Defining Bible Words

What is your method for finding definitions of biblical words? For example, the difference between "accursed" and "cursed" and the difference between "lucre" and "money". I have a Strong's concordance and also Webster's 1828. I don't think that going back to the original Hebrew and Greek is necessary. I know that the English of the KJV is correct; but, sometimes, isn't getting to the "root" of the word necessary?

Thank you for this excellent question. It is quite refreshing when someone is interested in learning how to find the biblical definitions for Bible words. I personally believe that this process is one of several layers. For example, one method may work for one word and not work at all for another word.

Now let us look at a few principles that can guide us in this study. 

Context 

The best and most accurate way to find the biblical definition for a particular word is by looking in the immediate context (within the verse, within the passage, or within the chapter). Sometimes words are defined directly, but other times a word may be defined by comparison or contrast with some other word. Consider the following examples: 

Words Defined Directly

  • Genesis 11:30 But Sarai was barren; she had no child. - The word is barren. The definition is she had no child.
  • Genesis 49:17 Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. - The word is adder. The definition is a serpent.
  • John 20:16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. - The word is Rabboni. The definition is Master.
  • Acts 4:36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, - The word is Barnabas. The definition is son of consolation.
  • Ephesians 6:17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: - Now this particular one involves a phrase, but the principle for defining the phrase is the same. Notice that the sword of the Spirit is the phrase that is defined as the word of God. 
  • Hebrews 7:2 To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace; - Notice the words which is. Anytime you see that, be watching for a definition. You will not always get one, but the chances are good that God is getting ready to give you a definition.

Words Defined by Comparison

  • Psalm 34:3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. - This verse is very interesting. It can be broken down into two parts. 1.) O magnify / the Lord / with me and 2.) let us exalt / his name / together. Do you see how the parts match up? By this comparison we could see that to magnify the Lord is very strongly connected with exalting the Lord.
  • 1Peter 3:10-11 For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it. - Notice here that the phrase is repeated but instead of saying refrain his tongue from we see the word eschew. If you study the word eschew you will find that it means to keep from chewing on. The comparison or insertion of the word eschew actually provides its own definition.

Words Defined by Contrast

  • Romans 12:9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. - If you understand that the word cleave means to hold on to, then by contrast you can understand the basic use of the word abhor in this context would be to avoid or to separate from. Sure the meaning is more complex, but the contrast will get you started on the right track.
  • Romans 16:19 For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil. - The words good and evil are contrasted in this passage, but the words wise and simple are also contrasted. Apparently someone who is simple is not wise, just as something that is evil is not good.
  • 1Corinthians 13:10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. - Many struggle with the Bible word perfect, but this is not necessary. Even from this passage we can see by contrast that something that is perfect is not in part, meaning it is whole or complete.
  • 1Corinthians 15:46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. - Now I know that most people know the definition of spiritual and natural, but even if you only knew the definition of one of these words you could find out the meaning of the other because of the contrast.
  • 1Thessalonians 3:10 Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith? - Obviously something that is lacking needs to be perfected.
  • Hebrews 12:13 And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. - Something that is lame is contrasted here with something that is healed. Obviously something that is lame needs to be healed.

Word Usage in the Bible 

As I have stated, one rule does not always yield a definition for every word. You will not always find a specific definition within the context of a verse or a passage. This leads us to the principle of usage within the Bible. If you are struggling to find the meaning of a particular word, look up the word and all of its various forms as it occurs in scripture. (Note: SwordSearcher or a Strong's Concordance will be most helpful in this.) It may be best to print out on a separate piece of paper every time the word occurs and make notes beside any verse that yields a hint to the meaning. Though this will generally give you an accurate definition, it may be that the Lord uses the word in different ways within the context of scripture. Finding the definition of a word in one verse will not always mean that this definition fits across the board.  

English Dictionaries 

There are some words in scripture that will be hard to find a specific definition for. When this happens you can usually find some English dictionaries that will be helpful. When searching a dictionary for a Bible definition, a few points need to be understood: 

  1. If the definition does not line up with the word of God, the definition is wrong.
  2. Dictionaries arrive at their definitions based on various sources (magazines, newspapers, books, etc.) available to them during their time.
  3. Dictionaries are not infallible, only God's word is infallible.

When looking into an English dictionary consider the etymology of the word. Sometimes this will be most helpful. Another thing to consider is the meaning of any root words that your word may have (i.e. is the word you are studying a compound word that can be broken down). A good example of this would be the word circumspect. Consider the breakdown of the word circum * spect. Circum is related to a circle, while spect is related to looking. Therefore, a good meaning of the word would be looking around. Another good example of this would be the word everlasting. What does everlasting mean? Just switch the two parts ever * lasting and you will see that it is something that is lasting for ever. 

I know that I have just given some general principles here, but I strongly believe that these principles can be applied to many words, phrases and passages of the Bible to help us arrive at sound biblical definitions. There may be times where the Lord will use different words that mean pretty much the same or exactly the same thing. It is up to the Bible student to look in the context, and the usage throughout scripture to see what definitions the word of God will yield.

Andrew Ray
Daily Proverb

Proverbs 28:23

He that rebuketh a man afterwards shall find more favour than he that flattereth with the tongue.