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Beyond Devotionals Part 3
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In Part 2 of this series about “spiritual cutlery” (and crockery, I suppose I should add now), I explained when “the Bible” isn’t the Bible. I offered advice about how to choose what we might call a set of spiritual crockery; and I explained which popular item of spiritual cutlery new Bible readers should almost certainly avoid.
This time, I’m going to recommend one of the most popular and easily misused items of spiritual tableware available today. I’m talking about a Bible concordance. A concordance is essentially a list of Bible words, each of which has listed alongside it the Bible verses in which the word may be found. If Bible translations are the bowls and plates which hold the feast of God’s Word to us, think of a concordance as a special list of ingredients which tells you exactly where to find a particular food stuff in a particular bowl or plate. Fortunately, the kind of people who use Bible concordances regularly are not (usually!) seriously allergic to their contents.
If you have a study edition of a Bible, there’s a very good chance it will have a small concordance in the back. This is helpful for looking up half-remembered verses, but you should probably avoid using it for anything more demanding than that. Mini-concordances like this are perhaps a step or two up from cross-references, but not very much more than that if the truth be told. In my experience, they treat some words and ideas very thoroughly (if selectively), while other words which you may think just as important are not mentioned at all.
A few concordances are “exhaustive”, and if you eventually decide to buy a concordance you should definitely get one of these. An exhaustive concordance lists every single word in a particular translation of the Bible, and within each word heading every single Bible verse where every single word occurs. The older concordances (Cruden’s, Strong’s, and Young’s) were only available for the King James Version, but modernized versions are now available for more recent translations like the New International Version.
A concordance is a wonderful tool for several purposes, but should only be used very sparingly during Bible reading, and then only when you have finished your reading. If you drop everything to look up words in a Bible concordance part way through your daily Bible reading, I can guarantee two things: the first is that you will get seriously side-tracked from the main point of your daily reading (letting the Holy Spirit build you up and equip you through the words of Scripture); the second is that your readings will start taking much longer than they need to, which means you’ll soon get tired of the effort involved.
If you’re part way through a daily Bible reading, and you come across a word you want to look up in a concordance, I suggest you make a separate note (preferably in a special note pad) of the date of your reading, along with the word you want to look up, and the Bible verse in which you read it. This means that, on the one hand, you won’t forget what you want to find out by the time you close your Bible; and on the other hand, you won’t get too side-tracked.
Making this kind of note strikes a balance between stifling your curiosity and saving time. It also gives you the opportunity to record what you discover later on, without feeling pressured into writing a set of Bible notes while you’re trying to read your Bible. Avoid this trap, especially in the early days. Trying to write serious, long-term Bible reference notes is hard work, and as a new Bible reader you are hopefully more ill-equipped and unprepared for the task than you ever will be again!
So, what use is a concordance at the end of your daily Bible reading? I’ve already mentioned the scenario involving a half-remembered Bible verse. This is by far the most common use Bible readers have for a concordance. But if they’re used properly, concordances can do so much more. Let’s imagine a few examples.
You’re reading a Bible, and you come across the book of Ruth for the first time. There, you learn that Ruth was a Moabitess, a native-born woman who lived in a land called Moab. Why does the Bible bother to mention this detail? You might already know that God’s covenant with Israel through Moses gave Israel a unique relationship with God. But why isn’t it enough for the Bible writer just to say that Ruth was a Gentile (a non-Jew)? Why did the Holy Spirit inspire the writer to mention Ruth’s native people group?
An exhaustive Bible concordance can easily help you find every reference to “Moab” out of the thousands of verses in the Bible. What’s more, these concordances (unlike some of the smaller ones) usually briefly mention every sentence in which the word occurs. This can be helpful if there are too many verses to look up (and there will be if you decide to study every Bible reference to “love”, “judgement”, or “God”). It’s also useful for weighing up whether a given verse is likely to tell you anything you don’t already know about your chosen subject.
Now, before you go out and spend money on one or more exhaustive Bible concordances, here’s the good news: you don’t need to. The web site I recommended in part two offers you an exhaustive concordance for every single Bible translation you can look up on there – and it costs you absolutely nothing to use!
What’s more, the site also lets you look up entire phrases at a time, and restrict your search to a particular Bible book or set of Bible books. This is very useful if, for example, you want to see what Jesus says in person about “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” without having to wade through what lots of other people in the Bible had to say about all the other kingdoms too.
So, how might a concordance be misused? There are several different ways. First-year ministry students are often asked to write something about Jesus’ teaching about prayer in John’s gospel. There is almost always someone who looks up the word “pray” in a concordance, and finds that (for instance) the NIV translation of John’s gospel only uses this word six times. If you’re trying to write a 2000 word essay, that’s not much to go on!
What the student may have forgotten is that in John’s gospel, there are numerous references to Jesus using the word “ask” in the context of praying and teaching about prayer. So let that be an important lesson: the Bible uses synonyms (more than one word which mean roughly the same thing). Don’t assume that just because you’ve looked up every reference to one word, that you have therefore read everything the Bible has to say on a particular topic!
Another common mistake is to forget is that a word may have more than one meaning in different places in the Bible. Sometimes the word “Father” may refer to God Himself. In other places, it will refer to a human father. Noah’s Ark is not the same as the Ark of the Covenant. Sometimes God is “a rock”. In other places, a rock is… well… a rock. It is vital that you keep this important fact about different meanings in mind, both while reading the Bible and while studying it with (for instance) the aid of a concordance.
The final mistake I will mention here involves forgetting that the meaning of a word or a custom may change over the course of time. To be fair, the changing meaning of an original language word tends to be hidden by the expertise of today’s translators. They tend to use different English words in different places to try to convey these changes in meaning. But cultural changes can be much harder to explain to modern Bible readers.
Are you surprised by the thought that the Bible has such a range of meanings in it for the self-same word or custom? Isn’t it all “God’s Word”? Yes, but it is also God’s Word communicated not only to people (including us) but through people. The Bible was written by about 40 different human authors, in three different original languages, sometimes on different continents, and over a period of almost 1500 years.
To take just one small example, Rebekah and Tamar both wore veils for some of their dealings with the men in their lives. But they were viewed very differently as they did so, and each woman knew perfectly well how she was being perceived! Until next time.
© 2015 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer who has long-standing friends and contacts in the USA. Christopher is available to research and write for hire on Christian matters via the Faithwriters.com website.
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