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Word of the Lord
WORD, WORD OF THE LORD. Behind the concept of “word” stand three important terms: דָּבָר, H1821, λόγος, G3364, and ῥη̂μα, G4839. Both Gr. words are used for דָּבָר, H1821, in the LXX, and are virtually synonymous in the NT.
The root דבר yields the classical Heb. term for “word,” the noun דָּבָר, H1821, also the related verb. The etymology is obscure, but a connection with the idea of “what is at the back, behind,” is often seen. If this is correct, the basic thought is that of the background of a matter, i.e. conceptual content or meaning. From the very first the Heb. word seems to have had both a noetic element (the thought) and also a dynamic element (the power). Thus “act” or “deed” can sometimes be the meaning, and even when words are in view, the acts behind the words have also to be taken into account (cf.
Lógos and rhēma are both used for the Heb. term in the LXX, and in the NT. The words undergo a very different development in Gr. Lógos runs through a whole range of meanings: “collection,” “reckoning,” “calculation,” “account,” “consideration,” “reflection,” “ground or reason,” “narrative,” “speech,” and finally “word.” Rhēma from the very outset means “statement” with all its ramifications. It quickly comes to be used for words as distinct from deeds, though paradoxically it preserves an active element and is finally adopted by grammarians as the term for verb (the active word) as distinct from noun. In spite of the diverse origins and history, the words are more or less fully synonymous in both the LXX and the NT. The distribution is not without interest. Rhēma is almost three times as common as logos in the Pentateuch. The two are almost equal in Judges-Ruth. Then logos begins to predominate. It is twice as common in 1 Samuel to Canticles, and eight times as common in the prophets. Logos maintains its supremacy in the NT, where the proportion is over four to one (about 300 times to 70 times). In most instances, however, it is difficult to make any real distinction between the two words.
The Word in the OT
The word and revelation.
In the OT the word is the supreme means by which God the Creator makes known both Himself and His will to His creatures. This means that Biblical religion is primarily the religion of the ear rather than the eye (cf. the importance of the ear and hearing in the Bible). It does not mean, however, that Biblical religion is intrinsically verbal or abstract. The divine word, in distinction from many human words, is coextensive with that which it says or represents. Its most important attribute, then, is truth (
The word in the early prophets.
Since God’s revelation is primarily through the word, there develops in Israel the unique office of the prophet, the divine spokesman. The prophet is the man to whom the word of the Lord (Yahweh) comes and who then declares this word to the people. Attempts have sometimes been made to find a stronger ecstatic and visionary element in early prophecy. That it has a visionary side is incontestable, for right down to the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel the word often comes in visions. There is also a plastic side to prophecy, for signs and images often accompany the spoken word as a guarantee that the word itself will be “seen” in its fulfillment. On the other hand, it is highly significant that from a very early period the oral aspect is predominant. The heart of prophecy is that God speaks to the prophet and through the prophet. The patriarchs already are addressed by God (
The word and prophecy.
What may be seen in earlier prophecy finds classical statement and illustration in the great writing prophets from Amos and Hosea onward. In some cases these prophets actually use the formula, “The word of the Lord came...,” to introduce their words (e.g.
The word and the law.
A contrast is sometimes drawn between prophecy and the law (cf.
This fact may be seen in the description of the
The word in the Psalms.
The Word in Greek philosophy
Simultaneously with the development of the doctrine of the word of God in the OT there took place a very different development of the logos in Gr. philosophy. Since the NT had to use the term against a Hel. background, it is necessary to take a brief glance at the significance which the word acquired in the Gr. world. It should be noted that the Gr. development is along two main lines. The logos is (1) the noetic power of estimating things, or the rational content of things. It is also (2) a metaphysical reality gradually expanding into the concept of a cosmological being, almost a second god.
The main contribution of Heraclitus is to see in the logos the interconnection between man and man, man and the world, and man and God. The logos here is both word and the content of word. Both speech and action follow from it. It is the eternal order behind things, a cosmic law, the basis of the psyche. In the last resort, it is not a word from without, but the word immanent in man. The eye rather than the ear is the main instrument through which it is received.
Among the Sophists the word is more closely associated with the mind. It is the rational faculty which underlies speech and thought. As such it is indispensable to political and cultural life. It also plays an important role in pedagogy. The closer relation to the human faculty carries with it a radical departure from the earlier conception of the logos as a principle of cosmic proportions.
Plato follows the same line of thought as the Sophists, but not with the same degree of individualism. The logos is more than the individual faculty. There is a common logos based ultimately on the agreement between words and things. The logos both derives from, and also interprets, things. It is not just an opinion, a private view. Combining thought, word, and thing, it is larger and has a fuller reality than the individual faculty of thought.
In Aristotle there is an awareness of the twofold nature of the logos as word and understanding on the one side, the result of word and understanding on the other. Man speaks the word, but in some sense his action is also controlled by it. Since the logos leads to action, it may be regarded as the source of the virtue peculiar to man.
Stoicism returns to the idea of the logos as a cosmic principle. In the logos is expressed the rational order of the world, the cosmic reason. Hence the logos may be equated directly with God or Zeus. It is the germ (lógos spermatikós) unfolded alike in the organic and the inorganic world. It is also (lógos orthós) the law which gives knowledge to man. All things come from it and all return to it. The general logos takes conscious form in the particular logos of man. In later Stoicism the logos is increasingly identified with nature. This interfusion of rational order and vital power produces a pantheistic understanding.
The word logos finds a special religious use in the mystery religions. The holy logos is revelation or sacred doctrine. Through it there is union with deity. In some instances it is equivalent to the mystery, and the initiate is called the logos of God. Logos may also be used for prayer as the way to God. The logos teaches man both to pray and to worship aright.
A significant feature here is that the god Hermes personifies the logos. This is genuine personification, not incarnation. The principle behind all things is identified with a popular god. The choice of Hermes is based on the fact that he is the divine messenger, the mediator who makes known the will of the gods. A rational element is present, for secret knowledge is disclosed by Hermes. At root, however, Hermes personifies the larger principle of life. This moves inevitably in the direction of pantheism. The relation of the logos to God is the theme of much speculation. It is the logos of God, who is also called the father of the logos. Another line of thought is that the logos is the image of God and man the image of the logos. In spite of verbal similarities, however, these ideas bear little relation to the NT doctrine ofas the Word of God.
The word logos is an important one for Philo. He uses it in a bewildering number of ways, so that one can hardly speak of a unified Philonic doctrine of the logos. His basic difficulty here as always is to hold together his Hellenic and his Jewish convictions. Scholars are divided as to whether the logos is for Philo predominantly a Gr. or a Jewish concept. So far as the divine logos is concerned, it would seem that the roots are Jewish but that the development is greatly influenced by Gr. thought.
The logos of God, or divine logos, is not God Himself. It is a work of God. But it is also God’s image and the agent of creation. It can be identified with the noetic cosmos. It serves as an intermediary between the transcendent God and man. In it are comprised the logoi, the individual ideas. Yet it is more than a mere concept. Philo personifies the logos. It is the son of God. Philo’s Jewish heritage protects him both against a genuine deification of the logos and also against an ultimate immanentism. In fact, the logos seems to be a convenient link between the Creator God and the world which He has made.
Since the NT presents Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, it is tempting to look for parallels in the Gr. or Hel. world, and to see in these the sources of the Johannine understanding. To do so, however, is to ignore the decisive differences to which H. Kleinknecht has drawn attention in his valuable and comprehensive article in TDNT, IV, cf. esp. pp. 90, 91. These differences as he states them are (1) that the Gr. understanding is rational and intellectual, the Biblical is theological; (2) that the Gr. world can divide the one logos into many logoi, whereas the NT knows only one Logos as Mediator between God and man; (3) that the Gr. logos is timeless, while Christ the eternal Word takes on historical singularity as the Word incarnate; and (4) that the Gr. logos has a tendency to merge into the world, so that the world as such is generally son of God, but the Biblical Logos is the only-begotten of the Father who, when He takes flesh, is the one Man, Jesus of Nazareth. In the light of these fundamental distinctions the obvious parallels are of little material significance.
The word in the NT
Though logos/rhema is an important theological term in the NT, it can also be used in a general sense. In some instances the general sense can have theological significance in its own right, but in others it is purely neutral in character. Thus the sing. or pl. can denote what has gone before (
Word and reality.
An interesting use of logos is for the empty word as distinct from the reality or the deed. This is theologically impossible when the reference is to the divine word. But human speech may be only speech, i.e. without substance. The vaunting speech of human wisdom falls into this category (
Words can be bad as well as empty.
In the NT logos can also have some of the particular senses which derive from its basic meaning. Thus to give a logos is to render an account either to man, or, more commonly, to God (
In a whole group of NT vv. lego or logos/rhema refers either to the word of revelation in the OT or to the OT itself as the written word of God. An interesting point to note in these references is that the word is described sometimes as that of the human author, sometimes as that of the preexistent Christ, and sometimes as that of God, while the usage is indefinite (“it is said”) in other instances. Even when the emphasis falls on the human speaker or writer, however, there can be no doubt that he is God’s spokesman, so that for all the genuine humanity of the utterance, God is He who truly speaks in the OT. The word, whether it be an individual saying (sing.) a whole book (pl.), is God’s word as well as man’s. Underlying the NT view of the OT, as also of its own message, is the basic Biblical and prophetic concept of the word of the Lord. If “word of the Lord” (lógos toû kuríou) is not actually used by the NT in this connection, there seems to be a special reason. In the NT kúrios is a title for Christ Himself, so that word or words of the Lord might easily be construed as dominical sayings. Even when OT quotations are made, this phrase is not used as an introductory formula, though kurios with the verb can be used within the quotations themselves (cf.
The word to individuals.
In the NT, as in the OT, there are examples of the word of God coming to special persons. Thus the rhēma of God came to Simeon (
The absence of the prophetic formula applies to Jesus also. Though He speaks the word in fullness, the NT does not say that the word came to Him as it came to John. A voice spoke at His baptism and at the transfiguration, but this was addressed to the people, not to the Lord. It was an accreditation rather than a commission. Since Jesus is undoubtedly the supreme Prophet, greater even than Moses, one can only conclude that the avoidance of the formula was intentional. His relationship to God, and also to God’s word, so completely transcends that of the prophets that to speak of the word coming to Him would be inadequate and even misleading. As will be seen later, the heart of the NT message is that the word comes in Him rather than to Him or through Him. His identity with God and with the revelation of God sets the whole concept of the word of God in a new and all-transforming light.
The word(s) of Jesus.
The authority of the word or words of Jesus was felt also by their original hearers. If many were offended, or thought Him mad, or tried to trip Him up, it was because they were disturbed by the threat of His word (cf.
John makes the same points in his own distinctive way. The words of Jesus are words of eternal life (
The word as the Gospel.
As the Gospel, the word has the attributes and authority of a definitive word of God. It is the word of the cross, of reconciliation, of grace, of life, and of truth. It is God’s word. If the apostles speak it, they do so only as ministers. This is why Paul dare not corrupt it. This is the guarantee of authenticity. It is also the source of authority and power. Men may contest the words of other men; they cannot contradict God’s word. The word, as God’s word, has its own vital power. It is the power of God (
Jesus as the Word of God.
The word is God’s word. It includes the word or words of Jesus. It is also the message about Jesus. As such, it is God’s speaking to man by the Spirit. It is the word of Jesus (both objective and subjective genitive) continually preached. The point upon which all these different lines converge, and the climax of the Biblical doctrine of the word of God, is that the Word is God Himself. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is the eternal and incarnate Word. The Word is Jesus, and Jesus is the Word.
Since the concept of the word is to be found in all parts of Scripture, the many commentaries and Biblical theologies may be consulted with profit; they are, however, too numerous to be listed in detail. For the Word of God in John, cf. esp. J. R. Harris, The Origin of the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel (1917); R. G. Bury, The Fourth Gospel and the Logos-Doctrine (1940). Good introductory articles are A. F. Walls, “Logos” and “Word” in BDT (1960); J. N. Sanders, IDB, IV (1962), 868-872; A. Debrunner, H. Kleinknecht, O. Procksch, G. Kittel, G. Quell, and G. Schrenk, TDNT, IV (ET, 1967), 69-137.