…be strong in the Lord…

In Ephesians 6:10 (TNIV) we have:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.

My two youngest children are memorizing this verse.  My wife uses a series of questions to aid in comprehension so they don’t just stream the words together, but get the meaning, too.  One of the questions is:  “Where does this strength come from?”

When I read that question and glanced at the sentence, I thought, “But, the sentence isn’t talking about the strength coming from anywhere.  It is talking about the strength being somewhere.”  And, yet, we know intuitively from the literary context that Paul is talking about obtaining our spiritual strength from somewhere outside of ourselves.  That is, from the Lord.  At this point in my thinking process the word ‘in‘ appeared quite strange to me.  It turns out that be strong in the Lord isn’t good English.  Are we ever strong in someone else?  If Lord is a title and we replace it with another title, does the English work?  Are we ever strong in the President?  Can we be strong in the Constable?

So, some questions come to my mind:

  1. Are the exegetical assumptions wrong that lie behind the question of where the strength comes from?  The strength actually does reside in the Lord?  If so, then how does the imperative work?
  2. Can we–should we–garner deep theological truths from lowly little prepositions?  The argument goes something like this: “This is talking about how spiritual strength works.  One can only really understand it, if one has spiritual discernment.”  But, then what does the word understand actually mean when we’re talking about spiritual understanding?  Can such understanding be conveyed in any language (including the original)?  And, the point in this question is whether or not it is ever exegetically correct to obtain deep theological truths from a use of a preposition.
  3. Or, how do we improve the English?

What are your thoughts?  I’m essentially asking:  What is the exegesis?  And, how does one say the meaning resulting from the exegesis?

17 thoughts on “…be strong in the Lord…

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Mike,

    “Be strong in the Lord” is a good example of Biblish that is worth retaining. There is little doubt that it means “find your strength in the Lord,” but the value of retaining the biblicism, intelligible I think to most readers, is that it makes it easier for the reader to make the connection between this phrase and the frequent Old Testament phrase of which it is an expansion and abbreviation at the same time, “Be strong and courageous” (Deut 31:6,7,23; Josh 1:7,9, 18; etc.).

    Upon hearing one phrase, “be strong in the Lord,” it becomes possible to hear others as part of a symphony:

    “Be strong and courageous” (see above, and the occurrences in 1-2 Chronicles)
    “I will make them strong in the Lord” (Zech 10:12)
    “Be courageous and be strong in the law, for by it you will gain honor” (1 Macc 1:64)
    “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1)
    “With respect to the promise of God, Abraham did not waver in unbelief but was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom 4:20)
    “Be strong in the Lord, and the power of his might” (Ephesians 6:10)

    It is not surprising to me that N(RSV), ESV, (T)NIV, and NLT2 retain the traditional Biblish of KJV Eph 6:10. It has become a trope of hymns and songs. Its meaning in context is not really in doubt.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that FE translations are “strong in the Lord,” but they are “strong in this area” of maintaining concordance across the entire canon.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    I respect John’s opinion, but disagree. I think that the meaning of the form of any language should be translated to the same meaning using some form of the receptor language. I think that meaning should trump concordance if we have to use forms which are not a part of a language. There *are* translationally equivalent forms for any meaning. And those are what should be used for *most* readers. For speciality audiences, such as seminary students, there can be Biblish Bibles. But even at that, seminary students should be learning the form-meaning relationships directly from the biblical languages, not from Biblish translations in English.

  3. John Hobbins says:

    I respect Wayne’s opinion no less than he respects mine. Furthermore, his first principle is a good one: the meaning of the source text should be translated to the same meaning in the receptor language using words and expressions thereof.

    But a receptor language should not be reduced to attested usage. De Saussure docet. Any language is susceptible to new usages which nevertheless accord with its grammar in the broad sense. Every poet, every author, knows this instinctively. Translators down through the ages of high-prestige texts in particular, and the Bible especially, have bent over backwards to retain in the receptor language as many features as possible of the source text. To be sure, this has often resulted in unnecessary woodenness and occasionally misleading copy.

    But the advantages to being as literal as possible and as free as necessary in translation of the Bible remain enormous.

    It is little wonder in my eyes that the trend is again in this direction, with NLT2 more literal than NLT2 and REB more literal than NEB, (T)NIV, here and elsewhere, rather Biblishy, ESV serving as a renewed vehicle of the Biblishy KJV-RSV tradition, and a revision toward more literalness in a number of official translations throughout the Western world, in German and Italian for example.

  4. Dru says:

    I agree with John here. Aren’t we back to the debate a few months ago about ‘in Christ’?

    One either has to try and explain what ‘in’ means to a level where it ceases to be a translation, or one accepts the conventional Biblish use as being the familiar rendering of a theological idea which doesn’t really exist in the rest of the language anyway.

  5. Chris Boehnke says:

    I think the GOD’S WORD Translation does a great job in this verse of not using biblish but translating the meaning in clear, natural English.

    “Finally, receive your power from the Lord and from his mighty strength.” Eph 6:10

    It makes the meaning of the Greek “in the Lord” clear in English that the source of our “power” is “the Lord and…his mighty strength.”

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    Why didn’t translators translate 1 Cor. 6:2 with in?

    εἰ ἐν ὑμῖν κρίνεται ὁ κόσμος…

    If in you the world is judged

  7. John Hobbins says:

    Prepositions have stable meanings in any given language, but occur in idiomatic phrases which make it impossible, sometimes, to translate them literally. The capacity of a receptor language to host an idiom derived from a source language has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Language is potential, not just actual, so the matter cannot be decided based on past usage alone.

    A hilarious example, though it was not hilarious for those concerned. My wife Paola, whose mother tongue is Italian, went to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago on scholarship for a year. Not long after arriving stateside, she and other foreign students at McCormick went out on the town. The other students: a German; an Argentinian, and a black South African who spoke, from the point of view of an American, the Queen’s English.

    They stopped for lunch at a hamburger joint. When they had finished eating but lingered in their booth, a busgirl came around, an African American with a strong accent, and asked, “Are you through?”

    They told her they didn’t understand. They stayed put. She asked again, directly to the South African. “What?” she said, with a quizzical look. Just imagine what was going through the head of the German: “Bist du durch?” That of my wife: “Sei attraverso?” What on earth.

    But put yourself in the busgirl’s shoes. She was sure they were making fun of her accent, pretending not to understand. She told her manager, who promptly threw the foreigners out of the restaurant. True story.

    Here is a simple example. In French, one says,

    “J’ai pris son livre sur la table.”

    Literally, “I took his book upon the table.” That almost works, but a more idiomatic translation is: “I took his book *from* the table.” That’s because the French means, unpacked, “I took (from the table) his book on the table.” Note that “sur” has a stable meaning in French: “on, upon.” The same is true, of course, of ἐν in Greek: “in.”

    Cross-linguistically, prepositions are used in all kinds of idiosyncratic ways. Consistent one-on-one translation of prepositions is a doomed undertaking, but that is not the same thing as saying that one should translate prepositions with total idiomatic abandon.

    If the community for whom the translation is intended places a high value on the coherence and unity of the contents of a particular set of books – in this case, the Bible – a translation for that community will seek to maintain concordance as much as possible.

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    John, you’ve put your finger on it; which doesn’t surprise me.

    Prepositions are idiomatic and, as you say, idiosyncratic. And, I agree, that does not mean we “translate [them] with total idiomatic abandon.” I certainly wouldn’t suggest anything of this sort.

    But you haven’t given us a way through this. What would be best is for us to answer the question of how a specific preposition functions within a given language–ἐν in this case. Or, perhaps more precisely put: what are the potential functions of ἐν? And, in a given text, what determines a given function? (my gut tells me lexical collocations help a great deal here, but I have no research to back that up.)

    There’s work that has been done in this regard; more needs to be done.

    So much of what I see with the exegesis of texts involving ἐν isn’t Greek oriented. (I’m thinking of texts which are translated into poor English.) The exegesis appears to understand the function of ἐν in terms of the English idiom (of ‘in’) and not the Greek. It’s reading Greek, but thinking English. That’s what bothers me. For an extreme example, I’ve heard sermons which state that we are actually located within Christ. I understand this to be some metaphysical sense, but, honestly, I can’t make sense of it.

    The way to solve these type of exegetical mistakes, and ones of less extreme, is for people to understand that prepositions function in a text in an idiomatic way. We must uncover the specific function which is marked by the Greek preposition. And then, having done that, we can determine the meaning of the clause, and then, determined by that, construct an English rendering which conveys the same meaning.

  9. John Hobbins says:


    You can build up a list of possible functions of ἐν if you wish, but I’m not sure that is the best way to proceed. My own guess is that it is better to approach language in a Gestalt fashion, holistically, by learning idioms more or less one-by-one, which means noting, furthermore, that the examples I gave above, in which it is said that so-and-so is strong in faith, in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, in the law, or in the Lord, are understood as variations on a single idiom.

    You can affix a fancy label to the function ἐν has in this idiom, but I’m not sure much is gained in the bargain. In all cases, at issue is being *strong in* this rather than that, in the Lord rather in one’s own power; in observing the law in the face of persecution for doing so; in faith in the face of no grounds for having faith except the word of God (the case of Abraham and Sarah); and so on. It is also possible to say, in all of these cases, that one is to *find* one’s strength in the Lord, in faith, in the law, and in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, etc., or *take* one’s strength *from,* etc., but it seems to me that these moves dilute and skew the sense somewhat.

    However, I wish to point out once again that it is sometimes impossible to move from one language to another without massive restructuring. For comparison’s sake, examples of idiomatic usage of prepositions in English:

    he shut the door; she shut *off* the lights; he shut the plant *down* (note word order); they finally shut *up*; he is a shut-*in*; and on and on.

    Since we are, presumably, fluent in English, we have no doubt about what these idioms mean. I happen to be fluent in Italian, so I can translate all the above idioms into Italian at the drop of a hat. But guess what? It’s impossible to do so and map prepositions to prepositions, or even verbs to verbs.

    he shut the door = ha chiuso la porta
    she shut off the lights = ha spento le luci
    he shut the plant down = ha dismesso la fabbrica
    they finally shut up = finalmente, sono zitti
    he is a shut-in = non esce piu’ di casa, e’ infermo

    Not one stone, so to speak, is left upon another in translation.

  10. Dan Sindlinger says:

    As I considered what “be strong in the Lord” means and how to translate it more naturally for my target audience in “The Better Life Bible,” I expressed it as “ask God to help you.” That conveys two important components: that God has more power than we do, and that God responds to those who ask/seek/knock. I think it was the psalmist who said, “my help comes from the LORD….”

  11. Mitch says:

    I have never commented here, but I enjoy reading this blog and learn a great deal from reading the post and the comments that follow. I am by no means an expert and hold no formal degree in any of this stuff and perhaps it is best to just stay on the sidelines, but I might as well ask and be shown the error now than to hold on to the error in my thinking and become clouded in my knowledge.

    When it comes to Ephesians 6:10 could one read/translate it like this:

    Finally, my brothers, be strengthened by the Lord and by the power of His might.

    It seems that instead of staying EV meaning *in*, I take it to mean *by*. It seems that this makes it plainer that this strength is not ours but His. It also shows that we are being strengthened *by* the Lord and *by* His power.

  12. Mike Sangrey says:

    Mitch wrote: perhaps it is best to just stay on the sidelines

    O!, my goodness no! (which is not meant to imply any goodness on my part 🙂

    It seems that instead of staying EV meaning *in*, I take it to mean *by*. It seems that this makes it plainer that this strength is not ours but His. It also shows that we are being strengthened *by* the Lord and *by* His power.

    This is quite good, Mitch. At the very least, these are the types of thoughtful considerations which go into good translations.

    You are referring to the agent function of EN. Some of the possible other functions are location, state, association, and means.

    John (I think) understands the phrases he has provided as examples of the same (or at least similar) function. I disagree.

    In Christ is association and probably refers to a familial relationship–That is, Christians are in the family of Christ and therefore under his patriarchal authority and protection. English culture doesn’t have a word for that association and therefore the meaning of the prepositional phrase is quite difficult to translate.

    Strong in grace is more likely instrumental given the patronage type of society that existed at the time of writing. Following Mitch’s lead a possible rendering would be be strengthened by the grace that comes from Christ Jesus.

    From my perspective, strong in law is quite interesting since law probably referenced Torah. In the 1 Macc 1:64 reference a potential translation would be something like: be fully obedient to Torah.

    John, it appears to me that you are trying to make EN function in many different ways simultaneously. If EN phrases are idiomatic, and they are, then they don’t work that way. It makes a good sermon to “plumb the depths” of the phrase. But, as I see it, it doesn’t produce an accurate exegesis. Perhaps I misunderstand you.

    However, I am in complete agreement with you when you say, I wish to point out once again that it is sometimes impossible to move from one language to another without massive restructuring. and It’s impossible to do so and map prepositions to prepositions, or even verbs to verbs. Absolutely!! That pretty well sums up the fundamental reason translators need to work through discovery of the function first. A translation methodology which tries to translate prepostional phrases directly will fail more often than not.

    For what it’s worth, two examples I like are: You roll a carpet up but you don’t roll a carpet down. And, though not a preposition, compare the building is tall and the boy is tall with the building is high and the boy is high. These show the idiomatic nature of language.

  13. Michael Nicholls says:

    I don’t find strong in grace and strong in law particularly unambiguous anyway. What do they mean?

    Also, just for fun:

    I set the game up, then I packed it up.

    I opened up the box, then I closed it up.

    No wonder we’re confused…. I think I’ll just shut up now.

  14. SimonPotamos says:

    Dru wrote:

    Aren’t we back to the debate a few months ago about ‘in Christ’?

    Isn’t this precisely the point? It seems to me that it would be natural to assume that in Paul’s mind, to be strong in the Lord is rather more closely linked to being in Christ (i.e., the Lord) than it is to many modern readers.

    Which brings one back to ‘in Christ’ and other allegedly Hebraisms in the NT writers. There must have been a good reason why, say, Luke (presumably not a native Aramaic speaker) and Paul (bilingual by all accounts) should have produced their own version of Biblish when writing their histories/letters. We can only guess at what they are. As John attempts to show (and demonstrates to my satisfaction), there’s more to translation than finding current expressions in the target language. Any author, translator included, shapes and creates usage. The “good, idiomatic English” that people often call for is indistinguishable in many places from Biblish — because the English Bible, particularly the Authorised Version, have shaped the language so heavily. As did Chaucer, Shakespeare and countless others.

    There’s also another point, pace Wayne: I think it would be a great shame if we assumed that only seminarians (not seminary graduates…?) should be assumed to have thorough enough biblical knowledge to make these links. The NT text, particularly between the lines, seems often to assume that the readers were able to hear all sorts of echoes and inferences. Should not modern Christians be equally well versed in the Scriptures, and therefore given translations that will help them hear those echoes and inferences?

    Which leads me to my final point: it seems silly, and here I think Wayne’s first comment has a really good point, to argue too heartily about how a phrase is best translated (I’m not implying that people have engaged in silliness on this forum, by the way!). “For what purpose?” For those on spiritual milk, or on meat-and-two-veg-for-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner? For reading or listening? For evangelism or catechesis? Which side of the Atlantic/Mediterranean/Pacific/etc.? For the next ten years or for the next generation? To add to the existing ten dozen translations, or as the first translation in a new language? I know I’m stating the obvious to people far better qualified than me, but a search for “good English”, or whatever your target language, seems to me a purely abstract exercise.

  15. Bob MacDonald says:

    About in – en and other prepositions. Language is as flexible as John allows – what are we to make of John 17:21 or 17:23?

    …καθὼς σύ πάτερ ἐν ἐμοὶ κἀγὼ ἐν σοί ἵνα καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐν ἡμῖν ἓν ὦσιν …

    we have lots of ‘ins’ and they are in-timate in the extreme

    as thou, Father, [art] in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us:

    ἐγὼ ἐν αὐτοῖς καὶ σὺ ἐν ἐμοί ἵνα ὦσιν τετελειωμένοι εἰς ἕν

    I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one;

    In cannot be elim-in-ated from translations.

    Is it any wonder that Paul uses in the Lord and in Christ and in his strength? It is not Biblish. It is truth!

    Let in stand. Unlike the spider’s web in Bildad’s speech, it will stand very well on its own.

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