Hermeneutics,  Scripture

Meaning in Scripture: More Than Words

Communication is a complicated process. Not only are words involved, but tone, mood, and non-verbal signals are also a part of the process. Even within written communication examples of sarcasm, irony, jokes, and gloom all abound. Communication is complicated because it includes both words and emotion. This is why when we read Scripture, we must remind ourselves that we should not read as if Scripture were void of emotion or feeling.

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When we communicate with each other we are always naturally looking at the context to determine meaning. This is why a phrase or sentence can have multiple meanings, based on who the speaker/writer is and the intent of what the speaker/writer is trying to communicate. For example, what does “I forbid it!” mean?

In perhaps an obvious situation, the phrase stands as a prohibition for a particular action (as in, I forbid you from playing computer games all day). However, consider the following example:

After sitting silently, Frank gave Joe a determined look and said, “I’m going to marry your sister Susan.”

Joe, elated by this news, punched Frank on the shoulder and said, “I forbid it!”

Clearly, from the context the reader is shown that the actual words themselves, “I forbid it!” are not to be taken as a prohibition in this case, but as an encouragement with the meaning, “That’s awesome and I support you!” Knowing the author/speaker, and observing contextual clues is essential to picking up the meaning behind certain words and phrases.

This illustrates the difference between what is said, and what is meant. Ironically, the words themselves, if taken out of the context, would lose their real meaning.

On occasion, this principle is at play in Scripture. Look for example at what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:10.

We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor.

By themselves these words could be a lifting up of the Corinthian believers as an example for all to emulate. However, the context (1 Cor 4:8-13) indicates that this is sarcasm which Paul uses to show the Corinthians that they are not as great as they think they are.

Another example would be John 9:26-27.

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

The larger context of John 9 forbids the reader from taking the question “Do you also want to become his disciples?” as genuine. This is obviously a sarcastic jab at the Pharisees who are questioning the poor man to try to find a hole in his story. After coming to the realization that the religious leaders are not, in fact, interested in learning, he insinuates that they may be wanting to be a disciple of Jesus. Tellingly, this enrages them further!

The take away here is that the Bible is real communication. Because it is real communication, understanding the characters and context is important. Meaning often is deeper than merely a phrase or sentence. The meaning comes from the author’s intent within a larger context. In other words, don’t forget the Bible was written with emotion and color—there are many parts which should not be read like a last will and testament.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.