Read the Bible to Understand It
“Above all things get wisdom; whatever else you get, get understanding,” commands God’s Word, the Bible. How can you apply this counsel to your Bible reading?
THE Bible is the only Book authored by God. It contains God’s thoughts. We need to get these thoughts to gain everlasting life. Since there is more to getting God’s thoughts than running the eyes across lines of print, we must understand what we read. Not only that but we must understand God’s thoughts the way he wants us to understand them. So we ought to read the Bible, then, to understand it God’s way. Do you?
One way to tell whether you are reading God’s Word to understand it is to answer two questions. What translation of the Bible do you generally use for Bible study? Why do you use it—because you know it is among the most helpful in making God’s Word understandable, or just because you have long been accustomed to using it?
Readers of the most widely used English translation of the Bible, the King James Version, often find that they stick to this translation because they are familiar with it and unfamiliar with modern translations. They prefer the beautiful Shakespearean language, perhaps, and do not want to see it changed. Though unknowingly, they may read the Bible more for its literary effect than for understanding. Or they may feel that a Bible must be authorized by a religious organization or a religious monarch to be authoritative. But in The Watchtower of February 1, 1957, we learned in the article “Do You Know the King James Version?” that there is no sound basis for any Christian to believe that the King James Version or any other translation is the exclusive version of the Bible’s Author. Since the Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, translation into today’s languages is necessary. Thus we have seen in the past few years many modern translations of the Bible.
But what of the King James translation, the Bible most English-speaking people use? This version was published in 1611. That was over three hundred years ago. For the people of that time that version’s language was modern and up to date. But language changes. As a result readers of the Authorized Version today often fail to understand what they read; all too frequently they misunderstand God’s thoughts. Do you know how serious this is?
LANGUAGE CHANGES BECLOUD UNDERSTANDING
Since King James’ day hundreds of English words have changed in meaning or have taken on new meanings. These words, when read in the Authorized Version, usually becloud the modern reader’s understanding, though the reader of three hundred years ago readily understood them the right way. How befogging are language changes to understanding? A few examples will prove enlightening.
Today the word “conversation” means an exchange of thoughts by talking. So modern readers may think they understand the apostle Paul’s counsel to Christian wives as the King James Version renders it: “Ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.” Now what does this mean? Does it mean that conversation, as we understand it, is the principal means by which a Christian wife can win over an unbelieving husband? And must a Christian wife fear her husband?
Now where can we go for enlightenment? We think we know what the word “conversation” and the word “fear” mean so we may accept a wrong understanding. How so? Because the word “conversation” meant something different three hundred years ago. But now if we go to a modern translation of the Bible, such as the New World Translation, we get the right understanding: “You wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, in order that, if any are not obedient to the word, they may be won without a word through the conduct of their wives, because of having been eyewitnesses of your chaste conduct together with deep respect.”—1 Pet. 3:1, 2.
What a difference! It is principally a wife’s right conduct that may win over an unbelieving husband, and it is not fear but deep respect that a Christian wife should show toward her husband. A modern translation has dispelled the fog created by language change, and the sun of understanding has beamed on our mind.
Read now the Scripture in the King James Version at 1 Corinthians 10:24, 25: “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth. Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat.” The modern reader might well ask: What does it mean to seek another man’s wealth? And what is the shambles; what kind of food is bought at a shambles? The clear language of a modern Bible translation penetrates the foggy barrier to understanding by rendering it: “Let each one keep seeking, not his own advantage, but that of the other person. Everything that is sold in a meat market keep eating.” (NW) How clear now! We are not to seek another’s gold or silver but rather to do that which will bring him advantage. And the “shambles” is merely a meat market.
What do you think of the word “addicted”? Does it not suggest slavishly following a habit, usually a bad one? But three hundred years ago the word did not have this bad connotation. So when we read the King James Version at 1 Corinthians 16:15, “They have addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,” it causes us to wonder. Is this good or bad? The New World Translation makes it clear: “They set themselves to minister to the holy ones”; a commendable thing.
Some words often used in the King James Version have been buried by a landslide of new meanings so that their original meaning is lost sight of. Take, for example, the word “grace.” It frequently appears in the Authorized Version. What do you think it means? It means many things today. It may mean beauty of form or manner, pleasing or agreeable quality, good will, mercy, allowance of time, virtue or excellence and even other things. So when the apostle said, “By the grace of God I am what I am,” what did he mean? The New World Translation avoids beclouding the reader’s mind by rendering this scripture: “By God’s undeserved kindness I am what I am.” “Undeserved kindness” is the Bible meaning here. The word “grace,” which can mean so many things, obscures the correct thought.—1 Cor. 15:10, NW.
Some other words used by the King James translators are not even used today. When we encounter these our rate of understanding may slow down to a snail’s pace. Worse than that, it is like running a race blindfolded; you will stumble and fall. So mentally a reader of the King James Version may stumble and fall when he encounters obsolete words. Says God’s prophet at Jeremiah 4:22: “They are sottish children.” What kind of children are these? A modern translation clears the wreckage of an obsolete word out of our pathway of understanding: “They are stupid children.” (RS) A roadblock to our understanding in the King James Version is the word “overcharge.” What does the phrase “that I may not overcharge you all” mean? The obstacle to understanding is removed by the New World Translation, it reading: “not to be too harsh in what I say.”—2 Cor. 2:5, NW.
DISTORTING GOD’S WORD
Language change can distort God’s Word if we use a Bible that is not up to date. These distortions either give a reader an entirely wrong idea or may cause him, in despair, to give up trying to understand at all. Take, for example, Jesus’ words at Matthew 11:12 according to the King James Version: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” Will God allow one to attain his kingdom by violent means? How unthinkable! But what is the right understanding? A modern translation removes the distortion: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of the heavens is the goal toward which men press, and those pressing forward are seizing it.”—NW.
The change in meaning over the years of the word “prevent” leads to serious confusion in the minds of those who rely solely on the King James Version. Thus at 1 Thessalonians 4:15 this version reads: “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” How can the living in any way prevent the dead from being resurrected? No, the meaning is distorted by the modern reader’s understanding of the word “prevent.” So the New World Translation illuminates our understanding: “We the living who survive to the presence of the Lord shall in no way precede those who have fallen asleep in death.” Now what happens to understanding when a reader of the King James Version has no modern translation and does not know that the word “prevent” used to mean “precede”? He is confronted with an absurd situation, and God’s Word appears distorted.
What do you think of a person who is “poor in spirit”? Perhaps you think he lacks energy, vitality, determination or will power. Now Jesus said, according to the King James Version, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” These are very important words spoken by the Master; we need to understand them correctly. Does the reader of the Authorized Version understand correctly? It is most unlikely, for the true thought expressed by Jesus is, as a modern translation correctly renders it: “Happy are those who are conscious of their spiritual need.” (Matt. 5:3, NW) That is a vastly different thought from that which readers of the King James Version usually get. One who is conscious of his spiritual need craves an understanding of God’s Word; he does something about it. He takes definite steps to take in God’s Word and to understand it. Such a person is definitely not weak-willed!
OPPOSITE FROM THE TRUTH
Sometimes words change so much that they take on a meaning entirely opposite from that which they once had. When this happens to words in the King James translation the reader gets just the opposite from the truth; he gets wrong understanding. How would you understand, for instance, the word “let”? Today it means “allow.” So you can imagine how today’s reader will understand this scripture in the Authorized Version: “The mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed.” Does this mean that the apostles of Christ, when still alive, allowed lawless, apostate Christians to come into and remain in the Christian congregation?
No, just the opposite is meant, as the New World Translation shows: “The mystery of this lawlessness is already at work; but only till he who is right now acting as a restraint gets to be out of the way. Then, indeed, the lawless one will be revealed.”—2 Thess. 2:7, 8, NW.
This, then, is the crux of the matter: In the days of King James the word “let” meant hinder, just the opposite of what it means today. The apostles did not allow apostate Christians to flourish within the congregation. On the contrary the apostles acted as a restraint to spiritual lawlessness as long as they were living. After their death the lawless, false Christians would begin to flourish.
When a change in the meaning of a word dresses up falsehood in the garb of truth, the matter is indeed serious. Yet this is what happens. For example, a Christian’s understanding of the doctrine of the resurrection may be just the opposite of the truth if he uses only a Bible translation made some three hundred years ago. Thus the user of the King James Version reads Jesus’ words about the resurrection this way: “The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” The word “damnation” today suggests condemnation. This may result in people’s believing that there will be a resurrection of people who did evil things just for the purpose of condemning them. But that is false doctrine. Also false doctrine is the belief that all evil persons will come back in this resurrection. How do we know?
A modern Bible translation sets the matter straight, giving us the right understanding of Jesus’ words: “The hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28, 29, NW) So it is not a resurrection of condemnation at all. Rather, these persons will be judged by their future deeds during the 1,000-year reign of Christ the King. And those who come back are not all the persons who ever lived that did vile things but only those who are in the “memorial tombs,” in God’s memory.
Another example of changing words’ giving us an opposite meaning today is found at Luke 21:9. This pertains to Jesus’ vital prophecy concerning the sign of the last days of this evil world. According to the King James Version Jesus said: “These things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by.” But “by and by” today suggests some uncertain future time. Yet Jesus really said, as the New World Translation puts it: “These things must occur first, but the accomplished end does not occur immediately.”
Space does not allow further discussion of how language in the King James Version beclouds understanding, but here is a list of a few more examples, together with the word or phrase used by a modern translation to enable us to get the thought God wants us to get.
KING JAMES VERSION MODERN TRANSLATION* BIBLE TEXT
alleging proving by references Acts 17:3
anon at once Mark 1:30
barbarous foreign-speaking people Acts 28:2
centurion army officer Acts 10:22
charger plate Matt. 14:11
charity love 1 Cor. 13:13
cheek teeth fangs (RS) Joel 1:6
confectionaries ointment mixers 1 Sam. 8:13
divers places in one place after Matt. 24:7
drunken sufficiently fed 1 Cor. 11:21
leasing lies (RS) Ps. 4:2
mortify put . . . to death Rom. 8:13
outlandish women foreign wives Neh. 13:26
publican tax collector Matt. 10:3
sons of Belial scoundrels 1 Sam. 2:12
sod pottage was boiling up some Gen. 25:29
suffer let Mark 10:14
take no thought do not become anxious Matt. 10:19
turtle turtledove (RS) S. of So.
unicorn wild bull Num. 23:22
winked at overlooked Acts 17:30
do you to wit let you know 2 Cor. 8:1
wotteth not does not know Gen. 39:8
New World Translation unless otherwise marked
Understanding God’s Word is the thing of supreme importance. Long usage, familiarity with certain passages, sentimentality and musical language—these ought not, in the judgment of any thinking Christian, overshadow clearness of meaning. Truth or error, clarity or obscurity, understanding or misunderstanding—these are the considerations. Which will it be for you? God commands: “Get understanding.”—Prov. 4:7.
So if you have been using only the King James Version of the Bible, take steps to obtain a translation that will bring God’s thoughts to you in the most understandable form. Investigate the New World Translation. Allow Jehovah’s witnesses to show it to you, which they will be glad to do. Above all, make progress toward a goal all Christians must reach: Read the Bible to understand it!