New Testament Words and Verses
The NT's Most Interesting Word—ἐκκακέω/ενκακέω
I didn’t translate this word in the title of the essay because it is such a suggestive word, both in its etymology and use, that a uniform translation may not be helpful. I say the word is the most interesting in the New Testament because it only rarely appears in the whole of Greek literature, is absent in the LXX, but appears six times in the NT. Paul or the Pauline writings use it five times, and Luke uses it the sixth. Certainly it has entered into the NT “DNA” or mode of looking at the world that no one else quite picks up on.
Translation, of course, emerges from use, but we can fruitfully begin by taking the word apart: the prefix means “out” or “in” but in some verbs, as this one, the process of going out is really synonymous with the process of going in. “He went out and into the meeting”—the process of leaving a situation can be the same as entering a situation. But more interesting is the simple word “evil” to “do harm” in the word. Something about “harming within” or “damaging inside” is suggested by simply taking apart the word. But we need to see it at work.
Let’s then just look at the usual translation of these six verses, leaving out the ἐκκακέω/ενκακέω (putting an XXXX for it) and then focus more specifically on the word in a few instances. I’ll use the NIV for consistency.
Luke 18:1, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not XXXX.
II Cor. 4:1, “Therefore since God in his mercy has given us this new way, we never XXXX.
II Cor. 4:16, “Therefore, we do not XXXX. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
Gal 6:9, “Let us not XXXX in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Eph. 3:13, “I ask you, therefore, not XXX because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.”
II Thess. 3:13, “As for you, brothers and sisters, never XXXX what is good.”
It’s not unexpected that Paul would almost invent a Greek word to capture the rich psychology of his life. One of the features of brilliant writers is that they invent the language as they go along. It isn’t as if the existing vocabulary can’t be used to express what they want, but the combination of eloquence, energy, passionate advice that they are dispensing, and timeliness all conspire to encourage them to come up with new ways of saying things. Paul, and those who followed after him, found this verb strikingly helpful for their purposes. But let’s look at each more closely.
The one non-Pauline usage is in Luke. In that passage Jesus is telling a parable—the parable of the persistent widow. The purpose of the parable is to take the example of a most vulnerable person (a widow) in a most vulnerable situation (she is being accused of something by someone). Rather than giving in to the invective or accusation, or losing herself in self-pity, she goes to the one person who can help her (a judge) and won’t let him go, figuratively speaking, until he “blesses” her. Jesus takes this example of persistence in the face of multiple obstacles as an encouragement to those who are listening to him. Now we are in a position to render the word ενκακέω in 18:1. Jesus urges her to keep praying and not to “let the evil dwell inside.” But that is too rough. “Don’t let the things inside get you down.” But that isn’t strong enough. “Don’t be discouraged.” But that isn’t unique or pointed enough. “Don’t lose heart.” Better. How about, “But don’t let the trauma or vulnerability created by circumstances keep you from doggedly clinging to what is essential”? Don’t let the “evil within” or the “bad internal condition” keep you from your goal, to be free from your accuser. When we take our time with the word, we see it opening to us an incredibly rich world that encourages the development of inner strength.
Let’s look at the two appearances in II Cor. 4. Paul is in at his encouraging best here. So many obstacles confront his hearers. There is division in the church; his own reputation is being questioned; certain kinds of immoral conduct are evident; bad attitudes have developed. What is Paul’s response? To use this verb twice in this most important transitional chapter in II Corinthians, as he goes from recounting the problems to giving his hearers encouragement for the future. Many people look at Paul’s brilliance because of the development of theological concepts, but I think his spirit, reflected in the way he uses words, that is most powerful.
In these two instances, he will try to buoy his readers. Various translations of the ενκακέω here are: “faint” or “be weary” or “lose heart” or “give up.” If we looked at II Cor. 4:16 we see ενκακέω beginning the sentence and then two verbs contrasted with one another. The first is διαφθείρω, a verb appearing six times in the NT (three of these are in Revelation) and meaning “to corrupt thoroughly” or “decay utterly.” It is contrasted with a very visual verb ἀνακαινόω, which only appears one other time in the NT, and means to “make new again” or “bring to life.” Thus, II Cor. 4:16 contrasts the external corruption or decay and inner renewal. Because this happens we don’t ενκακέω. But I think that the “evil within” is best rendered here by “we don’t let the spirit of decay, of evil, of badness, of destruction come in and stay inside.” We can render it, of course, “to lose heart” or “faint” and those are fine, but when we truly get the sense of ενκακέω we can feel the power of it, and the nature of the encouragement that Paul provides.
Perhaps you will take this as an encouragement to examine closely the other three appearances of the verb, but our little journey has shown us that it carries with it the sense of building us from within, giving persistence, of not yielding to the “evil within.” Let that word, then, take deep root in your heart and, like the widow, like the Apostle Paul, use it. So we have our most unique word in the New Testament.