Versification Complications

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:

  1. … Let your gentleness be evident to all BECAUSE The Lord is near.
  2. 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?

8 thoughts on “Versification Complications

  1. Jake says:

    I was just reading this passage last night. I actually read “The Lord is near” combined with verse 6 (I’m not sure if I had before now that I think about it). The ESV that I was reading the passage in used a semicolon but still put the phrase with the next sentence. This isn’t the best way, but I prefer it to breaking into a new sentence, as I do believe the two go together:

    “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything…”

    So I checked out another few translations. From what I looked at, I liked the ISV best, which used a colon after verse 5. YLT also used a semi. No translations I reviewed seemed to do anything like you suggest.

    However, I do agree that verses can really mess up how people read text. I think that the verses are put in some really strange places occasionally that changes the meaning of the text.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Seems Paul’s using ὁ κύριος ἐγγύς (“the Master’s near”) as a way to connect two similar commands with a common reward. And as you suggest, the verse break loses the beauty of his Hebrewish-Greek poetic, parallel structure:

    4 χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ πάντοτε
    πάλιν ἐρῶ χαίρετε
    5 τὸ ἐπιεικὲς ὑμῶν γνωσθήτω πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις

    ὁ κύριος ἐγγύς

    6 μηδὲν μεριμνᾶτε ἀλλ’ ἐν παντὶ τῇ προσευχῇ
    καὶ τῇ δεήσει μετὰ εὐχαριστίας
    τὰ αἰτήματα ὑμῶν γνωριζέσθω πρὸς τὸν θεόν

    7 καὶ ἡ εἰρήνη τοῦ θεοῦ ἡ ὑπερέχουσα πάντα νοῦν φρουρήσει τὰς καρδίας ὑμῶν καὶ τὰ νοήματα ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ

    4 Express enjoyment in Master always
    I say again, Express enjoyment.
    5 Make your calmness known to all humans.

    The Master’s near.

    6 Don’t worry; instead in all prayers
    and petitions with favored blessings
    make your requests known to God

    7 And God’s peace…

    (Whether in California or in Mozambique)

  3. David Ker says:

    Jake, thanks for showing these punctuation options. Certainly punctuation and the lack of a capital letter in a verse are ways of trying to make a more explicit link despite verse numbers.

    The capitalized words BECAUSE and THEREFORE are meant to show logical relations between these passages. The Greek doesn’t have an explicit word showing this relation which is what makes this puzzle interesting!

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think J.K. Gayle is onto something. This text is somewhat chiastic with the key phrase ὁ κύριος ἐγγύς right in the middle. The A-B-C-B’-A’ structure can be expressed as:

    A: Rejoice!

    B: Do not attack others, but deal with them in a forbearing and gracious manner (see use of ἐπιεικής in Titus 3.2)

    C: The Lord is near

    B’: When attacked (or facing any danger), don’t be anxious, pray with thanksgiving

    A’: God’s peace will be yours.

    Keep in mind the paragraph immediately follows the instruction to Euodia and Syntyche. The “Lord is near” speaks to both sides of whatever that argument was–it’s rebuke and comfort. Sort of reminds me of Isa. 7-12 where Emmanuel means both disaster AND blessing depending whether one is rebellious or submissive.

    David, I’ve prayed for your situation. The beautiful thing about a chiastic structure is the central concept is the most important. It is put there for the sole purpose of getting us to focus on it. The Lord is near!

  5. David Ker says:

    I hadn’t noticed that!

    After I posted this I re-read Philippians and Paul mentions the Lord’s return a lot. And always at the end of a section. So, though I like viewing this as spatial it seems more likely that it is temporal. This also reminded me of James 5:9, “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers or you will be judged The Judge is standing at the door!”

  6. David Ker says:

    Thanks, Mike. God has given us such peace despite the car breaking down. We’re trusting him to get us down the road!

    I didn’t see this chiasm noted by any of the commentaries I have access to. Makes me want to search for more in Philippians.

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    Regarding chiasm in Philippians. Phil. 2:1-18 is the big one. 🙂 Though many would probably be more comfortable limiting it to just 6-11.

    And speaking of verse breaks, this highlights another awkward case where a verse break would actually be helpful (I thought I would never say that). It’s 2:8. The θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ (“–a cross kind of death”) should be by itself. 2:8 is the exact center of the chiasm.

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