WHEN "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost," God chose as a medium of inspiration a beautiful, rhythmic, and powerfully expressive language. That language was spoken by Moses, Israel's great leader; by David, the shepherd-king and sweet singer of Israel; by Isaiah, the gospel prophet; by Daniel, who served in the courts of Babylon and to whom God revealed the secrets of the future; and by many others who were God's chosen instruments in recording the inspired messages of the Old Testament scriptures. To read the actual words of these great men of old is a thrill that never leaves one. Since having learned to read their fascinating language, I have gained many hours of real enjoyment, delight, and inspiration, and under the direction of the Holy Spirit a deeper insight into the meaning of their God-given utterances. And this I am sure all of you have found true who have made this impressive language a definite part of your life.
A true understanding of Hebrew cannot be found by merely mastering grammar and vocabulary, as vital as these may be. If we would appreciate the literary beauty of many Old Testament passages and more clearly grasp the meaning of their messages, then we need also to understand what the Germans call Sprachgefuhl, or the feeling of the language. This will come to us only as we read, and have more practical experience with the subtleties of Hebrew. Hence the use of grammars, lexicons, expository dictionaries, commentaries, et cetera, can never substitute for a knowledge and study of Hebrew. Rather, these aids make such study more important, satisfying, and illuminating.
Difficulties an Excuse
Some point to the difficulties encountered in the study of Hebrew as an excuse for not studying the language. It is true that every language has its peculiar difficulties—no doubt God meant it to be that way. Should this not rather challenge us to come to grips with such a valuable and practical aid to the study of God's Word? On the other hand, having studied several languages —both ancient and modern—I would find myself in agreement with those who declare that, with the same amount of effort put forth, it would take less time to learn Hebrew than Greek, German, French, or Spanish. It would appear that the main difficulties with Hebrew lie in the fact that it is an Eastern and not a European language. Therefore, its thought patterns, vocabulary, and grammar are so different—but delightfully sot One seems to be entering a new world of thought and expression. The mysteries of the Scriptures previously read only in English begin now to unfold. Yes, it is a tremendous thrill to read the Word of God in Hebrew.
For the minister the practical values of the study of Hebrew are many. For example, when we merely read a translation of the Bible we become dependent upon the knowledge of others and upon their interpretations of the original text. Can we as ministers afford to do this? If we are only able to read a translation can we be really sure that we have the correct interpretation of a given passage? Some aspects of Hebrew, such as the intensive force of the pie/ and the pual and the causative idea of the hiphil and the hophal, are virtually lost in translation. But once we have studied Hebrew, even the translations take on new value for us. The following quotation from a Hebrew scholar will help us to realize some of the problems faced by translators of Hebrew, the advantages to be found in being able to read this beautiful medium of communication, and why God chose such a vehicle of inspiration:
The language of a people is the product of its history, its geographical position and its resultant cultural contacts. The basic importance of the verb and the derivation of nouns from it, which is characteristic of Hebrew, is not peculiar to it alone; it is to be found in many languages. But the notable absence of abstract wards, the practice of using a metaphore from everyday life in place of an adverb of manner, the use of an auxiliary verb rather than an adverb to describe how an action was done repeatedly, or quickly, or slowly, etc., and the significant fact that not a few nouns have a primary and secondary meaning, such as those which mean nose and anger, heat and wrath, weight and honour, height and pride, smoothness and flattery, etc., and other characteristics which might be noted, give a colourfulness, a directness and a concreteness to Hebrew which make it a vigorous and effective instrument of communication and make it difficult for anyone using the language to wrap his thought in verbal obscurities or to darken it with complicated modes of expression of uncertain intent. It has a brevity which is arresting, a clarity which is often challenging and, as used in rhythmic form, sonorities which are deeply impressive.—A. B. DAVIDSON, Introductory Hebrew Grammar, pp. 6, 7.
Seventh-day Adventists believe in the current application of the Old Testament. We should be the head and not the tail in Old Testament studies. We need to be keen students of the original tongues that we might more accurately and ably present and defend the truth for these times. With a knowledge of the original languages comes the ability to speak with authority and confidence when explaining God's Word to others. Furthermore, those for whom we labor will have added confidence in us as ministers.
A young man once told me how he had attended Bible classes at his church and how the minister had given the studies directly from the Greek New Testament. This inspired him with great confidence in the authority of his minister and his church. It also led him to take up the study of Greek. Nothing less than that should be expected of God's ministers who teach and preach present truth.
In order to enable them to read the original writings of Ellen G. White and thus to achieve a more accurate understanding of her teachings, many whose mother tongue is other than English undertake to learn English, while many of us who use that language as our native tongue seem to care little about reading the original languages of God's Word. For the minister, be he teacher, pastor, or president, a knowledge of Hebrew will be worth every effort. Whether teaching the Sabbath school lesson, preaching a sermon, or giving a Bible study he will then be able to speak authoritatively. He will also be able to give many more original thoughts and to glorify God with accurate, clear, fresh, inspiring presentations of truth.
Its Practical Values
A knowledge of Hebrew will also bring many rich blessings in daily devotional reading. Through such enrichment of the Scriptures will come added incentive for Bible study and a deeper appreciation of Bible truth. It will also make more meaningful various works on theology and archeology—indeed many of them can hardly be read, much less appreciated, without a knowledge of Hebrew.
It is unfortunate that many have been turned from Hebrew because of the way in which it is taught. Possibly the textbook is dry and uninteresting, and the exercises puerile. If the language is "sold" to us, if we begin early to taste its practical values, if we are taught by interesting modern methods, our interest is stimulated and we more readily master the subject. If actual reading from simpler passages of the Old Testament were introduced within the first few weeks, I fully believe that many more of our ministers and evangelists could be enjoying and profiting by a study of Hebrew.
While I was at college the teacher of Bible languages asked me to help a student who was well behind with his Greek. I discovered that he had quite a dislike for Greek. After reviewing some basic grammar with him I asked him to read sections of 1 John in Greek. Soon he was excitedly exclaiming, "Me, reading Greek!" It was late in the year, and he had an uphill battle. After the examinations he came to me and confessed, "I failed the exam but I have come to love Greek." I somehow felt that my efforts were amply rewarded. To arouse interest in and inspire love for Bible languages, much depends upon the manner and method employed.
Some might object that age is against them—and perhaps it is. When I took a year of Greek at the Adelaide University in South Australia we had in our class a doctor, an eye specialist, who was more than seventy years of age. That same year he was also making good progress in university German. I asked him why he was so interested in taking up such studies so late in life. "Just to improve my mind," he replied. For him it was a mental discipline. Is there not a far greater incentive for Adventist ministers to take up the study of Hebrew?
But, you ask, with such a busy program where do I find the time? And ministers are busy people. However, I do know of others who have probably had equally busy parishes and heavy pastoral responsibilities who have employed their spare moments (waiting for appointments, et cetera) with this type of study and have found it amply rewarding. The important thing with language study is to do a little at regular intervals rather than much spasmodically. Carry your Hebrew grammar, your vocabularly lists or cards, your Hebrew Testament with you, and if you will average from two to three hours a week, with diligent application you should be able to master the essentials within twelve months—and what a thrill this will give you!
Yes, many hours of satisfaction and joy await the student of Hebrew, not to mention the accompanying thrill of being able to read the actual words written by "holy men of God." When God first gave His Written Word to man He chose Hebrew. Do we value that choice?