English Grammar for Bible Students | Sentence Structure

Dr. Randy White

Language plays a powerful role in the study and interpretation of God’s word. Since most students of the Word do not have a functional knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, it is essential that they do have a working knowledge of English. In order to achieve the most accurate reading of scripture, the ability to analyze the grammar of the English language is one of the most important skills to master as a student of the Word.

In order to use English to your advantage as a student of the Word, you will need to use a word-for-word English translation of Scripture. With the use of other translation types, an anonymous translator has already done the work for you. And, as far as we know, this translator may be a Calvinist, a cigar-smoking social gospel advocate, an Arminian grace-abusing libertine, a decent and law-abiding charismatic, or a racist, drunk hillbilly. The truth is, we don’t know! Because of this, we need a translation that is literal and word-for-word. We must not be concerned about readability; instead, we must be concerned about accuracy.

In my opinion, no translation is more word-for-word accurate than the King James Version because of the use of the specific pronouns (thee / ye) as well as its preservation of the specifics of the Greek and Hebrew pronouns. Although these are essential to proper interpretation, no other commonly used translations do this quite like the KJV.

 

Basic Sentence Structure

The laws of geometry declare that there must be at least three straight lines to enclose a space. So the laws of syntax declare that there must be at least three words to make complete sense – EW Bullinger –Figures of Speech Used in the Bible

A sentence is designed to enclose a space of thought. The sentence fences in the main idea and fences out other non-essential or non-relevant ideas.

Remember the Dick and Jane books of yesteryear? They were filled with three-word sentences. Longer sentences were often just repeats of the same word.

Jane said, “Run, run. Run, Dick, run. Run and see.”

These three sentences contain or imply all three parts of a sentence, and fence out all other competing ideas. Let’s take a look at them one at a time.

Jane said, “Run, run.”

Here, we have the simplest of full sentences. We have a subject, Jane. She is the one doing the action. In any sentence, somebody or something must be doing or being something. What did Jane do? The doing or being part of the sentence is the verb or the action part of the sentence (sometimes called the predicate). Jane said. Jane (the subject) opened her mouth and spoke words. She didn’t eat, write, color, or dance. Though she was capable of doing all those things, our sentence fenced out those ideas and actions. We do not need to consider them at all. In Biblical interpretation, one of the greatest errors comes in making the Bible say what it does not say. Good understanding of sentence structure will eradicate this problem.

But we cannot fence in (or out) our idea with only two parts of the triangle. We need all three. If our sentence only had “Jane said,” then the “cattle can still get out of the stall.” Jane said…WHAT? The third part of the sentence is the recipient of the action, often called the direct object. Jane said, “Run, run.” Jane didn’t say “walk,” or “fly,” or “sit.” These ideas have been fenced out and run has been fenced in. Even though Jane repeated run, it was just for the sake of emphasis.

So in a sentence, we need to have a subject, a verb, and a direct object.

But here is where it gets tricky. In English (as in Hebrew and Greek), any of the three parts of the fence can be implied but not written. In fact, the sentence, “Run, Dick, run” is filled with implied but not spoken parts of speech. Who said, “Run?” Jane did! Is run the verb of our sentence? NO! We have an implied subject (Jane) and an implied verb (said) to go with the direct object, run. The sentence “Run, Dick, run” is really, Jane said Run, Dick, run. Dick adds insight into the sentence, telling us to whom Jane spoke. A formal way of writing the thought, without implied thoughts, would be, “Jane said to Dick, ‘Run, run.’”

Our sentence still has the three essential parts, and our job is to find those parts so that we fully understand the sentence.

  • WHO is acting or being?  JANE is the one who is responsible for the action.
  • The verb answers WHAT is she doing or being. Jane did something. WHAT did she do? She SAID.
  • The direct object answers WHAT or WHO receives the action of the verb. RUN is WHAT Jane said.

The fact that this sentence tells us who she said it to is just icing on the cake for interpretation. In this sentence, Dick is the indirect object because he is indirectly affected by the verb. An easy way to find indirect objects is to add the word to after the verb; Jane said to Dick, “Run, run.”

Practice Time!

Now, let’s try this on some Bible verses. The verses below have more parts of speech than our simple three-part sentence, but your job is to find the three parts, written or implied. At this point, we will not worry about anything more than the three parts.

And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins…” (Mark 1:6a, KJV)

Here is some help:

  • WHO is doing or being something? – JOHN
  • WHAT was he doing or being? – John WAS CLOTHED.
  • WHAT was indirectly affected by the action? – John was clothed WITH CAMEL’S HAIR and WITH A GIRDLE OF A SKIN.

Now, we have fenced in one single idea! But let’s add the entire verse:

And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;” (Mark 1:6, KJV)

The word AND tells us that we have two ideas combined in one sentence. This is simply an efficient use of language. Rather than saying, “John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle about his loins. John ate locusts and wild honey,” it is simply easier to borrow the subject and combine several thoughts. John is the borrowed subject to each of the thoughts. Our “triangle” is actually two corresponding triangles that fence in two thoughts.

  • John did not wear an Armani suit (that idea is fenced out).
  • John did not eat caviar; he ate locusts with wild honey (Don’t try this at home!).

Now try this:

And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” (Mark 1:7, KJV)

Pick out the three essential parts.

  • The subject: WHO is responsible for the action?
  • The verb: WHAT did the subject do?
  • The direct object: WHAT received the action of the verb?

In Mark 1:7, the subject is implied but definitely there. It is JOHN who is responsible for the action; thus, John is the subject. What did John do? John PREACHED, so preached is the verb. What received the action of the verb? This becomes a little more tricky because preaching is audible but not visible. If a person heard John preaching, what would they have heard? They would have heard that one cometh mightier than I. Thus, our sentence has fenced out some ideas and fenced in others. John isn’t baptizing in this sentence, nor is he eating locusts, but he is preaching. In this case, his preaching is not about baptism, nor repentance, nor some social justice issue. Rather, his preaching is of One who is coming!

Notice that for our simple purposes of interpretation, it is OK to place an entire phrase as any of the three parts of the necessary fence. For example, let’s look at another verse:

And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:5, KJV)

Here, our subject (responsible for the action) is all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem. Our verb (the action of the subject) is went outand were all baptized…confessing their sins. In a more formal, academic setting we would be required to parse out each action, but for our purposes, we can use a complete phrase or phrases to get the entire idea. The direct object would be John, who is hidden in the pronoun unto him. (Again, in a more strict setting, the river of Jordan and their sins are also indirect objects.)

Keep practicing this on short verses of Scripture. Before long, you will quickly learn to intuitively fence out ideas that are not in the text and fence in what the text actually says. When you are dealing with doctrinal passages, this ability will keep your conclusions within the fence of the Scriptures.

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Randy White is CEO of Dispensational Publishing House. This post originally posted at the John Nelson Darby Academy blog. The Darby Academy is an at-home, online education program for grades 3-12, and is a subsidiary of Dispensational Publishing House.

 

By | 2018-02-09T17:10:23+00:00 February 9th, 2018|Categories: Hermeneutics|4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Mark Ward February 9, 2018 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Brother White,

    A few comments:

    1) We *do* know who the translators of the modern versions were. They appear on lists in Bibles and on websites. We have good reasons to believe that they were doing their job well—and very good reasons to believe that, though we ought to study carefully on our own, they knew Greek and Hebrew better than we do.

    2) I don’t think we need to pit readability against accuracy when it comes to Bible translation when Paul ties intelligibility so clearly to edification in 1 Cor 14. That is, if only understandable words are edifying, then readability *is* important, very important. So is accuracy. They don’t have to compete. The Bible *can* be translated accurately into contemporary English, and it has been many times.

    3) A good friend of mine at a Bible translation organization says they have a list of passages in which the second person pronoun is ambiguous and a note is needed. I love the KJV and have memorized many, many verses from it. But in my judgment, the number of times KJV English is confusing to modern readers (through no fault of its own or of modern readers but solely due to language change) outweighs the occasional help it provides in distinguishing plural from singular second-person pronouns. Don Carson said in his Plea for Realism: “It is true that Elizabethan English is more precise than modern English in its use of pronouns. Nevertheless I confess that, as a preacher, I would rather specify the exact meaning of the odd ambiguous pronoun now and then, than explain all the archaisms in the text of the KJV.” (98)

    You need to read my book on this very topic. =) Check out authorizedbook.com.

  2. Randy White February 11, 2018 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    It looks like a good book, Mark. A friend had already suggested I get it and do a review. Perhaps I will!

    As to the above –
    1) Yes, we do have a list of names, and we could do some research to see if we trust these men and women to interpret the Bible on our behalf. I am just not sure why anyone would want to go to the work when more literal translations are available. There is some unavoidable interpretation that has to be done in translation, since “not all languages are created equal.” But, for the life of me, I don’t know why anyone would want a Bible version that is created on the basis of interpretation rather than pure translation. That’s just way too much trust to give.

    2) I agree, largely. But between readability and accuracy, I’ll choose accuracy any day.

    3) If a few pronouns were the end of the story, I would agree. As a NASB user for 25 years, however, I began to see how often I was having to tell my congregation, “The better word would have been ____.” Then I realized that much of the time the KJV was using that better word. I have to make far fewer clarifications since I started using KJV from the pulpit.

    For clarification, I am a “KJV preferred” user, not a KJV-only user.

    I look forward to getting to know you.

  3. Tony February 13, 2018 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    It amazes me that many defend Dispensational Theology and use some modern Bible versions that change the word “dispensation” to something else. Most of the modern versions I have examined fail to tell the reader to “study & rightly divide the word” in their translation of 2 Timothy 2:15. In sticking with the KJV I tell people one reason I am a “dispensationalist” is because it is a Bible term. I would recommend Dr. Edward F Hill’s book, “The King James Version Defended.” I know some who defend the KJV are regarded as “uneducated nuts,” but that is not the case with Dr. Hills (graduate of Yale, Westminster, & Columbia). It can be purchased from Amazon, or you can read it free online here:

    http://standardbearers.net/uploads/The_King_James_Version_Defended_Dr_Edward_F_Hills.pdf

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