How to do a proper word study.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 September 2022
WORD STUDY 'wərd stə.di noun. Learning the scriptures’ definition of a word through its use in the text.

In the churches where I grew up, when people talked about “doing bible study,” they really meant doing a word study. They weren’t actually studying the bible—by which I mean read a story or section of the scriptures, look at its literary and historical context, analyze the original language, determine what it meant to the people who originally wrote and read it, and determine how this info is relevant to us today. Much as you’d study any work of history or literature—but somehow the definition of “study” got changed in church into looking up all the instances of a word in the bible.

Well you are using a bible, and you are studying.

But properly they were doing a word study: They chose an individual, significant word, found in the bible. Like grace. Or gossip, redemption, repentance, longsuffering and any of the other fruits of the Spirit; any words which have a particular importance to Christians. They’d try to dig out that meaning and understand the word better.

And that’s good! We should understand those words better. You’d be surprised (or annoyed) at how many Christians don’t know the definitions of words we use all the time. I already told the story of a pastor who didn’t know what a soul is. He’s hardly the only Christian who should know better, doesn’t, and has resorted to guessing. A little word study would help such people.

Problem is, few Christians are taught how to properly study a word. They do it like so:

  1. Look up the word in the dictionary. (If they feel adventurous, they might look it up in a Hebrew or Greek dictionary, like the ones in back of a concordance. But usually they’ll just go with a Webster’s.)
  2. Use a concordance, or a computer bible, to get a list of every verse in the bible with that word in it.
  3. Read a few of the verses with that word in it, so they know “what the bible says” about that word.
  4. Assume these verses are using the very same definition they read in the dictionary. Regardless of whether it does or doesn’t. Read that definition into every verse. Get some “insights” as a result.
  5. Feel all knowledgeable, profound, and spiritual.

Outside of Christendom, only schoolchildren will claim they “studied” when all they really did was look up a word in the dictionary. Come on, Christians. Let’s do some actual study, shall we?

Pick your word.

Every bible study has to start with humility. With an open mind. ’Cause we don’t know it all. ’Cause we’re wrong. Never assume you kinda know what a passage or a word already means. Always assume you’ve heard what it means, but now you’re confirming it for yourself. (And don’t be too horrified when it turns out to mean something wholly different. It happens. A lot.)

I used to go about word studies the wrong way all the time. I’d choose to do a word study on “slander” because I wanted to preach against slander: I already had an idea of what “slander” means, and wanted the bible to back up my ideas. If the bible’s authors had a different idea than mine, I’d’ve been greatly annoyed: “Aw crap, now I can’t preach on that.” If I were a less-than-scrupulous Christian (and yes, I’ve known a few) I’d have bent the authors’ meaning to suit my sermon. But generally I believed the authors meant what I meant. I didn’t like slander; they didn’t like slander. Right?

Well that’s the catch: We don’t know whether they do or not. Not till we study the bible and find out!

So, as with any quest for knowledge, start with an open mind. Bear in mind we’re trying to grow as Christians, and that means correcting our faulty knowledge. When we discover we’re wrong, fix it. We’re to always work on ourselves before we start preaching at others. Mt 7.3-5 Got it?

Awright, let’s start with a word. Today I’m gonna look at joy. As I said in my article on joy, a number of Christians have chosen to redefine joy, not as great happiness, but as contentment despite rough circumstances. (In other words, patience.) So when they do a word study, that’s the meaning they presume the word has, and the meaning they read into every bible verse.

Nope, we’re not gonna do it that way.

Next step is not to get out the dictionary.

If the typical word-studiers don’t presume they already know what the word means, their next step is to crack open a dictionary.

Which dictionary? Well, the word-studiers don’t always ask that question. They just grab a dictionary; usually an English-language dictionary. Most of the time it’s “Webster’s Dictionary”—except they don’t realize any dictionary publisher can call their book “Webster’s.” The name “Webster’s” isn’t copyrighted. So if it’s called “Webster’s” and nothing more, it’s most likely a discount generic dictionary; one you could pick up at a dollar store, or in the bargain bin at the bookstore. Hence the next time your pastor starts explaining his word study with “According to Webster’s Dictionary…” you now have an idea he thinks so little of study, he never bothered to get a good dictionary.

But here’s why not to crack open your English-language dictionary: Look up “joy” in there, and you’re gonna read all the different things English-speakers mean when we say “joy.” Well, the bible wasn’t written by English-speakers. It was translated by English-speakers, into English, but English didn’t even exist when the bible was written! You think any of the bible’s authors would recognize what our culture thinks of as “joy”?

As I pointed out in my article about love, there are about eight things we English-speakers mean by our word “love.” Only one of them means what Paul and Sosthenes meant in 1 Corinthians 13. What are the other seven meanings gonna do to our word study? Right you are: They’re gonna mess us up. We’re gonna have one good idea in our head, and seven wrong ones, and they’re gonna compete with one another… and the one we like best will win. What’re the chances the one we like best will be the right definition?

I can’t tell you how many bad sermons I’ve heard where the preacher began with how Webster’s defined the word they meant to preach upon… then proceeded to preach a sermon which was all about how Webster’s defined the word. Not the scriptures. They overlaid our culture’s ideas on top of the bible, and preached that. It’s only by the grace of God they were more right than wrong.

So let’s start by dodging the wrongness. No dictionary! Not yet.

Instead the next step is to get out your computer. Which you’re on right now, reading TXAB, so that step’s done. We’re about to use a computer bible. And if you don’t own bible software, that’s fine; we’ll use the internet. We’re gonna look up your word in the bible. Not the dictionary.

Find the original-language words.

As I said, after checking out the dictionary, typical word-studiers will then look up every instance of that word in their favorite bible translation. We’re looking at “joy.” So if the word-studiers’ favorite translation of the bible is the English Standard Version, they’re gonna look up “joy” in the ESV, and get 203 hits. And if it’s the New International Version, 210 hits; if the New King James, 150 hits. Yeah, those hits can vary widely depending on your favorite translation! (But honestly, don’t stress out about this. If you want more hits, it’s totally okay to search a different bible translation.)

Anyway, the typical word-studier with an ESV is gonna read all 203 verses with “joy” in it… and every single time, meditate on what the dictionary told ’em “joy” means, and try to squeeze that definition into that verse.

They’re loosely on the right track. They kinda skipped a step.

Unlike them, what we’re gonna do is find out which words, in the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, our bibles translate as “joy.”

If you’re not comfortable with biblical languages, relax. This is why there are such things as Strong numbers. Your computer bible, or your bible website, oughta show you the Strong numbers for every word which has been translated “joy.” (If it doesn’t, you either need a better computer bible, or a bible website which uses Strong numbers.)

I didn’t search a bible to get the following wordlist; I searched a lexical database of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words. (I have really good bible software.) But searching your favorite bible translation will do the same job just fine. Anyway here’s my list. I also noted the frequency—how many times each word appears in the bible.

H1524 גִּיל/gil. 10.
H1525 גִּילָה/gilá. 2.
H2304 חֶדְוָה/khedvá. 2.
H2305 חֶדְוָה/khedvá. 1.
H4010 מַבְלִיגיִת/mavligít. 1.
H4885 מָשׂוֹשׂ/masós. 17.
H7321 רוּעַ/ru’á (“shout for joy”). 46.
H7440 רִנָּה/rinná (“songs of joy”). 33.
H7442 רָנַן/ranán (“sing for joy”). 51.
H7444 רַנֵּן/rannén (“shout for joy”). 2.
H7797 שׂוּשׂ/sus. 27.
H8055 שָׂמַח/samákh. 152.
H8057 שִׂמְחָה/simkhá. 91.
H8342 שָׂשׂוֹן/sasón. 22.
H8643 תְּרוּעָה/teru’á (“shout for joy”). 36.
G0020 Ἀγαλλίασις/ayallíasis. 5.
G4640 Σκιρτάω/skirtáo (“leap [for joy]”). 3.
G5479 Χαρά/hará. 58.
G5485 Χάρις/háris. 156.

Yep, we’ve just leapt from one word to 19.

No, this doesn’t mean we gotta study all 19 words! (Unless you wanna. Wouldn’t hurt.) We’re actually on the hunt for the main words for “joy” in the bible. And you notice how certain words stand out, because they’re used so frequently. In Hebrew the words samákh and simkhá make up most of the instances of “joy” in the Old Testament. In Greek, in the New Testament, that’d be the word hará. (Yes, háris appears more frequently, but in the KJV it was only translated “joy” once—and more often it’s translated “grace.” So I don’t count it. If you’re looking for certain ideas in the bible, you can likewise rule out whatever words don’t appear to match that idea so well.)

The greater frequency of a word in the bible, the easier it becomes to figure out what it means. You’ll see why in just a bit. So since samákh shows up a lot, yeah it means we gotta read a lot of verses. But each of these verses helps fill out its meaning just a little bit more. In comparison, if you have a word like mavligít, which only appears once in the entire bible… yeah, you only have one verse to study. Jr 8.8 But without any other verses to look at, it’s harder to confirm it means what you think it means.

For our example, I’m gonna look up a few instances of samákh. Let’s learn what it means.

Using the scriptures to define your word.

Reading the scriptures, and reading the way its authors used these words, helps us understand what they meant by the word “joy.” Let’s look at just a few examples of samákh in the scriptures. (I’m gonna use the New Living Translation, instead of the trickier King James, or translating the scriptures myself. This way you’ll see how translators don’t always render samákh as “joy”; sometimes they made other choices. But for your convenience, I’ll highlight the words which were based on samákh.)

Deuteronomy 12.7 NLT
There you and your families will feast in the presence of the LORD your God, and you will rejoice in all you have accomplished because the LORD your God has blessed you.

Of course “rejoice” means “to take joy in”—so you’ll take joy in all you’ve accomplished. Here Moses referred to feasting and celebrating, and making a big thing of one’s achievements, and how the Hebrews were expected to think of these things: With joy. Celebration is a way to express joy. How do you feel when you celebrate? How should you feel after achieving your goals? Whatever that is, we should be able to describe it using the word “joy.”

Got that? Good. Now another verse.

Deuteronomy 24.5 NLT
A newly married man must not be drafted into the army or be given any other official responsibilities. He must be free to spend one year at home, bringing happiness to the wife he has married.

Bringing happiness—or bringing joy. Same word; same idea.

How should newlyweds feel towards one another? Again, we should be able to describe it using the word “joy.” Contrast that with how the newlyweds would feel if they had to be separated by war.

(True, the ancients didn’t always marry because they loved one another. But it’s okay to assume they were usually pleased with their marriage. Joy should be the product.)

Judges 9.13 NLT
“But the grapevine also refused, saying,
‘Should I quit producing the wine
that cheers both God and people,
just to wave back and forth over the trees?’ ”

In other words, that brings joy to God and people. This is part of a parable Jotham ben Gideon told about his evil brother: The trees chose to pick a king, and chose wrongly. The grapevine, one of their nominees, described its wine as bringing joy to people. Now, think about how winos love their wine. Sometimes a little too much. But generally it makes ’em feel what we’d usually call “joy.”

1 Samuel 2.1 NLT
Then Hannah prayed:
“My heart rejoices in the LORD!
The LORD has made me strong.
Now I have an answer for my enemies;
I rejoice because you rescued me.”

The prophet Hannah had joy because God rescued her. (The first “rejoice” in this verse is עָלַץ/alách, “is thrilled.”)

This was Hannah’s song of worship because God granted her a son, Samuel, after many tearful prayers for a child. Her “enemies” probably include her husband’s other wife, who mocked her for being childless, 1Sa 1.6 but now God rescued her from that. So consider her feelings at being rescued: They’d be joy.

One last example:

1 Samuel 6.13 NLT
The people of Beth-shemesh were harvesting wheat in the valley, and when they saw the Ark, they were overjoyed!

Some months before, the Ark of God’s covenant with Israel had been seized by the Philistines after the Hebrews stupidly brought it into battle like a good luck charm. The Philistines propped it up in front of their god, but the LORD responded by smacking their god’s statue around, then smiting them with mice and hemorrhoids. Finally having enough, the Philistines put the Ark on a cart and sent it back to the Hebrews, and here the people of Beth-shemesh see it. Imagine how they felt. It’d be “joy.”

Y’see how this works? We look at the scriptures, we consider their context, and we deduce the meaning of the word from it.

Granted, this process is much harder with certain words. Especially those words which only show up in the bible one or two times: There’s not a lot of verses to pull their meaning from! The more verses we have, the better and fuller of an idea we can have about what the word means. The fewer verses, the more questionable our interpretations might get. (So don’t go making definitive statements about a word which only appears once or twice!)

Believe it or don’t: This is how the people who write dictionaries do their job. They do word studies. They look at how people use a word, and come up with definitions based on how the words get used. When we do a proper word study, we do the very same thing. We write the definition—based on bible.

Checking your work.

Once we’re done, then we get out the dictionary. It comes last. And of course we shouldn’t get out Webster’s, nor any English-language dictionary. We’ve been studying the Hebrew word samákh, so which dictionary d’you think we oughta use? Right, the Hebrew dictionary. Here’s what you’ll find in a Strong’s Hebrew dictionary:

8055. שָׂמַח SAMÁKH sa'mak verb. A primitive root; probably to brighten up, i.e. (figuratively) be (causatively, make) blithe or gleesome—cheer up, be (make) glad, (have, make) joy(-ful), be (make) merry, (cause to, make to) rejoice.

That sound anything like the conclusion you came to on your own? If so, great!—you did it right. If not, something went a little wrong. Yeah, it might be the dictionary, which is why I have multiple dictionaries. But let’s be honest: It’s way, way more likely it’s you. So go back and double-check your work. (You might’ve accidentally studied the wrong word.)

But unlike a word-studier who just flips open the dictionary, reads what’s in there, and discovers its meaning thataway: You figured out for yourself what samákh/“joy” means. You know what it means. You did the homework.

You had to think about what it meant as you dug its meaning out of the text. You saw examples of it, whereas this particular dictionary didn’t bother to give any. You saw how the folks in the bible behaved when they were joyful. You saw what made ’em joyful, both good things and bad. You likely found some really good passages to meditate upon. You’d have missed those passages entirely if you began with the dictionary—or you might even be meditating on wholly inappropriate verses.

More importantly, you avoided the mistake so many word-studiers do: You didn’t take the dictionary, then try to force its meaning where it doesn’t belong. Lots of words have more than one meaning. True for Hebrew and Greek words too. The Greek word κόσμος/kosmós usually means “world”—and it can also refer to the universe, to humanity (’cause God so loves it Jn 3.16), or even the ground. Far too many word-studiers will get the boneheaded idea, “What if God so loved the universe…?” when the context of John 3 (“whosoever believeth in him”) makes it pretty obvious Jesus was talking about people.

Now that you’ve figured out the word for yourself, you can more easily catch those people who have the wrong idea about joy. Like all the Christians who claim joy isn’t an emotion, isn’t happiness. You just read all those verses in the bible about joy, so you’re now fully aware these Christians don’t know what they’re talking about. None of the folks in the scriptures who experienced joy, were just sitting there basking in their deep abiding sense of peace. They were happy. They were ecstatic. They celebrated.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with peace. It’s a fruit of the Spirit too, y’know. But it’s not the same thing as joy, and after a good proper word study, you know it’s not the same thing as joy. ’Cause you just saw for yourself.