Conducting a word study is many people’s first foray into deeper Bible study. You might do a word study when teaching the Bible, preparing for a small group, or reading for personal edification. Word studies can easily go awry, so here are six steps to help you conduct a word study with greater confidence.
1. Pick the right word.
The vital first step is to pick the right word (or short phrase). Avoid conjunctions (like for, and, but, yet), prepositions (by, from, in, of, on, with), and articles (a, an, the). There’s little benefit to conducting a word study here. Rather, we should hunt for words crucial to the passage we’re studying.
Conducting a word study is many people’s first foray into deeper Bible study.
These could be repeated words. If we’re studying Titus, we may note the repetition of “sound,” which appears five times over three chapters in the ESV. This word’s meaning is obviously important to understanding Titus’s message.
Alternatively, we may choose a word that we think people in our context understand differently from the original hearers, like “meditate” in Psalm 1:2.
Or we may choose a word that’s hard to understand. What does it mean when Paul says Jesus “emptied” himself in Philippians 2:7?
2. Find the Greek or Hebrew word.
To conduct a word study well, we must recognize that our English Bibles are translations. While the extent varies from translation to translation, each version may use different English words (or phrases) to translate a single Greek or Hebrew word. And often, different Greek or Hebrew words are translated with the same English word. It’s imperative to find the Greek or Hebrew word behind the English word we’re studying.
This doesn’t mean we need to learn the original languages. We can use Bible concordances, dictionaries, lexicons, and software. I’ve used the STEP Bible website. The screenshot below shows the results of a search for “sound” in Titus. Notice 2:8 isn’t highlighted in blue. This alerts us that a different Greek word lies behind the English term.
In Titus, the English term “sound” translates two related but different Greek words: hugiaino (1:9, 13; 2:1, 2) and hugies (2:8). The first term generally appears in biblical contexts referring to doctrinal health while the second occurs in contexts referring to physical health. Knowing this helps us appreciate shades of meaning.
3. Unearth other occurrences.
After finding the underlying Greek or Hebrew word, we look up other places it occurs in the Bible. Let’s consider “meditate” in Psalm 1:2. In contemporary English-speaking contexts, “meditate” generally means sitting still and silent. But what does the Hebrew word mean? As you can see below, the Hebrew word hagah used in Psalm 1:2 appears about 25 times throughout the Old Testament. It’s variously translated as “meditate,” “utter,” “plot,” “talk,” “ponder,” “mutter,” and “muse.”
If you click the link marking the number of occurrences, STEP Bible shows each passage where the word occurs. Look first at the immediate context where a word is used. In this case, that’s the Psalms. Hagah appears 10 times in the Psalms. It’s translated as “plot” in 2:1, “tell” in 35:28, and “talk” in 71:24. Perhaps the meditation of Psalm 1:2 isn’t silent.
Next, look at the wider context of the whole Bible. We discover the translations noted above are also found in uses of the word outside the Psalms: “utter” (Job 27:4; Prov. 8:7) and “mutter/s” (Isa. 8:19; 59:3). Could it be that “meditate” in Psalm 1:2 means reciting verbally to yourself?
4. Note the range of possible meanings.
Words possess a range of meanings. To discern the specific meaning of a word in the context we’re studying, we must consider the connotations of the various translation choices. Sometimes several translations may work. For Psalm 1:2, we could legitimately read most of the above translations, though each carries a different shade of meaning.
Philippians 2:7, however, is more difficult. The Greek term is kenoo. It occurs five times in the New Testament, translated as “null” (Rom. 4:14), “emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17), “deprive” (1 Cor. 9:15), “prove empty” (2 Cor. 9:3), and “emptied” (Phil. 2:7). It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus didn’t empty himself of power, and it would be wrong to conclude Jesus was proved empty. So we can immediately rule out some meanings and translations.
5. Check with the commentators.
By this stage, we have a good idea of what our chosen word means in its context. But it’s helpful to check with some trusted commentators, writers who are careful with the text and theologically faithful. If in doubt, ask your pastor for a recommendation. I’ve chosen one trusted commentator for each example passage.
On Psalm 1:2, Dale Ralph Davis writes, “The verb seems to carry the idea of muttering or murmuring in an undertone. If done with a written document, it reflects a vocal activity rather than a mere silent reading.”
On the term “sound” in Titus, John Stott explains, “In the Pastorals, however, the adjective is applied several times to Christian doctrine, which is ‘healthy’ or ‘wholesome’ in contrast to the ‘sick’ teaching of the deceivers.”
On Philippians 2:7 David Garland concludes, “Emptying himself means that he made himself null and void and renounced his privileges and rights.” Jesus willingly deprived himself of the status that was rightly his.
These readings fit with what we observed in our word studies.
6. Make your decision.
The final step is to make your decision. Having gathered the evidence and checked with the commentators, what do you think this word means in this context? Now you’re ready to state your conclusion and let it inform your teaching or study. If there’s not a consensus on a given word, you may want to hold your conclusions loosely and alert your hearers to the fact that other Bible students have come to different interpretations.
It takes time and energy to discover a word’s meaning in a given context, but with these six steps, the help of the Spirit, and the grace of God, I trust we’ll get it right more often than we get it wrong.
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