By Charles H. Welch
People. Of the thirteen words translated "people", one Hebrew, and one Greek are of importance in the teaching of Dispensational Truth. Am in the Hebrew and laos in the Greek. The word am occurs in Genesis 11:5,6 and 14:16, but with the third reference, namely in Genesis 17:14, it takes on a distinctive meaning that persists right throughout the O.T. Where we read "people" in Genesis 17: 16 it should be translated "peoples", balancing "nations", and with one or two notable exceptions the rule holds good that "people" in the singular refers to Israel, and "peoples" in the plural to the Gentile nations.
The blessing given to Jacob speaks of a multitude of people (Gen. 28:3,4), and this promise is recalled when he blessed Joseph's sons (Gen. 48:3,4). In verse 4 we should note that the word is plural, "peoples". In Genesis 49:10 the obedience (not "gathering", see same word in Proverbs 30:17) of the peoples, refers to "the obedience of all nations", a "secret" hushed until the time for its revelation in the days of Paul (Rom. 16:25-27).
Israel do not exist as a "people" in the book of Genesis, but with the book of Exodus their history as a "people" begins (Ex. 3:7-10). Over and over again the words, "My people", are sounded in the ears of Pharaoh. Israel were "taken to Himself" said God "for a people", taken by redemption (Exod.6:7). In Exodus 19:3-7 "peoples" once more refer to the Gentiles. Israel are the "people" of Exodus 33:3,5,13,17. Balaam speaks of this separated people (Num. 23:9), a people who were to dwell "alone". Yet though separated from a11 other peoples, they had and will have an influence even on the lands that the other nations should inherit (Deut. 32:8).
In this book of Deuteronomy, the peculiar blessedness of this people is stressed (Deut. 4:20; 9:29; 32:9). To them had been given the law (Deut. 4:8), they were called "holy" and "peculiar" (Deut. 7:6; 14:2,21). They were chosen by sovereign love (Deut. 7:7,8). "Who is like unto thee," asked Moses, "0 people saved by the Lord" (Deut. 33 :28,29)? What is true in the law, is true also in the Prophets (2 Sam. 7:23,24, Isa. 1:3; 40:1; 42:6; 43:21, Dan. 9:4-21; 12:1 and Hos. 2:21-23).
Turning to the N.T. we find that the distinctive character still persists. Laos occurs 143 times, and in nine of these occurrences the word is plural. Let us notice these first. Luke 2:31, Acts 4:25,27, Romans 15:11, Revelation 7:9-17; 10:11; 11:9; 17:15 and 21:3. Acts 4:27 presents a difficulty for here the plural refers to Israel.
The reason for this departure from the rule is seen when we realize that Israel had sided with Herod, Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles. For the rest, every reference to laos in the N.T. is a reference to Israel with the following exceptions (Acts 15:14,15). On the assumption that the epistle to Titus was written after Acts twenty-eight when Israel had become lo-ammi, "not My people" the Church is called for the first time a "people" (Tit. 2:14).
The earnest student should not rest satisfied with this survey, but should patiently read every reference to "people" in its context. If this be done, the conviction will grow that the title "people" in the singular from Genesis twelve and the call of Abraham to Acts twenty-eight upon the rejection temporarily of the Jew, refers to Israel to whom this title strictly applies. This study is not only important for its own sake, but also because it stresses the need for consistency in our use of Scriptural terms.