Meaning is the heart of human communication. Without it, language is reduced to babble, or in Shakespeare's words, "sound and fury, signifying nothing."
The Bible is God's Word. The doctrine of general and special revelation teaches that God communicates with people in two ways: the general revelation of creation (the beauty and truth found in the world around us) and the special revelation of His Word (the Bible).
How important it must be then for us to understand the Bible's meaning! Especially in Bible translation, where translators are trying to convey that meaning from one language to another, understanding what the text means is essential.
But many passages of Scripture are not easy to understand. Whether you're reading the Bible for the first time or studying the text as an accomplished biblical scholar, there are Bible verses that leave us all asking, "What?!" Unfortunately, a lack of understanding -- or misunderstanding -- can deter people from reading the Bible altogether, robbing them of the chance to know the God behind it.
Don't Worry, It's Not You
If you've ever read the Bible and come away thinking, "What in the world is that supposed to mean?!" take heart: you're not alone. Jesus' own disciples, who spent every waking minute listening to his teachings and asking him questions, still didn't always get it. The disciples ask what Jesus means or why he's saying it the way he does, (Matthew 13:10) and sometimes they even tell him his words can't be right! (Matthew 16:21-23)
Maybe you've felt the same way after reading a verse that was confusing: that can't mean what I think it means! If the twelve men who followed Jesus throughout his ministry still didn't always understand his meaning, we have nothing to be ashamed of when we don't understand the Bible.
Ask the Author
The good news is we needn't dwell in the confusion or walk away from the Bible frustrated (at least not permanently).
When we don't understand someone in spoken conversation, we can ask them directly: "What do you mean?"
While I don't know of a way to ask the human authors of the Bible any questions about the text, we're not left stuck. Jesus' own little brother, James, has this advice for anyone struggling to understand God's words:
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.
-James 1:5, NLT
Having spent literally his entire life following Jesus around, James would know how to get to the bottom of some of the bizarre things Christ said. Just ask!
Through prayer, we can ask God for wisdom in approaching and understanding the Bible. James promises that those prayers will be answered without a word of reproach.
Translating An Unclear Meaning
But what does all of this mean in the context of Bible translation? How can translation teams render passages into a new language when they're not sure of the original meaning?
First, translators need to be comfortable with the fact that none of us has all the answers. We must do our due diligence in consulting biblical scholarship resources available, church leaders, and other wise counsel. In the end, translators hold the text with open hands - not one of us can claim understanding of every jot and tittle, as the Bible itself reminds us:
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
-Isaiah 55:9, NIV
I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim.
-Ecclesiastes 8:17, NLT
Secondly, translators approach the text in prayer. Before, during, and after each step of the translation process, teams pray to ask for the Holy Spirit to give them wisdom in how to render the Bible accurately, clearly, naturally, and acceptably into their language. They also ask others to partner with them in prayer. In fact, praying for Bible translation is one of the best ways you can help in bringing God's word to every language.
In the end, translation teams make every effort to stay faithful to the source text in their translations. Sometimes that means translating an unfamiliar biblical term into a more familiar cultural equivalent. Other times, it means keeping our own cultural bias out of the translation. We have sometimes had to say, "I don't know what Jesus meant here, but he says the same thing in our translation!" No matter the strategy, translation teams maintain an attitude of humility when discerning the Bible's meaning.
And that is a good reminder to all of us. We may not understand all that the Bible says. We may not understand all that God is doing in the world around us. We certainly don't understand God himself. We can choose to either reject the idea of a God who does not fit in our neat and logical box of comprehension, or celebrate the divine mystery of a God who is so much more, whose very "love surpasses knowledge."