Of all the Bible study aids, a Strong’s Concordance is the most used and the most widely available. My ecclesia keeps a dozen or so, to use particularly when we conduct our Bible Seminars, for they are used as part of its section on study tools. Its use is quite valuable in illuminating the various ways in which the same Hebrew or Greek words are used in the Bible, and the passages in which they occur. Many Christadelphians use these tools in the preparation of their talks, and I have heard several in which the vast majority of the exposition was based upon “and the Greek means”, citing the dictionary definitions supplied by Strong’s. Sometimes these are helpful: sometimes they lead to conclusions and comments that are, frankly, either unhelpful or just plain incorrect. Just because one English word is used to translate several Hebrew words does not mean all these Hebrew words are cognate, or related to each other. Combine this with the many of the old English words used in the King James Version, and the problem is compounded.
Perhaps the strangest exposition I heard was based on Psa 7:9, which reads in the KJV” “Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just: for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins”. It takes an English scholar (or a student of the KJV) to know that “reins” in this connection has nothing to do with a horse, but is the old English for kidneys, which is the meaning Strong’s gives us. And its most common use is indeed in connection with sacrifice. So one can disappear in the direction of the Old Testament sacrifices, which in fact have nothing to do with it in this context. More correctly you can simply note that all modern translations use “hearts and minds”, translating the Hebrew idiom into English. (You could point out some of the similar uses of the idiom, of course.)
Examples of use
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16–17).
There are two ways of analyzing this passage, without consulting any commentary. One can use Strong’s concordance, perhaps a Greek or Hebrew dictionary, and the Bible, and then attempt to plumb the depths of the Greek for yourself. This can be illustrated as in the words in bold above:
The Scripture is profitable for:
Doctrine — didaskalia — the substance of what ought to be taught, rather than the act of teaching: the basic facts about belief and behavior, not only about belief.
Reproof — elegchos — the full showing up of something. Heb 11:1 uses it to define faith: basic ideas are to demonstrate, to convict. Even in English “proof” is part of “reproof”. The idea is of proving, or showing clearly just what we have done. By precept and example Scripture certainly does this (Heb 4:12).
Correction — the word has the idea of setting something right: we arrive at this by breaking the Greek word epanorthosis into its two parts and looking up “orthosis”, when incidentally we shall almost see the word “orthopoedic”—walking uprightly.
Instruction — paideia — is basically the pedagogue, the slave who used to accompany the pupil to make sure they learned their lessons.
Righteousness — dikaiosune — really has the idea of standing out from the world — of being ethically separate, of being right in God’s eyes.
And the result is a man completely qualified for good work of every kind. So the Scriptures are profitable to show the way — expose our error — put us right — keep us right — and get us there. Each word has its own special meaning. None is there to make just a pleasing sound.
But perhaps the lesson from this is that you can also get a good sense of the meaning by looking at the various translations1. Perhaps I can cite the NIrV2, which reads: “It is useful for teaching us what is true. It is useful for correcting our mistakes. It is useful for making our lives whole again. It is useful for training us to do what is right.”
Strong’s is NOT a Dictionary
Strong’s is primarily a concordance, not a dictionary. A dictionary defines words. A concordance acts like an index.
While Strong’s does provide a short gloss (English definition) of each Hebrew and Greek word it lists, its function is primarily to show all occurrences of that word in the Bible, not exhaustively define it. There are several problems with using Strong’s as a dictionary:
Many words in both Hebrew and Greek mean different things in different contexts, and sometimes between different authors. Even though the ultimate author of the Bible is God, He “breathed out” his message to different writers, each with their own style.
There is often no easy correspondence between words in different languages. Many Hebrew words, such as the word for atonement, kopher, have many shades of meaning in Hebrew which are difficult to translate into English.
Just because the root of a word means one thing, does not mean the actual word is easily related to the root. This presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word. How many times have we been told that because the verbal cognate of ἀποστολος (apovstolos, apostle) is ἀποστέλλω (apostellō, I send), the true meaning of “apostle” is “one who is sent”? In relation to the general use of “apostle” in the NT we must say that the word does begin to become a term meaning “to send forth to service in the Kingdom of God with full authority (grounded in God).” As such, although perhaps the root meaning is embedded, the ideas of service in the Kingdom of God, and authority in the name of Jesus must be emphasized.
Strong’s is sometimes in error
It is my habit whenever an author claims “The Hebrew (or Greek) means …, I will look up his statement, not in Strong’s, but in a dictionary. I happen to use a couple of modern works: “The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament”, and “The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.” (I find the more common “Vine’s” neither comprehensive nor always accurate.) Usually, I make no changes: but quite a few times I have felt compelled to change what was written.
I give one example, which I first heard from my father many years ago. The statement is made that the word for “pitch” in Gen 6:14 (“Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch”). Consulting Strong’s, you find the first word “pitch” is H3722, and you find it is used commonly for Atonement. So here pitch = atonement — and so the analogies begin.
However, if you consult any modern translation, you get something like “..,and cover it inside and out with pitch.” Here the word translated “cover” is the Hebrew word H3722, so that makes a little sense. But if you look up the second pitch, you get H3724, which, according to Strong’s, is elsewhere used for a ransom or a redemption price. However, a modern dictionary (or any modern commentary) tells you that this second word is unique in the Old Testament, and is in fact the same word as used in the for pitch in the ancient Gilgamesh epic about a tremendous flood. So there is absolutely no relation between “pitch” and “atonement”, although it seems likely that the Hebrew word used for cover became associated with the idea of “covering” one’s sin.
Personally, I have a fundamental rule in using Strong’s concordance to assist in understanding a passage. I might look up the Hebrew or Greek word, to see where else it is used. (Any the modern electronic Bibles make this trivial to do.) But if the alternative translations even begin to make sense, I will consult one or more modern translations. If none of these support what you might think, I would myself not even begin to consider it. Just because a word is used in a different way elsewhere, does not give you the license to use it here!
1. If you have an electronic Bible like E-sword, click on the verse and then click “compare”. It will bring up all your translations at once — quite useful.
2. NIrV = New International Readers Version: renders the NIV into simpler English.