One idle day I realized that I had never looked up the word “word” before. The dictionary defines the word “word” as a sound or combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or of a combination of morphemes. Of course, then I had to look up “morpheme”, only to discover that it is a linguistic unit that cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts. So, in my simplistic thinking, a word is a combination of letters! Learn something new every day!
The Bible is replete with words. God gave us the ability to communicate with each other through various means such as the written word and speech. Having a common understanding is important for a variety of reasons as we communicate to each other our needs, desires, wants, and plans. Yet, since there is a variety of people on this planet, (and after the incident at the tower of Babel; see Genesis 11:1-9) it is only obvious that there are many differing versions of language, where one may not translate simply to another…as from one people group to another. For example; when an English speaking person lands in a different country where English is not spoken, you now have a potential barrier in communication because the sounds and writings of a particular thought might differ from one another. Thankfully, there are people who have the talent and skill to learn many different languages and thus have the ability to interpret from one language to another. Such is the way God has communicated His Word to all people throughout the generations.
Commonly known is that the Bible was written primarily in the Hebrew language (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). Both languages have survived through the centuries and scholars have excelled in capability to translate from the original languages into other languages. Thus, what was a particular writing in one language can now be enjoyed into the reader’s own language. The only thing that is not (often) captured by written word is the nuances of thought. There is also cultural and contextual considerations to apply that may affect the intended meaning of a phrase or word. What might have been a common understanding in 800BC might not equate clearly to modern-day America. Even from English translations of the Bible in 1560 (Geneva Bible) and later in 1611 (King James Version), words used in those translations might not come across so clearly into our modern vernacular today. Examples might be the usage of “thee” and “thou” meaning “you”. Or adding “st” at the end of some commonly used words such as “would” or “could” may cause someone a confused look. Regardless of Old English or modern English, we who speak English can still enjoy the truth of God’s Word in our native language.
Without getting too linguistically technical or theological in purpose, my main intent of this writing is to examine a few words that are somewhat unique to the Bible…as in, they are not commonly used in the average English conversation or writing…and, yet are very important to have a good grasp of their meaning. For this task, I will use some words found in Psalm 51. This is a well known Psalm containing David’s repentance prayer. I want to only look at the few particular words that are found in verses 1 and 2. As I’ve mentioned, this is not intended to be a deep, theological study, but to highlight some words that I’ve found people, (myself included), tend to skim over and only having a basic understanding of the word, yet possibly could be missing the importance of their meaning and application to our walk with God. I will only compare the words using the four most common English translations that are used by most serious students of the Bible. They are KJV (King James Version), NASB (New American Standard Bible), ESV (English Standard Version), and NIV (New International Version). I will display the KJV version of the verses, and in parentheses have other translations (if different from KJV) of the particular word (in italics).
- Have mercy (Be gracious – NASB) upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness(steadfast love – ESV; unfailing love – NIV) according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies (compassion – NIV and NASB) blot out my transgressions.
- Wash me throughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
To begin with, we must first acknowledge that mercy and grace are two of the most important words within all of Scripture and should instantly give the believer cause for celebration and relief! Mercy and grace are blessed attributes that are shown by God toward us because of His compassion and love for us. For God to show us any favor when we are truly unworthy is nothing less than a pure and merciful love! The great Puritan, Richard Baxter wrote “Delight yourselves in the particular discoveries of (God’s) common mercies to the world, and His special mercies to His saints, and His personal mercies to yourselves from your birth to this moment—both upon our souls and bodies and friends and name and estates and affairs in all relations.” (Baxteriana, 155)
Through these two special attributes, God’s compassion delivers us from the punishment we deserve, and even so much more as to extend His grace (unmerited favor) through the gift of salvation; His Son Jesus! The great English minister Matthew Mead wrote “It is beyond the power of the greatest gifts to change the heart; a man may preach like an apostle, pray like an angel, and yet may have the heart of a devil. It is grace only that can change the heart. The greatest gifts cannot change it, but the least grace can. Gifts may make a man a scholar, but grace makes a man a believer.” (Almost Christian Discovered, 31-31) It would be beneficial for all Christians to do an in-depth word study of grace and mercy in relation to the Bible because it characterizes two of the glorious attributes of God that define His love toward us, and for us! We ask God for His mercy and grace upon us because without them, we have no hope for a future glory with Him.
The word lovingkindness is not a commonly used word in today’s English vernacular. Both the KJV and NASB use it, whereas the ESV translates the Hebrew as “steadfast love”, and the NIV translating it into “unfailing love”. I personally like the word “steadfast” because it defines beautifully as “resolutely or dutifully firm and unwavering.” That is an incredible love! We see often times throughout the Bible that the word lovingkindness is used to indicate a special generous heart or favor toward someone. It is used to represent God’s unwavering affection and kindness toward His people because of His love. The Hebrew word is sometimes translated into “faithfulness” or “unchanging love”. It is a type of passion and commitment that transcends the normal expression of loving someone. It is His manifestation of personal love that is immovable and forever. It is synonymous with the words mercy, kindness, and goodness. We know that His mercy and grace come to us because of His special affection, His lovingkindness that never fails or waivers toward His creation; His people.
The third word in verse one is shown in the KJV again as “mercies”. Other translations use the word “compassion”. The Hebrew word is used throughout the Old Testament and is often interchangeably translated into English between mercy and compassion. What this expresses is that God’s tender compassion toward us sinners is a gift beyond what we realize. God truly does understand all things, and thus, understands our fallen condition. He has a special empathy with His creation and tenderly desires to show us His mercies. This is nothing that we can obtain from Him through our own merits. As it stands, God’s mercy is shown in part by His withholding the wrath that we deserve because of our sinful nature. But, He also loves us with a forgiving compassion…much like the love a mother may have for a wayward child. Without this attribute of God, we stand to lose His peace eternally.
The next words in verse one and two will transition the focus of thought from God’s attributes of mercy, grace, and lovingkindness to our own natural attributes that we possess since the fall in the Garden of Eden. The fact that the words mercy, grace, and lovingkindness precede the words transgression, iniquity, and sin should be of importance to us. David is acknowledging these wonderful characteristics of the LORD first and foremost as being key to our being cleansed of our unrighteousness and sin against a Holy God. Transgression is an act of rebellion against God. We are filled with guilt because of our depravity, our condition of iniquity. Our condition, as such, is because of our propensity to sin. Sin is the nature within us to which we are conceived and born into this life here. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:3-5 ESV). We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners.
David has his confession of sins and the asking for forgiveness in the correct order because he first acknowledges God, who is Holy. God has displayed His righteousness through the law so that we are without excuse in knowing our transgressions against Him. It is our sins that separate us from the peace of God. David later admits (verse 4) that all guilt of iniquity is primarily against God’s holiness. When we become convicted of our sin, we must make peace with God by confessing our sin and repenting (turning away) from this activity. Then God can cleanse (wash) us by His mercy and grace and restore to us the joy of His salvation and renew a right spirit within us. All this is only by the greatness of God’s compassion! Thomas Watson, another great Puritan writer, said “many love their deliverance, but not their deliverer; God is to be loved more than His mercies.” (Godly Man’s Picture, 119) We first acknowledge and glorify God, then we acknowledge our standing before Him!
We see a similar formatting when it comes to the Lord’s prayer found in Matthew and Luke. Before anything is asked for, before anything is confessed, we first acknowledge, praise, and glorify our Father in Heaven. When we have a firm grasp of God’s position because of His holiness and righteousness compared to our position in creation, we develop a better reverence and awe of the magnificence of our Creator! Our perspective of God should bring us to our knees in worship and praise…not just for the things He can do, but the things He has already shown us, given us, and done for us! Without His mercy and grace toward us, without His Spirit to save us and draw us to His salvation through Christ, we are lost forever without hope and peace. And this is a truth we need to remember as we approach His throne of grace. Before we open our mouths flippantly, asking and begging for things, we should first acknowledge His amazing sovereign love and compassion toward us sinners! Before we hand over a laundry list of wants and desires, we should get ourselves right with God by confessing our sins and repenting of our transgressions against His laws. By His will we exist. By His will we are saved. By His will we can be renewed in His presence and restored to right standing! We love because He first loved us! So let us love His Word!