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5 Hebrew words every Christian should know

Melissa Briggs explains how an ancient language revolutionised her walk with God

If you had met me five years ago you may have thought I was the poster child for a ‘good Christian girl’. I was a friendly pastor’s daughter with a Bible degree, working at a church, serving in a film ministry with her husband and helping in her son’s Sunday school class. Sounds ideal, right?

Although I did usually say and do the ‘right things’ with a smile on my face, inside I was secretly riddled with insecurities and fears. A selfinflicted and undiagnosed pressure to constantly please God through performance bubbled under the surface.

For a while this was manageable, as long as I had plenty of time to complete my mental checklist. But as children were added to our family, demands on my time increased. Exhaustion from striving to be ‘righteous enough’ and ‘lovable enough’, even in my sleep-deprived state, caught up with my health. I kept falling ill. I was frustrated that there never seemed to be enough hours in the day.

I loved God, my family and my work, but I felt so much internal pressure to balance it all perfectly. I was embarrassed to talk about it because I told myself I should just be grateful for the many blessings that I had in my life.

The overarching stressor in my life – which was tricky to pinpoint – was a deeply rooted belief that I was not good enough at meeting God’s high expectations, and therefore a disappointment.

Keen to find relief from my fearful and frenetic inner monologue, a light finally dawned while reading through Romans 8: “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v3-4, NKJV, emphasis mine).

For the first time it clicked for me that Jesus has already met all the righteous requirements of the law for me on my behalf! “Having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).

This was a massive paradigm shift in my thinking. Because Jesus kept the law perfectly and then traded places with us, we are made righteous in him (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). I could wake up each morning and remind myself that God is already pleased with me because of Jesus. What a weight off my shoulders!

Once this crucial truth was in place, I called out to God to reconstruct my understanding of what he wanted from me and for me. I was ready for a different way to live out this Christian life.

God answered my prayer in an unexpected way – through my studies of an ancient language. Exploring the rich, original meanings of biblical words was not merely a scholarly pursuit for me, but it had intensely practical applications and outworkings in my daily life.

The nature of language and culture means connotations and meanings of a word can shift and evolve. For example, nowadays rarely does a person mean ‘holy day’ when they say “holiday”. Whenever a word is translated from one language to another the precise meanings can be lost, especially when vast time and cultural barriers are crossed. No language is static and no translation is perfect. So there is great value in exploring the original languages of the scriptures, especially when it is the content of our faith at stake.

Here are five Hebrew words I wish I had known decades ago:  

1. חֶסֶד 

CHESED

We sing about this every Sunday. Chesed is the Hebrew word for the love God has specifically for his people. Often translated as ‘love’, ‘steadfast love’, ‘mercy’, or ‘lovingkindness’, chesed requires up to 14 English words to properly encapsulate its potent meaning.

The problem with our English word ‘love’ is that it lacks power and a backbone. We use this same word to describe both our fondness for pizza and our attachment to our other half. Is it any wonder that it may not mean very much to a person if you tell them about God’s love using our wishy- washy English word?

But chesed – found most often in the Psalms – is different. Chesed is a permanent, covenant, faithful love; not changeable, temporary or based on feelings, as it is in our modern culture. This is no cheesy Valentine’s Day nicety. This is everything we have ever hoped for and more. Chesed is the security, acceptance and devotion within a committed relationship, which every human heart longs to experience.

How different would our lives be if we truly believed we were already completely and perfectly loved by God?

So often we wander off to seek out love in the wrong places. How different would our lives be if we truly believed we were already completely and perfectly loved by God today? Then we could begin to rest, abide in and enjoy God.

Accepting that God truly loves me with a chesed love had an amazing, unexpected side effect. Suddenly, there was the release of the pressure I had inadvertently placed on my human relationships to provide my sense of value and identity. As wonderful as my husband and children are, no other person can bear the pressure of providing me with my ultimate sense of worth and acceptance. The truth is I am fully loved and fully known by God. Any additional love and goodness in my life is an extra blessing and bonus to enjoy.

2. עֵזֶר

EZER

“Help!” This one word is the most frequent prayer I pray now. Whenever I need more wisdom or patience as I go about my day, this little word invokes God’s generous assistance. But I did not always realise help was so readily available. Nor did I always possess the humility to ask for it.

I used to feel the pressure to manage so much of my life on my own. And I wrongly saw God standing at a distance judging my performance.

Often I would feel overwhelmed with the idea that I may not be able to cope with all the plates I was spinning. I feared that I would drop the ball on the important roles and responsibilities God had entrusted to me. And I so sincerely wanted to get it right.

But God used the little Hebrew word ezer to change my perspective.

Throughout the Bible our compassionate God continually offers himself to us as our ezer. “You are my help (ezer) and my deliverer; Lord, do not delay” (Psalm 70:5).

God gave us the Holy Spirit to be our readily available helper (see John 14:26). I can always call on him and he is not annoyed or disapproving when I do.

We were never meant to do all of life alone. Nor were we designed to depend on ourselves. It is not a badge of honour to be self-reliant and independent. God always intended us to rely on his ezer in order to draw us into a deeper dynamic relationship with him. And hopefully the help of his Church is one way God’s help is expressed in our communities.

God delights to be our ezer and that truth gives me new-found confidence to face each day’s tasks and trials.  3. 3.        

3. שָׁלוֹם

SHALOM

Maybe you saw shalom on this page and thought: “Great, I know this one already!” But the biblical concept of shalom involves much more than our typical use of the English word ‘peace’. Shalom is not merely the absence of conflict; it actually encapsulates wholeness, wellness, peace, security, welfare, prosperity and more! The Lord is shalom (Judges 6:24), and he blesses his people with shalom (Psalm 29:11). This is what Jesus offers as the Prince of Shalom (Isaiah 9:6). His sweet shalom is meant to infiltrate our entire lives, if we would only invite him in to do so!

I had honestly believed there were certain areas of my life that were not of interest to God – food, exercise and sleep, for example. These felt too mundane for God’s intervention. But a proper understanding of shalom, and indeed a thorough reading of the whole Bible, reveal that God actually cares about every single area of our lives. His help and guidance is not restricted to just the ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’ areas.

This was a game-changer for me. God offers us so much choice and freedom, but he also cares and is willing to help. When I opened up new corners of my life to God’s direction I was amazed how he flooded in with grace and answers. He showed me I was turning to food for comfort instead of him. Then he showed me what it looked like to instead eat and drink to the glory of God, as it says in 1 Corinthians 10:31. My workout sessions shifted from frantic attempts to better myself, to refreshing times of conversation with the God who loved me so well already. He even showed me I could ask him to help me rest; to “lie down and sleep” in shalom each night (Psalm 4:8) – a huge blessing to a mother of young children!

Though it is still a work of grace in progress, my overall health, eating habits, body image and stress levels have improved drastically. I am so thankful for the complete package of shalom that Jesus was offering me all along.

(Almost) everything you need to know about Hebrew

Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. A bit of Daniel and Ezra, and one verse in Jeremiah were written in Aramaic, a language very similar to Hebrew.

Jewish people call the Old Testament the Tanakh. This is an acronym which stands for the first letters of the three Hebrew words Torah (law/instruction), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings). Jewish scholars divide the biblical literature into these three sections.

Hebrew is read from right to left, instead of left to right like English. Hebrew books even open the opposite way to English books.

Hebrew lay dormant as a spoken language for nearly two millennia, until the late 19th Century when visionary linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda spearheaded the unparalleled movement to revive it as the mother tongue of the Jewish people. Today there are about 9 million Hebrew speakers in the world.

Because the Hebrew language died off as a spoken language for nearly two millennia, the revived modern Hebrew language is much more similar to biblical Hebrew than modern Greek is to New Testament biblical Greek.

Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Amharic all belong to the Semitic family of languages. ‘Semitic’ is derived from the name Shem, one of Noah’s sons.

There are a number of acrostic poems found in the Bible that we completely miss in our English translations. For example, each verse in the famous passage about the ‘Excellent Wife’ in Proverbs 31:10-31 begins with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. It is the Hebrew way of saying “this is the complete A-Z” on a topic.   

4. תִּקְוָה

TIKVAH

In the English language we casually use the word ‘hope’ with the downgraded meaning of a wishful thought or desire: “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow”, or “I hope our cricket team wins”. This can easily cloud our understanding of biblical tikvah which, in contrast, is a guaranteed assurance that if the Lord says it will come to pass, then it will do so. “There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope (tikvah) will not be cut off” (Proverbs 23:18).

Tikvah is an expectant waiting for a desired outcome. It means to gather together, wait for, hope for or bind (by twisting) together. While the idea of hope in English is abstract, this Hebrew root word offers a more concrete expression of hope as an ever-strengthening rope as its strands are collected and then twisted together.

A thin thread may be faster and simpler to make than a shipyardstandard rope, but it certainly would not hold up under pressure. To make a durable, useful rope, the process of binding and twisting many threads together is essential.

As we hope and wait upon the Lord for his direction, his timing and his action, then our faith and character can be built up: “But those who hope/wait expectantly [the verb form of tikvah] in the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). Our microwave-oven, instant-gratification culture has taught us that waiting is a waste, but the biblical viewpoint values the process and outcome of expectantly waiting. 

Hope used to be such a vague word for me, but now I can cling to biblical hope as the sturdy rope that it is! “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Hebrews 6:13, NKJV).

5. ירְִאָה

YIRAH

Yirah means ‘fear’. I felt drawn to study this word because I wanted freedom from the growing number of fears that rattled around in my head. I tried not to dwell on them, but that did not seem to actually make them go away.

I had always found the phrase “fear of God” a strange one to comprehend. And I imagined there must be a different source word behind the fear of God as opposed to other types of fear – especially as the phrase “fear of God” is sometimes translated into English as “reverence” or “awe of God”. But this one word yirah is used to speak of both the fear of God and the fear of other things, like enemies or death.

The question is actually whether our fear is rightly directed. We all have an innate drive to fear something. It is impossible to be truly fearless. The scriptures are very clear about who deserves all of our yirah: “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name” (Deuteronomy 6:13, NASB).

We should realise there are entities more powerful than us and there are circumstances outside of the realm of our control. God wants us to recognise our limitations and then direct our yirah towards him. After all, he is the most powerful one in the universe. So why should we fear anything above him or besides him?

Fear directed towards anything else grows like a weed and then festers like a sore. However, the fear of the Lord is a wellspring of life, goodness and wisdom to those who take hold of it. “The yirah of the Lord leads to life, So that one may sleep satisfied, untouched by evil” (Proverbs 19:23, NASB).

The wonderful news is that we are not stuck. We can ask God to help us uncover the lies behind any ungodly fears and to replace them with biblical truth. The central key to dealing with unhealthy fears is to choose to put all of our fear onto our trustworthy, faithful God.

Now whenever a fear pops into my head, which thankfully is much rarer, I have an effective strategy. I stop and say: “I choose to fear God instead of X. He alone is worthy of my fear” (Isaiah 8:13-14). Then I ask God to give me wisdom about any practical action I may need to take and I move on with my day. Life with our yirah rightly placed on the Lord is so liberating!

A life-changing exploration 

The Bible is the most incredible book. All of us have only begun to dip our toes into the vast depths of its riches. Obviously it is an amazing blessing to have the Bible translated into English. But as our language and vocabulary continue to morph, it is worth our time to seek out the original, precise meaning of key words. We want to make sure we are accurately hearing what God is saying.

With so many Greek and Hebrew resources available online now, exploring the Bible in the original languages is more accessible than ever. And the exploration can be life-changing! Although my life now would not look too different to the outsider compared to five years ago, inside the difference is stark.

There is abundant life available in Christ, and these beautiful Hebrew words capture that so well. God loves us with an unshakeable chesed love. He delights to be our constant, supportive ezer help. His shalom peace can bring wholeness and well-being to every area of our life. Our expectant tikvah hope in him is secure. We can put all of our yirah fear onto him, for he alone is worthy.

Further study

Learn online with an 8-week programme tailored to your interests. Or host an "Introduction to Hebrew" day at your church. For more details see explorehebrew.co.uk

Visit hebrew4christians.com where you can read about the meaning behind the names of God, learn the alphabet, print grammar worksheets for children and read explanations of Hebrew verses.

There are a growing number of YouTube channels that offer videos ranging from learning to read and write Hebrew, to more biblical word studies. Start by searching on YouTube for "The Bible Project Word Studies", "Hebrew eTeacher" or "HebrewPod101".

Read Hebrew Word Study: Revealing the Heart of God by Chaim Ben Torah. Or see his insightful blog chaimbentorah.com

Purchase the DVD Kesher Course: Making the Connection: Word Studies, and watch it with your small group or church. This offers biblical teaching on ten significant Hebrew Words. Or stream it online at: cfi.org.uk

Hear Melissa Briggs talk about this article on the latest episode of the Premier Christianity podcast

Enjoyed that? Get more articles covering news, culture, faith and apologetics in every print issue of Premier Christianity magazine. Subscribe now for HALF PRICE (limited offer)



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