(Part First)


A treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament


ISBN: 1-57910-225-5





Chapter 3


The Usus Loquendl


The meaning of words becomes changed

Some words have a variety of significations, and hence, whatever their primitive meaning, we are obliged to gather from the context, and from familiarity with the usage of the language, the particular sense which they bear in a given passage of Scripture. Many a word in common use has lost its original meaning. How few of those who daily use the word sincere are aware that it was originally applied to pure honey, from which all wax was purged. Composed of the Latin words sine, without, and cera, wax, it appears to have been first used of honey strained or separated from the wax‑like comb. The word cunning no longer means knowledge, or honorable skill, but is generally used in a bad sense, as implying artful trickery. The verb let has come to mean the very opposite of what it once did, namely to hinder; and prevent, which was formerly used in the sense of going before, so as to prepare the way or assist one, now means to inter­cept or obstruct. Hence the importance of attending to what is commonly called the usus loquendi, or current usage of words as employed by a particular writer, or prevalent in a particular age. It often happens, also, that a writer uses a common word in some special and peculiar sense, and then his own definitions must be taken, or the context and scope must be consulted, in order to determine the precise meaning intended.


Writer often defines his own terms

    There are many ways by which the usus loquendi of a writer may be ascertained. The first and simplest is when he himself defines the terms he uses. Thus the word _____, perfect, complete, occurring only in 2nd Tim. 3:17, is defined by what immediately follows: “That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work.” That is, he is made perfect or complete in this, that be is thorough­ly furnished and fitted, by the varied uses of the inspired Scripture, to go forward unto the accomplishment of every good work. We also find the word ______, commonly rendered perfect, defined in Heb. 5:14, as those “who by practice have the senses trained unto a discrimination of good and of evil.” They are, accordingly, the ma­ture and experienced Christians as distinguished from babes, _______. Compare verse 13, and 1st Cor. 2:6. So also, in Rom. 2:28, 29, the apostle defines the genuine Jew and genuine circumcision as fol­lows: “For he is not a Jew, who is one outwardly (_______); nor is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, who is one inwardly (______); and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”


Immediate context

    But the immediate context, no less than the writer's own defini­tions, generally serves to exhibit any peculiar usage of words. Thus, _______, wind, spirit, is used in the New Testament to denote the wind (John 3:8), the vital breath (Rev. 11:11), the natural disposition or temper of mind (Luke 9:55; Gal. 6:1), the life principle or immortal nature of man (John 6:6‑3), the perfected spirit of a saint in the heavenly life (Heb. 12:23), the unclean spirits of demons (Matt. 10:1; Luke 4:36), and the Holy Spirit of God (John 4:24; Matt. 28:19; Rom. 8:9‑11). It needs but a simple attention to the context, in any of these passages, to determine the particular sense in which the word is used. In John 3:8, we note the two different meanings of ______ in one and the same verse. “The wind (_______) blows where it will, and the sound of it thou hearest; but thou knowest not whence it comes and whither it goes; so is every one who is born of the Spirit” (_________). Bengel holds, indeed, that we should here render _______ in both instances by spirit, and he urges that the divine Spirit, and not the wind, has a will and a voice.(1) But the great body of interpreters maintain the common version. Nic­odemus was curious and perplexed to know the how (_____, verses 4 and 9) of the Holy Spirit's workings, and as the Almighty of old spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, and appealed to the manifold mysteries of nature in vindication of his ways, so here the Son of God appeals to the mystery in the motion of the wind. “Wouldst thou know the whence and whither of the Spirit, and yet thou knowest not the origin and the end of the common wind? Where­fore dost thou not marvel concerning the air which breathes around thee, and of which thou livest?”(2) “Our Lord,” says Alford, “might have chosen any of the mysteries of nature to illustrate the point. He takes that one which is above others symbolic of the action of the Spirit, and which in both languages, that in which he spoke, as well as that in which his speech is reported, is expressed by the same word. So that the words as they stand apply them­selves at once to the Spirit and his working, without any figure.”(3)

    The word _______, used in classical Greek for the upright post of a sundial, then for an elementary sound in language (from let­ters standing in rows), came to be used almost solely in the plural, ______, in the sense of elements or rudiments. In 2nd Pet. 3:10 it evidently denotes the elements of nature, the component parts of the physical universe; but in Gal. 4:3, 9, as the immediate con­text shows, it denotes the ceremonials of Judaism, considered as elementary object lessons, adapted to the capacity of children. In this sense the word may also denote the ceremonial elements in the religious cultus of the heathen world (compare verse 8).(4) The enlightened Christian should grow out of these, and pass be­yond them, for otherwise they trammel, and become a system of bondage. Compare also the use of the word in Col. 2:8, 20 and Heb. 5:12.


Nature of the subject

    In connection with the immediate context, the nature of the sub­ject may also determine the usage of a word.. Thus, in 2nd Cor. 5:1, 2, the reference of the words oikia, house, _____ tabernacle, ______, building, and ________, habitation, to the body as a covering of the soul hardly admits of question. The whole passage (verses 1-4) reads literally thus:


2nd Cor. 4:1-4

"For we know that if our house of the tabernacle upon earth were dissolved, a building from God we have, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens. For also in this we groan, yearning to be clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven, since indeed also (_____) being clothed we shall not be found naked. For, indeed, we who are in the tabernacle groan, being burdened, in that we would not be unclothed, but clothed upon, to the end that that which is mortal maybe swallowed up by the life." Hodge holds that the "building from God" is heaven itself, and argues that in John 14:2, heaven is compared to a house of many man­sions; in Luke 16:9, to a habitation; and in Heb. 11:10, and Rev. 21:10, to a city of dwellings.(5) But the scripture in question is too­ explicit, and the nature of the subject too limited, to allow other scriptures, like those cited, to determine its meaning. No one doubts that the phrase, "our house of the tabernacle upon earth," refers to the human body, which is liable to dissolution. It is com­pared to a tent, or tabernacle (____), and also to a vesture, thus presenting us with a double metaphor. "The word tent," says Stanley, “Tent itself to this imagery, from being used in later Greek writers for the human body, especially in medical writers, who seem to have been led to adopt the word from the skin‑materials of which tents were composed. The explanation of this abrupt transition from the figure of a house or tent to that of a garment, may be found in the image, familiar to the apostle, both from his occupations and his birthplace, of the tent of Cilician haircloth, which might almost equally suggest the idea of a habitation and of a vesture. Compare the same union of metaphors in Psa. 104:2, 'Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment; who stretch­est out the heavens like a curtain' (of a tent).”(6)

    The main subject, then, is the present body considered as an earthly house, a tabernacle upon earth. In it we groan; in it we are under burden; in it we endure the “momentary lightness of our affliction” (__________________), which is mentioned­ in chapter 4:17, and which is there set in contrast with an “eter­nal weight of glory” (__________), To this earthly house, heaven itself, whether considered as the house of many mansions (John 14:2) or the city of God (Rev. 21:10), affords no true antithesis. The true antithesis is the heavenly body, the vesture of immortality, which is from God. For the opposite of our house is the building from God; the one may be dissolved, the other is eternal; the one is upon earth (________), the other is (not heaven itself, but) in the heavens. The true parallel to the entire passage before us is 1st Cor. 15:41-54, where the earthly and the heavenly bodies are contrasted, and it is said (ver. 53) “this corruptible must be clothed with incorruption, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality.”



Contrast or opposition

    The above example also illustrates how antithesis, contrast, or opposition, may serve to determine the meaning of words. A further instance may be cited from Rom. 8:5‑8. In verse 4 the apostle has introduced the antithetic ex­pressions _________, and ________, according to the flesh and according to the spirit. He then proceeds to define, as by contrast, the two characters. “For they who are according to the flesh the things of the flesh do mind (______, think of, care for), but they, according to the spirit, the things of the spirit. For the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the spirit life and peace. Be­cause the mind of the flesh is enmity toward God, for to the law of God it does not submit itself, for it is not able; and they who are in the flesh are not able to please God.” The spirit, throughout this passage, is to be understood of the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” mentioned in verse 2, which delivers the sinner “from the law of sin and of death.” The being according to the flesh, and the being in the flesh, are to be understood of unregenerate and unsanctified human life, conditioned and controlled by carnal principles and motives. This Scripture, and more that might be cited, indicates, by detailed opposition and contrast, the essential and eternal antagonism between sinful carnality and re­deemed spirituality in human life and character.

    The usus loquendi of many words may be seen in the parallelisms of Hebrew poetry. Whether the parallelism be synon­ymous or antithetic,(7) it may serve to exhibit in an unmistakable way the general import of the terms employed. Take, for example, the following passage from the eighteenth Psalm, verses 6-15 (Heb. 7-16):



In my distress I call Jehovah,

And to my God I cry;

He hears from his sanctuary my voice,

And my cry before him comes into his ears.


Then shakes and quakes the land,

And the foundations of the mountains tremble,

And they shake themselves, for lie was angry.


There went up a smoke in his nostril,

And fire from his mouth devours;

Hot coals glowed from him.


And he bows the heavens and comes down,

And a dense gloom under his feet;


And he rides, upon a cherub, and flies,

And soars upon the wings of the wind.


He sets darkness his covering

His pavilion round about him,

A darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.


From the brightness before him his thick clouds passed away,

Hail, and hot coals of fire.


Then Jehovah thunders in the heavens,

And the Most High gives forth his voice,

Hail, and hot coals of fire.


And he sends forth his arrows and scatters them,

And lightnings he shot, and puts them in commotion.


And the beds of the waters are seen,

And the foundations of the world are uncovered,

From thy rebuke, O Jehovah!

From the breath of the wind of thy nostril.



It requires but little attention here to observe how such words as call, cry, he hears my voice, and my cry comes into his ears (verse 6), mutually, explain and illustrate one another. The same may be said of the words shakes, quakes, tremble, and shake themselves, in verse 7; smoke, fire, and coals in verse 8; rides flies, and soars in verse 10; arrows and lightnings, scatters and puts in commotion, in verse 14; and so to some extent of the varied expressions of nearly every verse.


Subject, predicate, and adjuncts

    Here, too, may be seen how subject and predicate serve to ex­plain one another. Thus, in verse 8, above, smoke goes up, fire devours, hot coals glow. So in Matt. 5:13: “if the salt become tasteless,” the sense of the verb ______, become tasteless, is determined by the subject _____, salt. But in Rom. 1:22, the import of this same verb is to become fool­ish, as the whole sentence shows: “Professing to be wise, they become foolish,” i.e., made fools of themselves. The word is used in a similar signification in 1st Cor. 1:20: “Did not God make foolish the wisdom of the world?” The extent to which qualify­ing words, as adjectives and adverbs, serve to limit or define the meaning is too apparent to call for special illustration.


Comparison of parallel passages

    A farther and most important method of ascertaining the usus loquendi is an extensive and careful comparison of sim­ilar or parallel passages of Scripture. When a writer has treated a given subject in different parts of his writings, or when different writers have treated the same subject, it is both justice to the writers, and important in interpretation, to collate and compare all that is written. The obscure or doubtful passages are to be explained by what is plain and simple. A sub­ject may be only incidentally noticed in one place, but be treated with extensive fullness in another. Thus, in Rom. 13:12, we have the exhortation, “Let us put on the armor of light,” set forth merely in contrast with “cast off the works of darkness;” but if we inquire into the meaning of this “armor of light,” how much more fully and forcibly does it impress us when we compare the detailed description given in Ephesians 6:13-17: “Take lip the whole armor of God…. Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; withal taking up the shield of faith wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Compare also 1st Thess. 5:8.

    The meaning of the word ____ (compare the Greek ____) in Jer. 17:9, must be determined by ascertaining its use in other pas­sages. The common version translates it “desperately wicked,” but usage does not sustain this meaning. The primary sense of the word appears to be incurably sick, or diseased. It is used in 2nd Sam. 12:15, to describe the condition of David's child when smitten of the Lord so that it became very sick (___). It is used in reference to the lamentable idolatry of the kingdom of Israel (Micah 1:9), where the common version renders, “Her wound is in­curable,” and gives in the margin, “She is grievously sick of her wounds.” The same signification appears also in Job 34:6: “My wound (___ wound caused by an arrow) is incurable.” In Isa. 17:11, we have the thought of “incurable pain,” and in Jer. 15:18, we read, “Wherefore has my pain been enduring, and my stroke incurable?” Compare also Jer. 30:12, 15. In Jer. 17:16, the prophet uses this word to characterize the day of grievous calamity as a day of mortal sickness (____). In the ninth verse, therefore, of the same chapter, where the deceitful heart is charac­terized by this word, which everywhere else maintains its original sense of a diseased and incurable condition, we should also adhere to the main idea made manifest by all these parallels: “Deceitful is the heart above every thing; and incurably diseased is it; who knows it?(8)


General and familiar usage

    The usus loquendi of common words is, of course, to be as­certained by the manner and the connection in which they are generally used. We feel at once the incon­gruity of saying, “Adriansz or Lippersheim discovered the tele­scope, and Harvey invented the circulation of the blood.” We know from familiar usage that discover applies to the finding out or uncovering of that which was in existence before, but was hid­den from our view or knowledge, while the word invent is applica­ble to the contriving and constructing of something which had no actual existence before. Thus, the astronomer invents a telescope, and by its aid discovers the motions of the stars. The passage in 1st Cor. 14:34, 35, has been wrested to mean something else than the prohibition of women's speaking in the public assemblies of churches. Some have assumed that the words churches and church in these verses are to be understood of the business meetings of the Christians, in which it was not proper for the women to take part. But the entire context shows that the apostle has especially in mind the worshipping assembly. Others have sought in the word _____ a peculiar sense, and, finding that it bears in classic Greek writers the meaning of babble, prattle, they have strangely taught that Paul means to say: “Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted them to babble…. For it is a shame for a woman to babble in church!” A slight examination shows that in this same chapter the word ____, to speak, occurs more than twenty times, and in no instance is there any necessity or reason to understand it in other than its ordinary sense of dis­coursing, speaking. Who, for instance, would accuse Paul of say­ing, “I thank God, I babble with tongues more than ye all” (verse 18); or “let two or three of the prophets babble, and the others judge” (verse 29)? Hence appears the necessity, in interpreta­tion, of observing the general usage rather than the etymology of words.


Ancient versions

    In ascertaining the meaning of rare words, _______, or words which occur but once, and words of doubtful import, the ancient versions of Scripture furnish an im­portant aid. For, as Davidson well observes, “An interpreter cannot arrive at the right meaning of every part of the Bible by the Bible itself. Many portions are (lark and ambiguous. Even in discovering the correct sense, no less than in defending the truth, other means are needed. Numerous passages will be abso­lutely unintelligible without such helps as lie out of the Scriptures. The usages of the Hebrew and Hebrew‑Greek languages cannot be fully known, by their existing remains.(9)

    In the elucidation of difficult words and phrases the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament holds the first rank among the ancient versions. It antedates all existing Hebrew manuscripts; and parts of it, especially the Pentateuch, belong, without much doubt, to the third century before the Christian era. Philo and Josephus appear to have made more use of it than they did of the Hebrew original; the Hellenistic Jews used it in their synagogues, and the New Testament writers frequently quote from it. Being made by Jewish scholars, it serves to show how before the time of Christ the Jews interpreted their Scriptures. Next in import­ance to the Septuagint is the Vulgate, or Latin Version, largely prepared in its present form by St. Jerome, who derived much knowledge and assistance from the Jews of his time. After these we place the Peshito‑Syriac Version, the Tarcrums, or Chaldee Paraphrases of the Old Testament, especially that of Onkelos on the Pentateuch, and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Prophets, and the Greek versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion.(10) The other ancient versions, such as the Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Gothic, are of less value, and, in determining the meaning of rare words, cannot be relied on as having any considerable weight or authority.



The old versions often differ

A study and comparison of these ancient versions will show that they often differ very widely. In many instances it is easy to see, in the light of modern researches, that the old translators fell into grave errors, and were often at a loss to determine the meaning of rare and doubtful words. When the context, parallel passages, and several of the versions agree in giving the same signification to a word, that signification may gen­erally be relied upon as the true one. But when the word is an _________, and the passage has no parallel, and the versions vary, great caution is necessary lest we allow too much authority to one or more versions, which, after all, may have been only con­jectural.

    The following examples will illustrate the use, and the interest attaching to the study, of the ancient versions. In the Authorized English Version of Gen 1:2, the words _____ are translated, without form and void. The Targum. of Onkelos has _______ waste and empty; the Vulgate: inanis et vacua, empty and void; Aquuila: ________, emptiness and nothing. Thus, all these versions substantially agree, and the meaning of the Hebrew words is now allowed to be desolation and emptiness. The Syriac merely repeats the Hebrew words, but the Septuagint reads _______, invisible and unformed, and cannot be allowed to set aside the meaning presented in all the other versions.

    In Gen. 49:6, the Septuagint gives the more correct translation of ______, they houghed an __, _________; but the Chal­dee, Syriac, Vulgate, Aquila, and Symmachus read, like the Au­thorized Version, they digged down a wall. Here, however, the au­thority of versions is outweighed by the fact that, in all other passages where the Piel of this word occurs, it means to hamstring or hough an animal. Compare Josh. 11:6, 9; 2nd Sam. 8:4; 1st Chron. 18:4. Where the usus loquendi can thus be determined from the language itself, it has more weight than the testimony of many versions.

    The versions also differ in the rendering of ___ in Psa. 16:4. This word elsewhere (Job 9:28; Psa. 147:3; Prov. 10:10; 15:13) always means sorrow; but the form ___ means idols, and the Chal­dee, Symmachus, and Theodotion so render ___ in Psa. 16:4: they Multiply their idols, or many are their idols. But the Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Aquila, render the word sor­rows, and this meaning is best sustained by the usage of the lan­guage.

    In Cant. 2:12, ____ is rendered by the Septuagint ______, time of the cutting; Symmachus, time of the pruning (_____); so also the Vulgate, tempus putationis. Most modern in­terpreters, however, discard these ancient versions here, and under­stand the words to mean, the time of song is come; not merely or par­ticularly the singing of birds, as the English version, but all the glad songs of springtime, in which shepherds and husbandmen alike rejoice. In this interpretation they are governed by the considera­tion that ____ and ____ signify song and songs in 2nd Sam. 23:1; Job 35:10; Psa. 95:2; 119:54; Isa. 24:16; 25:5, and that when “the blossoms have been seen in the land” the pruning time is altogether past.

    In Isa. 52:13 all the ancient versions except the Chaldee render the word ____ in the sense of acting wisely. This fact gives great weight to that interpretation of the word, and it ought not to be set aside by the testimony of one version, and by the opinion, which is open to question, that is in some passages equivalent to ___, to prosper.

    From the above examples it may be seen what judgment and caution are necessary in the use of the ancient versions of the Bible. In fact, no specific rules can safely be laid down to govern us in the use of them. Sometimes the etymology of a word, or the con­text, or a parallel passage may have more weight than all the ver­sions combined; while in other instances the reverse may be true. Where the versions are conflicting, the context and the analogy of the language must generally be allowed to take the precedence.


Glossaries and scholia

    In ascertaining the meaning of many Greek words the ancient glossaries of Hesychius, Suidas, Photius, and others are useful; but as they treat very few of the obscure words of the New Testament, they are of comparatively little value to the biblical interpreter. Scholia, or brief critical notes on portions of the New Testament, extracted chiefly from the writings of the Greek Fathers, such as Origen and Chrysostom, occasionally serve a good purpose,(11) but they have been superseded by the more thorough and scholarly researches of modern times, and the results of this research are embodied in the leading critical commentaries and biblical lexicons of the present day. The Rabbinical commentaries of Aben‑Ezra, Jarcbi, Kimchi, and Tanchum are often found ser­viceable in the exposition of the Old Testament.


End Notes_____

  1. Gnomon of the New Testament, in loco.
  2. Comp. Stier, Words of the Lord Jesus, in loco.
  3. Greek Testament, in loco.
  4. Comp. Lightfoot's Commentary on Galatians 4:11.
  5. Commentary on Second Corinthians, in loco. 6
  6. Commentary on St. Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians, in loco,
  7. On Hebrew Parallelisms, see pp. 1497 152.
  8. On the importance of comparing parallel passages, see further in Chapter 7.
  9. Hermeneutics, page 616.
  10. On the history and character of all these ancient versions, see Harman's, Keil’s, or Bleek's “Introduction;” also the various biblical dictionaries and cyclopedias.
  11. The commentaries of Theodoret and Theophylact are largely composed of extracts from Chrysostom. To the same class belong the commentaries of Euthymius, Ziga­benus, Ecumenius, Andreas, and Arethas. The Catenae of the Greek Fathers by Procopius, Olympiodorus, and Nicephorus treat several books of the Old Testament. The celebrated Catena Aurea of Thomas Aquinas covers the Four Gospels, and was translated and published at Oxford in 1845 bv, J. H. Newman.


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