Follow the Verbs: A Hermeneutical Tip

If you’ve been out of school for any length of time, perhaps the mere mention of the word verb conjures up bad memories from an English class. Take hope – today’s post doesn’t require a re-immersion into high school grammar classes!

Verbs are the action words of our language. They paint pictures in our mind – he ran, she wrote, they sang, we drove, I slept, you wept… While you may not consciously think about your grammar classes when reading the Bible, today’s tip actually shows how grammar helps you understand the Bible’s meaning.

Rather than explain this technique, I’d like to illustrate it with a familiar verse – Proverbs 3.5-6

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; And lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, And he shall direct thy paths.

I’ve bolded the four verbs above: Trust, Lean, Acknowledge, and Direct. Notice three of these verbs have something in common that sets it apart from the last verb. The reader is to trust, lean (not), and acknowledge. God will direct.

Let’s make this observation as practical as possible: If I trust in the Lord, and I lean not (I do not trust) my own understanding, and if I will acknowledge Him in all my ways, then I find a promise: He will direct my paths!

Let’s see this in one more passage: Colossians 3.18-24

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged. Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.

Let’s break this passage down so we can see it clearly:

  1. Wives are to submit to their husbands
  2. Husbands are to love and not be bitter
  3. Children are to obey
  4. Fathers aren’t to provoke to anger
  5. Servants are to obey
  6. Ye are to do everything heartily
  7. Ye serve Christ

Tucked in toward the end is a promise. In a list full of imperatives, we are reminded of something we know. Sure, there are things we are to do, but there is one thing mentioned that He will do – He rewards. In the context of grammar, we have seven active verbs – those which we are commanded to enact. There is one passive verb – something that happens to us.

This same thought continues in chapter 4 as Masters give; all continue in prayer, all watch with thanksgiving, and all walk in wisdom. Living with these principles empowers us to know how to answer every man.

This post could go on with multiple examples, but let’s bring it to a conclusion: When you are working through a passage, take the time to identify the verbs. You might just find that following the verbs helps unlock the meaning of a passage for you.

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