What is the definition of biblical hermeneutics?
Biblical hermeneutics in short is the study of the principles of interpreting God’s Word (the bible). Hermeneutics is both science and art; an interpreter must view the hermeneutics process, to properly understand God’s Word, which must be conducted within the context of our relationship and total reliance on God.
A Science: Biblical hermeneutics follows certain processes, resulting in an understanding of the text. Through a systematic study, we can find consistency as we seek to understand God’s Word.
An Art: We gain a feel for the significance to ascribe to certain parts of the hermeneutic process, and gain skill in recognizing where our attention will prove to be most beneficial.
What is the purpose of biblical hermeneutics?
The purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to understand what the Scriptures communicated to the original audience and what timeless principles and applications there are for us. We need to understand this to live in line with the truth that God has revealed in His Word.
How can hermeneutics help one grow in his confidence to read/study the Bible?
Hermeneutics helps us know how to interpret Scripture correctly so that we can avoid misapplying its truths to our lives.
Over the years, I’ve seen firsthand how hermeneutics has made a difference in a student’s life. After understanding the hermeneutical process, a person can study the Bible on his own and apply the hermeneutical principles to the text. The student will be able to write out what he understands to be the meaning of the passage, identify what he sees as timeless principles and articulate applications that are relevant to the audience.
Ultimately, it helps people grow in their confidence in the Bible as they see that they can come to solid conclusions on their own instead of relying on commentaries or the thoughts of others every time.
What is the process of hermeneutics?
There are generally four steps of the hermeneutical process – (1) understanding the historical and cultural context, (2) understanding the literary context, (3) making observations, and (4) drawing application. This process can help us approach any text of the Bible as we seek out God’s intended meaning. Hermeneutics should allow God’s Word to speak for itself in its original setting before the interpreter draws any conclusions about how it applies to him in his setting.
please permit me to illustrate the word Hermeneutics this way. I once had a friend do some rewiring for me. First, he installed lengths of tubing through which the wires would pass. Then from box to box, from terminal to terminal, he pulled long lengths of thick, insulated wire. Each length of wire contained three other wires, each well insulated and each a different colour– red, black, and white.
My friend kept those wires separate and paid careful attention to the colour code. He did not indiscriminately link together red and black, white and red, black and white. He proceeded on the simple rule that those wires could be brought together only according to the laws of electricity – red to red, white to white, and black to black. Suppose he had ignored that simple rule and mixed up the three wires. When the power came on, total disaster would have resulted. it is a simple law of writing a building for electricity that such wires be kept separate and that the place and function of each be understood. These are related to the rules of hermeneutics.
THE GOLDEN RULE OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (HERMENEUTICS), is a variation of the Literal Rule, which states that the words used in the text should be read in their natural or common sense.
The book of Psalms
for instance, has many references to Zion. We have no right to read the church into those references. Zion was a well-known stronghold in Jerusalem and was a name often used for the whole city. Prophetic references to Zion refer not to the church but the literal city of Jerusalem. It is true that the writer of Hebrews uses “Zion” in a figurative way, but does so, not to identify the church with Israel but to contrast the two. When interpreting the Bible literally we make obvious allowances for figures of speech.
Some year ago an American business was asked to address a Chinese audience in Taiwan. He was provided with a translator whose familiarity with English idioms was less than adequate the speaker rose to his feet and said, “I’m tickled to death to be here”. A look of agony passed over the face of the interpreter. He shrugged helplessly. Then he announced to the waiting Chinese audience, “This poor man scratches himself to death in other to be here”.
Interpreting a communication literally makes full allowance for poetic utterance and idioms. The rule is to look for the primary, obvious, intended meaning of a passage and to interpret symbols, types, allegories, and figures of speech as we normally would. If someone says “I completely lost my head”, we know what he means. It does not mean he was decapitated; it means he acted without thinking. We must use the same common sense approach when interpreting the Bible.
We interpret culturally, for our intelligent understanding of some part of the Bible we need to know something about the geography and climate of the country and the customs and history of the terms. The Bible was not written in the twentieth century, nor was it written in the words. It was written over 1,500 years in places as far apart as Persia in the East and Rome in the West and it was written by people drawn from many words of life. Moses and Daniel were statesmen. David, Solomon, and Hezekiah were kings. Amos was a cowboy, Joshua was a soldier, Ezra and Ezekiel was a priest, Mathew was a tax collector. Peter and John were fishermen, Luke a doctor, Paul a scholar. The cultural background of Exodus is quite different from that of Hosea. Almost a century separated Jeremiah from Isaiah. During that century a whole new international situation arose. Four hundred turbulent years intervene between Malachi and Mathew. In studying Old Testament histories and prophecies, and the New Testament historical books, some understanding of the times is essential.
We also need to know something about Bible geography, which is rich and varied. We read of mountains, rivers, plains, cities, crops, climate, seasons, vegetation, and animals. A good Bible dictionary can be helpful since it specializes in giving information about these things.
Knowledge of Bible geography will help us, for instance, in understanding psalm 29.
It is a description of a thunderstorm that left a lasting impression on David’s soul. It broke out over the Mediterranean (verses 3-4), and David described the spectacular display of the storm out at sea. Then it swept inland, shaking the mighty cedars of Lebanon and thundering through the ravines of Mount Hermon (Siron) in the north (verse 6). From there the storm moved south over the wilderness of Kadesh (verse 8). Its tremendous reverberations caused calves to be prematurely born. Its wind and rain stripped the forests bare (verse 9). Thus David traces the progress of the storm from its first appearance in the deserts of the south. He then makes observations and draws lessons from the storm.
Or take, for instance, Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39. It is vital to remember that all geography in the Bible takes its centre from Palestine. When we read of a coming invasion from “the uttermost parts of the north,” we understand at once that this is north, not of Pittsburgh or Paris but Palestine.
When we read of “the seven churches of Asia” we don’t think of a handful of churches in India, China, or Japan. Bible geography directs our attention to the Roman Province of Asia Minor, a part of what we now know as Turkey. Many of the incidents in the life of the Lord Jesus can be much better understood, given knowledge of the geography of the Holy Land.
The Holy Land was quite small, as the following table of distance (in modern Israel) shows. The distances are given in miles. See the chart on the following page.
Who would want to study the missionary journeys of Paul without some good Bible maps? (Be sure to see the list of helpful books listed in the Appendix.)
Bible history is just as colourful as Bible geography. The Bible was written against the background of the rise and fall of the great empires. Egypt and Assyria, Babylon and Persia, Greece and Rome all match across its pages. Canaan and Syria, Moab and Edom, Ammon, Philistia, and Arabia all come and go, Jerusalem, Gaza, Damascus and many other cities crowd their pages.
Draw a circle with a radius of 900 miles, with Jerusalem as its centre, and you will encompass Athens, Istanbul, Antioch, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Alexandria, Cairo, and Mecca. You will also encompass the area in which most of the western civilization arose. from Jerusalem to Egypt is only about 300 miles to Assyria or Babylon, about 700 miles to Persia about 1,00 miles to Greece about 800, and to Rome about 1,500 miles, Jerusalem lay on the line of march for the great imperial powers of antiquity. No wonder its history has been so turbulent. It had been besieged scores of times and taken and sacked again and again.
The Mount of Olives stands just a little higher than Jerusalem and serves to screen the city from the wilderness that falls away to the Dead Sea. Jerusalem itself stands 2,500 feet above sea level while the Dead Sea lies 1,200 feet below sea level. Thus, going down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea can be lying on the streets of Jerusalem while twenty-five miles away at Jericho it can be hot. Jericho is not far from the Dead Sea. We can see the literal truth of the man in the Lord’s story that “went down” from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Jordan valley is part of a great rift system in the earth’s crust and it remains hot all year around.
In Scripture, we read of “Dan to Beersheba” as being the extremities of the land in historic Bible times. We think of it as a vast distance. It is less than a day’s drive. It is just seventy-five miles from Jerusalem. From Nazareth to Capernaum is barely twenty-five miles. When David stood with his sheep on the Judea hills around Jerusalem he could see the country of the Philistines only twenty miles to the west. All Palestinian Old Testament history took place in a country smaller than Wales or the Scottish highlands.
The great Plain of Esdraelon, where the battle of Armageddon will take place, is a fertile valley filled with greenery and farms. Many an ancient army marched across that fateful field. The armies of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon tramped across it. Somewhere there Barak won his victory over Sierra and his nine hundred chariots of iron. There good King Josiah met his death trying to halt an Egyptian invasion of his land. On the hills that gaze down on it. King Saul crept furtively to meet a witch. Naboth’s vineyard was not far from that great plain. The Carmel range, where Elijah smote the prophets of Baal, rises from the extremity of that far-thing area.
Nazareth itself, not far away, was a kind of great divide, not only between north and south, Judea and Galilee, but between the Old Testament and the New Testament and the new Nazareth, geographically, is a frontier town, the bridge between two worlds. It was the place where the final traveller said a final “farewell” to Judea and “hello” to Galilee when going north, and the opposite when going south. To the south was exclusive, aristocratic, formal Jerusalem. To the north was Galilee of the Gentiles, with the Roman military road from Syria and old trade routes from the distant East.
Turning eastward one went past Cana and on again into the hills, past a saddle-shaped hill in later times called the Horns of Hattin, where Saladin broke crusader power in Palestine. Then travellers caught their first sight of the Sea of Galilee, a thousand feet below, with the winding Jordan River snaking into it at one end and twisting and turning out of it again at the other. The Sea of Galilee itself is some 700 feet below sea level. It is heart-shaped, thirteen miles long, and about 7 miles across at its widest part. It is rimmed around by mountains whose heads stand in a temperate zone and whose feet are in the subtropics where bananas, palms, and bamboos can grow. Far to the north Mount Harmon raises its snow-capped peak.
In Jesus’ day hills around the lake were clothed with trees. Aqueducts provided irrigation. The western shore was a chain of populous villages and towns with green gardens, busy markets, thriving wharves, and humming light industries.
The chief town was Tiberius, a centre of Roman life that Jesus never visited (as far as we know). There Greeks and Romans rubbed shoulders with native Galileans. The splendid Herodian palace was there, with its Greek sculptures that offended the sensibilities of orthodox Jews. There, too, was an amphitheatre and theatres where one could watch performances of travelling entertainers or watch gladiators fight, as though it were Rome itself.
Capernaum, where Jesus made his home, was only ten miles from Roman Tiberius with its baths and famous spa. Across the lake, the wide Gergesene hills crowded down to the shore.
This was where Jesus lives, where Romans Soldiers matched, where Greek merchants flourished, where Phoenicians spread their exotic wares from distant lands across the sea, where caravans halted from the east, where soldiers and camp followers rubbed shoulders with gladiators and entertainers, where Jew and Gentile met in uneasy contact. Jesus chose to live not in the theological centre of Jerusalem, not among the ascetic essences in the wilderness, not even in prim but dubious Nazareth, but in bustling Capernaum where people from many lands crossed and re-crossed in their journeying.
The Sea of Galilee, usually placid and still as a mirror, is subject to sudden, violent storms that churn the lake into massive waves quite able to swamp small boats on their surface. The reason can be found in the surrounding hills. Westerly wings come swooping over the high land, come howling down to the lake through scores of gorges and valleys, and then emerge like so many furies on the low lying water. As a result, the Sea of Galilee can be calm one moment and raging the next.
When the lake is calm it has another property, utilised by the Lord Jesus when addressing the great crowds that thronged its shores to hear him speak. He would have the thousands of people sit on the slopes while he either stood at the water’s edge with his back to the lake, facing the crowd or else sat near the shore in a boat. He would not need to raise his voice. He would speak in a conversational tone and the lake behind him, acting as a natural sounding board, picked up his voice, amplified it, and cast it up the slopes ahead. I once addressed a group of men in this way, near Capernaum where the Lord did so much of His teaching. The men sat a fair way off where they could not normally have heard someone speaking in an ordinary talking voice. But they heard every word I said as I read to them, in a dinner-table tone of voice, the story of the sower who went forth to sow. The lake was the lord’s microphone and amplifier, designed by and for Him when He created the world.
There can be no doubt that knowledge of Bible geography lends colour and realism to our understanding of the books.
Knowledge of the history and political intrigues of the times, of ancient kings and their campaigns, and the political structure of nations in Bible days is also helpful in understanding some parts of the Bible. Daniel 11 is practically unintelligible apart from knowledge of the Grecian empire. The more we know about the history of Bible times the better equipped we shall be to detect some of the nuances in the text. For example, what light it sheds on the grandfather. (Be sure to examine the synopsis of Bible history given at the end of this book.)
Knowledge of Bible customs is as important as knowledge of Bible history and geography. Anthropologists divide a people’s culture into material culture and social culture and social culture. Such things as tools, houses, weapons, clothing and utensils make up a people’s material culture. Customs and practices, rites, and ceremonies, religious customs, economic matters, and politics make up a people’s social culture. Some would be perfectly understood by those to whom the Bible was originally addressed.
When the Lord gave His disciples instructions for locating a room in which to celebrate His last Passover, He told them to follow a man “bearing a pitcher of water” (mark 14:13). Since only women generally did such work, the instructions were specific indeed. It would be uncommon to see a man performing that particular function in that day and age.
In Mathew 10:8-10 we read that the Lord sent out His disciples to “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils.” He told them how they were to operate: “freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither Gold nor Silver, nor brass in your purses: Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes nor yet staves” (see also mark 6:8-9; Luke 9:3). The Greek word for “scrip” is para. From a study of the papyri (documents of all kinds from classical and Biblical Greek times: letters, contracts, accounts, receipts, school work, stories, bills of sale, etc.) we learn what a scrip was. It was a beggar’s collecting bag (not a bag filled with provisions to sustain them on their mission.) wandering priests from heathen shrines would carry begging bags collecting money for the shrine. The Lord tells His disciples that they are not to earn money. Neither are they to beg. The one who commissioned them would take care of all their needs.
These and similar cultural highlights add greatly to our understanding of the Bible.
We interpret grammatically.
Because of that, some knowledge of the languages in which the Bible was written is desirable. Translations of the Bible can be helpful, but a translation, no matter how careful its translators have been, is still a translation. Something is always lost when a message is translated from one language into another. With the help of a good lexicon and several reputable volumes on Bible words, however, individuals who do not know Hebrew and Greek can overcome their handicap to some extent at least as far as determining the etymology and meaning of words is concerned. Syntax (word arrangement), of course, is another matter.
God has communicated His mind to men in words, and the words He uses are all vitally important. He does not use them arbitrarily but with the most careful precision. Take, for instance, the word so often translated as “hell” in our Bible. It comes from a Greek word, hades, which literally means “invisible.” It thus denotes the invisible place, the abode of departed spirits. But other words are translated similarly in our Bible. Sheol, Gehenna, and Tartarus, for example, all refer to the invisible world. Students need to know exactly which word they are dealing with and in what sense the word is used in the passage being studied.
Knowledge of the original words of the Bible.
Knowledge of the original words of the Bible can enrich one’s understanding of the scriptures. Take for instance the word translated “transformed” in 2Cor. 11:13-14. The passage reads: “for such a false Apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light”. The word translated “transformed” is Metaschematizo, and it means “to the change the outward figure, to utter the shape, to utter one’s bearing, look, or manner”. It carries the idea of taking on an outward expression that does not truly reflect inner nature. Kenneth Wuest, who has done much to popularize and explain the Greek New Testament for the average English reader, says that the English word “masquerade” exactly conveys the sense of the word. When Satan fell, he became an angel of darkness, but he masquerades as an angel of light. It is no wonder, Paul says, that false apostle masquerades as apostles of Christ.
The syntax requires a more thorough knowledge of the original languages than etymology. The arrangement of words in a sentence, at least in part, determines word usage. We arrange words in sentences to convey complete ideas. The diligent students must either become proficient in the original languages or else seek competent help in determining matters relating to the syntax of the sentences under study. (Obviously, not everyone can be a grammarian or philologist-and, after all, much of the Bible can be adequately interpreted without recourse to original languages-so no one should be discouraged at having to get such help).
One example, however, will suffice to show how valuable the grammatical interpretation of the scripture can be. In Hebrews 1:1-2 we read that “God, who are sundry times and in divers manner spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in this last days spoken unto us by his son”. The verb “spake” aorist participle and should be rendered: “God having spoken”. The verb “hath spoken” is an aorist indicative. The grammarian would understand from this that God began to speak in the Old Testament but he did not speak all his mind. In Christ, however, God has finally finished what he had to say.
Since the meaning of words is determined by the context in which they are found, attention must always be paid to the context. Take, for example, the much-abused statement: “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2Peter 1:20). In the past, the Roman Catholic church has used that verse to bolster its position that Bible interpretation is the function of the church, not of individuals, and that the Bible can be interpreted only according to “the unanimous consent of the fathers”.
What does 2Peter 1:20 say? How are we to understand the phrase, “private interpretation”? The word “private is idioms, which occurs about 114 times in the Bible and is nearly always translated as “it’s own”. Not once is it translated “private” except here. The word interpretation is epiclesis which means “to lose,” “to solve, “to explain”. The context gives the sense. The next verse says, “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”. (verse 21). In other words, the writers of scripture did not put their construction on the God-breathed words they wrote. The reference in 2Peter 1:20 is not so much to the way we interpret a passage of scripture as to the way the writers handled it. It refers to the process of inspiration rather than to the problems of interpretation. The context makes that clear.
Most of us, in ordinary writing and conversation, do not try to hide what we want to communicate. We say, as plainly as we know how, just exactly what we wish to convey. God also does that. We should apply the same laws of language to the Bible that we apply to the words of Shakespeare or Einstein or the fellow next door.
Since the grammatical principle of interpretation is so important, the next two chapters in this handbook are devoted to explaining it further and giving additional examples.
STUDYING THE WORDS OF SCRIPTURE
The very word of the Bible, in the original languages and autographed documents, are “God-breathed”. That is why are seeking to find precisely what it is that God has said we should go back to the original Hebrew and Greek languages and the purest text available.
This handbook is designed to help men and women who are unable to do that. True, those who cannot read Hebrew and Greek always suffer a measure of deprivation in expounding the scripture. But that in itself is not an insurmountable handicap. Diligent students of the English Bible today have numerous help available to them. Besides various translations (of differing degrees of usefulness and reliability) and all kinds of critical commentaries, we can resort to lexicons and to specialized works that concentrate on the original Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible. (Be sure to see the listing of some of these at the end of this handbook).
Three bits of help are essential:
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
Gesenius’s Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament scriptures
With those three books, supplemented by W.E. vine’s expository dictionary of New Testament words (be sure to get the edition published by Thomas Nelson, which has a corresponding dictionary of the Old Testament words) and by W.E. Bullinger’s critical lexicon, the diligent students can acquire a passable degree of proficiency in the vocabulary of the Bible.
The three primary words mentioned above open up a wealth of information about the origin of any word used in the Kings James Bible. This is because in strong’s concordance every word in the English Bible is keyed to the lexicon at the back of the concordance and because the Thayer and the Gesenius lexicon are keyed to the same number system. For half an hour we the King James Bible and these three tools should convince anyone of the value and helpfulness of such of study.
Take, for instance, the word love in the King James Bible. Supposing you were reading in John 21 the Lord’s post-resurrection challenge to Peter: “so, when they have dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, Son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love you…” (Verse 15). From strong’s concordance, you discovered that these two words for love are not the same word in Greek. You find the word lovest and run your eyes down the column until you come to John 21:15. You find at the end of the line the number 25. You make a note of it. You look up the word love and again run your eye down the column until you come to John 21:15. At the end of the line is the number 5368. The difference in the number alerts you at once to the fact that you are dealing here with two different words for love in the same Bible verse.
Now you turn to the Greek dictionary at the back of the concordance, to the second section that deals with Greek words. You look up the number 25 and discover that the word lovest comes from the Greek word Agape. You look up the number 5368 and discovered that Peter’s word for love was filed. Moreover, strong’s lexicon gives a brief comment on each of these Greek words, indicating the significance of the particular word. As we shall see in a moment, this comment can sometimes be amplified by the use of other lexicons.
When the Lord used the word agape He was asking Peter if he loved Him with deep love, a spiritual love, a divine love, (see John 14:21), the love that the law demands (Luke 10:27), the kind of love that took Jesus to Calvary.
Peter, with a much better knowledge of himself now than he had displayed when he had boasted that, although all the other disciples might betray the Lord, he never would, dared not to use the Lord’s word for love. He used the word phileo. “Yea, Lord: thou knowest I am fond of you, I have affection for you.”
The third time the Lord asked Peter that same question He used Peter’s word for love: “He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (phileo) thou me?”(verse 17). Even then, Peter did not dare to use the higher word for love. In effect, he said, “Lord you know I can never, never love you as much as you love me, but I love you as much as my poor human heart is capable. You know that, Lord.”
In many cases, further commentary on a given Greek word can be found in Thayer’s lexicon. You just take the number of the word from strong’s concordance, look up that number in Thayer, and see what added light the lexicon sheds on the word. The same is true of the Hebrew words of the Old Testament. The Gesenius lexicon gives further commentary.
In addition, the numbering system in strong’s concordance enables you to see where else a given Greek or Hebrew word is used in the Bible. Take peter’s word, phileo. By noting all the other places where the number 5368 occurs at the end of the lines under “love’ (and its cognates) you can compare Peter’s use of the word with other uses of the word in the Greek New Testament. You can also see how frequently or how seldom a given word occurs in the original text of the Bible.
I am now going to give two extended word studies to show the value of giving this kind of attention to the words of the scripture.
For our first example, let us take the words for sin In the Hebrew Old Testament.
In the English language, several words are synonyms for sin: iniquity, wickedness, evil, and so on. We tend to use these words carelessly.
The Hebrews of the Old Testament have about a dozen words for sin, which the Holy Spirit uses with great precision. Each word is chosen to express a specific shade of meaning. Working knowledge of this word and how it is used is helpful to a proper understanding of what God thinks and says about human wrongdoing. In this study, we are going to look at these words and see how the Spirit of God employs them.
The word chata is the usual word in the Old Testament for sin. It means “to miss the mark”. The word is used in a different but illuminating way in connection with certain warriors of the Tribe of Benjamin. The Spirit of God says of these people that they could “sling stones at a hairbreadth and not miss” (judges 2016). The word for “miss” is chata, the usual word for sin. Sin, then, is a matter of missing the mark.
God has set up a target. That target is his word. He says to us, “that is my moral standard. You aim at that”. The idea behind the word chata is that of failing to hit the target. It does not necessarily imply willful sin, although of course it often does. We first meet this word in Genesis 4:7 in connection with Cain. He had brought what he considered to be a worthy offering to God, the work of his hands, over which he had laboured long and had. God turned it down because it failed to take Cain’s need for forgiveness into account. Cain was furious. God said, “if thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well sin, (chata) lieth at door”. Then Cain’s religion was a sin. It means the mark.
We have the same thing in connection with the Kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. One refrain is repeated more than twenty times in the books of Kings. It says of them that they work in the sins of Jeroboam “who made Israel sin”. The first occurrence is in 1Kings 14:16. The word for Jeroboam’s sin chata. He made Israel miss the mark. He did this by setting up a false religious system. That is the trouble with mere religion. It causes people to miss the mark and missing the mark is an Old Testament synonym for sin.
The word asham means “to trespass”. It carries with it the idea of sinning through ignorance or by mistake. The word is frequently used in connection with the trespass offering (Leviticus 5:5-6 and elsewhere). The idea behind asham is that of breaking one of God’s commandments through ignorance. Even though one was ignorant he was still guilty. Ignorance is legally no excuse. When one became aware of his trespass he had to make amends.
We are far too concerned with numbers. When David made up his mind to take a national census of his people, he did it with pride and self-will and without regard to what the law of God said about numbering God’s people. Joab, usually a self-seeking opportunist, was right for once. He said, “The Lord make his people a hundred times so many more as they are, but my Lord the King, are they not all my Lord servants? Why then doth my Lord require this thing? Why will he cause trespass (asham) in Israel”? (1Chronicles 21:3). God did not want His people numbered just as a matter of publicity and pride. David went ahead and did it anyway-with terrible results. In the confession of what he had done, David used the other word (chata). He said, “I have sinned greatly” (verse 8). He had missed the mark. The amends he had to make was costly indeed. As the rest of the story shows.
We have fuzzy ideas about sin. We sin against God and his standards without even knowing we have done so. But God does not excuse us on that ground. Sins of ignorance are just as serious in the sight as any other kind of sin. Thus we find in Isaiah 53:10 that God says of the Lord Jesus, “thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin (asham)”. Some sins are committed in ignorance, but Jesus had to pay for those sins, too, at infinite cost.
The word Aven carries with it the idea of iniquity. When David confessed to the Lord his guilty in numbering Israel, he not only used the word for missing the mark, he used the word, Aven. “I have sinned (chata) greatly because I have done this thing: but now, I beseech thee, do away with the iniquity (Aven) of thy servant” (1chronicles 21:8). He used the word that connotes perverseness.
In the Old Testament, this word is often used in connection with idolatry. In 1 king 12:28-33, we have a classic example. Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom, was determined to keep his people away from Jerusalem and the temple. He set up a rival religion. He built two shrines, the principal one at Bethel, a place of hallowed memories in Hebrew history. There he set up a golden calf. To be worshipped by the people. It became a snare which led eventually to the complete ruin of the kingdom. The name Bethel means “the house of God.” the prophet Hosea changed the name from Bethel to BeyhAven, “the house of iniquity” (Hosea 4:15).
In its general usage in the Old Testament, Aven signifies not so much a breach of God’s law as the general outflow of fallen human nature in bad behaviour. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. I do what I do because I am what I am. The word comes from a root meaning “to pant” or to exert one’s self in vain. It often carries with it the idea of vanity. So much human thinking and activity are vain from God’s point of view-worthless, coming to nought.
The word Avon is often translated as “iniquity” in the Old Testament. It means “to be bent,” or to be crooked. It describes all the wrongness, the bentness, of fallen human nature. It stands for what we are by nature, for our natural perverseness. That condition is something never wholly eradicated from our nature in this life.
After David’s terrible sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband, followed by weeks of stubborn hypocrisy and the arrogant pretence that he had done no wrong when finally the prophet Nathan came to him with God’s message of wrath, David fell on his knees. From his heart poured the terrible confession of Palm 32. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered, blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputed not “iniquity” (verse 1-2). David used three Hebrew words to describe his guilt. He called it transgression. The word is pasha, which means rebellion. We have not met this word yet. David’s sin was an act of high-handed rebellion against God. He also called it to sin (chata). His sin was a terrible missing of the mark. He had fallen far, far short of the glory of God. He also called it iniquity (Avon), an act of perversion. It was an expression of the bentness of his nature, an exhibition of the ingrained wrongness of his being.
The word Avon is first used in Genesis 15:16, where God, having to pledge the Promised Land to Abraham, told him that, although the title deeds were now his, actual possession of the property would be postponed for some time: “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full,” He said. The word there is Avon. The bentness, the perversions of the Amorites, was not yet overflowing the cup of God’s patience. Their idolatries and immoralities still had some way to go.
This word is used again to describe the horrible vileness of the people of Sodom with their perverted lifestyle which called for the vengeance of God. “And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife and thy two daughters who are here, lest thou be consumed in the iniquity (Avon) of the city” (Genesis 19:15). The bentness or perversions of Sodom called for the vengeance of eternal fire. God was about to rain hell from heaven upon that city. He uses the word Avon to describe its homosexual society.
The word is used by Shimei when confessing his sin to David. When David fled from Absalom, this wicked man gave free vent to the warped, bent, and twisted thoughts of his heart in vile oaths and curses against the Lord’s anointed. When David came back, Shimei was desperately afraid for having thus given full rein to his wickedness. “Let not my lord impute iniquity (Avon) unto me,” he said (2 Samuel 19:19). People who oppose Christ reveal the same warp in their character.
The word is used in Leviticus 16:21 in connection with the days of Atonement. On that day a goat was taken, and over its head was confessed all the guilt of the nation of Israel. “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat [both his hands for solemnity-and only here on this occasion], and confess over him all the iniquities (Avon)… and transgressions [the word pasha used by David in describing his rebellion] in all their sins (Chata), putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness.” Aaron used the three words that David used. The one that was first and foremost, however, was Avon-it was the incurable bentness of their human nature that first had to be confessed.
The word amal
carries with it the idea of trouble, labour, and toil. It depicts the burden of sin: the trouble it causes and how grievous it is. This word is infrequent in the Old Testament and is translated in several ways.
Solomon, at the end of his misspent, wasted life, looking back over his follies and failures, wishing he could have his days to live over again, aware that he had lived for the wrong world, used this word. He used it in Ecclesiastes a dozen times in swift succession. He said, “therefore, I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour (āmāl) which I had taken under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:17-18). The word for labour can be made synonymous with sin. The great undertakings, the magnificent works he had wrought in Jerusalem, all at the expense of oppression and sweated labour, added up to āmāl, sin. No matter how magnificent and spectacular the result might seem to others, in his secret soul Solomon, now that he was at the end of life, summed it all up as sin. What greater tragedy could one face than that? To realize that everything for which we have worked so hard adds up to sin because God has been left put.
Solomon uses the same word later. He says,” And this is a sore evil [here he uses a word we shall look at later, a word meaning “wicked” or “injurious”, which carries the idea of obscenity and depravity], that in all points, as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured (āmāl) for the wind?” (Ecclesiastes 5:16). Solomon sees life as obscene when people invest all their time, talents, and treasures seeking things that are empty and impossible to hold once they are attained. That is his assessment of his own life, so wretchedly wasted on the wrong world.
The word āmāl was thrown in the face of poor old Job by Eliphaz in his second address (job 15:35). He put it in the third person, but he meant Job. He said, “They conceive mischief (āmāl) and bring forth vanity.”He was comparing Job with the hypocrites. He was saying that the terrible burdens now placed on Job by God were placed on him because he deserved them. His sin had found him out. While pretending to be good he had been a hypocrite. Now mischief (āmāl) had come home to roost-so it served him right.
That was a terrible thing to say to a man whose integrity was the talk of heaven. Job’s helpfulness to one and all, his generosity, kindness, and concern for the needy were beyond question. Few people have lived so free of all that the word āmāl implies as Job had.
The word āval means “unjust”. It epitomizes the unfairness, deceitfulness, innate dishonesty, and unrighteousness of sin. Solomon used the word when he wrote, “An unjust (āval) man is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 29:27). If we cheat someone or deceive someone or tell a lie, our behaviour falls under the lash of this word.
Moses used the word in demanding the strict enforcement of justice in Israel. “Ye shall do no unrighteousness (āval) in judgment” (Leviticus 19:15,35). He illustrated this in demanding that no judge discriminate against the poor or be deferential to the mighty and that no businessman use false weights and measures in conducting his affairs.
The word ābar
literally means “to go beyond”. It carries with it the idea of transgression. David uses this word to describe sins of the tongue, “I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress (ābar)” (Psalm 17:3). In no area of life are we more prone to go beyond prudent limits, to go beyond what is kind, true, and necessary, than in our speech, it is a fearful thought that Jesus solemnly said that “every idle word that men shall speak they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment?”
The prophet Hosea, looking out on an apostate land and aware that the Assyrian army would soon be used as God’s instrument of chastisement, said that Israel had “transgressed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7,8:1). They had gone too far. They had crossed that hidden boundary line between God’s mercy and His wrath.
The word rāa means “wicked” or injurious”. It carries the idea of breaking up all that is good and desirable in life. It is often used “to depict corruption, lewdness, and depravity. It occurs frequently in the psalms. In Greek, an equivalent word is ponderous (from this word we get our word pornography). In King James’ text it is sometimes translated as “naughty,” a wholly inadequate way to render the word.
We find rāa used this way, for instance, by Eliab, David’s elder brother. When David arrived at the front, sent there by his father, and heard the boasting of Goliath, he expressed astonishment that nobody in Israel dared to fight the giant. David’s older brother maliciously said, “I know thy pride and the naughtiness (rāa, the lewdness) of the heart” (1Samuel 17:28).
Eliab was jealous of his younger brother, who had been anointed by Samuel to be Israel’s next king. His criticism of David was slanderous.
Solomon used the word in an interesting way in describing the way bargaining was carried on in an eastern market. “it is nought, (rāa) saith the buyer, but when he is gone his way, then he boasteth” (Proverbs 20:14). We can easily picture the scene. We can see the buyer looking over the merchandise offered to him for sale. “Bad, very bad,” he says, shaking his head and deprecating the worth of the article in question. He used the strongest word he can think of to downgrade his worth, (rā a). But once the bargain his bee stuck he sings another song.
Then there is that famous statement of Jeremiah which so forcefully illustrates how the Elizabethan English of the King James Version has changed with the passing of the centuries. Describing Israel under the symbolism of figs the prophet had seen in the basket, he calls them “naughty” (rā a) figs. The word rā a, in this case, indicates that the figs were rotten, a fitting symbol for an apostate nation that was rotten to the core.
The word pasha
means “to revolt” or “rebellion.” It speaks of sin as an act of rebellion against lawful authority. In several of his penitential psalms, David uses this word. He uses it, for instance, in Psalm 51:1, “Blot out my transgressions (pasha) Thy ways” (verse 13). David’s adultery and his assassination of Uriah broke God’s laws high-handedly. Nowadays we tend to look at immorality as something excusable, something our society tolerates and permits. God labels it a rebellion against His authority. He warns that it never goes unpunished.
In one powerful passage, the prophet records God’s lament over Israel’s continued neglect of Him. He says that Israel was weary of Him. And – He was weary of them. Then, against a sad catalogue of Israel’s sins of indifference, God says, “I, even I, am He that blotted out thy transgressions (pasha, their rebellion) for my own sake, and I will not remember thy sins (chat, missing the mark)| (Isaiah 43:25). What a revelation that is of God’s motive in foreigners. Our rebellion, our utter inability to reach the mark, He has set them away by God for His own sake. He does it to meet some deep need within His character as a God of compassion and love.
The word Rasha
means “wickedness.” It describes the restless, unceasing working of our fallen human nature. In his first lament over his losses, bereavements, and terrible physical affliction, Job regretted that he had not died in childbirth. He would then be in the land, he said, where “the wicked (Rasha) cause from troubling” (Job 3:17).
In one of his greatest prophecies (Isaiah 53) the prophet Isaiah strikingly used Rasha. Foretelling what people would do with the body of the Lord Jesus, he said, “And He made His grave with the wicked” (Isaiah 53:9). Or, as that can be rephrased, “One [or they] made [appointed, assigned]. The idea is that they gave him a grave with criminals. It was a final indignity that the authorities planned for the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel. They were going to dump His body in a common grave or else throw it into the fires of Gehinnom. However, they reckoned without God and without Joseph of Arimethea, who saw to it that He was honourably interred with the rich.
Another well-known use of this word is also by the prophet Isaiah. “The wicked (Rasha) are like the troubled sea when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked (Rasha)” (Isaiah 57:20-21). So we see here that the underlying thought behind this concept of sin is restlessness. Whatever else the wicked man has, he does not have rest or peace.
The wordmāal carries with it the thought of treachery, of unfaithfulness. It is the word used to describe a breach of trust or the breaking of a contract. It is used for the sin of committing an offence against “the holy things of the Lord” (Leviticus 5:15). The word is used for unfaithfulness to the covenant. In warning Israel of the penalties that would follow if they broke His covenant, God said, “And they that are left of you shall pine away in their iniquity (Avon, their bentness, and innate crookedness) in your enemies lands…… and if they shall confess….. the iniquity (Avon) of their fathers, with their trespass (māal, treachery) which they trespassed (māal)…….. then will I remember my covenant……..” (Leviticus 26:39-42). In other words, a sin is an act of high treason against the throne of God. it brings about an annulment of God’s promises.
The word is used in connection with marital unfaithfulness. “if any man’s wife goes aside and commits a trespass (māal) against him,“ is the way the Law puts it (Numbers 5:12). Adultery is an act of treachery.
Moses was kept out of the Promised Land for something he did at Meribah God tell him to speak to the rock so that the living waters might flow for Israel. Once before he had been told to smite the rock. This time he was to speak to it. Moses however, lost his temper with the children of Israel and, instead of speaking to the rock, he smote it. In recounting the incident to Israel and God’s severe displeasure with him, he tells how God told him to prepare for death. “Because ye trespassed (māal) against Me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh” (Deuteronomy 32:51).
What was so serious about this act of treachery? The rock had been smitten once. It was not to be smitten again. He need only speaks to it now. The rock symbolized Christ. The Lord was only to be smitten once. Calvary was never to be repeated in the history of the universe. Only once would God smite His Son. All we need to do now to secure the blessing s to speak to Him. For Moses to smite the rock a second time was a serious offence, an act of high treason against the truth of God. it cost him his life and exclusion from the Promised Land at that time.
The same word is used in connection with the sin of Achan. God had declared that all the spoils of Jericho were to be His. It was the first fruit of a life of victory. Achan, however, stole some of the spoils. Later when Israel fought against, all they were defeated, and when Joshua asked God for the reason, God uncovered Achan’s sin. The Holy Spirit, in recording the incident, says, “But the children of Israel committed a trespass (maal) in the accursed thing” (Joshua 7:1). Achan’s sin was an act of high treason against the law of God and against those principles of trust and obedience that made it possible for God’s people to live in victory. He paid a high price for his treachery. Sin is a serious business.
The word shāgag is used to describe sin and acts of imprudence, of rashness-the result of being deceived. It is not used to describe willful sin. Shāgag is used to describe the kinds of sins people commit when they are carried away in the heat of passion or when they are drunk. Such sins are distinguished from sins of presumption, sins deliberately and flagrantly committed.
In Numbers 15:28 this word is used to describe a sin committed in ignorance. “And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth (shāgag) ignorantly.” Even though we might sin rashly, as the result of being deceived, or as a result of hot passion, it is still sin. We are still culpable. It still has to be atoned for.
The author of Psalm 119 uses this word on several occasions. He prays, “O let me not wander (shāgag) from Thy commandments” (Psalm 119:10). He says, “Thou has rebuked the proud that are cursed which do err (shāgag) from Thy commandments” (Psalm 119:21).
So there we have it: twelve words to describe all shades and varieties of sin. Sin is missing the mark and coming shore of the glory of God. sin as a trespass, as something done ignorantly. Sin as expressing the perverseness, bentness, and crookedness of fallen human nature. Sin in the light of all the trouble it causes others. A sin is an act of injustice and deceitfulness. Sin is going beyond the limit set by God. Sin as moral depravity, corruption, lewdness, a breaking up of all that is good-sin as pornography and perversion. Sin is a high-handed revolt and rebellion against God. Sin as the wickedness-the restless working of our fallen nature. A sin is an act of treachery against God or other human beings. Sin as a result of passion, as a result of imprudence, as a result of being deceived. Sin in all its cumulative horror. No wonder we need a Saviour.
These are the Old Testament words for sin. The New Testament has an equally rich and versatile vocabulary for human wrongdoing:
–harmattan, missing the mark
-paraploma, falling aside
-Zonaria, moral depravity
-Kakos, vicious desire.
-anonymous, contempt for the law.
-others, deliberate assault on all divine and human restraints to indulge one’s evil desires.
-Iberia, is impious, describing those who have no fear of God and no reverence for holy things.
-apatheia, unwilling to be persuaded, or just plain obstinate.
-para kore, disobedience, or the refusal to listen.
-parenchyma, to neglect, to go past.
-parabens, to violate, or to overstep the mark.
-alike, wrongdoing, unrighteousness.
-paranamia, to defy law or customs.
-planar, causing someone to go astray (literally, to wander) used particularly to describe doctrinal error and deceit of a religious nature.
-ostriches, to deviate.
-Herrema, to give less than full measure.
With a good concordance and lexicon, the careful student can compile scores of examples of the use of these words. With a dozen Old Testament words and about two dozen New Testament words, the Holy Spirit has given us a vivid and dreadful picture of the damage done to the human soul by sin.
Now let us look at what the Holy Spirit says about the unseen world. A careful examination of the words used in the original text, by the Holy Spirit, is essential if we are to make headway in understanding exactly what it is He has revealed to us about the unseen world. Several Hebrew and Greek words unfold for us the mysteries that lie beyond the tomb. In this study, we are going to examine them with care.
The first word is:
The word Sheol is found 65 times in the Old Testament. It is translated in various ways in the King James Version: as “hell,” 31 times as “grave,” 31 times, as “the pit,” 3 times.
The basic idea behind the word Sheol is “the grave,” the grave as distinguished from a grave or burying place. In Hebrew the words Geber and bor are used to depict the tomb, not Sheol. Diligent students will be greatly helped by taking a good concordance, one that gives the Hebrew words, finding every passage where Sheol is mentioned, and writing the word Sheol alongside whatever English word is used in all 65 places.
The corresponding Greek word for Sheol is haded. We learn this from Acts 2:27,32 where the Holy Spirit used the word hades to translate the word Sheol when quoting from Psalm 16:10. It is made up of the Greek stem id (which means “to see”) with the prefix an in front of it. The two make up a composite word that literally means “the unseen.” In other words, hades have reference to the unseen world. It occurs 11 times in the New Testament and is rendered “hell” on all but one occasion. The exception is in 1Corinthians 15:55, where it is rendered “grave” with a marginal reading “hell.”
Again, it would be a good idea, using a suitable concordance, to mark all the hades in your Bible. Where the context makes it clear that hades refer to the abode of human beings in the unseen world. It is best not to try to translate the word into “hell” but simply to transliterate it and let it stand as hades. Where the context would indicate that the word refers to the unseen world as a whole (not just the place of departed human beings) it would probably be best to translate it as “the unseen world.” This occurs in two places.
1. Mathew 16:18, where the passage could be rendered “the gates [counsels] of the unseen world shall not prevail against it [the Church].” The gate, of course, was the place where business was transacted in a Mideastern city and the rulers of the unseen world cannot prevail against His Church.
2. Revelation 1:18, where the Lord announced, I …….. have the keys of death and the unseen world.”
Where is Sheol or hades? In Old Testament times the abode of the dead is referred to as being in a downward direction. Thus, for instance, when the witch of Endor was asked by King Saul to summon Samuel back from the dead, he said, “Bring him up to me.” When much to the dismay of the witch (who was expecting her familiar spirit to do one of his impersonations) Samuel did appear, the outraged prophet demanded of Saul, “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” (1Samuel 28:8,11,15). Then, too Paul says of the Lord Jesus that, at death, He descended into “the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9). At death, the soul of the Lord Jesus went downward. We can compare Psalm 16:10 with Acts 2:27 for confirmations of the fact that the Lord’s soul went to Sheol (hades).
The story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) tells us a great deal about hades. In the days when He lived on earth, Hades was divided into two sections, one divided from the other by an impassable gulf. The soul of the rich man went to one section: the soul of Lazarus went to the other section. Between them stood the Great Divide. The angel carried the soul of Lazarus to his resting place. We are not told how the rich man ended up in a place of torment. All that is mentioned is his burial, doubtless impressive enough on earth.
In his disembodied state, Lazarus was in what Jesus called “Abraham’s bosom.” That is a Hebrew idiom. It signifies a place of rest, fellowship, happiness, comfort, love, and security. The poor beggar was now consciously happy and content. Things he had craved and been denied on earth were now his.
The rich man, however, was in what Jesus called, a “place of torment.” He cried out in his agony, “I am tormented in this flame.” Moreover, he was anxious that his brothers “come not into this place of torment,” as he put it (Luke 16:24-28). Much more can be learned about this place by carefully studying the whole story in Luke 16. The rich man was dead but he was still alive. Death had served him from his body but not from his consciousness. He was lost, tormented, beyond hope or help, aware that he was where he deserved to be and could look for no relief.
When the Lord Jesus hung on the cross, one of the two thieves repented of his sinful life and appealed to Jesus in a remarkable and bold statement of faith, Jesus said to him, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). There is a definite article in the text, Jesus said, “Thou shalt be with Me in the paradise.”
The word paradise is especially interesting. In the Old Testament, Solomon said, “I made me gardens and orchards.” The word translated “orchards” is the Hebrew word paradise. It means “paradise” – that is, parks or pleasure grounds. Such paradises were made by eastern monarchs for their relaxation and enjoyment. When Jesus said to the dying thief, “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise,” He was referring to the same place described as “Abraham’s bosom” in Luke 16. In other words, He was going to the happy segment of the unseen world, one that would become an immediate paradise by the presence of the soul of the Saviour.
In Ephesians 4:8 (compare Psalm 68:18), we learn that the paradise section of hades is now in a different location. The Holy Spirit says of the Lord Jesus that when “He ascended on high. He led captivity captive. “Or, as others render that: “When He ascended on high He led a multitude of captives.” It is generally inferred from this statement that the Lord Jesus emptied the “paradise” segment of the Old Testament Sheol (hades) and took the souls of the believing dead with Him to heaven. Thereafter, when the New Testament has to speak of believers in the unseen world, the location is up instead of down. Thus Paul speaks of being “caught up into paradise” (2Corinthians 12:4) where he heard and saw things “not lawful to utter.” It was something he could not talk about.
The expression “caught up” is also interesting. The Greek word is harpazo, literally meaning “to catch away” or “to snatch away.” The King James text usually renders it “caught up.” It is the same word used to describe the rapture: “For the Lord, Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up (harpazo) together in clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1Thessalonians 4:16-17). Here the whole idea, in the sense of direction, is upward. The same word is used in Revelation 12:5 where we have a summary of the career of Christ, the “man child.” We read that the woman (Israel) “brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up (harpazo) unto God, and to His throne.”
So when Paul was “caught or snatched away: the King James text strongly implies that he was “caught up.” The Lord ascended into heaven. He went up. He relocated to paradise. Believers go now to be where He is and that is indicated to be in an upward direction. In quite a different context Paul indicates the same thing when he says, “Say not in thine heart. Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above)” (Romans 10:6).
A study of the passages relating to the unseen world shows that those who have died can see, hear, speak, reason, and remember. They can recognize one another. In other words, they are fully alive and conscious of their state-for better” (Philippians 1:23). He also said that, for the believer, “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). In referring to his desire to depart and be with Christ, Paul used several interesting words. The word he used for desire (epithumia) literally means “the desire.” In the King James text it is translated in three different ways: as “desire,” 3 times, as “concupiscence,” 3 times; as “lust,” 31 times. The word was used by Jesus in describing His heart’s desire to share the last Passover with the disciples. “With desire, I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” He said (Luke 22:15).
In describing his yearning to see his beloved Thessalonican converts, Paul uses the same word. He wrote, “But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire” (1Thessalonians 2:17). When he says that he desired to depart and be with Christ, he is literally saying that he lusted to go to heaven!
The verb he used for “depart” (analogue) is another interesting word. It means “to depart and return.” The only other place this verb occurs in the New Testament is where the Lord urges His followers to be “like unto men that wait for their Lord when he will return [same word] from the wedding” (Luke 12:36). Paul uses the noun in writing his last note to Timothy. Expecting imminent execution, he wrote, “The time of my departure (analysis) is at hand” (2Timothy 4:6). Scholars tell us that in classical Greek the word is used off a ship weighing anchor. He was not anticipating a shipwreck. He was looking forward to weighing anchor and setting sail for another shore from which he expected one day to return frightened down with the wealth of another world. In this remarkable statement, he says, not only that he had a desire (a lust) to depart (to weigh anchor) to be with Christ. He says that it is “far better.” Death, for the Christian, cannot be described in comparatives; Death for the Christian can be described only in superlatives.
Such is the afterlife as incorporated in the words Sheol and hades. Now let us look at the word:
The story has another side: a dark, ominous, dreadful, awful side. The dark side of hadēs is only a prelude to the blacker shades of gehenna. The word Gehenna is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Tophet. The actual Greek word is gehenna. It occurs 12 times in the New Testament, and is always translated as “hell”. It refers to the final abode of the wicked dead. In the Apocalypse it is “the lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14,15). The Greek word is a transliteration of the Hebrews Gai Hinnōm, “the valley of Hinnom.” The valley of the sons of Hinnom was a real place in Jerusalem. In the dark day’s Jewish apostasy, children were sacrificed there. There they “passed through the fire” to the horrible god Molech. The image of Molech was hollow, and in his metal belly, fierce fires burned. Little children, placed living on his red-hot lap, rolled down through a cavity into those fires. It was King Solomon who officially introduced this devilish worship into Jerusalem. “then”, we read, “did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh… and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon” (1 kings 11:7).
Centuries later, in the days of godly King Josiah, an end was put to this diabolical worship. We read that the king “defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech” (2 kings 23:10). The valley referred to was the junction of the three valleys that unite south of Jerusalem. Topheth was a place in this valley.
By the time of Christ, the terrible idolatries of Israel were long over. No longer did little children die a dreadful death in Molech’s lap, but the fires were kept burning in Hinnom. They were used for burning the refuge of the city. Thus, the word gehenna
naturally passed into the language as a descriptive word for the place where burns “the fire that never shall be quenched, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (mark 9:43, 44, 46, 48).
In connection with the great white throne judgment of the wicked dead, the Holy Spirit writes: “And deaths Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death” (revelation 20:14). At the time of this last judgment, the souls of the wicked dead, at present in the torment section of shoēl (hadēs), will be reunited with their bodies. They will stand at the great white throne for final judgment. Then, they will spend eternity in what the Holy Spirit calls “the lake of fire”. Thus, hadēs will be emptied. It will no longer be needed as a place of imprisonment for the wicked. The lake of fire, what we think of when we think of hell, will be their final, dread abode. This is a real place, whether or not the language used to describe it is literal or symbolic. It is a terrible place, so much so that Jesus was willing to come and shed His precious blood so that we might never need to go there.
Heaven is an equally real place. In the Old Testament, the word used is shame or shaman. The words come from a root meaning “lofty.” It is the usual word for the sky, the stellar spaces, and hence for heaven. The same is true of the Greek word Ouranos. The name for the sky, by extension, becomes the name of God’s home.
When Solomon dedicated his Temple, he recognized that magnificent as it was, it was a very small place indeed in which to expect God to dwell. “Thy dwelling place [is in] heaven,” he said (2 chronicles 6:21). Similarly, Daniel, as he prepared to tell Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of his dream, said, “There is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets” (Daniel 2:28).
The idea is found repeatedly in the New Testament. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to begin by saying, “our father which art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). When warning people against the abuse or exploitation of children, He said, “in heaven, their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). In the book of Revelation, just before he begins one of the most wonderful descriptions of the worship of heaven, John says, “Behold, a door was opened in heaven” (Revelation 4:1).
Heaven is a real place for real people. When Jesus announced to His disciples that He was going home, He softened the blow by saying, “In my Father’s house are many mansions [abiding places]: if it were not so, I would have told you” (John 14:2).
It is from the full-length description of the celestial city that we get our most vivid impression of what heaven will be like. The language is indeed highly figurative, and it is equally true that the holy city, the New Jerusalem, is described in its relation to the millennial reign. Yet just the same, it embodies all our ideas of heaven. It is a perfect cube, 1,500 miles in all directions. Its materials are translucent: light shines through. Even the gold is as clear as glass. It rests upon twelve foundations ablaze with precious stones. Its twelve gates are hewn from massive, single pearls. The crystal stream is there. The tree of life grows abundantly there.
Peter mentions Tartarus as the prison-house of the worst of the fallen angels (2peter 2:4). Many of the angels who accompanied Lucifer in his rebellion against the throne of God are still free. They roam what the Bible calls “the heavenly.” They are described by Paul as “principalities and powers, the rulers of this world’s darkness, wicked spirits in high places.” They are mighty members of Satan’s hierarchy. Some of them rule the nations of the world under their master who is called “the prince of this world.”
But not all the fallen angels are free. Both Peter and Jude tell of some who are now incarcerated by God. They are locked up in Tartarus. It seems clear from what is said about these imprisoned angelic beings that they were in some way responsible for the frightful wickedness of the people who lived before the flood. The context in both cases links them with unnatural sex sins. Those beings are linked in Genesis 6 with the race of giants that inhabited the world in Noah’s day and helped to debauch the planet. For this second and even more debasing fall, God has imprisoned them. They now lie in Tartarus awaiting the final day of judgment.
The word abusers describe another of God’s prisons. It is translated as “the bottomless pit” in Revelation 9:1-21. In this mysterious place, certain terrible demons are at present incarcerated along with their leader, whose name is given in both Greek and Hebrew. In Hebrew it is Abaddon; in Greek it is Apollyōn. Both names mean “destruction.” At a certain point in the future, after the rapture of the church, these horrible creatures are to be let loose upon mankind. During the millennial reign of Christ, Satan himself s to be locked up in that abyss (Revelation 20:1-3,7-8).
These, then, are the words used in the Bible to describe the unseen world. It is the real world. Just because we cannot see it or sense it with our natural senses does not mean that this world does not exist. God says that it does.
From beginning to end, the bible tells us that there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be shunned. It tells us of a broad road that leads to destruction and of a narrow road that leads to life. It tells us that these roads cross at a place called Calvary. It is there that a person can get off the broad road that leads to destruction and onto the narrow road that leads to life.
These two-word studies, one on the Biblical definition of sin and the other on the unseen world show the importance of paying attention to the words used by the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew and Greek Bible.
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