The Importance of Words

In response to my earlier post about the Aussie Bible, a reader contended:

It doesn’t matter how the message is said, as long as it teaches the same lessons we’ve all been taught

I believe, rather, that the message cannot remain intact apart from the words remaining intact (or at least, as intact as possible).

God initially created language. He gave language to Adam and He confounded the languages at Babel. The purpose of language is to communicate ideas and messages among men and from God to man. God chose this mechanism to communicate with us.

Jesus affirmed the essential nature of the words themselves, when He relied on a verb tense to make a theological point in Matthew 22 (“Have ye not read…I am the God of Abraham… God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. “)

In a great many cases, the Bible treats the words of a message as identical to the message itself. Consider these examples:

Exodus 14 (God speaking to Moses about Aaron)
15 And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do. 16 And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.

Moses was to “put words in (Aaron’s) mouth” and “be to him instead of God”. God promised to “be with they moutn, and with his mouth”. Clearly the words to be spoken were important.

Exodus 19 (God speaking to Moses)
5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: 6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

Exodus 20 (Moses repeats God’s law to the Jews)
1 And God spake all these words, saying,

Moses emphasized that these were the exact words God spoke, no more and no less.

Exodus 24
3 And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do.

Moses told the people “all the words of the LORD” and the people said they would obey “All the words which the LORD hath said”. The words themselves are the message, rather than hinting at a hidden meaning.

Exodus 34
27 And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.
28 And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

The covenant was clearly what was important, but God affirmed that the covenant was defined by the words He had spoken. It was essential that Moses record the words that established this covenant.

Numbers 11
24 And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle.

The Bible records that Moses “told the people the words of the LORD”, not “the basic message”. The words were clearly considered important. I do not believe Moses paraphrased.

Deuteronomy 6
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: 5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. 6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: 7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. 9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

God makes no distinction here between the words He spoke, and the message conveyed by those words. It was the words which were to be “in thine heart” and taught to their children.

Now clearly, God is not pleased if we simply memorize the Bible or teach our children His words by rote, like we would a poem or something. His words and His message are indistinguishable and inseperable. You can’t have the message without the words.

Deuteronomy 19
9 Keep therefore the words of this covenant, and do them, that ye may prosper in all that ye do.

God does not say “keep this covenant”, but rather “the words of this covenant”. The covenant does not exist apart from the words which initiated and communicated it.

Psalm 119
101 I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word.
102 I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me.
103 How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
104 Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way.
105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

We see here that David alternately refers to “word”, “judgments”, “words”, and “precepts”. The judgments and precepts of God are not somehow separate from and superior to the individual words. Nor is the aggregate “word”, consisting generally of all the individual words, considered superior.

John 15
7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

Christ here refers to “my words” as identical to His message. They are the same.

Revelation 22
18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: 19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

This is certainly the direst warning in the Bible against tampering with its words. The propecy is words. The words are the prophecy. Changing the words is changing the prophecy and the meaning. And you can see how seriously God takes it.

When the Bible talks about the mechanism of inspiration, it generally indicates something along the lines of verbal inspiration, indicating that God Himself gives the very words to be written or spoken.

2 Samuel 23
2 The Spirit of the LORD spake by me, and his word was in my tongue.

David explains exactly how God moved him to speak.

2 Peter 1
20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

Peter explains that prophecy is not a “private interpretation” by the prophet of a message from God, but that the Holy Ghost moved the prophets to speak as they did.

1 Corinthians 2
13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

Paul affirms that the words he spoke were taught by the Holy Ghost, rather than by man. Would he say this if he were coming up with the words himself to convey the meaning?

2 Timothy 3
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God…

Literally, I’m told, “inspiration” means “breathed” – all scripture is breathed by God. It gives me the mental picture of the Holy Ghost whispering in a prophet’s ear as the prophet writes.

Deuteronomy 18
18 I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.

John 14
10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.

John 17
8 For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.

In Deuteronomy 18:18, God promised to send the Messiah and put words in His mouth. Christ here affirms that God did exactly that. God gave Him words, not simply “a message” or “an idea” to communicate in whatever way He wished. Now, if God inspired even Christ in this manner, would He not do the same with human authors?

Further, the Bible refers to the individual words as eternal and pure.

Psalm 12
6 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.

Matthew 24
35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.

Christ emphasized the permanence of His words, not His meaning or message.

It is possible to become too caught up with words, as the following scriptures demonstrate:

1 Timothy 6:4 He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings,
2 Timothy 2:14 Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers.

I don’t mean to suggest that the literal words are somehow mystical in a numerological sort of way. I don’t believe that. But I do believe the words are important, and that you have to have the words to have the meaning. If you change the words, you change the meaning.

When one undertakes to rephrase the basic message in other words, and not pay too much attention to the actual words themselves, he runs a tremendous risk. He’d better be sure that he gets the meaning absolutely correct, or he’s then leading people astray and leaving them without any way to know it. A Baptist, so-called “church of Christ”, Presbyterian, and Catholic are all going to understand 1 Peter 3:20-22 very differently, and a “paraphrase” is certainly going to betray that theological bias. A word-for-word translation, on the other hand, won’t be entirely immune to theological bias, but it will be better than a paraphrase.

Another thing to note in closing, is that much “rephrasing” of the Bible is done in the name of making it easier for people to relate to. In my opinion, we ought to concern ourselves with accurately transmitting the words of God, and trust that God will continue to make it understandable to the minds of those He’s called to Himself.

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