Understanding the Sense of Bible Words

Words can take on different senses depending upon the context in which they are found.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

The term “sense” is a common word. In sentence structure, sense has to do with the way a word is employed within a given context.

Even the word itself can be used in a variety of ways.

Sense, for example, may refer to the exercise of wisdom, as in the statement, “He is known for his common sense.”

Or it may reflect someone’s impulsive opinion: “My immediate sense is that your idea is not practical.”

The word may connote the use of one’s physical organs, such as our ability to see, hear, touch, taste, or smell.

And sometimes the term may suggest a strong impression, as when one hears a strange sound in the night and senses that something is not quite right.

Context provides words with various meanings.

As it is with literature generally, so it is with the Scriptures. Unfortunately, many sincere Bible students do not appreciate this basic principle.

In studying the Scriptures we must understand the sense in which words are employed, because words are often given meanings that are alien to their more familiar use.

Let us illustrate this matter in several ways.

Is a Word Being Used in a Literal or Figurative Sense?

When a word is used in its actual or real sense, we say it is literal. On the other hand, a term may be used in a sense other than the literal one. We then conclude that the sense is figurative.

Ultimately, all words are used either literally or figuratively. However, when terms are employed in the figurative sense, there can be numerous fine shades of distinction.

Jesus once said that the foxes have their holes, but the Son of man has no where to lay his head (Lk. 9:58). In this text, the word “foxes” is used of a literal animal that inhabited the land of Canaan.

In another setting, Christ, referred to Herod Antipas, saying, “Go say to that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I am perfected’” (Lk. 13:32). In this text “fox” is employed in a figurative sense.

By way of the figure known as metonymy, the ruler was characterized as a cunning and destructive varmint — he was the “beast” who had John the Baptizer beheaded (Mk. 6:14ff).

It is very important that the serious Bible student learn to discriminate between the literal and figurative senses of words in their respective settings. E. W. Bullinger, in his massive work on this subject, suggested that more than 500 different varieties of figures of speech are known (1968, ix).

A failure to appreciate this basic principle can lead to disastrous consequences in religion.

The Jews did not recognize the Savior’s figurative use of “temple” when he said, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). In this case, “temple” referred to his body and the resurrection thereof from the grave. Their lack of understanding resulted in a false charge against the Lord at the time of his trial (cf. Mt. 26:61; 27:40).

Is a Word Being Employed in an Absolute or Relative Sense?

Another way of demonstrating the different senses a word may assume is to mark the distinction between the absolute and the relative. Absolute would denote that which is without restriction, unqualified. Relative usage would suggest a quality or state that is in comparison to something else.

Consider some examples.

God is said to be a being of goodness. “Good and upright is the Lord” (Psa. 25:8; cf. Psa. 34:8; 100:5; Nah. 1:7).

God is good in the absolute sense. There is no moral or spiritual blemish in him at all (Hab. 1:13; Jas. 1:13).

When a young ruler referred to Christ as “Good Teacher,” the Lord asked, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God” (Mk. 10:17, 18). Jesus was stressing that only God is good in the ultimate sense of that term.

Too, he was challenging the young man to evaluate his employment of good. When he applied that term in connection with the “Teacher,” was he willing to concede that Jesus was deity? Christ was not denying his own divine nature, as some have alleged.

On the other hand, Barnabas was designated as a “good man” (Acts 11:24). Barnabas was good in a relative sense when compared to many of his generation.

He was exceptional in character. But he was not good to the extent that God is good.

We must grasp the sense of the adjective in context.

Paul contended that there is “none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). And yet Peter referred to Abraham’s nephew as “righteous Lot” (2 Pet. 2:7; cf. Acts 10:22). Do the Scriptures conflict?

They do not. No one, aside from deity, is righteous in the complete sense. Lot was relatively righteous in contrast to the men of Sodom among whom he lived.

When Christ sought to encourage the disciples to persevere in prayer (Mt. 7:7ff), he gave three illustrations about how fathers generally exercised care with regard to their children.

If the youngster was hungry and asked for bread, the benevolent father would not taunt the child by giving him a stone. Similarly such would be the case with reference to an egg or a fish. The Lord then said,

If you [the disciples] then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Mt. 7:11).

The Master was not suggesting that the disciples were evil in an absolute sense as Satan (cf. Mt. 6:13), but compared to God, even the best of men are evil.

Though no Christian is void of sin (Rom. 3:23; 1 Jn. 1:8), there are those in society who have dredged deep into wickedness, who are unrestrained in their rebellion. Consequently, they are “evil” in an accentuated way.

Paul could wish, therefore, that he and his companions might be delivered from “evil men” (2 Thes. 3:3), without claiming moral perfection for themselves.

Idiomatic Senses Used in the Bible

An idiom is an unusual form of expression that is common to a particular culture or language. An American idiom, for example, is “on the ball,” as in, “That guy is really on the ball.”

The Bible contains certain idiomatic modes of expression with which the serious student needs to be familiar. A couple of examples will suffice to illustrate the point.

There is an Old Testament idiom commonly used in connection with prophecy whereby a future action is represented as having already occurred. The author’s design is to stress the certainty of the projected event.

One scholar has characterized this usage as “the perfect [a verbal Hebrew form denoting completed action] of confidence” (Watts 1951, 17).

Hosea employed this idiom to declare Jehovah’s firm intention to punish his people for their rebellion. The prophet has the Lord saying, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6; cf. Isa. 5:13).

This prophecy was spoken years before the Assyrian captivity transpired. However, the invasion was depicted as if it had happened already because the result, as orchestrated by the Lord, was assured (cf. Isa. 10:5ff).

Many of the Messianic prophecies are similarly constructed. Isaiah declared:

For unto us a child is [literally has been born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6).

The child [Jesus] is idiomatically described as having been born already, though the event was seven centuries into the future. Jehovah’s plan for sending his Son, however, was as certain as anything could be.

This type of idiom is occasionally found in the New Testament. Jesus warned his disciples, “The Son of man is delivered up into the hands of men” (Mk. 9:31). Of course, such had not taken place at the time Christ made the declaration, but the wicked deed was certain and imminent.

During the course of his ministry Jesus declared: “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you” (Mt. 12:28).

Even though the Savior employed a verbal form that reflects a past action [lit. “has come,” cf. ESV] the kingdom had not arrived in the powerful, visible sense that would characterize it on the day of Pentecost (cf. Mk. 9:1; Acts 1:8; 2:4). Christ’s miracles, however, signaled the certainty of its arrival, hence it was depicted as a present reality.

When Peter described the eventual destruction of the material universe, he wrote:

Seeing that all these things are being dissolved [loumenon — a present tense participle], what manner of persons ought you to be in all holy living and godliness? (2 Pet. 3:11).

Our translators have rendered the participle as a future tense though technically it is not, because the sense is so for the future even — as the context clearly reveals.


These examples should suffice to illustrate the fact that sound biblical exegesis involves much more than a quick, superficial passing over of the text. The sacred narrative is laden with subtle nuances, the exploration of which will pay rich dividends to the careful student. And one aspect of this is to contextually detect the sense in which a term is used.

  • Bullinger, E. W. 1968. Figures of Speech in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker.
  • Watts, J. Wash. 1951. A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament. Nashville: Broadman.