New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 2:12-18, Paul's Exhortation, Two
We saw in the previous essay that Paul’s central concern in this section of Philippians was the obedience of his readers. He had spent so much time introducing them to and nurturing them in the Christian faith; now it was their duty to obey and continue to obey. I argued that this command is neatly couched in terms that appeal to his readers—that is, that obedience yields so many spiritual benefits for them. Here I want to pause on some of the actual words and literary devices used so that the power of Paul’s thought can more clearly be limned. In addition, I will be advancing a novel reading of one phrase in verse 13.
Words to Notice
If we don’t know the names of trees, we tend to think of every towering, leaf-bearing entity as a “tree.” In fact, it is a Liriodendron or a Quercus or a host of other names that invite us into understanding them as much more than simply a “tree.” The same is true for words. The more we know them in their “habitat” and know their “names,” the more we understand their richness. But words are also linked with other words; they are not simply islands of meaning. Thus, the purpose of this essay is to highlight several words or literary devices that make this passage “work.” I skip over the word “obedience,” since I treated that one in the last essay.
1--The role of hendiadys. Hendiadys is a simple but powerful concept—the linking of two related words by an “and” to give the reader longer to ‘dwell’ on the concept. It is derived from the Greek “one through two”—or one idea through two words.. “Nice and warm” or “heat and sun” or “sound and fury,” are some examples. It is perhaps Paul’s most significant literary device here. In this passage we have five: φόβου καὶ τρόμου (“fear and trembling,” v 12); γογγυσμῶν καὶ διαλογισμῶν (“grumbling and discussions,” v 14); σκολιᾶς καὶ διεστραμμένης (in the midst of a generation “crooked and perverse,” v 15); ἔδραμον οὐδὲ. . . ἐκοπίασα (“I had run or labored. .” in vain, v 16); θυσίᾳ καὶ λειτουργίᾳ (“sacrifice and service”. . .of your faith, v 17). The use of hendiadys gives a certain rhythm to one’s writing, and basically functions as an invitation to the reader to get caught up in the “flow” of what is begin suggested. Here the flow is about obedience to Paul, and the careful effort to drive home his exhortation through repeated use of hendiadys, has had a signal effect on readers for nearly 2,000 years.
2--Alliteration. Alliteration is the practice of using words beginning with the same letter so as to produce euphony, a pleasant sound in the ears. This is fully lost on English-only readers, but is central to the literary strategy of ancient writers in general and Paul in this passage. Here we have one alliteration where three words beginning with “alpha” give focus: we see it best if we quote the eight word phrase in which the alliteration is embedded:
15 ἵνα γένησθε ἄμεμπτοι καὶ ἀκέραιοι, τέκνα θεοῦ ἄμωμα
“so that you might become blameless and pure/unmixed, spotless children of God”
Each of the three words invites closer consideration. The “alpha” which begins each word is known as an “alpha privative,” since it negates or “gives privation to” what follows. The ἄμεμπτοι, then, is derived from the verb μέμφομαι, which means to “reproach” or “find fault.” μέμφομαι is rare in the NT, but one example is in Rom. 9:19, where Paul asks, “Why does God still find fault?” ἄμεμπτος occurs four other times in the NT, twice in Paul, and always carries the meaning of “blameless” or “irreproachable.” ἀκέραιοι is ultimately derived from the verb κεράννυμι, which emphasizes the process of mixing something. This, with the alpha privative we have “unmixed/pure/unadulterated” as the meaning. Finally, the ἄμωμα has its root in μῶμος, a NT hapax (but common in the LXX), which relates to a spot, blot or blemish on something. Now the power of the alliteration is clear. We might say in English, “unreproached, unmixed, unblemished” or something like that. Whether what Paul
says really makes much sense from a practical viewpoint (how, indeed, is a person “pure”?) is another question; he is here using alliteration as a tool to encourage obedience.
3--The verb σπένδω (v 17). The verb isn’t common in the NT (II Tim. 4:6 is its only other appearance), but its sacrificial meaning is significant. It means to “make a libation” or to “pour out a drink offering,” where a drink offering, as the Jewish Encyclopedia tells us, has the purpose of “doing homage, winning favor, or securing pardon.” Thus, it is an offering of very broad scope, but is an essential offering in the sacrificial system of Israel. Jacob poured out one (Gen. 35:14); the instruments for this offering must be made of gold (Ex. 25:29). It is interesting that Paul sees himself potentially as a drink offering rather than, say, a whole-burnt offering! That, indeed, would have been hard to stomach
for readers then and now but, because of the broad meaning of the drink offering, Paul’s desire to be one might be taken as a sign of his ultimate dedication to God.
4--A novel reading. Verse 13 receives a unanimous reading, which I will challenge here. The text:
θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.
The traditional translation: “For God is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
My translation: “For God is at work in you, both that act of willing and working is for your favor/desire/ pleasure.”
The Greek has no personal pronoun before the word rendered “favor/desire/good pleasure.” It is unanimously understood as “God’s” good pleasure, but the construction of the sentence, where “God is working in you” starts it makes much more sense to me if it ends with God willing and working is related to “you” in the second half. This also would be an arresting theological thought, that the process of salvation is largely for the benefit of believers. From the perspectives, then, both of theology
and grammar, I advance my translation.
These are not all the words or concepts that drive this memorable passage, but they show that close attention to the words chosen and literary devices employed gives us a richly layered entry into the mind of Paul. He might have just said, “Shape up!” or “Obey my words!” but he couches them in such literary sophistication here, both in the selection of words and use of literary devices, that it becomes much more palatable to hearers, both then and now.
Philippians 2:19-30, One
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