Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 NASB
Words – Adin Steinsaltz makes the following comment in his book, Simple Words: “Because we know these words for such a long time, because we seem to know their meaning so well, we never have the chance to really understand what they mean. When we grapple with the meaning of the words, we discover what they are. Through this process of trying to understand, the words may become very different; sometimes we also gain a new understanding of ourselves and what we have been doing all our lives. This understanding is itself a revelation.”
In my opinion, this insight applies across most of our understanding of Scripture. Our familiarity with the Bible, as a result of the centuries of Christian influence in the culture and our own immersion in Christian thinking, has altered the way we read the text, not only in translation but also in the original languages. We no longer hear the words as they were spoken because we don’t live in the world that first heard them. In order to truly understand God’s revelation, we need to strip ourselves of the accumulation of meanings from our own history – personal and cultural. This is our task, not because we have been remiss but simply because we are millennia removed from the history of God’s declarations. But we can recover.
In order to read Scripture with the mind of those who first heard it, we must carefully articulate the paradigms that influence the meanings of our words. This is a big task, but not an impossible one. For example, by studying the use of hesed in the culture and history of ancient Israel, we discover how rich the word really is – and how anemic our translations of “mercy” or “lovingkindness” are. What is true of hesed is true of most of the Bible’s words. In order to understand we must go back. The meanings we seek are in the past, not the present or in some eschatological future.
Far too often, when we realize the enormity of this task, we experience two conflicting emotions. The first is the feeling that all we have previously learned is wrong. The second is the denial of this same feeling by claiming that surely God oversees His word so that culture and history make no real difference to our faith. The first feeling of panic is not warranted. Our experiences with God are not invalid. They are the very things that brought us to this point. Without them we would still be in the dark. God uses every human experience to bring us to the light, even those that ultimately turn out to be false or sinful. Rather than feeling as though the past is a loss, let us embrace it as the path that brought us here – superintended by God Himself.
However, the second reaction is insufficient and probably in error. The history of the transmission of Scripture is quite clear. There are lots of mistakes. That does not mean that the words God delivered were not accurate. It means that they have been put into the hands of men, and men often massage the words in order to accomplish their purposes rather than God’s. God doesn’t supervise the sins of men, so when these sins affect the transmission of His word, He doesn’t act as a proofreader. Of course, God still uses those words to reach the hearts of men and women, but that doesn’t mean the words themselves didn’t contain mistranslations and mistaken theological doctrines. It simply means that God uses what human beings allow Him to use. He does not violate our free, and often fallible, will.
What’s the bottom line? Words! Words that we know so well we don’t even think about them anymore. Words that are so much a part of our vocabulary we have stopped thinking about their real meanings. Our objective is to examine these words as best we can to understand what they would have meant when God first spoke them. Our goal is to bring these “dead” words back to life so that they may become words that “are acceptable in Your sight.”
Topical Index: words, paradigm, Adin Steinsaltz, Psalm 19:14
 Adin Steinsaltz, Simple Words, p. 24.