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The drift in modern translations is to produce a colloquial Bible with a simple vocabulary and syntax. What lies behind this drift? Some of the prefaces answer the question. The assumption is that the Bible itself is a simple book intended for people of limited education and intelligence. Here, for example, are statements from prefaces and other documents:
- Since God “stooped to the level of human language to communicate with his people,” the translators’ task is to set forth the “truth of the biblical revelation in language that is as clear and simple as possible.”
- “Jesus talked plainly to people.… Jesus, the master Teacher, was very careful not to give people more than they could grasp.… We are trying to re-capture that level of communication.… Jesus was able to communicate clearly, even with children” (SEB).
- “After ascertaining as accurately as possible the meaning of the original, the translators’ next task was to express that meaning in a manner and form easily understood by the readers” (GNB).
If we take the time to unpack the claims here, the lapses of logic begin to emerge. First, the fact that God stooped to human understanding when he revealed his truth in human words does not itself settle the question of how simple or sophisticated, how transparent or complex, the Bible is. Human language encompasses an immense range of simplicity and difficulty. Nor does the fact that God accommodated himself to human understanding in itself say anything about the level of intelligence and artistic sophistication possessed by the writers and assumed audience of the Bible.
The preface quoted above that cites the example of Jesus to support the claim that the Bible is simple shows how winsome the claims can be on the surface and yet how wrong they actually are when we stop to analyze them. Contrary to the implication of the statement that “Jesus was able to communicate clearly, even to children,” we have no recorded statements of Jesus to children. And what about the claim that Jesus “was very careful not to give people more than they could grasp”? This is directly contradicted by Jesus’ explanation of why he spoke in parables: “To you [the disciples] it has been given to know…but to them [the unbelieving masses] it has not been given.… This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11, 13, ESV). This is indeed a mysterious statement, already giving the lie to the claim that Jesus’ statements are simple and easy to understand. My interpretation of Jesus’ statement is that he did not intend his statements to carry all of their meaning on the surface. I would also speak of “delayed action insight” as summing up Jesus’ strategy, by which I mean that those who ponder Jesus’ sayings will come to an understanding of them, whereas people who are unwilling to penetrate beneath the surface will not.
If we stop to consider what the implied opposites of “simple” are, it becomes obvious that multiple qualities can be set over against simplicity. Something can be simple as opposed to complex and intricate. It can be simple as distinct from sophisticated. Or it can be simple and easy to understand instead of difficult. As we turn now to look at specimens of biblical passages, all of these qualities—simple, complex, difficult, sophisticated—will be present, for the Bible is all of these in different passages.
To test how simple or complex and difficult the Bible is, we need only to look at the text itself. To begin, a cursory glance at any scholarly Bible commentary will reveal at once how difficult a book the Bible often is. Scholars pore over it, write whole books on it, write articles on the minutest details, and disagree with each other (or admit perplexity themselves) over what the text says and means. Even when the vocabulary is translated into simple terms, the very arrangement and content of the material show that the Bible is not a simple book. Consider the following (randomly selected) passage (Isaiah 38:12–13, ESV):
My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;
I calmed myself until morning;
like a lion he breaks all my bones;
from day to night you bring me to an end.
This is not a simple passage. It requires one’s best powers of concentration to follow the flow of thought and images. In what sense is the speaker’s dwelling plucked up? How can a person roll up his or her own life like a weaver? How can God cut a person off from a loom? Exactly how does God bring the speaker to an end? Why does the speaker claim to have calmed himself “until morning,” specifically? What does it mean that God brings the speaker to an end “from day to night”? What are we to make of the way in which the speaker shuttles back and forth between referring to God as “he” and “you”? I repeat—this passage is not simple. On the contrary, it is a difficult passage. Let me note in passing that the relative difficulty of the passage is not a matter of vocabulary, and thus merely scaling down the language in translation will not make the passage easy to assimilate.
Related to the claim that the Bible is a simple book is the assumption that the Bible carries all of its meaning on the surface. The passage from Isaiah that I have quoted belies this claim too. One cannot read quickly through the passage. It requires stopping and pondering. This is the normal situation with the Bible, which is a meditative book, often elusive on a first reading.
The relative difficulty of the passage from Isaiah is a literary difficulty in the sense that it consists of the flow of thought and the presence of figures of speech. Another type of difficulty that we encounter in many passages of the Bible is the presence of weighty and intricate theological content. Here is a random specimen: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18, ESV). There are some big words and big ideas here: wrath, revealed, ungodliness, unrighteousness, suppress the truth. A lot of the theological teaching of the Bible is like this. It inclines toward technical theological terminology. It is impossible to retain the full theological meaning if one removes all vestiges of technical vocabulary.
Much of the Bible is intricately and artistically organized. There is a lot of chiasm in the Bible, for example. Chiasm, from the Greek word for “crossing,” consists of a passage that repeats the main elements of the first half in reverse order in the second half. Here is an example (with key terms highlighted to show the balance and symmetry):
Seek me and live;
but do not seek Bethel,
and do not enter into Gilgal
or cross over to Beersheba;
for Gilgal shall surely go into exile,
and Bethel shall come to nothing.
Seek the Lord and live. (Amos 5:4–6, ESV)
Modern biblical scholarship has repeatedly shown how rhetorically sophisticated a book the Bible is.
This is not to say that the Bible is not sometimes simple. It is. Here is a type of passage that we find throughout the Bible:
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:2–3, ESV)
But writing that is this simple and direct comprises relatively little of the Bible. In fact, I had to look a relatively long time to find a passage that was totally devoid of figurative language or statements that require interpretation. Totally transparent passages are the exception rather than the rule in the Bible.
The Bible encompasses an immense range of style and content. Someone has said that in the waters of Scripture a lamb can walk and an elephant can swim. Victorian poet Francis Thompson called the Bible “the most elastic of all books,” adding that “whoever opens it, learnéd or simple, equally finds something…appropriate to his understanding.”
What is the result when translation committees begin with the assumption of a simple Bible that carries its meaning on the surface and is devoid of sophisticated technique? When translators begin with the premise that the Bible is uniformly simple, they use the process of translation to produce the Bible that they envision. They simplify the vocabulary and syntax. They modify or eliminate figurative language. They add explanatory commentary in their translation. They eliminate theological language. Rhetorical patterning often evaporates. The end product is a Bible that deviates significantly from the original.
Contrariwise, if translators begin with no presuppositions about the level of difficulty represented by the Bible, they are free to follow the actual contours of the writing and to be faithful to whatever they find in the biblical text. Sometimes the text before them will, indeed, be simple. At other times it will be difficult, complex, or elusive. The task of translators is simply to reproduce in English whatever they find in the original. When they do, they will have created a translation that is transparent to the original text—not necessarily transparent to a modern reader, but to the original text.
Requirements That Must Exist
Proverbs 2:1-2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to discernment;
After reading verses 1-5 of chapter 2, one can clearly see that it is their responsibility to acquire wisdom. You or your is found eleven times in these first five verses. Each of us is obligated to incline our ear, apply our heart, cry out for, lift our voice, seek, search for wisdom, and then we will understand the fear of Jehovah, the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of God we will find. All of this is found in God’s Word. What exactly is wisdom, though? It is the ability to make sensible decisions and judgments based on knowledge and experience; wisdom is sensibly applied knowledge. The wisdom literature genre is found throughout the Bible, but especially in the book of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. However, Wisdom is found in all of the genres of Scripture, even the life lessons within the narrative accounts.
In Chapter 1, Solomon gave his listeners a visual word picture of the consequences for those who do not listen to the corrective words of wisdom, warnings. In Chapter 2, he praises the incredible blessings and happiness that wisdom brings. In 2:1-4, Solomon lists three conditional clauses (requirements) that must exist or be brought about before it is possible that one can understand the fear of Jehovah and find the knowledge of God, each beginning with the word “if you (singular)” (vss 1, 3, 4). That is a big “if” because most of mankind pays no attention to God’s Word. Clearly, it is up to you to seek wisdom and its handmaidens: discernment and understanding. First, “if you” are going to find joy in studying God’s Word, you must be willing to receive Jehovah’s words (the Bible) and treat it like it is a treasure that you would never wish to lose valuing it above all else. My words refer to the Law (thoughts and ideas) that Solomon has embraced in active faith and obedience, which he is teaching as well.
Are you really “attentive” and listening carefully when the Word of God is being explained at your Christian meetings? (Eph. 4:20-21) Do you ‘incline your heart [seat or center of the intellect] to discernment’ (commit yourself to), which is the insight, good sense, or wisdom to apply God’s Word correctly. Of course, in order to incline your heart to discernment, you must be present at Christian meetings. (Proverbs 18:1) Thus, every Christian meeting can be a blessing for you if you are attentive and follow along in your Bibles. (Ac 2:1-4; Heb. 10:24-25. Being attentive means paying attention, taking notice of (maybe taking notes on a tablet), accepting the information as true, and responding to it.
We must pay close attention to the Word of God, for it is the wisdom of God, which can make us wise to the path to salvation and how not to stumble off of that path. We need to appreciate that the inspired words that the authors penned while being moved along by the Holy Spirit are, in fact, are the words of God and are the source and standard of wisdom and understanding. We must listen to them, obey them, get them down into our minds that are mentally bent toward evil and down into our treacherous hearts. This will give us the mind of Christ, making us biblical-minded, with a biblical worldview. We need to receive the Word of God, the readiness of mind and move to welcome it. This needs to be the case with the commandments as well as the promises, without grumbling or questioning. As an aside, questioning a doctrinal view is not questioning the Word of God; it is challenging the word of man that developed the doctrinal view. We must receive and retain the Word of God and lodge it in our hearts, that it may always be there to guide us.
Having Insight, Good Sense, or Wisdom to Apply God’s Word Correctly
Proverbs 2:3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
3 For if you cry out for discernment
and raise your voice for understanding,
The second requirement or condition that must exist if we are to understand the fear of Jehovah and find the knowledge of God is to “cry for discernment,” which, again, is the insight, good sense, or wisdom to apply God’s Word correctly. The Hebrew verb here rendered cry out (קָרָא qara) has the sense of loud, insistent crying or shouting that one needs help, begging that he be delivered from distress. Wisdom will be ours when our desire gets to the point where we are willing to cry aloud for it. The desperate one ‘cries for discernment’ to the truth of God’s Word and applies it in his life. If we cannot recognize the importance and significance, the fullness of wisdom will elude us. Discernment (Insight): A Hebrew word frequently rendered “discernment” (תְּבוּנָה tebunah) is related to the word (בִּינָה binah), translated “understanding” or “insight.” Just as is the case with understanding, discernment includes seeing or identifying things, but the sense of the word that recognizes and separates the parts, considering, or assessing one in the light of the others. It is having the capacity for rational thought or inference, or discrimination. It can be defined as understanding, insight, and discernment, a good sense or wisdom to respond appropriately and correctly to Jehovah and the Word of God. (Deut. 4:6) Understanding (בִּין bin; בּוּנָה Bunah) is the ability to see how the parts or aspects of something are connected to one another. One who understands can see the big picture (the entire matter) and not just the isolated facts. (Prov. 2:5; 9:10; 18:15) Discernment and understanding involve comprehending, perceiving, grasping what the authors meant, identifying individual verses in light of the whole, weighing, or evaluating one verse in the light of the others.
Seeking and Searching
Proverbs 2:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 if you keep seeking her like silver
and searching for her as for hidden treasures,
The third requirement or condition that must exist if we are to understand the fear of Jehovah and find the knowledge of God is seeking and searching for hidden treasure, i.e., be committed and determined in one’s quest. History has shown the lengths humans will go to in their quest to discover gold or silver. This makes us think of the mining exploits of men, such as those of the gold rushes in the early United States of American history. Men have spent a lifetime trying to discover gold and silver. What actual value, though, does gold really have? Indeed, we can all agree that the knowledge of God demands far greater dedication, and the treasure of eternal life is a far greater find. The knowledge of God is undoubtedly a spiritual treasure. Therefore, we should have far more zeal as we seek wisdom, discernment, and understanding of God and his will. Solomon likens this knowledge to “hid treasures.” The knowledge of God (hidden treasure) will not jump out of its place of hiding and deposit itself into the minds of those who are idle in their quest or search. It requires effort and perseverance on the part of those seeking and searching.
The “her” of seeking her and searching for her is a reference back to wisdom from verse 2. The imperfect Hebrew verb behind the English seeking (בָּקַשׁ baqash) has the sense of diligently acquiring information, trying to get to or reach something that someone greatly desires. This verb is used when one is seeking information from God. (Ex. 33:7) in a similar but figurative sense, one may “seek” the face of God. (2 Sam. 21:1) Here (baqash) is used in reference to our searching for information, that is, a mental pursuit. The imperfect Hebrew verb behind the English searching (חָפַשׂ chaphas) has the sense of searching for, examining, trying to locate or discover information, in this case about the wisdom of God. The Hebrew noun behind the English treasures (מַטְמוֹן matmon or מַטְמֹן matmon or מַטְמֻן matmun) has the sense of something of value that is hidden.
Searching for treasures requires discipline and determination. It calls for much digging, be it actual treasure or seeking and searching for the knowledge of God, for “discernment,” and for “understanding.” This also demands much digging or getting below the surface knowledge. It is not sufficient to skim over the surface of God’s Word. The invaluable treasures of the knowledge of God are for all who, like a determined, tenacious, resolute treasure hunter, are willing to seek them. Are we persistent in finding the knowledge of God? How can we improve our ability to do so? Indeed, accurate knowledge of God and his Word is like a hidden treasure. What could be more valuable than the knowledge of God and Christ, which leads to eternal life? (John 17:3) Again, this treasure must also be sought for and discovered. Then, it must also be retained. It can also be expanded or grown. All of this means much effort on our part.
Carrying Out the “If You” Conditions
Proverbs 2:5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
5 then you will understand the fear of Jehovah
and find the knowledge of God.
If you fulfill these three “if you” requirements or conditions of verses 1, 3, 4 and keep searching for, examining, trying to locate, or discover information for wisdom, God says that you will finally understand the fear of Jehovah but will also find the knowledge of God. You are promised that you will gain God (2:5-8), and you will attain the wisdom of God. (2:9-11) The person searching for wisdom will find far more than mere human wisdom, as God is the source of all wisdom. When you enter the path that takes you deeper and deeper into the wisdom of God, you will find the very knowledge of God at the end of the path. When we recognize and accept the sovereignty of God, the fear of Jehovah, we will be ready to truly listen and accept him. Solomon identifies this treasure for you as “the knowledge of God,” specifically, the truth about God and his will and purposes as revealed in the Bible. (2:5) There are numerous aspects to this treasure: true teachings, wise counsel, insight into the nature of God and his personality, as well as what lies ahead, and much more.
God Gives Wisdom to His Holy Ones
Proverbs 2:6-8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
6 For Jehovah gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
7 he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
8 guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his holy ones.
Jehovah represents himself symbolically as having a mouth (פֶּה peh) to convey to the reader about his communication, speech that gives you information, exhortation, counsel, or commands, which are contained in Scripture, wherein God speaks to you. (cf. Heb. 1:1-2; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) The upright (יָשָׁר yashar) are God’s true believers, his holy ones, who are diligently seeking and searching to know, love, and obey God and to live righteously as one can within their human imperfection. (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 5:12) You, the holy one is keeping the new covenant (Jer. 31.31; Heb. 8:8-12); thus, you know wisdom, which has served as a shield (מְגִנָּה meginnah) of defense from the offensive weapons of Satan, the world, and your own human imperfection, as you walk (הָלַךְ halak) in integrity (תֹּם tom) a state of blamelessness being free of guilt, guarding (נָצַר natsar) you, making you safe from danger within your relationship with Jehovah (Ps 40:12) on the paths of justice, watching (שׁוֹמֵר Shomer or שֹׁמֵר Shomer) over them. Hebrew terms relating to integrity have the root meaning of that which is “whole” or “complete.” They often suggest moral soundness and uprightness. Those walking in integrity are unbending in devotion to Jehovah. He is a protective shield for such blameless ones because they display true wisdom and conform to His righteous standards. This does not mean, though, that Jehovah will not allow you to be tested. He did so even with Job. “God is faithful,” the apostle Paul noted to the Corinthians. In full, he said, “No temptation has overtaken you, but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” – 1 Corinthians 10:13.
Jehovah God will give wisdom to those seeking and searching as though it were a hidden treasure. Imagine a gold mine on the side of a hill. If someone wanted enough money to have a meal or two without working too hard, he could just pick up some specs of gold on the hillside. However, if he wanted a lifetime of meals, a life of financial security, he would be working in the mine daylight to dark. Sadly, when those searching for treasure crossed America to California in 1849 in search of gold, they soon discovered that the odds of striking it rich were ten thousand to one. It is quite different from Jehovah God, as he gives wisdom to all, “from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Yes, God gives out wisdom free; he is the mine for those that want to be wise.
We need to make this a part of our prayer life. The psalmist prayed, “Teach me your way, O Jehovah, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” (Psalm 86:11) This is one prayer that we know will be answered. However, the answer will be based on the level that we act in harmony with our prayers. Are we willing to buy out the time to acquire wisdom, understanding, and discernment? A mere 30-60 minutes a day of Bible study will bring results that one might not have ever imagined. Are we willing to work 30 years to pay off a house, 40-45 years to receive a social security check (USA), but not 30-60 minutes a day to acquire the wisdom of God that leads to eternal life?
The Bible is set up to offer spiritual food for the babe, the young man, and the older man, as it certainly has different stages of difficulty. There is no guarantee that deeper study will equal spiritual maturity, but the lack thereof will lead to spiritual immaturity. While there is no assurance, if we are progressed in the deeper truth of God’s Word, we should also be progressed in holiness and obedience to God’s will.
 The Hebrew word rendered here as “discernment” (tevunah) is related to the word binah, translated “understanding.” Both appear in Proverbs 2:3.
 See 2.2 ftn.
 Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 66–71.