What's Up With Word Studies?

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." 
    — Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Inigo Montoya.jpg

Word studies are a wonderful tool in biblical study.  Well, unless they are done poorly.  

Here's how NOT to do a word study:  Look up the meaning of an English word in a dictionary or a Greek or Hebrew word in a lexicon and assume the word simultaneously means everything you see.  Words (to include the original languages of the Bible) have a range of meaning).

Here's another way NOT to do a word study:  Look at the various ways translations have rendered a word and pick the one you like, calling it the best translation.  It's the best translation if it does the very best to convey the same meaning as the original word, as the author intended it at the time it was written.  But that's not always helpful to transmit meaning, so if you are not an expert in the original languages and the English, it's wise to listen to the council of competent scholars. 

If you're just starting out with word studies, it's not likely that you have an extensive library of extra-biblical texts using the words in the same century and area as the word you are studying.  But you do have a Bible.  Using your Bible, you will be able to get a study of most words that appear in the Bible (with the exception those that are a hapax legomena).  

It is best to try to get to the word behind the translated word.  That is, get to the Greek or Hebrew.  A good concordance helps.  Strong's Concordance uses key numbers so you can connect English words to the original language words by the key number.  This is the very best place to start learning how to do proper word studies.  Get familiar with your concordance.  Read the introductory matter and learn how to use this tool well.  

Let's do a word study using the Bible.  I've also brought in the Septuagint (also called the LXX) to show you how materials outside the Bible can help with a word study.  We could have also dug into lexicons and other extra-biblical material, but my purpose is to show you how you can use the Bible to help you interpret the Bible.  Therefore, I have not provided a lexical definition.  I'd rather you find the meaning from the word's other uses.  Let's give it a try. 

I've got just the word. . . . 

"Tongues" is a strange word in some circles of Christianity.   There are entire books and practices about "speaking in tongues."  It's an odd phrase in the English today.  We don't say it much unless we are referring to a wildly popular religious practice that some think is a unique or more holy way to pray to God.  It's a phrase we've imported from a more familiar phrase from thousands of years ago.  

But rather than allowing behaviors around us to shape what we think of this practice, let's look at what the Bible says.  

I realize this is a sensitive issue for many people.  It may be a sensitive issue for you.  All I am asking is that you look at the verses and see what the Bible has to say on this topic.  It's our authority on this matter.  If you come to a firm conviction one way or the other, please practice unity and love for your brothers and sisters with kindness and patience.   Also, please know that I have deep-rooted convictions on this matter because of what I see in the Bible.  

Here we go.  (I might be wise to ask God to speak to you and give you clarity from his word before you dig in.) 

The question at hand is, "How is the word 'tongue' or 'tongues' used in the Bible?"  Or maybe, "What is meant by 'speaking in tongues?'"  

1.  A search of every use of 'tongue' or 'tongues' in the ESV translation shows 136 appearances.  (141 in the NASB, 125 in the CSB, 96 in the HCSB, 165 in the KJV, 76 in the NLT, and 97 in the NET).  Roughly 70% of those occurrences are singular, 30% plural.   

2.  Drilling down a little further, we'll see that overwhelming majority of the Old Testament occurrences come from the Hebrew world LASHON (transliteration for our not Hebrew language readers) or a close derivative.  In the New Testament, the overwhelming word is GLOSSA (transliteration for our not Greek language readers) or a close derivative.  The derivatives are slight changes to indicate tense, person, or if it is plural or not, or other minor but informative changes like we do with words in English.  

3.  Depending on the translation, there is a small handful of other words that some Bible translations have translated as the word 'tongue.'  Other translations get a little more specific in the range of meaning and go with language or dialect or something like that.  For this study, I'm only going to focus on the two primary words--one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.  I assure you, the few other words will not change our understanding. 

4.  Looking at the Old Testament uses of the LASHON and its derivatives, there are 116 appearances of the Hebrew word LASHON.  (Gen 10:5, 20, 31; Ex 4:10; 11:7; Deut 28:49; Josh 7:21, 24; 10:21; 15:2, 5; 18:19; Judg 7:5; 2 Sam 23:2; Neh 13:24; Esth 1:22; 3:12; 8:9; Job 5:21; 6:30; 15:5; 20:12, 16; 27:4; 29:10; 33:2; 41:1; Psa 5:9; 10:7; 12:3–4; 15:3; 22:15; 31:20; 34:13; 35:28; 37:30; 39:1, 3; 45:1; 50:19; 51:14; 52:2, 4; 55:9; 57:4; 64:3, 8; 66:17; 68:23; 71:24; 73:9; 78:36; 109:2; 119:172; 120:2–3; 126:2; 137:6; 139:4; 140:3, 11; Prov 6:17, 24; 10:20, 31; 12:18–19; 15:2, 4; 16:1; 17:4, 20; 18:21; 21:6, 23; 25:15, 23; 26:28; 28:23; 31:26; Eccl 10:11; Song 4:11; Is 3:8; 5:24; 11:15; 28:11; 30:27; 32:4; 33:19; 35:6; 41:17; 45:23; 50:4; 54:17; 57:4; 59:3; 66:18; Jer 5:15; 9:3, 5, 8; 18:18; 23:31; Lam 4:4; Ezek 3:5–6, 26; Dan 1:4; Hos 7:16; Mic 6:12; Zeph 3:13; Zech 8:23; and 14:12.) 

5.  Based on context, the ESV translates this LASHON and its derivatives as follows: growl (1 time), language (12), languages (2), slander (1), speech (1), tongue (81), and tongues (11).  Sometimes tongue or tongues refers to the physical tongue muscle in the mouth. 

6.  Here are the 92 times the ESV translated LASHON as 'tongue' or 'tongues.'  I suggest you read those verses.  Based on these verses, what does the word seem to mean?  (Ex 4:10; Josh 10:21; Judg 7:5; 2 Sam 23:2; Job 5:21; 6:30; 15:5; 20:12, 16; 27:4; 29:10; 33:2; 41:1; Psa 5:9; 10:7; 12:3–4; 15:3; 22:15; 31:20; 34:13; 35:28; 37:30; 39:1, 3; 45:1; 50:19; 51:14; 52:2, 4; 55:9; 57:4; 64:3, 8; 66:17; 68:23; 71:24; 73:9; 78:36; 109:2; 119:172; 120:2–3; 126:2; 137:6; 139:4; 140:3; Prov 6:17, 24; 10:20, 31; 12:18–19; 15:2, 4; 16:1; 17:4, 20; 18:21; 21:6, 23; 25:15, 23; 26:28; 28:23; 31:26; Song 4:11; Is 11:15; 28:11; 30:27; 32:4; 33:19; 35:6; 41:17; 45:23; 50:4; 54:17; 57:4; 59:3; 66:18; Jer 9:3, 5, 8; 18:18; 23:31; Lam 4:4; Ezek 3:26; Hos 7:16; Mic 6:12; Zeph 3:13; Zech 8:23; and 14:12.) 

7. Following the same pattern for the New Testament, the Greek word, GLOSSA and its derivatives appear in the New Testament 47 times.  (Mark 7:33, 35; 16:17; Luke 1:64; 16:24; Acts 2:3–4, 11, 26; 10:46; 19:6; Rom 3:13; 14:11; 1 Cor 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4–6, 9, 13–14, 18–19, 22–23, 26–27, 39; Phil 2:11; James 1:26; 3:5–6, 8; 1 Pet 3:10; 1 John 3:18; Rev 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 16:10; and 17:15.)  

8.  Based on the context, the ESV translates GLOSSA and its derivatives as follows: language (3 times), languages (4), talk (1), tongue (21), and tongues (21).  There are some occurrences when the word refers to the physical muscle in the mouth. 

9.   Here are the 42 times the ESV translated GLOSSA as tongue or tongues.  I suggest you read those verses.  Based on those verses, what does the word seem to mean?  (Mark 7:33, 35; 16:17; Luke 1:64; 16:24; Acts 2:3–4, 11, 26; 10:46; 19:6; Rom 3:13; 14:11; 1 Cor 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4–6, 9, 13–14, 18–19, 22–23, 26–27, 39; Phil 2:11; James 1:26; 3:5–6, 8; 1 Pet 3:10; and Rev 16:10.) 

Here's where we're about to bring the Hebrew and Greek Languages together with the Septuagint.  

The Septuagint (identified by LXX) is the first translation of the Hebrew language into Greek.  The translation was completed in 132 BC.  Some of the New Testament writers quoted the LXX rather than the Hebrew Bible when they quoted the Old Testament.  While it's not perfect because it's a translation, it's an extremely helpful tool to understand how the speakers of Jesus day understood the Hebrew and the Greek.  

10.  The translators of the LXX used the word GLOSSA 112 times translating the 39 books of the Old Testament.  Here are all the places GLOSSA was used in translation: (Gen 10:5, 20, 31; 11:7; Ex 11:7; Josh 7:21; 10:21; Judg 7:5–6; 2 Sam 23:2; Psa 5:9; 10:7; 12:3–4; 14:3; 15:3; 16:9; 22:15; 31:20; 34:13; 35:28; 37:30; 39:1, 3; 45:1; 50:19; 51:14; 52:2, 4; 55:9; 57:4; 64:3, 8; 66:17; 68:23; 71:24; 73:9; 78:36; 81:5; 109:2; 119:172; 120:2–3; 126:2; 137:6; 139:4; 140:3; Prov 3:16; 6:17, 24; 10:20, 31; 12:18–19; 15:2, 4; 17:4, 20; 18:21; 21:6, 23; 24:22; 25:15, 23; 26:28; 27:20; 31:25; Song 4:11; Job 5:21; 6:30; 20:12, 16; 29:10; 33:2; Hos 7:16; Mic 6:12; Zeph 3:9, 13; Zech 8:23; 14:12; Is 3:8; 19:18; 28:11; 29:24; 32:4; 35:6; 41:17; 45:23; 50:4; 57:4; 59:3; 66:18; Jer 5:15; 9:3, 5, 8; 18:18; 23:31; Lam 4:4; Ezek 3:6, 26; 36:3; Dan 3:2, 4, 7, 29; 4:21, 37; 6:25; and 7:6.) 

11.  There are 90 times when the translators saw the Hebrew word LASHON and translated it as GLOSSA.  You can see those occurrences here:  (Gen 10:5, 20, 31; Ex 11:7; Josh 7:21, 10:21; Judg 7:5; 2 Sam 23:2;  Job 5:21; 6:30; 20:12, 16; 29:10; 33:2; 41:1; Psa 5:9; 10:7; 12:3–4; 22:15; 31:20; 34:13; 35:28; 37:30; 39:1, 3; 45:1; 50:19; 51:14; 52:2, 4; 55:9; 57:4; 64:3, 8; 66:17; 68:23; 71:24; 73:9; 78:36; 109:2; 119:172; 120:2–3; 126:2; 137:6; 139:4; 140:3; Prov 6:17, 24; 10:20, 31; 12:18–19; 15:2, 4; 17:4, 20; 18:21; 21:6, 23; 25:15, 23; 26:28; 31:26; Song 4:11; Is 3:8; 28:11; 32:4; 35:6; 41:17; 45:23; 50:4; 57:4; 59:3; 66:18; Jer 5:15; 9:3, 5, 8; 18:18; 23:31; Lam 4:4; Ezek 3:6, 26; Hos 7:16; Mic 6:12; Zeph 3:13; Zech 8:23; and 14:12.) 

Why is this kind of word study important?  

When Paul uses the term GLOSSA in 1 Corinthians  (and when Luke uses it in Acts 2), we need to understand how he understood the meaning of the word and how the people he wrote to heard the word.  If not, we import meaning that's not there and that could lead to an application that was never intended.  Understanding what how the Bible uses the terms rather than looking to the experiences of people around us should help better inform our understanding of biblical truth. 

I hope this study has helped you.  Study on!