“Preaching Values In Hebrew Words”

William H. Rossell  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 2 - 1959

The well-equipped workrooms and offices of engineers, lawyers, and physicians stand in sharp contrast to the study or workroom of the average pastor. Granted that the spiritual requirements for his call to preach have been met, still there is often a serious deficiency in the quality and availability of the tools with which he opens the riches of the Bible and communicates its good news to others.


Using The Proper Tools

When you—the preacher—apply yourself to the task of opening the treasures of God’s Book there are two media of perception—the Holy Spirit’s guidance and books. And what of the books? What of your library? If average, it contains the “leavings” of some man of God who has gone to his reward, a few textbooks left from college or seminary classes, perhaps a set or two of commentaries, and many books of sermons. From these must come the messages for winning the lost and nurturing the “born-again” in our churches.

In the busy schedule of the pastor, what are his tools? Does he turn to books of sermons? Then he becomes only a “rag-picker” of other minds and dishes up “warmed over potatoes” to the hungry souls who hear him. Does he turn to commentaries? All too often he reiterates the gleanings of rabbinic thought, the warped theological misconceptions of the remote past, never sure that he has grasped and communicated to others what was in the mind of the inspired writer.

It is the exceptional library that possesses books on word studies of the Scriptures. In the New Testament the works of Robertson, Vincent, Alford, Kittel, and others reflect some attempts to assist the pastor in his sermon preparation. Unfortunately, Old Testament word studies have been neglected, and there has been little of merit available for the pastor. The work of Dr. B. A. Copass[1]B. A. Copass, Theology in Hebrew Words, (Fort Worth: Seminary Book Store, 1938). is an exception, but it is out of print. Too, the works of Richardson[2]Alan Richardson, ed., A Theological Word Book of the Bible (New York: Macmillan Company, 1957). and Von Allmen[3]J. J. Von Allmen, ed., A Companion to the Bible (New York: Oxford Press, 1958). could be mentioned, but theological word studies, while valuable, may leave vast areas of Scriptural truth untouched.


The Concordance As A Tool

There is one very important tool, too often neglected, which can open up the Scriptures for the preacher as few others: his concordance. This is particularly true if the concordance is based upon the original languages, i.e., Hebrew and Aramaic, in the case of the Old Testament. To be sure the preacher need not consult a purely Hebrew/Aramaic concordance. Two standard concordances have been available for several years—those of Young[4]Robert Young, Analytical Concordance to the Bible (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1936). and Strong.[5]James Strong, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, c. 1890). Both relate the English with the Hebrew or Aramaic word of the original text. Even a minimum knowledge of Hebrew allows full usage of these valuable works. More recently a concordance of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible has been published.[6]John W. Ellison, ed., Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version Bible (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1956). Its value is diminished by the fact that it is not closely related to the original languages. These above mentioned works are not exclusive, but they are in print, reasonable in cost, and perhaps the best available at the present time.

When one considers the preaching values of Hebrew words it would be best to consult a concordance adapted to the Hebrew text. There has been available for several years the Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament.[7]George V. Wigram, ed., The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (3d ed., London: Walton and Maberly, 1866). It was until recently the most practical Old Testament concordance, though the fact that it is based upon the King James (Authorized) Version limits its ability to provide careful analyses of words in all cases. For the scholar who cares to wade through Latin and has the money to buy it there is the concordance of Solomon Mandelkern.[8]Solomon Mandelkern, Veteris Testamenti; Concordantiae Hebraicae atque Chaldaicae (Graz: Akademische Druck and Verlagsanstalt, 1955). Happily, there has recently appeared, at a reasonable price and with citations in English, Latin, and German, the excellent concordance of Lisowski,[9]Gerhard Lisowski, Konkordanz zum Hebräischen Alten Testament (Stuttgart: Privileg. Württ. Bibelanstalt, 1958). which may be obtained through the American Bible Society. This work will make a valuable addition to the pastor’s library.

A concordance may be said to outrank the dictionary or lexicon in revealing meaning, for a lexicon is only someone’s estimate of what words mean in various contexts. Not only does the concordance reveal meaning, but it provides the means of knowing what writers used the same word and in what contexts or situations. It is not just a handy means of locating a favorite passage of scripture. Furthermore, as one learns to use a Hebrew concordance, he finds whole families of interrelated words and basic roots of words which merit tracing. Finally, with constant use and careful analyses, the preacher is enabled to make his own decisions as to the meaning of words, phrases, or sentences of divine rhetoric as the Holy Spirit directs.


Using The Concordance

As an example of how one might use a Hebrew concordance, e.g., Lisowski (q.v.), to study Hebrew words for their preaching values, consider a familiar portion of the Old Testament—the 23rd Psalm. While the prologue, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the epilogue, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” are couched in human terms, the central theme of the psalm is in the language or thought of a sheep as it looks at its shepherd and contemplates his reliability and the blessings of having him as a careful leader.

The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not want.

The shepherd roeh[10]Lack of a special type makes my transliteration of Hebrew words only an approximation. It is not to be thought of as a scientifically accurate rendering of the Hebrew phonology. played a prominent role in the life of ancient Israel. It is not strange then that the shepherd theme should pervade much of the poetic and prophetic literature. This theme is carried over into the New Testament. The psalm was composed by one who knew sheep and who had been around them enough to think their thoughts. The psalmist, thinking as a sheep might regarding his shepherd, utters his praise of Yahweh whose leadership lacks nothing. Thus, he exclaims lo echsar “I shall not lack (anything).”

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;

he leadeth me beside the still waters.

The tender care of Yahweh as shepherd is evidenced by the fact that the sheep has the best of pasture and water for his needs. The sheep lies down bine’ot desha “in meadows of grass,” i.e., in lush, green grass which furnishes ample food. One may check his concordance and note mention of such lush areas in Amos 1:2 and Zephaniah 2:6. These areas are found only where the supply of water is ample, such as at a deep spring or oasis. Thus, the sheep ravats “stretches out” in lush grass found only where he is nahar “led to water” beside the me menuchot “dependable waters.” These are not so much still waters as they are dependable waters. When this word menuchot is traced to its basic root and derivatives it is found to mean “security” in many instances. For example, in Ruth 1:9 Ruth and Orphah are told by Naomi to go home and find husbands who will provide some menuchah “security” for them. Also in Ruth 3:1 Naomi asks Ruth whether she should not find her (Ruth) some “social” security manoach i.e. a husband,[11]The only kind of social security available in those days. which would be the best thing for her. Thus, the waters mentioned here are waters of security or dependable waters, not those of a flash flood, nor those of a stream bed which might be filled at one season and dry the next. These are deep springs which keep a ready supply of water available for the sheep.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in

the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Not only is a good supply of grass and water provided for the sheep, but the sheep is given a chance to rest often and led only in the best paths. The Hebrew literally reads, “He (the shepherd) lets me get my second wind, i.e., refresh myself. He leads me in the best paths because he is reliable.”

The phrase yeshovev nefesh means “restores breath or self.” In the case of a sheep this would best be rendered, “allows me to get my second wind.” This concept is found in the Scriptures on both the physical and spiritual plane.[12]Spiritual applications of physical phenomena are common in the Hebrew thought processes. This is evidence throughout the Scriptures. Cf. Ludwig H. Köhler, Hebrew Man (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1956), pp. 115f.; H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel, (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1956), pp. 84f. In Ruth 4:15, for instance, the same root is found in the phrase meshiv nefesh “a restorer of life” which Obed, the son of Ruth, is called. It is he who gives Naomi her second wind spiritually as she emerges from the bitterness of losing husband and sons and now finds that Ruth has provided her, as it were, with another son. She recovers, i.e., gets her second wind spiritually.[13]Cf. Ps. 35:17; Prov. 25:13; Job 33:30; Lam 1:11, 16, 19.

Further, the sheep is led bemagele tsedeq “in paths of rightness,” i.e., in safe and, therefore, the best paths. The term tsedeq is translated “right, righteous(ness), rightness.” It connotes that which is best for the individual. When applied to a path, it means the best path. This path has been traveled before by other shepherds with their animals and is a route that is well-known and certain. Therefore, both the sheep and shepherd can have confidence that they know where they are going and that they will get there. And why does the shepherd lead so? Lema’an shemo “because of his name,” i.e., because he is reliable. The shem “name” is synonymous with the character of the person. Man honors the Name of God. Man prays in the Name of the Father. Miracles are done in the Name of Jesus. It is the character of His person, His reliability, on which are based man’s present and future hopes—in His Name.

Yes, the shepherd is reliable. He is the good shepherd. The words of Jesus in John 10:11f come to mind. This is no hireling. He takes the sheep on the best paths. He sees that the sheep gets its second wind, is allowed to rest when tired. Abundant water and grass are provided for the sheep. In fact, the shepherd takes care of all the needs of the sheep.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of
the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.

The Psalmist continues his meditation concerning the good shepherd in terms of the sheep. He thinks, “Even though I pass through a shadowy canyon, I will not fear evil, for you are with me. Your rod and staff give me assurance.” The phrase bege tsalmawet “(pass through) a shadowy canyon” is found only here in the Old Testament. It points to the fact that not all paths that sheep and shepherd travel are safe. The word tsalmawet[14]Not from tsel “shadow” and mawet “death” as once thought, but linked to Accadian salamu “dark(ness).” commonly occurs with the word choshek “darkness,” coupled for parallelism. This is the narrow defile where little sun can reach and where beasts of prey (the evil that a sheep might fear) He ready to spring upon the sheep. However, even here there is a sense of assurance that the equipment, rod and staff, of the good shepherd are ready to beat off animal attack.

The root nacham found at the end of this verse is used throughout the Old Testament in the sense of comforting, consoling, giving assurance. It is commonly used of a superior caring for the needs of an underling, or, often of God’s giving assurance to his people.

Thou preparest a table before me in

the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest

my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Here is a trilogy based on or amplifying the second stychos of the first verse and indicating further how well the shepherd cares for the needs of the sheep. Much misunderstanding of this verse has arisen due to the word shulchan “table.” Immediately one pictures a four legged object upon which food is placed. However, the phrase translated “thou preparest a table” taarok shulchan simply means “you provide food,”[15]Cf. Isa. 21:5; 65:11; Ps. 78:19; Prov. 9:2. and this is done while the sheep’s enemies, the beasts of prey, look on and can do nothing about it. And so the sheep is fed rather than being killed and eaten by the natural enemies which skulk in the shadows. Again, the other parts of the trilogy seem couched in poetic language “anointing the head with oil” and “my cup (is) saturation,” to indicate that the best of care is enjoyed by the sheep.

The word shulchan “table” in this verse could be indicative of the mesa[16]From the Latin mensa “table.” or table-land such as exists in the western areas of the United States. This meaning is tempting in light of the getsalmawet “shadowy canyon” in the preceding verse. Thus, it is possible to understand this verse as stating that the shepherd prepares a place at night, not in the “shadowy canyon” where danger lurks, but on the high mesa or table-land where enemies cannot easily molest the sheep. If the sheep is hurt by brambles or animal fangs, oil is available for anointing the wounds. In fact, everything possible is cared for—kosi rewayah “my cup (is) saturation.”

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow

me all the days of my life; and I will

dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The phrase tov wachesed “goodness and mercy” is unique in the Old Testament. Goodness and mercy, i.e., “everything good” can be provided only by the good shepherd. These ideals radaf “pursue” the sheep as long as he lives. Naturally, since the good shepherd provides so well for the sheep, there is no need to look further for a place to stay. The beth YHWH “Yahweh’s House” is the safe fold where everything good abounds le’orek yamim “to length of days.”

If the preacher will note how often the people of God are spoken of as sheep throughout the Bible, he will have a greater appreciation of this beautiful psalm.

Ki hu’ ‘elohenu. wa’anachnu ‘am marito

wetso’n yado

“For he is our God; and we are the people

of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

(Psalm 95:7)


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