Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Beware when preachers go back into an ancient language without the proper reverence or training.
I really don't want to come off as a theology snob here, but can I share a few thoughts about something that just drives me crazy? The other day I was listening to a well-known charismatic teacher/prophet. He was teaching on Joshua 1:8, and he said that the word meditate actually meant to growl.
Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. (Josh. 1:18)
This teacher/prophet said:
"This word meditate is actually the word growl. Okay, let me read it to you, this exact Hebrew word in another passage, Isaiah 31:4, 'Thus says the Lord to me, as the lion or the young lion growls over his prey…' that word growl is the identical word meditate."
A Word Study
This is called doing a word study, and it's being done in an incredibly sloppy way. Just like in English, Hebrew words can have more than one meaning. They can have the same meaning but be nuanced depending on how you use them at a particular time.
For instance, if I thought you preached a great message, I could say, "That message was dynamite." You know what I'm saying, that it was a powerful message. But if I said, "I have 10 sticks of dynamite in my car. Let's go blow up a bridge," then the word dynamite means something completely different!
I chose that word on purpose because preachers love to tell us that dunamis in Acts 1:8, "You shall receive power…," means dynamite. No, it doesn't. That would mean that the thousands of scholars who work on translations are stupid. Why didn't they choose dynamite? Not one English translation translates dunamis as dynamite. And that is because, although we get the English word dynamite from dunamis, it actually means power or capacity.
The power they were to receive was divine power; the word is dynamis, the same word used of Jesus' miracles in the Gospels. It is the Spirit's power (Acts 2:1–21).
It would be better to say that we get the English word dynamite from the Greek word dunamis. There was no dynamite in the first century.
Growl or Meditate?
So, let's get back to the word in Hebrew for meditation. And if I can, let me show you how you would do a proper word study. First, what is the word? v'hagita וְהָגִ֤יתָ. It is imperative, second person, like when you tell somebody to do something: "Eat!" So now we want to find out what this word actually means. Thousands of scholars have agreed that this word is the English equivalent of meditate. While there are some places where I might disagree with a translation, that would be the exception to the rule (like here). Most of our translations in English are fairly reliable.
Here are the questions we will ask:
1. How many times is this word used in the Hebrew Bible?
2. How is it translated most of the time?
3. How do leading Bible dictionaries translate this word?
4. What are other possible translations?
5. When we find an alternate translation, does that fit the context of our verse?
Now, when I put all this together, it's very easy for me to understand the word meditate in Joshua 1:8 is not the eastern mystical idea of meditation. One of the definitions is "read in an undertone or mutter." The idea with the word of God is that we would speak it out loud, think about it while we're reading it, and seek revelation from the Holy Spirit.
Biblical meditating is wrestling with a verse in our minds with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Many years ago in Bible school, one of my professors said it was like how a cow regurgitated food. Not the most pleasant thought. But a cow will eat grass and digest it in one stomach only to regurgitate it. He will do that process several times before it lands in its fourth stomach. That is how we meditate on the word of God.
So why does this teacher think it means growl? Because it can mean growl. The context would be of a lion growling over its prey. The problem is that it is only translated as growl in this one verse, where it is translated meditate, utter, mutter, or plot almost 25 times! Let's look at this one verse:
This is what the Lord says to me: "As a lion growls, a great lion over its prey—and though a whole band of shepherds is called together against it, it is not frightened by their shouts or disturbed by their clamor—so the Lord Almighty will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and on its heights. (Is. 31:4)
Of the eight times growl is used in the NIV, only this one time is it coming from this verb, הגה. And only once is growl (of the eight times) does it come from הגה. So, maybe it doesn't mean growl.
Now, don't check out on me. This is actually where it gets a little fascinating. While many Hebrew words are pretty obvious, put yourself in the shoes of a Bible translator. They come across this verse that speaks about a lion doing something over its prey. That something that it is doing is the verb הגה. So they look at every other place where this verb appears, and it seems to indicate meditation or muttering or speaking softly. They scratch their heads. "How does this fit the context of a lion?" So, they offer a few options:
3. Make noise
4. Kills an animal
5. Gnaws and chews and worries (its prey)
You can see how they struggled over interpreting this word for this verse. In other verses, they simply used meditate, mutter, or utter. And of those usages have to do with thinking or speaking something over and over again. So, to take the one time that it is translated growl or roar—and then change the traditional meaning of another verse to fit your message is exegetical malpractice at a high level. It is forcing the Scriptures to bend towards your message rather than bending your message toward the Scriptures.
It's far more probable that, in context, it simply means that the lion is making a noise under his breath as a predator—growling— the same way we might meditate or wrestle with something by repeating it over and over again.
Don't call the Theology Police!
Now, of course, mistranslating Joshua 1:8 is not going to lead anyone into false teaching. But when you have a platform to hundreds of thousands of people, as this person does, and you present yourself as someone who knows how to discern the original Hebrew meaning, you should make sure you have it right—by checking with someone who actually knows Biblical Hebrew.
As Dr. Michael Brown says, "when someone says that the original Hebrew says something, they're usually wrong."
Study to show yourselves approved.