How to Study the Bible Part 2 – Dig Into the Words

Lost in Translation

“Je ne sais quoi”

(click here to hear this phrase pronounced – then click the blue “volume” icon to the left of the phrase in large, bold font near the top of the page).

Je ne sais quoi is a French phrase that doesn’t easily or directly translate into English. There’s something “lost in translation,” if you will. It translates directly as “I don’t know what,” but that doesn’t do the phrase justice. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it means “a pleasing quality that cannot be exactly named or described.”

Image Credit: PBS

And even that doesn’t fully explain the meaning. Many times, this phrase is used to describe someone that is physically attractive, but maybe not for conventional reasons. Maybe you wouldn’t look at this woman and think her beautiful in the typical sense, but there’s just something about her…something you can’t quite put your finger on. The “something” you can’t quite put your finger on… that is je ne sais quoi.

If you simply translate the phrase directly, you’ve done your job, but you miss the complete essence of what it means. You miss just a little more understanding that gives you the “a-ha” moment. The hidden understanding you can only get if you look deeper into the meaning.

Image Credit: amazonaws.com

After I’d been studying the Bible a few years with the help of the commentaries, cross references, and concordances I had at my disposal, I felt a pull for more. I didn’t quite know what that “more” was, but I knew I wanted something else. Then, I started noticing places in sermons where pastors would explain what a word in a Bible verse meant in the original language. The pastor usually pointed out the original usage of the word when it was different from the way the word would be defined in our culture, when knowing the original usage would give us a deeper understanding of what the verse meant. I came to understand that, at times, when translating Greek or Hebrew to English, something vital was lost in translation. And I don’t want to miss anything.

I wanted to know how to look up scripture in its original language, but I wasn’t going to take a course in Greek or Hebrew any time soon, so I asked our life group teacher if there was access to such information for the laity – us “common folk” who aren’t pastors or theologians but who want to look deeper into what the Bible is saying. He pointed me to several online resources and smartphone apps. Two of those have become constant study tools for me. I want to share them with you because they have added richness to my time in God’s Word.

Blue Letter Bible

Blue Letter Bible was the first site my friend recommended. (I use the smartphone app nearly every day when I study the Bible, so I’ll walk you through using the app; I rarely go on the website itself, so I’m not as familiar with it).

Note: I don’t read the Bible as a whole from this app, (although you could if you wanted). I read it from my print Bible. I use this app when I want to study the scriptures deeper – such as looking up the meanings of words in their original language or looking at one verse in a variety of translations. (I’ll explain both exercises here).

Basics of Blue Letter Bible app

Once you’ve downloaded the app from the App Store and opened it on your phone, you’ll choose the translation you want to use (you can add a translation if you don’t see the one you want). I added the ESV because that’s the print version I have, and I am used to reading that translation.

You can switch between translations by clicking on the word “Bibles” in the top, right corner (see below). Do this anytime you use the app. You can also go back and add more translations later.

Once you’re ready to study verses using the app, toggle back and forth between Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) by clicking the button circled on the image below.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to the New Testament and choosing Matthew. You can see that the books are listed in order as they appear in the Bible. Click on a book to open it.

Next select the chapter you want. I’m going to select Chapter 4 to use as an example for our purposes here.

Scroll down and click on the verse you want to study. I’m using verse 17.

After you click on the verse, you get the menu below. I’ll come back and talk about some other features in this app, but for now, we’re going to focus on studying the words of scripture in their original language, so click on “Interlinear/Concordance.”

Below, you’re looking at Matthew 4:17 in ESV. The Greek text is at the top followed by the ESV translation. I click the “Reverse Interlinear” button to put the English words on the left side of the screen. Just makes better sense to my eyes and brain.

In this verse, let’s say we’re interested in the word “repent.” This is what Jesus preached once his ministry started. He began telling people to repent. So, I want to see what he really meant by that. To me, “repent” means being sorry for what you did. But I want to see if there is something deeper here. It seems like an important thing if it was the message Jesus began his ministry with. So, scroll down and click on the word “repent” (somewhere near the English word itself. If you click on the oval in the middle of the screen, it’ll take you somewhere else).

On this screen, you see what the Greek word looks like and can click on the blue speaker icon to hear it pronounced. (I LOVE to do that). You can see the part of speech and any root words. (The blue words are hyperlinks you can click on to go to the entry for the root word).

But, what I’m mostly interested in here is the “Outline of Biblical Usage” section just over half way down the screen. You can see that the definition of repent, as it is used in this verse, goes far beyond simply being sorry for what you did. And THAT is exactly why I encourage you to learn to use BLB app or some other tool to study the words in their original language. Having this understanding of how the word “repent” was used gives me richer insight into what Jesus meant in his message when he began to tell people to repent. In the highlighted section, you’ll note that repentance is when a person turns “from sin to God” {emphasis mine}. Jesus commanded that people turn away from their past sins and turn toward God. Literally, look at God rather than the sinful world. Man! That’s so rich!

Once you have a better understanding of the general definition of the word, you can go another step deeper: scroll down, and look at the Thayer’s Greek Lexicon – circled below. This portion of the Interlinear/Concordance shows you exactly how the word was used in that specific verse – rather than a simple, dictionary-type definition. So, click on the link that says “Tap to view the entire entry” to open the full lexicon for the word.

Then, scroll slowly and carefully, looking for the specific verse you’re studying. In the New Testament, the verses are easier to see because they are blue hyperlinks. The Old Testament lexicon looks like a PDF copy of an original writing, so nothing is a hyperlink and nothing stands out. It’s harder to find your specific verse. (I’ve also noticed that the lexicon isn’t exhaustive – it doesn’t list all the verses in the entire Bible that use the word in this specific way). I generally have better luck finding the verse I’m looking for in the New Testament lexicon although there have been times I couldn’t find it there either. Maybe I just missed it. Either way, you have the basic definition(s) to go off of to get a good enough idea of what’s being said.

The highlighted portion below shows you exactly how the word “repent” was used in Matthew 4:17.

If you find that you love studying the Bible this way, I encourage you to try rewording the verses based on the original meanings you uncover. To do this, go through the verse, using BLB app and look up each word in the scripture or each key word or each word that was important to you. Once you had a solid understanding of the deeper meaning of the word, reword the verse using the information you found in your study. This has been a favorite activity of mine for Bible study. I do it almost every time I read something whether I am studying a particular verse or focusing on a certain chapter in a book. When a verse catches my attention, I almost always study the original language (Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT) and then reword the verse to help me understand it more fully.

*However, be sure you aren’t changing the meaning of the verse when you reword it. To be sure this doesn’t happen, pray through the word study with God, carefully look up each word, read the verse in a variety of translations, read surrounding verses to get context, and read commentary on the verse. Really dig deep into the verse before attempting to reword it. When you feel confident you understand it enough to work with it, then reword it.

*A fun hint I’ve picked up along the way is personalizing scripture. You can add your name into the scripture where a personal address might fit. Here’s an example using Matthew 4:17 – From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, Heather, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Add your name in the place of mine. You can do this with many, many verses, and it helps drive home the idea that God is speaking directly to you through His words in the Bible, and that His Word is still relevant today.

I’ve mentioned reading different versions of the Bible several times in this post, and BLB app makes it simple to do that. Without leaving the app, you can read most of the major translations of the Bible. When you’re inside the verse you’re studying, click “Bible Comparison” to switch between different translations.

When you click “Bible Comparisons,” you start with the version you’re reading, but you can scroll down and read the verse in different translations. This has been such a helpful tool for me; I use it regularly to help me get a better understanding of the verse.

While you’re inside a specific verse, you can also click “Text Commentaries” (see highlighted below) and read commentaries on that specific verse, chapter, book, or the concept being discussed in that verse. A wealth of commentaries are loaded into the app.

I have come to enjoy David Guzik’s commentaries and will usually seek them out when I use this feature of BLB app.

Vine’s Expository Dictionary

Another app I use for studying original meanings of words in scripture is Vine’s Expository Dictionary app. It’s a more straight-forward and simpler to use than BLB. I use it when I already know the word I want to look up – I have a word in mind separate from a specific verse. (BLB is for studying specific verses then drilling down to individual words. Vine’s is for looking up the original language for a word you already know you want to study – not necessarily connected to a specific verse).

Below, the icon is circled, so you can find it in the App Store.

When you open the app, you have two choices for searching for the word – either type it in the search window at the top or click on the box with the corresponding letter of the alphabet and go from there.

I searched “righteous,” a word I often have to look up when I’m studying because I can’t get the meaning to stay in my brain 🙂 Once you find the word you want, click on it in the list.

Then, you can scroll through and read about all the varied meanings of the words in scripture. If you know a specific scripture, you can search the blue hyperlinks.

What helpful bible study hints have you picked up along the way? What tools help you most during your study time? Please share them here.

Why We Suffer (Repost)

{The pandemic has me thinking a lot about suffering, especially its purpose; so I’m reposting this article I wrote in the spring}

It’s 1 in the afternoon.  My husband won’t be home for at least 3 more hours.  And the baby won’t.stop.crying.

He’s had a nap.  Been fed. Had a diaper change.

I’ve held him.  Bounced him.  Sung to him.  Put him down.  Picked him up again.  Everything I can think of.

But he won’t.stop.crying.

I remember a DVD the OBGYN gave me at a prenatal visit.  Something about “purple crying”.  The narrator explained that sometimes babies cry for no good reason – sometimes A LOT!  If you’ve done everything you know to do, and the baby is still crying, put the baby down in a safe place and walk away for a little while.

So, I lay him in his crib and go outside.  I slowly circle the outside of the house a few times to try and clear my head.

Each time I walk by his window, I hear him.  Still.crying.

That day is tattooed in my memory, but that baby is now in middle school.

EthanNewborn2009
Sleeping like a baby for his newborn picture in the hospital – January 2009

When I think of that day, I laugh.  Usually.  But it wasn’t humorous then.

What I didn’t understand as a new mama is that crying is the only way a baby is able to communicate.  To tell us there’s something wrong.

Why is that the only way, though?

And do they have to be so loud?  How is it that they change so quickly from content, cooing angels with their feet in their hands to irate, screaming banshees with their fists in tight balls?

Is there no other way to signal that they’re hungry or need a diaper change?  Surely God, in His wisdom, would have devised another way if there were one.  But, He didn’t.  So, there must not have been.

I mean, would I have kept the baby on a regular feeding schedule if he simply lay there sleeping peacefully or gazing contently at the ceiling fan?  Sure, I’d probably stare at him a lot, marveling at how cute he was.  But would it occur to me to feed him if he wasn’t causing a scene?  Possibly not.

The baby must do something to get someone’s attention.  To snap a caregiver out of her self-absorbed-ness.  To encourage a parent to…well, parent.

Hear me out…

This scene with my son came to mind recently when I read commentary on 1 Samuel chapters 16 and 17 from the English Standard Version Study Bible.  One sentence got my attention: “God trains David, through suffering, to lead his people”.

My immediate reaction: Wait? What?  Why use suffering?  Wouldn’t something else work?

To suffer is to undergo pain or distress.  To sustain injury.  It might involve anguish.  Suffering is…negative!

How does suffering  – which sounds negative – produce someone who will make a good king, parent, teacher, CEO, writer, leader…

Well, if I didn’t suffer, would I learn as much?  Would I pay attention as closely?  Would I even realize I was supposed to learn something?

If David hadn’t suffered, would he have become a great king?  Would he have been prepared to lead God’s people?

Maybe it is necessary to suffer because it drives us TO God.  As David suffered, he wrote songs that we continue to use to call out to God in our despair or to lift His name in praise.  David’s words have become prayers for millions.

When I struggled as a stay-at-home mom with an infant I couldn’t figure out, I cried.  A LOT.  And in my suffering, I turned back to GodWhom I had been ignoring for nearly a decade.

Would I have done that if everything had been all cute baby giggles?  It’s less likely.  If everything were going well, I wouldn’t have seen a need for God.  I would have thought, “I’m doing awesome at this mother stuff!” and gone about my business.

But people aren’t usually compelled to move or change if life is a bed of roses.

I have found that God uses suffering to move me.  To prompt me.  To inspire me.  To change me.  To point me back to Himself.  To cause me to seek Him.

When I think of it this way, I’m not as bothered by the fact that I will suffer in this life.  If that is the way God, in His sovereignty and providence, has designed life to be, then I will meet it head on and embrace what He teaches me.

*Crossway Books. (2011). Holy Bible: english standard version, study bible. Wheaton, IL.