“But she said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?'” (Ruth 1:18-19 NKJV).
I enjoy the study of words, their meaning, origin, and composition. Etymology, or how words are formed, is fascinating. The ancient home of King David of Israel for example was called “Bethlehem.” This compound word was formed from two Hebrew words meaning “house” and “bread”, thus originally “house of bread.” Bethlehem is located in a fertile grain producing region of Israel, which possibly lead to the choice of name.
Names with literal meanings also intrigue. In the Old Testament story of Ruth, one character was named Naomi, which meant “pleasant.” Having lost her husband and both sons during an extended sojourn in another country, Naomi rejected that name and chose instead “Mara” which meant “bitter.” Life had become burdensome to her, she had lost all that had formerly filled her with happiness. “Pleasant” was no longer a suitable name.
Still another aspect of words that I find interesting is the inherent descriptive meaning. In Bangladesh the word for duck is “haus,” while a goose is a “rajah haus.” Rajah means “king” therefore the larger goose is literally a “king duck.” That fits pretty well, doesn’t it?
The point of all this is that in many cases words have very precise meanings and are chosen because they fit the situation exactly. It is at best inefficient to neglect such wonderful tools. At worst it can deceive, mislead and confuse when one uses inappropriate words, or uses them in ways other than their intended purpose.
This is true, and has some importance, in even casual conversation. The more formal and official one’s communication is the more important it is to use correct words, and to use them in the proper way. For example casual gardeners call plants by their popular names, even though those names may vary from region to region and may be applied to more than one species of plant. Botanists however invariably use the scientific name, erasing any doubt as to what they are referring.
No communication is more formal and important than that involving spiritual concerns. Whether one is preaching the word (2 Timothy 4:2), teaching and admonishing a fellow Christian (Colossians 3:16), or saying what is good for edification (Ephesians 4:29), when one speaks of eternal matters it is essential that words be well selected.
Peter commanded, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). Paul claimed regarding his own ministry, “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
Those whose goal is to restore New Testament purity to the Church today have often called on all believers to simply “speak where the Bible speaks” and conversely, “to be silent where the Bible is silent.” A further amplification is to “use Bible words for Bible things.” The appeal is to be careful in the choice and use of our words, so that our meaning is both clear and biblical.
Examples and applications abound. In the New Testament, a pastor was also called an elder and an overseer, sometimes translated bishop (1 Peter 5:1-2). These labels fit the same office – that of the spiritual leaders of each congregation – and are never applied to the evangelist or preacher. To call the preacher a pastor is to impute roles and authority to one who is not appointed and may not be qualified for them.
Whether we are referring to a doctrine, a biblical practice, or a divine being, it is crucial that we speak with accuracy and precision. Our words communicate our thoughts. More importantly, when we are speaking from Scripture they speak God’s thoughts. Let them do so correctly.