A dictionary is a handy tool for Bible study. As we encounter unfamiliar words or, more often, as we try to meditate on the deeper meanings of words in scripture, we often find ourselves reaching for this tool. But there are some pitfalls here.
It is possible to misuse the dictionary and be misled by it. To avoid these pitfalls, we must remember two important points.
Dictionaries are descriptive.
First, dictionaries are descriptive and not prescriptive. In other words, dictionaries describe how words are used in a language, but they do not necessarily prescribe their meanings in a particular context. This is why every year various media outlets will publish stories about the funny new words added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Dictionaries document words and the meanings of words, and they add new words and new meanings as they arise. And this is even why we have something like the Urban Dictionary, which records street slang meanings for everyday words.
So, when we pick up a dictionary to study scripture, we must remember that the dictionary is recording a range of meanings for a word, but it cannot define exactly what the writer originally meant. It can get us in the ballpark, but to get the meaning intended, we must consider the immediate context. We must consider how this word is used by others (within the same time period), and we must consider how the author tends to use the word elsewhere. Oftentimes, in fact, we will find an author uses a common word in a very unique or technical way.
Words usually have one meaning at a time.
Second, we must remember a word never means its full range of meaning at one time. This error typically looks like this: We take our dictionary, look up the word in question, and then begin to mull on every definition of the word and think about every possible nuance and how it may shade the meaning of the Bible verse. The problem is the author did not intend every possible meaning (especially for words that have accumulated centuries of definitions).
So again, the dictionary can be misleading here. We rarely use a word with all its meanings in mind. Once in a while, a poet or prophet or a comedian may have a double meaning in mind, but never do we see every possible meaning intended. That just doesn’t work. For example, the word “cleave” means either to separate (like with a cleaver) or to join together (like “leaving and cleaving” in marriage), but both definitions are not intended at the same time. To know which meaning is in play, we will need to look at the context, not the dictionary. But often when we study the Bible, we tend to quote every shade of meaning for some word in the text. However, this is not fair to the author. The author is no doubt hovering in some specific range of meaning, but he does not intend for us to employ every definition (especially as some words and their meanings stretch across centuries). Again, the most important thing to search for is not every meaning, but the meaning the author intends.
So, the next time you pick up a dictionary, remember (as my linguistics professor often reminded our class) that it was not “handed down from on high.” A dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is a historical record of meaning, but not the fount of meaning. Therefore, rely heavily on context.