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Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament Dabar is the primary Hebrew expression for word. It has various meanings. It can refer to a spoken utterance, a saying, a command, a speech, a story—linguistic communication in general. Dabar can also mean a thing, event, or action ( Genesis 18:14 ). Occasionally, difficulty arises in distinguishing between these meanings (Psalm 35:20 NRSV, “deceitful words”; KJV, “deceitful matters”; REB, “intrigues”; NIV, “false accusations”). The frequent construction “the word of the Lord” or “the word of Yahweh” refers to communication made by God to people. The means of this communication are seldom related, nor must the phrase refer to a particular set of words. Three aspects of this word demand special attention.
1. A prophetic word. The prophets claimed to deliver the “word of God” (Jeremiah 1:9 ). For this purpose they were commissioned (Isaiah 6:8 ). This word of God addressed human beings and demanded a response. Thus God's word may be visualized as a great salvation (Isaiah 2:2-5 ) or a great judgment (Jeremiah 26:4-6 ).
2. A legal word. In the covenant law God spoke the words of the law to Moses (Exodus 20:1; Exodus 24:3-8 ). The heart of the law is called the ten words (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13 ). The entire law represents the will of God and so can be called a single “word” (Deuteronomy 4:2 KJV). This word also demands response: faithful obedience will bring God's blessing while disobedience will lead to a curse ( Deuteronomy 30:15-20 ).
3. Creative word. God created the world by His word (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 48:13; Psalm 33:9 ). This world reveals God's majesty (Psalm 19:1 ) and thus extends the sphere of His revelation beyond His work with covenant Israel to all people. The word is spoken of as if it were a person who directs the events of nature (Psalm 147:15-18; Psalm 148:8 ), saves (Psalm 107:20 ), and gives life (Ezekiel 37:1-4 ).
New Testament Logos and Rhema are the two primary Greek words meaning “word.” They are used interchangeably and variously as with the Old Testament dabar . The New Testament can use these words to apply to Jesus' message, the message about Jesus, and Jesus Himself.
Jesus' message of the coming kingdom can be called a “word” ( Mark 2:2; Mark 4:33; Luke 5:1 ) as can His individual sayings (Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:61; John 7:36 ). Significantly, Jesus avoided citing rabbinic authorities or using the traditional language of a prophet who would claim “that the word of the Lord came to me” or declare “thus says the Lord.” Perhaps these phrases did not significantly honor His special relationship with the Father and His own authority (Matthew 11:27; compare Matthew 5:21-26; Mark 3:28-29 ). As in the Old Testament, so also Jesus' word demanded decision on the part of the hearers (John 8:51; John 12:47 ).
The message concerning Jesus can also be called “a word.” Paul spoke of “the word of God that you heard from us” that is mediated by his human words ( 1 Thessalonians 2:13 NRSV). The content of this word is certainly the good news story concerning Jesus' death and resurrection—the heart of the gospel ( 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 ). This message is the word of the cross (Galatians 3:1 ) and is the core content of Paul's preaching (1 Corinthians 2:2 ). Because of His sacrifice and resurrection, the gospel message is a “word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ) and a “word of life” (Philippians 2:16 ). The word is witnessed and proclaimed by Jesus' followers (Luke 1:2; Acts 4:2; Acts 6:7 ). The word revealed through His son (Hebrews 1:1-4 ) brings illumination and judgment.
Jesus Himself is the Word—the living Word. The preexistent Word who was with God “in the beginning” has now become flesh (John 1:1-18 ). Scholars have frequently claimed that John used logos in a philosophical sense to refer to the world's controlling rational principle (Stoicism) or to the created intermediary between God and His world (Philo). However, John's word is not a principle or divine characteristic. It is a preexistent, life-giving person . John opposed Greek philosophy by arguing that salvation comes not by mankind's escape from this world but by God entering and redeeming creation. More probably logos was chosen because of its meaning in the Old Testament, its Greek translation, and contemporary Hebrew literature, where the concepts of wisdom and word were being spoken of as a distinct manifestation of God. John saw that the same agent of God who gave life in the first creation was also giving life in the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' coming. The creative Word of God became flesh; being divine He embodied divine communication. Now the Word dwells among us revealing the glory of God ( John 1:14 ).
Power of the Word It is often assumed that in Hebrew thought words had a mysterious binding authority. For example, when Isaac discovered he had been deceived and wrongly gave his blessing to Jacob, he declared that his blessing had been given and Jacob “shall be blessed” (Genesis 27:33 ). Isaac's word seems magical—like an arrow once shot, it could not be recalled. Caution must be exercised here. Actually, only God's word has this type of irresistible potency (Isaiah 55:11 ) and absolute creative power (Genesis 1:3-31; Luke 1:32-35; compare Isaiah 9:8; Isaiah 31:2; Isaiah 45:23 ). Most occurrences like Isaac's may be explained in terms of their social custom. Following a prescribed social custom, a person may form a bond, or a will, by speaking a word. Even today a couple can make or create a marriage by saying “I do.” We must also note that Scripture teaches that a person's word is often powerless (1 Corinthians 2:4; 1 Corinthians 4:19-20 ) and frequently fails (Matthew 21:28-32 ).
Words are capable of great good and evil (Matthew 12:36; James 3:5-6 ,James 3:5-6,3:8 ). Words can deeply injure (Proverbs 12:18; Proverbs 18:14 ), and revive (Proverbs 12:18 ,Proverbs 12:18,12:25; Proverbs 16:24 ). Words can have a widespread influence; words from the wicked are like a fire-spreading torch (Proverbs 16:27-28 ); words from the good bring good fruit (Proverbs 12:14; Proverbs 10:11 ).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Word'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/w/word.html. 1991.