(Part First)


A treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament


ISBN: 1-57910-225-5





Chapter 2


The Primary Meaning of Words


Words practically the elements of language

IT is interesting and profitable to observe how new languages orig­inate; how they become modified and changed; how new dialects arise, and how, at length, a national form of speech may go out of use and become known as a dead language. Attention to these facts makes, it apparent that any given language is an accumulation and aggregate of words which a nation or community of people use for the interchange and expression of their thoughts. “Language,” says Whitney, “has, in fact, no existence save in the minds and mouths of those who use it; it is made up of separate articulated signs of thought, each of which is attached by a mental association to the idea it represents, is ut­tered by voluntary effort, and has its value and currency only by the agreement of speakers and hearers. It is in their power, subject to their will.”(1)


Etymology, usus loquendi, and synonymes

    To understand, therefore, the language of a speaker or writer, it is necessary, first of all, to know the meaning of his words. The interpreter, especially, needs to keep in mind the difference, so fre­quently apparent, between the primitive signification of a word and that which it subsequently obtains. We first naturally inquire after the original meaning of a word, or what is com­monly called its etymology. Next we examine the “usus loquendi, or actual meaning which it bears in common usage; and then we are prepared to understand the occa­sion and import of synonymes, and how a language becomes enriched by them.


Manifold value of etymology

    Whatever may be the common meaning of a word, as used by a particular people or age, it often represents a history. Language has been significantly characterized as fossil poetry, fossil history, fossil ethics, fossil philosophy. “This means,” says Trench, “that just as in some fossil, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern, or the finely vertebrated lizard, extinct, it may be, for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that per­ishing which would have otherwise been theirs, so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and feeling of past ages, of men whose very names have perished, preserved and made safe forever.”(2) Benjamin W. Dwight declares etymology to be “fossil poetry, philosophy, and history combined. In the treasured words of the past, the very spirits of elder days look out upon us, as from so many crystalline spheres, with friendly recognition. We see in them the light of their eyes; we feel in them the warmth of their hearts. They are relies, they are tokens, and almost break into life again at our touch. The etymologist unites in himself the characteristics of the traveler, roaming through strange and far ­off climes; the philosopher, prying into the, causes and sequences of things; the antiquary, filling his cabinet with ancient curiosities and wonders; the historiographer, gathering up the records of by­gone men and ages; and the artist, studying the beautiful designs in word architecture furnished him by various nations.”(3)



    Take, for example, that frequently occurring New Testament word _______, commonly rendered church. Compounded of __, out of, and ______, to call, or summon, it was first used of an assembly of the citizens of a Greek community, sum­moned together by a crier, for the transaction of business pertain­ing to the public welfare. The preposition ___ indicates that it was no motley crowd,(4) no mass‑meeting of nondescripts, but a select company gathered out from the common mass; it was an assembly of free citizens, possessed of well‑understood legal rights and powers. The verb _____ denotes that the assembly was legally called (compare the _________________ of Acts 19:39), sum­moned for the purpose of deliberating in lawful conclave. Whether the etymological connection between the Hebrew ___ and the Greek _____ be vital or merely accidental, the Septuagint translators gen­erally render ____ by ____, and thus by an obvious process, _______ came to represent among the Hellenists the Old Testament conception of “the congregation of the people of Israel,” as usually denoted by the Hebrew word _____. Hence it was natural for Stephen to speak of the congregation of Israel, which Moses led out of Egypt, as “the ______ in tile wilderness” (Acts 7:38), and equal­ly natural for the word to become the common designation of the Christian community of converts from Judaism and the world. Into this New Testament sense of the word, it was also important that the full force of __ and ______ (_____) should continue. As the old Greek assembly was called by a public herald (____), so “the Church of God (or of the Lord), which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28), is the congregation of those who are “called to be saints” (_______, Rom. 1:7), “called out of dark­ness into his marvelous light” (1st Pet. 2:9), called “unto his king­dom and glory” (1st Thess. 2:12), and called by the voice of an au­thorized herald or preacher (Rom. 10:14, 15; 1st Tim. 2:7).(5) With this fundamental idea the church may denote either the small as­sembly in a private house (Rom. 16:5; Philemon 2), the Christian congregations of particular towns and cities (1st Cor. 1:2; 1st Thess. 1:1), or the Church universal (Eph. 1:22; 3:21). But a new idea is added when our Lord says, “I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18). Here the company of the saints (_________) is conceived of as a house, a stately edifice; and it was peculiarly fitting that Peter, the disciple to whom these words were addressed, should afterward write to the general Church, and designate it not only as “a chosen a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” but also as “a spir­itual house,” builded of living stones (1st Pet. 2:5, 9). Paul also uses the same grand image, and speaks of the household of God as “having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone, in whom all the building, fitly framed together, grows unto a living temple in the Lord” (Epb. 2:20, 21). And then again, to this image of a build­ing (comp. 1st Cor. 3:9) be also adds that of a living human body of which Christ is the head, defining the whole as “his body, the fullness (________) of him who fills all things in all” (Eph. 1:23). Comp. also Rom. 12:5; 1st Cor. 12:12‑28; and Col. 1:18.


___, the covering of atonement

    Observe also the forms and derivatives of the Hebrew ___, to cover. The primary meaning is to cover over, so as to hide from view. The ark was thus covered or over­laid with a covering of some material like pitch (Gen. 6:14). Then it came to be used of a flower or shrub, with the resin or powder of which oriental females are said to have covered and stained their finger nails (Cant. 1:14). Again we find it applied to villages or hamlets (1st Sam. 6:18; 1st Chron. 27:25), ap­parently, as Gesenius suggests, because such places were regarded as a covering or shelter to the inhabitants. The verb is also used of the abolishing or setting aside of a covenant (Isa. 28:18). But the deeper meaning of the word is that of covering, or hiding sin, and thus making an atonement. Thus Jacob thought to cover his brother Esau with a present (Gen. 32:20). His words are, literally, “I will cover his face with the present which goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will lift up my face.” Feeling that he had sorely wronged his brother, he would now fain cover his face with such a princely gift that Esau would no more behold those wrongs of the past. His old offences being thus hidden, he hopes to be permitted to see his brother's face in peace; and perhaps even Esau will condescend to lift up his face­—raise from the dust the face of the prostrate and penitent Jacob. The transition was easy from this use of the verb to that of making an atonement, a meaning which it constantly conveys in the books of the law (Lev. 17:11). And hence the use of the noun ___ in the sense of ransom, satisfaction (Exod. 30:12), and the plural ____ atonements (Exod. 30:10; Lev. 23:27, 28). Hence, also, that word of profound significance, ____ capporeth, the mercy‑seat, the lid or cover of the ark which contained the tables of the law (Exod. 25:17‑22)—the symbol of mercy covering wrath.


Help of comparative philology

    Additional interest is given to the study of words by the science of comparative philology. In tracing a word through a whole family of languages, we note not only the va­riety of forms it may have taken, but the different usage and shades of meaning it acquired among different peoples. The Hebrew words __, father, and __, son, are traceable through all the Semitic tongues, and maintain their common signification in all. The Greek word for heart, ____, appears also in the Sanskrit hrid, Latin cor, Italian cuore, Spanish corazon, Portuguese, corapam, French coeur, and English core. Some words, especially yerbs, ac­quire new meanings as they pass from one language to another. Hence the meaning which a word bears in Arabic or Syriac may not be the meaning it was designed to convey in Hebrew. Thus the Hebrew word ___ is frequently used in the Old Testament in the sense to stand, to be firm, to stand up; and this general idea can be traced in the corresponding word and its derivatives in the Arabic, Ethi­opic (to erect a column, to establish), Chaldee (to rise up), Samari­tan and Talmudic; but in the Syriac it is the word commonly used for baptism. Some say this was because the candidate stood while he was baptized; others, that the idea associated with baptism was that of confirming or establishing in the faith; while others believe that the Syriac word is to be traced to a different root. Whatever be the true explanation, it is easy to see that the same word may have different meanings in cognate languages, and, therefore, a Sig­nification which appears in Arabic or Syriac may be very remote from that which the word holds in the Hebrew,. Hence great cau­tion is necessary in tracing etymologies.


Rare words, and _______

    It is well known that, in all languages, the origin of many words has become utterly lost. The wonder, indeed, is that we are able to trace the etymology of such a large proportion. The extensive literature of the Greek language enables the New Testament interpreter to ascertain without much difficulty the roots and usage of most of the words with which he has to deal. But the Old Testament Scriptures em­body substantially all the remains of the Hebrew language, and when we meet with a word which occurs but once in the entire literature extant, we may often be puzzled to know the exact meaning which it was intended to convey. In such cases help from cognate tongues is particularly important. The word ___, in Gen. 28:12, occurs nowhere else in Hebrew. The root appears to be ___, to cast up, to raise; and from the same root comes the word ____, used of public highways (Judg. 20:32; Isa. 43:3; 62:10), the paths of locusts (Joel 2:8), the courses of the stars (Judg. 5:20), and ter­races or stairways to the temple (2nd Chron. 9:11). The Arabic word sullum confirms the sense of stairway or ladder, and leaves no reasonable doubt as to the meaning of sullam in Gen. 28:12. Jacob saw, in his dream, an elevated ladder or stairway reaching from the earth to the heavens. In determining the sense of such _________, or words occurring but once, we have to be guided by the context, by analogy of kindred roots, if any appear in the language, by ancient versions of the word in other languages, and by whatever traces of the word may be found in cognate tongues.



    One of the most noted of New Testament ____________ is the word ________ in the Lord's prayer, Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3. It occurs nowhere else in Greek literature. Two derivations have been urged, one from ___ and ____, or the partici­ple of _____, to go toward or approach; according to which the meaning would be, “give us our coming bread,” that is, bread for the coming day; to-morrow's broad. This is etymologically possi­ble, and, on the ground of analogy, has much in its favor. But this meaning does not accord with _____, this clay, occurring in the same verse, nor with our Lord's teaching in verse 34 of the same chapter. The other derivation is from ____ and ____, exist­ence, subsistence (from ____ to be), and means that which is necessary for existence, “our essential bread.” This latter seems by far the more appropriate meaning.



    Another difficult word is _____, used only in Mark 14:3, and John 12:3, to describe the nard (_____) with which Mary anointed the feet of Jesus. It is found in manu­scripts of several Greek authors (Plato, Gorgias, 455 a.; Aristotle, Rhet. 1:2) apparently as a false reading for ________, persuasive; but this signification would have no relevancy to nard. Scaliger proposed the meaning pounded nard, deriving ______ from ______, to pound, a possible derivation, but unsupported by any thing anal­ogous. Some think the word may be a proper adjective denoting the place from which the nard came; i.e., Pistic nard. The Vul­gate of John 12:3, has nardi pistici. This use of the word, how­ever, is altogether uncertain. The Vulgate of Mark 14:3, has spicati, as denoting the spikes or ears of the nard plant; hence the word spikenarcl. But there is no good ground for accepting this interpretation. Many derive the word from ____ (or ____), to drink, and understand drinkable or liquid nard, and urge that sev­eral ancient writers affirm that certain anointing oils were used for drinking. If such were the meaning here, however, the word should refer to the ointment (_____), not the nard. The explana­tion best suited to the context, and not without warrant in Greek­ usage, makes the word equivalent to _____, faithful, trustworthy; applied to a material object it would naturally signify genuine, pure, that on which one can rely.


Compound words

    In determining the meaning of compound words we may usually resort to the lexical and grammatical analogy of languages. The signification of a compound expression is generally apparent from the import of the different terms of which it is compounded. Thus, the word _______, used in Matt. 5:9, is at once seen to be composed of _____, peace, and ______, to make, and signifies, those who make (work or establish) peace. The mean­ing, says Meyer, is “not the peaceful (______, James 3:17; 2nd Mace. 5:25; or _______, Sirach 6:7), a meaning which does not appear even in Pollux, 1:41, 152 (Augustine thinks of the moral inner harmony; De Wette, of the inclination of the contemporaries of Jesus to war and tumult; Bleek reminds us of Jewish party hatred); but the founders of peace (Xen., Hist. Gr., 6:3, 4; Plut. Mor., p. 279 B.; comp. Col. 1:20; Prov. 10:10), who as. such min­ister to God's good pleasure, who is the God of peace (Rom. 16:20; 2nd Cor. 13:11), as Christ himself was the highest founder of peace (Luke 2:14; John 16:33; Eph. 2:14).(6) Similarly we judge of the meaning of  _______ in Col. 2:23, compounded of ____ and ______, and signifying will worship, self‑chosen wor­ship; ________, very compassionate (James 5:11); ________, to grow together with (Matt. 13:30); ________, to bear as a nourisher (Acts 13:18), and many other compounds, which, like the above, occur but once in the New Testament.



End Notes____

  1. Language and the Study of Language, p. 35.

  2. The Study of Words. Introductory Lecture, p. 12. New York, 1861.

  3. Article on The Science of Etymology, in Bibliotheca Sacra, April, 1858, p. 438.

  4. Compare the confused assembly, _________________ composed of the multitude, ________, in Acts 19:32, 33, 40.

  5. A similar interesting history attaches to the words _____ and _______.

  6. Critical and Exegetical Hand‑book to the Gospel of Matthew, in loco.

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