” again.

Let’s pray:

Lord God, thank You for the gift of language and words! Thank You for the Bible, a book of your powerful, priceless, potent words. Help us as we seek to know and enjoy You through it. Use Your Words through the power of Your Holy Spirit to unite our hearts with Yours.

Practical application:

Download a Bible concordance app on your phone. The next time you read the Bible, choose one keyword, pull out your phone, and look up the definition. How does the definition help you better interpret the passage? Talk to God about it. Talk with others about it.

[1] Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home, The Reading Brain in  Digital World (New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2018) p. 17-18.

[2] https://hbr.org/2023/07/the-power-of-words

4 Responses

  1. I’m leading a Bible study through Genesis, I am going to order your study on Genesis, I think this would help me .

    1. Thank you for your comment, Carolyn! We hope you find the study guide helpful for Genesis. You can find study buddy videos for Genesis on our YouTube channel here. Let us know what questions you have as you get started!

  2. Thank you for these thoughtful tips! Now that I have completed many of the Simply Bible studies, I often gloss over the sample lessons or instructions on the inductive study method. This post was a great way for me to keep the purpose of keywords front of mind.

    1. Thank you for your encouraging words, Julie! I’m so glad you found this helpful! Reviewing the basics helps me, too.

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