Friday, November 04, 2016

Letting the Bible Define Its Own Terms

Sometimes we run into a word or phrase in the Bible, and not knowing exactly what it means, we turn to an English dictionary.

Whereas there's nothing wrong with that, the Bible wasn't written originally in English. Maybe we should look at a Bible-language dictionary (Greek/Koine for the New Testament, Hebrew for the Old, mostly).

That's better, but that still introduces the possibility that the word means something different in broader context than in the Biblical context.

Take the word "church", for example. We see the word "church" often in our English translations. (Arguably it's a terrible choice for translating the underlying Greek word "eklessia", but we're pretty much stuck with it since that's the pattern given to us by the KJV translators (by order of the King, by the way, not because it was the best choice).) If we were to look up the word "church" in a modern English dictionary, we'd see it has reference to physical buildings, to the people who assemble in such a building, to the local organization to which those people belong (such as a "congregation"), to the area/nation/world-wide organization to which the local organization belongs (such as a "denomination"), to the universal organization to which the wider organization belongs (the "universal" church), etc. But the usage of the word in the New Testament never refers to a physical building.

This same sort of thing can happen even if we turn to a Bible-language dictionary.

Thus we can see that dictionary definitions of a word don't necessarily match the Biblical usage of that word.

The best method of determining the meaning of a word is to let the Bible's usage of the word determine its meaning.

Here's another, perhaps explosively-debatable, example: "psalm". What is a "psalm"?

If we turn to non-Biblical sources, especially amongst brethren in the Church of Christ, the usual definition is that it at one time, in the Old Testament times, referred to a song accompanied by stringed musical instruments, but by the New Testament times, it simply referred to a song, without necessarily being accompanied by musical instruments, and from there, it is often insisted to mean a song definitely not accompanied by musical instruments.

Well, if you want to use non-Biblical sources as your authority, that's a fine definition. But what if we want to use the Bible as our source of authority for what the word "psalm" means?

In that case, let's just start at the beginning, and see if we can figure it out.

Using the computer web site, I searched for "psalm", using the King James Version. The first hit I found was:
2 Sam 23:1 Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said,
Well, that doesn't tell us much, other than David was a "sweet psalmist". So let's look at the next two hits:
1 Chron 16:7-9 Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the Lord into the hand of Asaph and his brethren. 8 Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people. 9 Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works.
Ah, so now we know a "psalm" is a song, that can be sung to God and that can be used to thank God.

So David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, was a song-writer, who wrote songs of thanks to God.

There are only four more hits in the Old Testament:
Psalm 81:1 Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. 2 Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery.
Psalm 95:1 O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. 2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.
Psalm 98:4 4 Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. 5 Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. 6 With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
Psalm 105:1 O give thanks unto the Lord; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the people. 2 Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works.
Using all the instances of the word "psalm" as found in the scriptures known by Timothy since he was a child (2 Tim 3:15), the word "psalm", as defined by the Bible, is a song of praise and joy and thankfulness to God, usually accompanied by instruments of various sorts.

But while we're here, notice that there's a whole book of psalms here in the Old Testament, 150 of them. (There are also a few other psalms, sometimes duplicates of some of these 150 psalms, scattered throughout the Old Testament in various places.) If we look at the characteristics of these psalms, we can see that sometimes they are not addressed to God, but to one another, such as in Psalm 1, which is simply telling the listener how the Godly are blessed, and the ungodly are not. We see that some do not mention musical instruments, and some do; some of those that don't mention instruments in the psalm itself mention instruments in the headings to the psalm. Some of the psalms are not prayers of praise and thanksgiving to God, but rather appeals to God for help, such as Psalm 3. Some of them are simply heart-rending emotional overflows.

Generally speaking, the Old Testament has defined its own usage of "psalm" as "a prayer or expression of, or an encouragement to, joy, sadness, thankfulness, etc, with God as the focus in some core way, set to music, and accompanied (when ascertainable one way or the other) with various instruments of music".

That is the way the term "psalm" is used in the Old Testament.

What about in the New Testament?

There are only nine hits. Here they are:
Luke 20:42 And David himself saith in the book of Psalms, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand,
Luke 24:44 And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
Acts 1:20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take.
Acts 13:33 God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.
Acts 13:35 Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
1 Cor 14:26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
Eph 5:19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;
Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
Jam 5:13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
In the first five references, "psalm" refers to the book of 150 psalms found in the Old Testament.

In the remaining four references, we're simply told to sing and teach from psalms, without being given any new definition of the term "psalm".

You'll recall that Timothy had been left in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3). You'll also recall that he learned from childhood how the Scriptures used the term "psalm" (2 Tim 3:15). When he read Paul's instruction to teach from and to sing "psalms", do you supposed he understood the word as the Scriptures used the word, or as non-Bible sources understood the word?

When either Paul or James instructs us to sing psalms, do you see them saying "sing psalms, except for the ones you might find already in Scripture"? If they didn't make an exception, who are we to add to their words? Can we not sing Psalm 150 as a congregation this coming Sunday morning? And if we do so, won't we feel weird encouraging each other (as Paul insisted we do) to praise God with the psaltery and harp? But should our comfort-zone be our standard of measure, or should the written word of God be our standard of measure?

Please note that this is not an argument for using instruments in our assemblies; there are reasons why we may not want to do that. But using a non-Biblical definition of the word "psalm", which conflicts with the Biblical definition of the word "psalm", should not be one of those reasons.

Let's let the Bible define its own terms whenever possible, rather than turn to non-Biblical sources, to inform our Christian walk.

Originally published at

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