The Ancient Faith
RULES FOR INTERPRETING SCRIPTURE
RULES FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF SENTENCES.
It seems out of place that we should consider the question of sentences before that of words, for it is certain that if we know not the meaning of the words used in the construction of the sentence it will be impossible for us to know what the sentence means. And yet, it is supposed that enough of the import of the words will be in the mind to assist very greatly in the outline knowledge, at least, of the purpose and thought of the sentence. And then, from that knowledge, it will be comparatively easy to return and examine each word in detail as to its particular place and purport in that sentence.
Rule 1. Always interpret according to the known purpose of the author.–But this, of course, pre-supposes that the reader can know, at the time of the investigation, what that purpose was. This may not be perfectly understood. Indeed, the sentence under consideration may be an essential feature of the investigation. Still, it is sometimes the case that an author’s purpose has been stated, either directly or indirectly. If this knowledge is in the possession of the exegete at the time of such investigation, in the light of that purpose, then, the sentence under consideration must be interpreted. This is one of the weaknesses of many commentaries. The critic has commented on single verses. He has known nothing of the general purpose of the author, and, therefore many times applies the language to topics not at all in the mind of the writer. This is a wrong that we would not tolerate in the use of any other book. It would be as well to take a description of some part of Asia and apply it to the United States, as to employ the language of any of the writers of the Scriptures to a subject other than that which was in his mind at the time when the words and sentences under consideration were employed. We would, in that way, compel the writer to say just the things which he did not intend to say. The work of the exegete is to bring out the meaning of the writing, which must be the meaning the author intended to put into it.
In the interpretation of law, this rule is of very great value. If there are sections or passages in the law, the meaning of which are doubtful, then recourse may be had to the intent of the legislators who made it. Sometimes it happens that in the framing of the platform of a political party a doubt arises as to the meaning that ought to be given to a particular resolution. If the men can be found who framed the resolution, and any reasonable means furnished by which to know in what sense the convention understood it, then their understanding of the resolution must interpret the passage in doubt.
We ought to treat the Bible with as much respect as we do the words of men. Hence the greatest possible care should be taken that every writer in the book divine should he made to mean just what he wished to be understood to say. It is not what we can compel the Bible to say, that we are to seek, but what it was employed to say, what the writer meant when he said what he did.
It is a kind of common rule to make out of the temptation or the transfiguration of the Savior whatever the genius of the interpreter is competent to invent, and not what the writers themselves meant by what they said. No man can read the account of the temptation of the Saviour without reaching the conclusion that the writers were trying to tell just what, in their opinion, really occurred; and so it is with the transfiguration. Now, if any one wants to dissent from the opinions of these men, that is another question; but as an exegete, his work is done when he has found that meaning which the author intended to convey. Hence this general purpose of the writer having been first obtained, no interpretation should follow that is not in perfect accord with it.
There is an apparent exception to the rule which we have just considered. An author frequently makes an incidental remark. It may or it may not be essential to his argument or the record which he is making. When such statement or remark has been made, it has all the force that any other affirmation could have, coming from that writer. A fact may be referred to by way of illustration, and this might be our only means of knowing of the existence of that fact, and yet that reference will be sufficient to establish the existence of it. We might not know that the salt of Palestine could lose its savor but for the remark made by the Saviour, “If the salt have lost its savor.” His purpose in employing the illustration was to show that the disciples should be the means of purifying and saving the world, but the illustration brings out a fact incidentally. Paul says, “As Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses,” and we learn that these were the names of two of the magicians with whom he and Aaron had to contend. Paul was called Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. From this we would learn that Mercurius was a god of eloquence, at least as compared with Jupiter, who was supposed to be represented by the less talkative Barnabas. The chief captain or chiliarch at Jerusalem asked Paul if he were a Roman citizen, and when he said he was, remarked that with a great sum of money he had purchased that honor, to which Paul replied that he was born free. While this is merely incidental, still it tells its own story respecting Roman citizenship at that time. It is in this way that many of the ancient customs have come to be known at the present time. We may not know just what their beds were like, but, when Jesus commands a man, “Take up thy bed and walk,” we learn something about it. When the Master healed the blind man at Bethsaida, and by the first application he was made to see a little, and said, “I see men as trees walking,” it reveals the fact that the man had seen trees before, and hence had not been born blind. The question of Nathaniel, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” assures us that the place was not held in very high esteem. That Jesus came to a fig tree, “if haply he might find figs,” shows that figs might be found at that season of the year, for He knew the country and the time of the ripening of the fruits, of the country. It was not the purpose of the writer to enlighten us on the subject of figs, and yet we do gain just that much in an incidental way. Paul writes to the brethren at Rome and also at Colossæ, and to show that they were so completely separated from sin that they could not think of returning again to its practice, says that they had been buried with Christ in baptism (Rom. vi. 3, 4; Col. ii. 12). He was not writing on the manner and action of baptism; but, from the illustration, we learn that when they were baptized they were buried.
But in all this there is nothing that causes the mind to part company with the author or to cause the interpreter to fail in any way to follow the author into all the purposes of writing, or to interpret anything contrary to that intent.
HOW MAY WE KNOW THE PURPOSE OF THE AUTHOR?
Rule 1. The speaker or writer sometimes states just what he wanted to accomplish by speaking.–If we were in doubt as to the purpose of the two parables beginning the eighteenth chapter of Luke, we would only have to turn and read again the first verse, which declares that the Lord spoke these for the purpose of teaching “that men ought always to pray and not to faint.” If we did not know the purpose of the three parables of the fifteenth chapter of Luke, the first and second verses would suffice, for we are there informed that it was to answer those who objected to Him because He received sinners and ate with them. He gave a parable respecting the distribution of pounds when he was at Jericho, not simply for the lesson of responsibility and judgment, but because they were nigh to Jerusalem, and many of them were thinking that when He should arrive there the kingdom would be established. The parable was, then, first that they might not be deceived in that very important matter. It is clear that Isaiah writes concerning Judah and Jerusalem. Hence, while he utters words of warning and takes up burdens for the kingdoms of the earth, he does so because of their connection with the main subject in hand. This we learn from the direct statement of the prophet himself (i. 1, 2). Luke states to the most excellent Theophilus the exact purpose had in mind when he began to write (Luke i. 1-4). The apostle John tells us his purpose in writing the book known by his name (xx. 30, 31). And Paul is quite as explicit in the announcement of his topic when he begins his letter to the saints that be in Rome” (i. 16, 17).
But the intention of the writer is not always so easily known. Many times we are left to examine the contents of all the sections in the book in order that we may know certainly just what the writer meant to accomplish by the writing.
If the language under consideration was spoken, not written, then we may have to ask those who heard the speech what they understood by it. If there was any particular meaning in the manner of pronunciation in the intonation of the voice, those who heard the speech may be interrogated with propriety. When Micaiah was called forth to tell Ahab if he should go up against Ramoth in Gilead, the prophet said, “Go, and prosper”–(I. Kings xxii. 15, 16). And for all we could tell, from this distance, he meant for him to go, and to feel assured that his campaign would be successful. But Ahab, who heard him, knew from the manner in which he spoke that he did not mean it, and asked him to tell him nothing but the truth. Then the prophet told him just what would come of the campaign. So on the day of Pentecost, when the multitude asked what they should do, we might be in doubt as to the meaning of the question. “Do” about what? might be queried. But Peter, standing by, understood the meaning of the language, and in the answer to their inquiry gives us to know the meaning contained in their words. No one doubts that he answered the question which he understood them to ask. Hence, in his answer, we get the purport of their inquiry (Acts ii. 37, 38).
Rule 2. Carefully consider the immediate context. The purpose of this is to ascertain the immediate purpose of the author. It is not enough to know the main object in view, for there are a great variety of ways by which this end might be attained. We might know, therefore, what particular argument was offered, or what fact was being stated that might bear on the main subject. When we have the statement on each side of the doubtful sentence, we could almost supply the sentence if it were blotted out. We fill ellipses with words, and we could fill them with sentences, with only a little more difficulty. Certainly, then, a knowledge of the context will greatly assist in the exegesis of any doubtful passage.
But it does not seem to be known that there is a context of conduct. What was done and said at the time, may throw much light on the meaning of the words in question. Pilate said to Jesus, “What is truth?” and then arose and went out. He gives the Master no time to answer the question; and his actions show that he did not expect any answer to what he had said. The conduct of this ruler precludes us from considering him an inquirer after truth, but he appears a mere caviller, and his query has no more in it than “Humph! what do you know about truth? The wisest philosophers of the earth are not agreed as to a standard by which it is to be measured; therefore you have presented a subject that you know nothing about.” This, too, will show in what estimation Pilate, at that time, regarded the Savior. He thought him to be a harmless crank–a man of no glaring faults that would render him worthy of death, but quite out of place when trying to lead the people into new truth which the world at that time did not know.
Many times, in the study of the gospels, we would be greatly assisted in the interpretation of difficult passages if we knew what was done at the time that the sentence in question was employed. Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, and to James and John, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This has peculiar significance to us when we know of the miracle which had been wrought. So in the twenty-first chapter of John, when the Master said, “Lovest thou me more than these?” we should know what had been done. To get the meaning, we must keep in view the toil of the night, and their failure to catch anything. Christ gave them abundance of fish, and then asks to know where their affections are: for the fishing of the former days, or the following of Jesus, which they claimed to have left all to do. Sometimes the writer in the New Testament has not recorded the occurrences at the time; and, in that case, it is wise to inquire of the others for the needed facts in the case.
Rule 3. The Bible, being the truth of God, must harmonize with itself.–Sometimes the doctrine is proposed, and then the proofs and counter-proofs are sought for; and if the proofs are more numerous than the counterproofs, the doctrine is regarded as being sustained. But in that case there are some counter-proofs that must be thrown aside as uninspired statements. If they had been inspired, they would have been on the other side of the question. Being,, uninspired, they are false, for they claim inspiration as their source. Infidelity feeds and fattens on this kind of interpretation. Let it be remembered that no doctrine can be true if it is opposed to any clear statement of the word of God. Perhaps these differences of proof and counter-proof have been extorted from the Bible, by applying its statements to subjects that were not before the minds of the writers; and therefore the whole war has been conducted in the absence of any teaching of the Scriptures whatever. But if the exegetes had been taught that the word of God harmonizes with itself, and must never be so interpreted as to bring its statements into collision, this work of fighting Scripture with Scripture would have been discontinued long ago.
But the unbeliever says, “You are not qualified to interpret the Bible, for you start out with an assumption that it is of God, whereas it may not be from that source.” In answer to this, we say that we do not start out as exegetes of this kind till the primary question of authorship has been fixed. That should, indeed, be the first purpose of investigation–is this the book which God has given? But if that question be answered in the affirmative, after a fair examination, then our rule applies.
We might turn aside, however, long enough to say that the unbeliever is the last man that ought to complain, for all his examinations are for the purpose of finding, or creating, some flaw in this divine communication. He starts, too, generally, without any previous consideration of its contents. We say, then, examine first the claims of the Bible in respect to authorship. When the mind is at rest on that question, then proceed with the rules we have arranged, as they are adopted for consideration of the contents of all other books.
Rule 4. Light may, be thrown upon, a doubtful or difficult passage by comparing it with other statements of the author on the same subject.–In several epistles of Paul, he dwells more or less on the same subject in several of these communications. In some of these he has treated the subject fully; in some of them he has merely referred to it. Now, from a slight reference, the reader may not be able to gather the meaning of the writer; but by turning to where he has treated the same subject more at length, the difficult passage will be fully explained. In the Ephesian and Galatian letters he shows that the law given by Moses was no longer a rule for them; that it had been taken out of the way and nailed to the cross; that it had served as a partition wall to separate Jew and Gentile, but that when Christ was put to death on the cross, that partition wall was broken down, so that they might be united in one body. And while that language could not be misunderstood by those for whom it was directly intended, at that time, it may be doubted whether Paul has in his mind some particular portion of the law, or all of it. But in the Colossian letter (ii. 14-18), and in the second letter to the Corinthians (iii. 6-14), where he has written more fully on that particular point, he leaves no doubt as to his views on that subject. If we would understand him perfectly concerning our duty toward those who are not fully instructed in the gospel, it would be well to compare, I. Corinthians. viii. 1-13 with Romans xiv. So it is with the officers in the Church by the appointment of the apostles. If we expect a complete and perfect statement in any one passage on that subject, we shall be disappointed; but if we will gather up all that we find from the same writer, we can understand his view on the subject.
Rule 5. Help may be had in the interpretation of sentences by examining the statements of other writers on the same subject, who are of equal authority.–If we say that all the apostles were inspired, then all that they have all said concerning any one thing must be true. If we will know certainly all that the Saviour said in the great Commission, it will be well for us to read all that all the writers have said about it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have spoken, at any rate, purposely in the matter. They have not used the same terms in making their several records. But we may be sure that they mean the same thing. At the time when they wrote, their brief statements on that subject were ample; and now, if we will admit all that all have said, we shall evidently get the entire commission of the Master to the twelve. So when we ask Paul as to his views concerning salvation in Christ without the deeds of the law, it is in order for us to ask James as to the need of the obedience of faith. For the parties for whom they wrote, there was no need of a more complete statement; and to us there will be perfect instruction when we have the two compared. I. Pet. ii. 13-15 will he better understood if read in conjunction with Rom. xiii. 1-7. They both treat of our duty towards civil government; and by the comparison we get the sum of wisdom on that subject.
Rule 6. The use of common sense respecting the things which we know, of ourselves.–This takes for granted that there is knowledge in men–that, after all, it may be said, we do know some things. We have consciousness of being, of thinking and willing, and of being able to act according to our wills. Any theology that denies the power to do either of these things, is rejected at once, and will recommit the matter to the exegete, assuring him that, as it is impossible for God to lie, he has made a mistake in the interpretation of His book. The theory that no man can, of himself, think a good thought or perform a good deed, has made all thinking men either to doubt the Bible or, the interpretation that sustains that theology. Common sense says: I know the theory is not true hence I know if the Bible supports it, that God is the Author of it.”
Caution in the use of this rule.–While there are many things which we can know, whether we have ever seen a Bible or not, we must be careful that we do not array our whims against the word of God. There are things that we know, and there are things which we do not know. We are not at liberty to assert an opinion as a standard. It must amount to absolute knowledge. Then, so far as it exists, we can use it as facts gained in any other way.
Rule 7. That which, is figurative, must be interpreted according to the law that govern figurative speech.–Literal language is not to be interpreted by figures, but figures are to be interpreted by that which is literal. Almost any theory can be supported by the Scriptures, if the exegete shall be at liberty to assume his positions and catch the sound of words from highly wrought figures, and compel them to do service as didactic agents. In this way men have sustained all the doctrines that genius could originate. David declares that he is a worm, and no man; Job declares that man lieth down, and riseth not till the heavens be no more. In this way the Jews made the Saviour say that the temple which had been so long in construction, if it were destroyed, He would rebuild it in three days. They knew better, but they could make the play on His words, and that answered their purpose. It would seem now that men feel that they are at liberty to turn the Scriptures into a curiosity shop, where men of cunning may show their skill in the maintenance of strange doctrines, in disregard of all the rules by which other books are interpreted.
RULES BY WHICH THE MEANING OF WORDS SHALL BE ASCERTAINED.
Rule 1. All words are to be understood in their literal sense, unless the evident meaning of the context forbids.–Figures are the exception, literal language the rule; hence we are not to regard anything as figurative until we feel compelled to do so by the evident import of the passage. And even here great caution should be observed. We are very apt to regard contexts as teaching some theory which we have in our minds. And having so determined, anything to the contrary will be regarded as a mistaken interpretation; hence, if the literal meaning of the words shall be found to oppose our speculations, we are ready to give to the words in question some figurative import that will better agree with our preconceived opinions. Let us be sure that the meaning of the author has demanded that the language be regarded in a figurative sense, and that it is not our theory which has made the necessity.
Rule 2. Commands generally, and ordinances always, are to be understood in a literal sense.–Commands are rarely issued in figurative language. The general who would issue orders in figurative language would certainly be misunderstood many times. This would defeat his aim. Hence, if he ever delivers an order in language that is not plainly literal, he will do so with the greatest precaution, assuring himself, first, that it will be impossible for his words to be misinterpreted.
The Saviour does say, “Let your light so shine,” etc., which is an order in a figurative use of words. But in that case there is no probability of any one failing to catch the exact thought. He also said to Nicodemus, that a man “must be born again;” but He does not leave any room for doubt as to the meaning of the words employed. For a man to be born of water and of the Spirit, would never be mistaken by such a man as this ruler of the Jews.
But at all times, in giving a law with ordinances, nothing but the plainest use of words is to be expected.
Rule 3. The literal meaning of a word is that meaning which, is given it by those to whom it as addressed.–It is always to be supposed that when an author has written to a people, knowing in what sense they would certainly understand his words, he has had the good sense to use the words in that signification; or if, at any time, he has seen proper to use the words in a better sense than that in which the people did, he has given their meaning in some other way. In writing an account of the Saviour’s life, His words are sometimes employed in a sense that was not common to the people. But the apostles have immediately given the meaning that the words have in that place. If He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” the writer says He referred to the temple of His body. Or again, when He said if any one would come to Him and believe in Him, out of his belly should flow rivers of water, to prevent any misapplication of the language, the writer says that He said it of the Holy Spirit, that should be given to His disciples after that He should be glorified.
How shall we know what the words meant or in what sense the People understood them?–This may be known by the use made of the word by the writer. He probably employs the word several times in the communication, and in some one of these he will have so surrounded it that its meaning is clear. Again, it may be determined by other writers who have lived at the same time and among the same people. Indeed, it may be that one of the people to whom the language was addressed, has indicated the meaning they gave to it. If so, his use of the word will determine the meaning, beyond any question. But if the writer has not made any use of the word that will clearly designate its import, and if no one of the people of that age has employed the word in question, and especially from among that people, then we are bound up to the classic use of the word–for the classic use of a word may be assumed to be its import, unless, because of the known education of the people to whom it was employed there should be some good reason for departing from that signification. If good dictionaries can be had, they should be regarded as of great value. But the classics are of greater authority, for they are the source from which the lexicographers have gathered their meanings belonging to the words they have inserted and defined in their works.
Rule 4. The Scriptures are supposed to give to some words meanings which they do not have in the classics, and therefore the, Bible becomes a dictionary of itself.–This statement is entirely too broad, and yet it is proper that the scriptural use of a word should be examined. For instance, the word elder occurs several times, with an official import. But what office is intended by the word must be learned by the use of the word. By reference to I. Pet. v. 1, 2; Acts xx. 17-28; Titus iii. 5, 6; I. Tim. iii. 1-8, v. 17, we discover that the office of bishop or overseer is intended, when the word elder occurs as indicative of office.
But it has not been found that any word of the Scriptures has been used in a sense contrary to the classic use. In every case, where you have a word that needs to be defined by the nomenclature of the Bible, you have a word that may be employed differently without violation of any authority. Nor does it follow from all that can be found in the advisability of searching for the scriptural use of a word, that it is always to be understood in the same sense–in any case, in which more than one meaning is possible to the word. The word tempt, many times, occurs in the sense of induce to do wrong, but generally it has the meaning of to try, or prove. Thus it is said that God tempted Abraham, and yet an inspired apostle says that “God can not be tempted of evil, neither tempteth he any man.” Unless we shall allow the two meanings of the word in the Bible, as elsewhere, we are confronted with a contradiction in the word of the Lord. But it is sometimes the case that an author has a favorite expression, and his use of it differs from that which is generally made of it. Phrases in the Bible are somewhat peculiar to the men who use them. A favorite expression of Isaiah was rush and palm branch.” When we have become acquainted with him and his writings, his meaning is very plain. It is a metaphor that stands for all the people. If they were to be carried away “rush and palm branch,” then they were all to be taken. He uses head and tail for the same purpose. “Thou hast said,” for an affirmation, is of the same kind. Almost every people will be found to use words and phrases in this way.
Rule 5. Words of definite action can have but one meaning.–That is, they can have but one meaning that relates to action. If they could have more than one meaning in this respect, they would not be words of definite action. Jump, walk, run, sit, chop, clip, sprinkle, pour, shoot, hang, strike, etc., are definite, and therefore but one meaning is possible to any one of them. Hence, when action is ordered by any one of them it can not be obeyed by doing any other thing than that which is the meaning of the word employed. As to the result, or consequence, however, it is not so. To shoot may mean to kill, but it may mean to wound. To hang may differ in results, sometimes having one effect and sometimes another. So with all the other words.
Rule 6. The writer’s explanation is the best definition that can be found.–He is supposed to know, better than any one else, just what meaning he wished to put into the word. Hence if he has told us in words that admit of no doubt, that is the end of all query in the matter. Immanuel means, God with us. Rabbi means master, or teacher. Ordinarily, Rabbi meant great, but in this instance it means master; and this, too, is the meaning which is in the word in all its New Testament use. When Paul represents the Saviour as having opened for us a new and living way into the Holiest of all, he meant to say, by His death it was accomplished through the vail of His flesh. But as this will occur again in the rules by which figurative language is to be understood, we leave it for that place.
Rule 7. The proper definition of a word may be used in the place of the word.–If the trial be made in this way, and the definition is wrong, the sense of the passage will be so destroyed as to make it apparent. It need only to be stated that the true meaning of a word will give the same sense that the word would give; hence, to remove the word and replace it with the definition, is easily done, and is a valuable method.
Rule 8. By antithesis.–Many times two positions are matched one against the other. The best illustration known to me is found in the second letter to the Corinthians (iii. 6-14). Paul here changes the terms several times on both sides; but by this rule we trace his meaning without any possibility of being mistaken. In his two double allegories (Gal. iv. 22-31, and Rom. xi. 16-26), these opposites serve a valuable end. By proper attention to them, neither one can be lost sight of, nor be misunderstood. But as this will be treated as a figure of speech, we dismiss it from further consideration at present.
Rule 9. By the general and special scope.–By the general scope, we mean the general range of mental vision, or the main purpose in the mind of the writer. By the special scope, we mean any sub-purpose having reference to any particular part of the general discussion. To illustrate: Paul wished to make it clear to the minds of the saints that were in Rome, that the gospel was the only system by which men could reasonably hope for salvation. He embraces this in his thesis (i. 16, 17). But to find that this proposition was true, it was necessary to show that men are lost. There could not be a system of salvation if there was nothing to save; hence he starts out to show that all men are lost. This again has to be divided, that he may approach the subject in a way that would not give offense. So he shows that the Gentiles were sinners. But in doing this, it was still necessary to divide the subject in hand and show (1) that they were responsible in that they once knew God; that they could know of God by his works in nature; and that in history, or in His dealings with the children of men He had revealed His wrath against all ungodliness. (2) That they began to fall by the neglect of their devotions, and continued by becoming vain or filthy in their imaginations; by changing God into the likeness of men, and four-footed beasts and creeping things; that the stages of their fall were: leaving God, becoming corrupt in themselves, and then becoming immoral towards men, or evil affected towards men. A second subdivision is to show that the Jews were in no better condition than the Gentiles; hence that they were also in need of salvation. This, again, is subdivided into two different lines of argument: their history, or an examination of the facts in the case, and also the statements of their own Scriptures. But, having gained the first point in the argument, he next proceeds to show that they could not save themselves. That accomplished, he must show them that the gospel could do what could not be accomplished in any other way.
But now there are new lines of thought that must needs be investigated, such as the extent and results of this salvation, and whether there has been any injustice on the part of God in arranging this plan of saving men. Also, when man has been redeemed from a state of sin, he must needs be placed under some system by which he will be kept from sin, and made to be the kind of man that he ought to be. To develop the man, should he be placed under the haw that Moses gave, or will the gospel of Christ furnish him with those directions and helps which he most needs? And even then it was left to know if the redemption in Christ was fill and complete, or if it saved the spirit and left the body to rot in the grave. In this way Paul conducts the argument, following each proposition with another which connected with it.
Having the main purpose of this letter in the mind, and the particular purpose in view in the section from which the words come, the interpretation is easy and safe. Instead of this safe rule of interpretation, there has ever been a tendency to ignore the topic had under discussion, and find first what the word under some circumstances might be made to mean, and to conclude that such must be its meaning in the passage in question. Though no one interprets any other book in that way, yet there seems to be a willingness to compel the Bible to submit to such treatment.
Rule 10. Etymological construction will many times tell the meaning of the word.–Nearly all the names of they ancients had meanings, and, when they are constructed of more than one syllable, the meanings of the several syllables will give the meaning of the whole word or name. Beersheba, from beer, wells, and sebiah, seven, would be seven wells; Bethel, house of God–are specimens of the meanings that attached to the names of places. If we analyze our English words, we find that, they were made of patchwork, and came into being with the meaning of the added patches. It should be confessed, however, that the rule does not always work, as some words have changed their meanings entirely since they were first made.
Rule 11. The meaning of a word is frequently known by the words used in the construction with it.–In this way we could first determine what part of speech it was. We could tell whether it indicated action or transition. If a verb is used at any time in any unusual sense, or a preposition, its society will reveal the fact. This is especially true when we know the manner of the writer.
Rule 12. We may have sometimes to study the history of a word in order to get its meaning at any particular time.–It has occurred, in the history of some words, that they have changed their meanings a number of times. Hence, if we are asked what such a word means, we must answer according to the time and place of its use. Let once meant to hinder; prevent once meant to come before.
On this subject Mr. Terry, in his work on Biblical Hermeneutics, says:
“Words, being the conventional signs and representatives of ideas, are changeable in both form and meaning by reason of the changes constantly taking place in human society. In process of time the same word will be applied to a variety of uses, and come to have a variety of meanings. Thus, the name board, another form of the word broad, was originally applied to a piece of timber, hewed or sawed, so as to form a wide, thin plank. It was also applied to a table on which food was placed, and it became common to speak of gathering around the festive board. By a similar association, the word was also applied to a body of men who were wont to gather around a table to transact business, and hence we have board of trustees, board of commissioners. The word is also used for the deck of a vessel; hence the terms on board, overboard, and some other less common nautical expressions. Thus it often happens that the original meaning of a word falls into disuse and is forgotten, while later meanings become current, and find a multitude or variety of applications. But, while a single word may thus come to have many meanings, it also happens that a number of different words are used to designate the same, or nearly the same, thing.”
All living languages are subject to such changes as those which have just been mentioned. Hence the necessity of carefully attending to the question of history when the meaning of a word is under consideration.
Rule 13. Illustrations or parables may give the peculiar sense in which a word is to be understood in the Scriptures.–The young lawyer conceded that to love God and to love one’s neighbor were the great commandments of the law. But, to excuse himself, he was anxious not to know to whom he was neighbor. This the Saviour brought out by the parable of the Good Samaritan, so that the man himself assented that to do kindness was to be neighborly. And, like the Samaritan, race prejudice was to be forgotten in the face of want, and human sympathy was to have its rightful control.
Rule 14. In defining definitions nothing but primary meanings are to be used.–I will illustrate by the introduction of a few of the most common words:
To eat, means literally to chew and swallow. Hence, if this word shall be translated into any other language, the word containing that thought must be used, and no other. Then it may be translated again from that into a third, if the same precaution be used, and no change occur. But let us see what will become of the word in case we should be permitted to use secondary words in translating or defining. To eat means secondarily to corrode, to consume, to enjoy, to rub or fret, to wear away by degrees, to prey upon, to impair. To consume means to waste away slowly, to be exhausted, to squander. Now, as to eat means to consume, and fire consumes, or to burn is to consume, therefore to eat and to burn are the same thing! Yet everyone knows that it is not true.
To walk is to move slowly on the feet in such a way as to permit the heels to touch the ground. But secondarily the word means to appear as a spectre, to act on any occasion, to be in, motion, as a clamorous tongue–”their tongue walketh through the land”–to live, act, behave. Men who have no feet can live and walk with God, that is, they can worship and obey God. Now you can see in this way we can prove that to walk does not mean any action, either on the feet or any other way, but simply to worship.
To shoot means to discharge with force, to germinate, to sprout, to begin to vegetate, as a plant or its seed. As a result, to shoot means to kill; but to hang means to kill, therefore a man may be shot by being hung! But who believes such nonsense?
In this way we might continue till we should have examined every word of definite action, and in each case we will find that very ordinary skill would be equal to the removal of the meaning of any word in English, or in any other language. Unless this rule be observed, there is no safety in translating from one language into another, or in defining definition in any language.
The story is told of a Welsh minister who preached for two churches, one a Welsh speaking and the other an English speaking people. Someone asked him how he supplied sermons in both languages. He said he took the Bishop’s sermons and translated them into Welsh, and read them to his flock. “But,” said the querist, “how then do you supply the other congregation?” “Oh,” said the ingenious divine, “I translate them back into English, and the Bishop himself would not recognize them by that time.” If this free translation stopped with the sermons of men it would be a small matter, but the Bible is treated in the same way.
[From D. R. Dungan’s book entitled, Hermeneutics: A Text-Book (1888)]