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Interpretation: Word Studies pt. 1 March 11, 2010

Posted by TJ Friend in Interpretaion, OICA.
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Hello, again. We have just finished up the Observation section of OICA. Now it is time to move on to Interpretation. In observation the goal is to get a basic idea of the passage. In interpretation we move into figuring out what the passage actually means. Just like in the observation stage there are a few steps to Interpretation. This is the stage where you do more studying and researching different aspects in order to come to a better understanding of what the passage is saying. Today we will be talking about doing word studies.This is one of the big parts of interpretation.

Pick a word

Before you can do a word study, you need a word to study. It would take too much time to do a word study on every word in your passage. It is better to narrow it down to two or three key words. If a word is repeated in the passage it is probably important. Also, look for words that are central to the meaning of the text or words that are unclear. Look for the main action words or nouns that seem to stand out. Some words will be more helpful to understanding the passage than others, and the more word studies you do the easier it will be to pick out the key words.

An overview of the process

Words are defined by their uses. A word in one context can mean something different in another context. The word “run” for instance can refer to a person running or a machine functioning. It can be a river flowing and can even be used idiomatically as a synonym for doing things (running around, running errands). For the most part if you know the context it is easy to tell the specific definition of the word. Basically, what I am saying is that words have more than one meaning depending on how they are used. If you look up a word in the dictionary you will most likely come across multiple definitions for the word. Even if you are reading a book and come across a word you don’t know, if you understand the context of the sentence, you can pick out the correct definition out of the dictionary when you look it up. When I come across a sentence like “The man left his car running in the parking lot” I would not think the car grew legs and was running around in circles.

To understand what a word means you need to look at the different contexts the word is used in and separate it into its different definitions. This same concept applies to word studies in the Bible. The more times the word is used in the Bible the more thorough the word study can be. To do a word study you need to get a large sampling of the verses the word occurs in, study them and categorize them into their separate definitions. Once you have a good idea of what the word means overall, then you can narrow it down to the specific context you are studying. Do not do a word study apart from the verse/passage you are studying. If you don’t have a specific context for the word, you cannot come up with a specific defintion for that word.

Finding the verses

This is where a concorance comes in play. If you have a Strong’s or Young’s concordance it is pretty easy to look it up. Make sure whatever concordance you have that you have a version of the Bible that matches it. If you have a Strong’s then you should have a King James Version of the Bible. It is important to find the exact word used in the passage. Once you find the word in the concordance you can see all the other references to that English word. But, you don’t want the definition of the English word (if that’s all you want you can just look it up in a regular dictionary). What we are looking for is the Greek or Hebrew understanding of the word. To do that you need to differentiate between all the different Greek/Hebrew words that may be translated by the one English word in your passage. The numbers next to each reference are the different Greek/Hebrew words that have been translated by the specific English word. Once you find the word in your verse, you can simply look at the number next to it and then find all the other verses that have the same number. These numbers refer to the Greek/Hebrew words in the back of the concordance.

One important thing to differentiate is the Greek words vs. the Hebrew words. Basically, the words in the OT are in Hebrew, while those in the NT are in Greek. When doing a word study, make sure you do not cross over from OT to NT or vice versa. If your word is in the NT then to find it in the back of the concordance you need to look in the Greek section.

Make a list of all the verses that have your word (the one keyed to the same number in the concordance). If the list is too long you can just look at the occurances within the same genre. If that is still too long, you can look at those which are found in the same book. Do not limit yourself too much though, because it is hard to get a good definition with a smaller sampling of words.

Study the verses

Once you have a good list of the verses your word occurs in you can begin to study them. Make sure you not only read each verse, but the surrounding context to get an idea of what it is saying. Spend some time with each occurance making observations. If you are studying a verb, look at who is doing the action. See what or who is the normal recipient of the action. Is it past, present or future? Is the word usually combined with a specific adjective or noun? If it is an adjective or adverb look for the different words it modifies. Look for any patterns between the verses you can find.Take special note of the first occurance of a word and the frequency of its uses. Is this word used mostly in narratives? Or is it used primarily in the Psalms? If possible physically count how many times it is used overall and how many times it is used in the book of the passage you are studying in comparison to the book it is most often found in. What you want to see is if your passage falls in line with the majority use of the word or if it is a more rare definition.

Categorize the verses

As you are studying the different verses you will begin to see similarities between them. Here is where you want to separate the word into its different definitions. Organize your findings into a few distinct definitions. Each definition should be distinct in some way from the others. Try and make these definitions as short and simple as possible.

Contextualize your findings

Once you have discovered the different possible definitions you should be able to see which one fits with the passage you are studying. Using what you have learned about the word, apply this to your passage. How does this information help you understand the passage better? What new insight does it bring?


The best way to reflect on this is to do it and see what results you get. But I will leave you with a question. I was thinking about babies and mothers. Before a baby can talk it can only cry. How is it that the mother can understand what a baby needs simply by hearing them cry? How can we apply the metaphor of a mother being able to differentiate between her baby’s cries to word studies?

There is a lot more that I need to say on this topic. Stay tuned for part 2 when we get into the errors to avoid when doing word studies.



1. Interpretation: Word Studies pt. 2 « How to Study the Bible - March 18, 2010

[…] a word means, research it yourself. In case you missed it you can check out how to do this in my previous blog. First off, you can only get better at word studies by practice and so you should try to do as many […]

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