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The Bible and Shifting Word Meanings over Time

Psalm 119:89

For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Today, we will delve into a captivating topic that has both historical and spiritual implications. Our discussion will centre around the evolution of English language and how it has impacted the way we understand and interpret the Holy Scriptures.


Language, like all things temporal, is subject to change. English, as we know it today, is not the English of yesteryears. The meanings of many words have evolved, some subtly, others profoundly, since the time of the earliest recorded English translations of the Bible. To give you an example of this, two such words that have seen substantial semantic shifts are "gay" and "let."


In older English usage, found in the King James Version of the Bible among other texts, the word "gay" signified 'joyous', 'carefree', or 'bright and showy.' But in modern English, "gay" is commonly used to refer to homosexuals which the Bible called sodomites. This change, while minor on the surface, can lead to misunderstandings when reading older texts, including the Bible, without proper contextual knowledge. Like how the rainbow which once represented God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:13) is now interpreted by the world to represent something poles apart from this.


Similarly, the word "let" has also undergone a significant transformation. In the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, "let" was often used to mean 'hinder' or 'prevent.' This is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, where it says, "For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way." In this context, "let" means 'to restrain.' However, in modern English, "let" is commonly understood to mean 'allow' or 'permit', almost the exact opposite of its older usage.


These shifts in language are not merely academic or trivial; they bear significant implications on how we interpret and understand the Holy Scriptures. We must remain aware that our modern uses and understanding of words may not align with those of the original translators. Therefore, it is always essential to approach the Bible with a heart and mind open to learning and understanding, guided by the Spirit and with the aid of knowledgeable teachers and reliable resources.


A clear understanding of the words and their meanings as intended by the original translators can enhance our comprehension of the Scriptures, deepen our faith, and bring us closer to God. We must remember that the Bible is not just a book but also a guide, a counsellor, a beacon illuminating our path through the journey of life.


We should strive not only to read but to understand, to seek the wisdom of the ages as delivered through the Word. As Proverbs 2:6 reminds us, "For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding."


Let us then be diligent in our study of the Scriptures, mindful of the shifting sands of language, yet steadfast in our quest for truth and understanding. And as we do this, let us not forget to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our ultimate teacher and guide. In closing, I urge you to embrace the rich and evolving tapestry of language, understanding its impact on our comprehension of the holy texts. Be always ready to learn, to grow, and to adapt.