Category Archives: Language


Regarding biblical study and the use of commentaries, Eugene H. Peterson uses a captivating illustration to demonstrate the reason why Christians should read commentaries. It is our way of entering into the vibrant conversation, of hearing many other voices and eventually expressing our own. I read this years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. Since he says it better than I could, I’ll simply share his own words:

“…biblical commentaries have for too long been overlooked as common reading for common Christians… Among those for whom Scripture is a passion, reading commentaries has always seemed to me analogous to the gathering of football fans in the local bar after the game, replaying in endless detail the game they have just watched, arguing (maybe even fighting) over obersvations and opinion, and lacing the discourse with gossip about the players. The level of knowledge evident in these boozy colloquies is impressive. These fans have watched the game for years; the players are household names to them; they know the fine print in the rulebook and pick up every nuance on the field. And they care care immensely about what happens in the game. Their seemingly endless commentary is evidence of how much they care. Like them, I relish in a commentary not bare information but conversation with knowledgeable and experienced friends, probing, observing, questioning, the biblical text…. there is so much to notice, so much to talk over.” (Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book, 54)


For those of us who write worship songs, it is easy to fall into the same patterns. By reading lyrics of other songs, especially well written hymns and songs from other cultures, we can be moved to think in new ways and to expand beyond our normal categories. For a sample, check out this hymn shared by Thabiti Anyabwile.

How Sweet and Awful Is the Place

How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast
Each of us cry with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?”

“Why was I made to hear thy voice
and enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?”

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
that sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste
and perished in our sin

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad
and bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full,
that all the chosen race
may with one voice and heart and soul
sing thy redeeming grace.


Nearly two years later, it is still difficult to write about our son, Jeremiah. For months, I could not write about his death. Then, after it became possible for me to write, I felt like anything that I wrote was far too trivial.

About a year ago, I wrote my first song about our experience and memories. Now, about two years later, I am writing my first poem. (I had tried to write one earlier, but again, it seemed too trivial.) I woke up today, a very snowy day, and was frightened by how easily I forget those lives that are so meaningful to me. I decided to write so that I could remember. I suppose it didn’t feel trivial because I was not writing for the purpose of writing a poem, but for the purpose of remembering.

This poem may evolve with time, or I may write another. In the meantime, you are welcome to read my first attempt:


Language has never been a science. It is mysterious, beautiful, and often confusing.

All of us are dependent upon language for communication — whether it be verbal or non-verbal. As language becomes both more diverse (due to globalization) and more unified (due to mass media), we are caught between understanding and misunderstanding.

Historically, Christians have recognized that God primarily speaks to us through His word. He spoke the world into existence, He spoke to the Israelites throughout the centuries, He sent His son into the world to fulfill the Word, and He continues to speak to his people today.

We do need to look far before we realize how “slippery” language can be. When people use language, there is always a degree of uncertainty when it comes to meaning. It is no wonder that there are so many cases of misunderstanding between people. The nature of language itself, because it is not scientific, often leads to such misunderstandings.

Left on our own, we are often misled or confused. We define words differently, speak them differently, use them differently, and so on. In order to truly understand language, of course, we need someone to guide us as we interact with language and interpret it for ourselves. We need to ask questions, seek clarification, and truly interact with the speaker.

Thankfully, we can be assured that God’s Spirit does just that. In speaking of the Spirit of God, Jesus calls Him a “helper” and assures that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is a teacher that can clarify our confusion, unveil what is veiled, and satisfy our need for knowledge.

In our day, many scholars want to deconstruct language, both religious and non-religious, and question whether we can truly determine a meaning from a text. For example, some point to textual criticism and the many variants used in Christian scripture. How can we truly know anything if language is so slippery?

In response, we must first admit that language is mostly effective. Otherwise, we would not use language at all. The argument that language cannot communicate meaning is self-contradictory, so we cannot hold on to that argument for very long.

Secondly, we do not need to deny these difficulties, but we can embrace them. If language were purely scientific and self-evident, we would have no misunderstandings, we would lose some of the beauty of language, and the Spirit would have no role in helping us understand what has been spoken.

As we come to God’s Word, it is essential, then, that we ask for the Spirit’s help. Interpreting the text is not simply an intellectual puzzle to be figured out. It is an exercise of listening to God’s voice as He speaks to us through His word.

As any married couple knows, true listening involves the heart, even more so than the mind. Communication is not simply the deciphering of language, but the heart-felt interaction with what is being said. Only then do we truly listen.

May this be true of us as we listen to God speak to us.