Finding the Correct Meaning

In this chapter, there is another question that deserves to be considered. Even if we have the right books, the right words, and we have those words adequately translated, what about the meaning? The Bible was written in other languages, for other peoples in other cultures. So how can we, living in this part of the world, this far down through the centuries, feel confident that we have really found the correct meaning? The only way, I believe, is to pick up the Bible, read it through, and see what we can learn about God. I am so grateful for the more than one hundred times I’ve gone through all sixty-six books in company with others. Each time we do it there are certain questions that arise. Some of them are simple ones that are quite readily resolved. I thought we might look at some of those first.

The best loved English version in all history has been the King James Version. But reading through the Bible, what does one do with a passage like Habakkuk 2:7: “Thou shalt be for booties unto them.” (KJV) What does that mean? Can you see booties hanging from the rear view mirror in a car? Is that what that is? Or what about Job 41:18, “By his neesings a light doth shine” (KJV). Have you seen any neesings lately? Now the old Engish word booties meant loot, or plunder. Neesings meant sneezings. Exodus 28:11 speaks of “Ouches of gold” (KJV). That would seem like something the dentist should be concerned about. And yet it actually meant settings in jewelry. Luke 17:9 says, “I trow not” (KJV). Have you trowed lately? That actually means “I think not.”

These are not errors in the King James. It is just that with the passage of time, about a thousand words in that Bible have changed their meaning, in fact sometimes the meaning is completely reversed. But there are easy remedies for the student of Scripture. Whole books have been written on the archaic words in the King James Version. Another option is to look these words up in a Bible dictionary or a commentary. There is even the revision called the New King James. The meanings given in the paragraph above were taken from that modernized version of the King James. Another option is to compare the KJV with any other modern version and the meaning of most of these unfamiliar words would become clear.

A slightly more significant change in the meaning of a word is in Romans 1:13, KJV: “Often times I purposed to come unto you, but was let hitherto.” Well, if Paul was let, why didn’t he go? “Let” in those days did not mean to permit; it meant to prevent or hinder. This is still the word often used in the game of tennis. If you’ve served and your ball has hit the net and dropped into the appropriate square on the other side, it is not a “net ball,” it is supposed to be a “let ball.” At Wimbledon it is always a “let ball,” which means a ball that was hindered or prevented from proceeding on to the server’s goal. In Romans 1:13, Paul intended to visit Rome, but he was hindered from doing so.

An even more significant illustration of meaning change is in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, KJV: “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” Paul surely wasn’t saying that when the Lord comes and the dead rise, we who are alive won’t want the dead to go up first, we’ll prevent them from doing so. If that were true, we wouldn’t be very safe to save, doing that to those former saints now rising! But it has no such meaning. The old English word “prevent” actually means “to precede, to go before.” Now the passage makes sense. “Prevent” in those days did not mean prevent, it meant to precede.

The early Christians were grieving that some of their loved ones had died before the Lord returned. They had been under the impression that they would live to see Him come. What would you tell a dying Christian who said in disappointment “I had hoped I would live to see the Lord come?” There’s a beautiful message in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul says, “Look, the dead are at no disadvantage. We who are alive and remain shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Who will rise first? The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up with them to meet the Lord in the air. This is a great paragraph to read at funerals. But it has to be translated right. Not that it is an error. It’s just that the key word has changed meaning through the years. The passage is a great message of comfort when it is properly translated into modern speech.

Another puzzling passage, which sometimes gives rise to strange theology, is in John 20:17, KJV. Mary sees Jesus on resurrection Sunday and falls at His feet to worship Him. And Jesus says, “Touch me not.” Now why couldn’t she touch Him? Jesus explains: “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Does that mean that if Mary had touched Jesus, He would not have been able to go up to heaven, and the whole plan of salvation would have come to nothing? Was her restraint that morning as important as the crucifixion? That is impossible. That would really violate common sense. So one needs to look more carefully. In the original language, there are two ways of saying “don’t do” something. One is, “don’t begin to do it.” The other is “don’t go on doing it.” In this text Jesus was saying, “Don’t go on holding me. Don’t cling to me.” The modern versions all have this correctly. Then it is a perfectly gracious message. There is nothing arbitrary about it at all.

Another important one is John 2:4. Perhaps you remember the wedding at Cana, when they ran out of wine and Mary said to Jesus, “They need some wine.” Did He turn to his mother and say, “Woman, what have I to do with thee” (KJV)? Let’s say you have a son who is not responding too politely when his mother asks for help doing the dishes. So you think, “Well, at worship we’ll read about how polite Jesus always was to His mother. Why don’t we read the Gospel of John for worship?” If you do that, John 1 will be all right. But then you will come to John 2 and Cana. You are reading, hoping that your son will listen and see how polite Jesus always was. And then Jesus says to His mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” And your son says, “That is what I will do next time Mother asks me to dry the dishes. I’ll say, `Woman, what have I to do with thee?'” Then you’ll wish you had started reading some other gospel!

You know that can’t be the case. God is love and love is never rude. You know that Jesus wasn’t rude. Once again we need to get back into the language, the culture, and the idiom of the day. “Woman” can mean wife or mother or whatever the circumstances called for. What Jesus said was the equivalent of “mother,” not just “woman.” “Mother, how is it you bring that problem to Me? I have never performed a miracle before. My hour has not yet come.” I once heard a Jewish scholar say, “One thing is for sure, Jesus spoke politely to His mother in the idiom of the day.” In the Phillips translation, it says, “Mother, why do you bring that problem to Me?”

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