This week I finished a year and a half travail in the study of Biblical Hebrew. I still haven’t learned anything about modern Hebrew. And so I can’t introduce myself or make even the most basic comment about the weather in Hebrew to my Jewish neighbours. And yet I’ve poured more hours than I’d care to count into my studies. Many people have asked me to explain why.
First of all, it probably needs to be said that most people will be unable to tell the difference between a preacher who knows the biblical languages well and one who does not. People tend to evaluate a sermon by whether they ‘like it’ or not, or whether it ‘speaks to them.’ Those aren’t unimportant factors but more critical is whether the preacher is accurately teaching what God intended to say in a particular text. You don’t want someone to just read into the text something that God never intended. When you read the great Christmas promise in Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, you can’t claim that as a promise that God is going to give you a child. A text can’t mean what it never could have meant, so taking the time to understand how the original hearers “heard” the Bible, is important.
Let me share three ways that studying Biblical languages has helped me to understand the Bible better:
1. It helps to understand the form that God’s Word was written in.
When you read a letter and it starts, “Dear John” and ends “Sincerely, Sally,” you instinctively know what these words mean. It would be wrong to read too much into the word “dear” as if Sally were trying to communicate how precious John was. Similarly, “sincerely” doesn’t really saying anything about how truthful she is. These are forms and understanding the forms helps to avoid confusion. Hebrew also uses many forms and studying the language has helped me to understand them better. The problem is, sometimes the forms get buried in the English translation. In Isaiah 9:1-7 for instance, the message of hope in vv.1-2 gives way to great joy in v.3. Then vv. 4, 5, and 6 all begin with a Hebrew word used to explain reasons. It helps you see that the passage is describing the joy that God brings to people in darkness and is explaining the three reasons for that joy. Less literal translations like the NLT however, don’t translate that word the same way each time, so you can’t see the original structure of the passage. In the original language those forms stand out and help you to see more clearly the point that God was trying to make.
2. It helps to understand the way that words were used in their original context.
If you’ve ever used Google translate for two languages you know well, you know something of the challenge of translation. Words seldom have a single meaning, but rather a range of meanings that you understand from the context. The word “crash” for instance, could refer to a drop in the stock market, a car accident, ocean waves hitting the shore, the sound of cymbals banging together or the act of attending a party without being invited. In other languages, the same word “crash” might be translated by five different words, each with a narrower range of meaning. The same is true with Biblical languages. Studying Hebrew has helped me to understand the range of meaning in various Biblical terms. For example, in Isaiah 9:6 one of the names given to Jesus is Wonderful Counselor. Counselor is a perfectly good translation of the Hebrew word here. The problem is that our English word has a range of meaning that includes something close to a therapist – a meaning that would have been foreign to the Jewish listeners of Isaiah’s prophecy. They would have thought of people like Joseph who “counselled” Pharaoh, supernaturally advising him in how to avert the coming famine.
3. It helps to understand the reasons for the differences in translations.
Finally, studying Hebrew has helped to understand the reasons for the differences in various Bible translations. In Isaiah 9:3 for instance, the KJV reads “Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy,” while the NKJV reads “You have multiplied the nation and increased its joy.” Two translations in the same tradition have almost opposite translations. Why? If you read the entire passage, everything is pointing to hope and joy and good news. In that context, it’s hard to imagine why there would be a statement in a key verse saying that God has not increased the joy. And yet that’s what the Hebrew text says. The word “not” however is the Hebrew word “lo” and there is another Hebrew word that is spelled differently but pronounced exactly the same that means “it’s.” Almost every Bible translator in the last hundred years has concluded that a copyist must have heard the word “lo” and written the word meaning “not” when he should have written “it’s.” The NKJV and most other translations reflect that judgement call while the KJV preserves what is probably a copyist’s mistake. Studying the Biblical languages help you to understand these kinds of differences and evaluate what you think might be going on.
While my study has been helpful to me as a pastor, the good news is that it’s also confirmed my belief in the accuracy of our English translations. You don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew to read the Bible profitably. And you never need to feel like you’re missing out on something because you’re not a scholar. I thank God for those who have made the sacrifice to bring us God’s Word in a language we understand. May God speak to you as you read it today.
In awe of Him,