Words I Never Heard in the Bible

“I hear words I never heard in the Bible,” sang Simon and Garfunkel in their song “Keep the Customer Satisfied.” It’s surprising how many words we have thought were in the Bible, until we try to find them: words like retirement, depression, tolerance.

Simon and Garfunkel hear word they never heard in the Bible.
Dutch National Archives. By Rob Bogaerts / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Or, let’s start with: “Jesus Loves Me.” The Sunday School song says, “This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But just try to find all three words together in such a statement anywhere in the Bible. The closest you’ll find is Galatians 2:20, where Paul speaks of his “faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The exact words are not there, but the teaching is written in between the lines, all over the New Testament. Yes, it was the Christian portion of the Bible that created that belief.

Two famous lines that are often mistaken for Bible quotes are “God helps those who help themselves” (Benjamin Franklin) and “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” The Bible does contain a close parallel to the latter in 1 Corinthians 10:13, where we are told that God “will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will make with the temptation also a way of escape, so that you may be able to endure it.” The exact words are not there, but the idea is there.

“Retirement” is a word worthy of a word study, even though Billy Graham insists that it’s not in his Bible. It is in my Bible – my Bible says seven times in Numbers 4 that priests were forced to retire after age 50. (This has implications for how old Zechariah and Elizabeth were when they conceived John the Baptist, because Zechariah was still in the rotation for priestly duty.) Interestingly, Leviticus 27 puts a monetary value on senior citizens that is only half the value of other adults, but the context is paying a vow to God.  If you have vowed a senior citizen to God, the amount of money you may give to God in exchange for that person is half of what one would pay for other adults. One could see that as a “senior discount!”

What about the word “depression”? I discovered this puzzle when a group of my college friends who were jokingly dubbed “The Depressed Men” (the name stuck – visit us at www.thedepressedmen.org) asked me to translate the name into Hebrew for a tee shirt. It wasn’t easy! I tried looking for sadness, but found the generic word “bad” (see my post http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/2018/03/god-bad-depends-mean/). Other options are words that could just as easily mean physical pain or sickness (Isaiah 53:3 – “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”).

Again, it’s not hard to find sadness and depression in the Bible, but it’s hard to find a specific word for it there. The best term I can find in Hebrew is the word yāgōn, the opposite of “joy,” poetically paired with “sighing,” and often translated “sorrow.” In Isaiah 35:10 = 51:11, God says the redeemed of the Lord shall return to Zion from exile, and “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Likewise in Jeremiah 31:13, God says, “I will turn their mourning into joy, and I shall comfort them, and I shall make them rejoice from their sorrow.”

“Depression” is a little easier to find in the Greek Bible, but not by much. The classic noun athumia is not found in the New Testament, and only twice in the Septuagint (1 Samuel 1:6, Psalm 119:53), but the verb form (used nine times in the Septuagint) is found in Colossians 3:21, “Parents, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged / depressed.”

Tolerance is touted as such an all-important word today, but where can you find it in the Bible? Jesus says it will be “more tolerable” (anektoteron) for Sodom on Judgment Day than for the towns who heard him but rejected him (Matthew 10:15 = 11:24 = Luke 10:12). This precise word is used only a total of six times in the Bible, all in the above context. The other times we find the idea in the Bible are extended meanings of words that have a different standard meaning. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had tolerated (literally “looked upon”) sin in my heart, the Lord would not have heard me.” And in Revelation 2:20, Jesus criticizes the Thyatira church for being too tolerant when he says, “You tolerate (literally “permit”) that woman Jezebel,” who teaches that fornication and meat offered to idols is OK. Jesus was not as “tolerant” as some imagine!

Where can we find the word “fun” in the Bible? In Proverbs 10:23, we read that doing zimmah (“wickedness,” which more than half the time means “sex crime”) is “sport” to a fool, but wisdom [is sport] to a person of understanding. The word “sport” here is that word that means both “play” and “laughter” (see my post http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/2017/10/laughing-playing-beyond-childs-play/). In 1 Timothy 6:17, we read that God richly gives us all things “for enjoyment” (apolausis), a verse that refutes the claim that God is a cosmic killjoy. God actually gives us some wealth for personal enjoyment, as long as it doesn’t become an addiction or idolatrous priority.

Hēdonē, the classic word from which we get “hedonism,” is found only four times in the New Testament, and twelve times in the Apocrypha. In Luke 8:14, the sower’s good seed is choked out of the human heart by the “pleasures of life.” The word has only negative vibes in Titus 3:3, James 4:1 and 4:3, and 2 Peter 2:13. It may be hard to find the word “fun” in the Bible, but we can find pleasure and laughter. We can’t find the classic Greek word eudaimonia for “happiness” in the Bible, but Jesus does teach us what it means to be “blessed” (makarios).

And sorry, cat lovers, but the domestic cat is found nowhere in the Bible except the Epistle of Jeremiah in the Apocrypha, where it says that idols can’t be real gods because cats sit on them.

As for the words that Simon and Garfunkel complained they never heard in the Bible, see my post from a year ago: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/2017/07/bible-teach-obscene-language/. Here you’ll find words that most pagan Greek authors won’t use!


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