In Dissection Headings we looked at how section headings in our Bible editions can cause us to miss connections between passages. This happens with verse numbers as well and I want to return to Philippians 4 to show a puzzling verse break.
5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Philippians 4:5-6, NIV
The question is simply this: Does “The Lord is near” conclude the section ending in verse five or begin the section starting in verse 6?
Here are those two possibilities stated more explicitly:
- … Let your gentleness be evident to all BECAUSE The Lord is near.
- The Lord is near. 6 THEREFORE Do not be anxious about anything…
In the first option, believers are asked to get along because the Lord is going to return in the second coming. In the second option, the spiritual presence of the Lord is meant to be a cause for relief from anxiety. There is a third option of course that this is meant to have both meanings. The word ἐγγύς, “near,” is used often in the New Testament both for spatial proximity (NIV John 3:23: “Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim”) and to indicate temporal proximity (NRSV John 2:13: "The Passover of the Jews was near”)
I don’t want to write off the possibility that this is signaling temporal proximity, but I do feel that having that big number 6 in the text prevents the reader from making the connection between “The Lord is near” and what follows. This is easily seen by how people memorize this passage. Many of us have memorized Philippians 4:6-7 as an encouragement to pray when we are anxious. But what if the number 6 came before “The Lord is near?” The theological implications of this passage would change. The basis of freedom from anxiety would become not our action but God’s proximity.
I was sharing this passage with my family after breakfast yesterday. And those words “The Lord is near” became very dear to me. I struggle with anxiety when I’m on the mission field. There are physical dangers, lack of essentials like clean water and healthy food, the cultural and linguistic uncertainties that we constantly experience living in a foreign land. When we first moved to Mozambique, our house was at the end of a long sandy road that undulated for more than five kilometers. During the rainy season, the dips would fill with water and the local population had a way of dealing with this. There was a Coca Cola manufacturing plant nearby and they would fill the dips with broken bottle glass and thorn bushes. The prospect of facing that long road dotted by knee-deep potholes full of broken glass and potholes put a knot in my stomach and it wasn’t long before I had developed a stomach ulcer. More recently, life stress in Mozambique was causing me chest pains that finally had to be medicated with anti-anxiety medicine.
So, yesterday, when the engine on my Land Rover blew and I was stranded on a lonely road, the first words that came to mind were, “The Lord is near.” (Read more about my trip here: Breakdown) and that helped me not to be anxious.
- What other examples of verse breaks do you have that change the meaning of a passage?
- Can you think of evidence to support either of the above interpretations as being more likely?