Words matter. Words have power. The saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” may fend off the verbal assaults of childhood bullies, but the fact remains, words can hurt. Deeply. Broken bones heal, while the emotional wounds of spiteful words may linger for a lifetime. Yet, words can inspire, encourage, and motivate as well. A simple word of kindness can echo for years.
Never underestimate the power of words.
In the hierarchy of words, I have always thought nouns and verbs to be the main characters, while the supporting cast of adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions keep things moving along. I imagine adverbs want to be verbs when they grow up, and prepositions grow resentful of always having to precede the nouns. How long before adjectives form a Linguistic Union and go on strike. “I am tired of modifying nouns! When is someone going to modify me?” All the while, adverbs are shouting, “Absolutely!” And participles join the picket line with signs “I refuse to dangle” and “ don’t split the infinitives.”
In an effort to boost the self-esteem of grammar’s working-class words, I thought I’d share the role that these overlooked, under-appreciated, and often ignored words have in the Bible. Where better to prove that all words matter!
Over the years I have grown to appreciate the function that all grammatical terms provide, especially in conveying biblical Truth — how certain adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions serve as flashing lights, or in some cases, warning signals to readers. These watchwords are linguistic pause buttons for starving souls. These singular texts declare to those with ears to hear — better slow down and digest what is coming.
With that in mind, I have identified, so far, eight such words. (Bold highlights are added for emphasis.)
Let’s start with nevertheless. This adverb is used to contrast a second point with the first point by stating in no uncertain terms that no matter how true or powerful the first point is, the second point remains.
Matthew 26:39: And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
No matter how tough or dire the situation, nevertheless declares that what comes next is far more important.
Nevertheless, thou will be done. Sounds like a good motto for life.
This four-letter preposition has a myriad of uses. One such function is to indicate, according to Merriam-Webster, “…combination, accompaniment, presence, or addition.” Several times in Scripture, this prepositional link reminds us of God’s presence.
Psalm 23: 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” (RSV)
Matthew 1:23: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emman′u-el” (which means, God with us).
I like that word with. Reminds me that I am never alone.
Verily is one of those words like “swaddling.” I only hear it in the context of Scripture. Maybe that’s because I never read Olde English plays or poets, or majored in Renaissance literature. Verily is an oft-used word in the King James Bible. 113 times to be exact. In contemporary versions, it is often translated as “truly.” Regardless, this antiquated adverb is meant to convey certainty and truth. This is another high-beam flashing light shouting out to pay attention to what follows.
Matthew 25:40: “…Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (KJV)
Similar to verily in its use, surely is another adverb that appears mostly in the Old Testament and is used to emphasize confidence in what is to come next.
Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
I think I’ll adopt surely. Because, wherever surely is, goodness and mercy are sure to follow.
5. Holy, Holy, Holy
And to the persnickety among you, yes, I know Holy, Holy, Holy are three words, but I see it as one word repeated three times. So, please keep reading, reading, reading.
Holy is a word used to describe, well, to describe holiness. Used almost 700 times in Scripture, holy is not that unusual a word and definitely one you might expect to see in a religious book often described as Holy Writ. But the phrase Holy, Holy, Holy is only used twice.
Isaiah 6:3: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.
Revelation 4:8: And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
The repetitive use of a word is meant to emphasize the supremeness of the word being repeated. In this case, God’s holiness.
Besides, these words are the opening line to one of my favorite hymns.
Ever notice, especially in the Psalms, how often a verse begins with “O Lord” as in Psalm 139:1 “O LORD, thou has searched me and known me!” It’s hard to miss, as it is used several hundred times, most often in the Psalms.
Peter Kreeft, in his book Wisdom from the Psalms, calls it “…an expression of humility, for it is the admission of surprise. It also expresses admiration, and amazement and even, at its height, adoration, at something incalculably greater than oneself.” (3)
Is there a better expression of wonder and awe?
I usually steer away from absolute terms like everybody and always. Editors and debate coaches don’t like such terms as any exceptions found would undermine the statement. The writers in Scripture, however, never hesitate to use an absolute term like “all” when they intend it to mean ALL. For me, it signals a moment to pause, stop, rewind, and evaluate exactly what is being communicated.
Matthew 6:33: But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and ALL these things shall be yours as well.
Ephesians 6:16: Above ALL taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench ALL the flaming darts of the evil one.
Philippians 4:7: And the peace of God, which passes ALL understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Colossians 2:13: And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us ALL our trespasses.
I can’t think of a more inclusive word than All.
Seeing this two-letter word reminds me of my first computer programming class at Georgia Tech back in the early 1970s. I remember how much of the programming revolved around If-Then statements. Turns out, Scripture is filled with similar conditional promises. If Mankind does this, God will do that. In other words, how we respond to God’s commands determines our relationship with Him and what blessings we receive.
The “if” word appears 574 times in the New Testament alone.
Revelations 3:20: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him, and he with me.
Romans 10:9: …because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
These words, Nevertheless, With, Verily, Surely, Holy, O, All, and If, may not grab your attention like a more dramatic multi-syllable word. But the most significant verses in Scripture would not be so memorable, meaningful, or significant without these binding linguistic agents.
All words matter. All words have meaning and serve a purpose. Even the under-appreciated eight! Amen to that!
That reminds me, maybe, Amen should be #9.
- All Scripture is RSV unless otherwise noted.
- All bold highlights are used by the author for emphasis.
- Peter J. Kreeft, Wisdom from the Psalms (San Francisco, Ignatious Press, 2020) pg 100