Hermeneutics – Word Searches

Word searches generally have a bad wrap in academic circles and are commonly associated with a particular exegetical fallacy. So I need to explain what the issues are and why I use them.

Doing word searches from the scriptures is the best way to start understanding what the scriptures say about a particular word or concept. For example, say passages;

  • A, B and C mention the word explicitly and give information about it,
  • D and E do not mention the word explicitly, but do contain information about it,
  • F, G, H, I, J do not mention the word explicitly and don’t contain information about it.

Two steps

On the first step, by examining the passages A, B, and C we can gain a fair amount of information about a particular word or concept. Every time we examine a passage where the particular word or concept is located, we can then associate with it various keywords and themes tied to the concept.

Once we have a good idea of a set of keywords and themes tied to the word or concept. We can then move on to the second step. Here we go back to the scriptures and look for those keywords and themes associated with what we are looking for in other passages such as D and E and learn from them as well.

Granted, a word search will not lead a person to passages D and E initially. Even though they do say things about the particular word and concept. But, we would hope what we learn from the keywords and themes associated with the word in passages A, B and C will lead us to D and E eventually.

We won’t even bother about looking at passages F, G, H, I and J because the results and the associated themes from the initial word search will give us no reason to consider them.

One reason why word searches occasionally are given a bad wrap is because step one is occasionally assumed to tell everything about a particular word or concept. This is not necessarily true. The second step must be undertaken to complete the study.


Looking at the single verse that includes the word is not overly helpful as well. The surrounding context is important. Quite often in my word searches I will be including the surrounding passage to gain a better understanding of how it fits in and how it is used. Broadening the verse found containing the word into a passage will help us find keywords and themes associated with the word that may not necessarily be confined to a single verse.

The size of the surrounding context included may vary from verse to verse and from person to person. Its purely subjective and depends on the person performing the search. Obviously limiting the surrounding number of verses will also limit the number associations with the word. Increasing the size of the surrounding passage will increase the number of associations.


The word search will expose the interpreter to a wide range of instances where the word is used. The first steps are important because they can also help us to distinguish between the passages that tell us a lot about a given word or concept and those that don’t. Quite often some of the results of word searches are discarded because they do not reveal any helpful information. On the other hand, the word search will reveal significant passages that do provide valuable information. These passages we can use in synthesising the results and coming to conclusions.

Different meanings

Sometimes a word search will reveal that a given word of concept has more than one possible meaning. This makes understanding the concept more complex. But recognising this can help the interpreter learn how to distinguish between multiple meanings of the given word from the surrounding context.

Wrong assumptions

Continuing using my example above. If someone believed doing word searches were an unhelpful method for learning about the particular word. And then assumed passages F, G, and H were necessary for learning about the word, ignoring A, B and C entirely. We would not expect that person to learn anything about the word or concept. That person would be deluding themselves. We want to be careful about the assumptions we make. They could lead us in unhelpful directions.


Misinterpretation associated with word studies can occur in two ways;

Firstly, in trying to understand particular word or concept as a biblical topic. It would be erroneous to assume passages like D and E don’t say anything about that particular word or concept. Not looking at these passages will reduce the amount one could learn about that particular topic.

Secondly, in doing exegesis on a particular passage in the bible, if that passage was like passages D and E, and included several of the themes of that particular word or concept but didn’t mention that word explicitly. It would be erroneous to deny that passage had anything to say about that particular word or concept either. Both of these are examples of exegetical fallacies associated with word searches.

For example;

In the past I performed word studies on ‘covenant’ and ‘righteous’. From the first study on ‘covenant’ I found that the words ‘promise’, ‘law’, ‘steadfast love’, ‘faithfulness’ and ‘transgressions’ are common to the concept of covenant.

After doing this, I conducted another word study on ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’. The beauty of knowing the words associated with covenant, is that when these common ‘covenant’ words cropped up in the passage I was looking at, I knew the author was associating ‘righteousness’ with covenant. Even though he didn’t even say the word ‘covenant’.