(58)Clearing Our Minds…The Cruciality of a Comma

by Eugene Higgins

The Cruciality of a Comma

Commas convey crucial clarity, concisely, compactly, and quietly; concur? (And alliteration – particularly in Gospel messages – can be distracting, agree?) The absence or misuse of a comma can create confusion. For example, a lot of playgrounds and parks have been closed because of the virus. I am not sure whether the sign I saw was announcing a closure due to the virus or for another reason. It read, “All Fields Are Closed No Trespassing Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” I suppose this would be good to know, were you to trespass.

I cannot verify this “reported” incident in the life of Maria Feodorovna, who was known before her marriage as Princess Dagmar of Denmark. She became Empress of Russia when she married Emperor Alexander III (who reigned 1881–1894). Her husband was, apparently, a cruel and an autocratic ruler. Maria, on the other hand, was known for her kindness and generosity. The story says that the emperor signed an order that condemned a man, an alleged traitor, to a lifelong exile. The command read, “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” Supposedly, Maria scratched out the comma and re-inserted it so that the line read, “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.” The man was set free.

The story seems too cute by half and one wonders whether the command, written of course in Russian, would even have allowed such an alteration to make sense. But the two instances illustrate how important punctuation generally, and a comma specifically, really is. Unfortunately, in this age of texting, we are rapidly losing precision in communication. Consider two Biblical passages where the insertion of a comma was all-important to a proper understanding.

A Comma Designating a Divine Name

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). See the comma after the name “Wonderful”? Handel got it right, so there is no reason we should not. As far as I can ascertain from those who know Hebrew, there are 5 glorious names of our glorious Lord in this glorious verse – five, not four. I know it is neat to turn “Wonderful” into an adjective, have four names, try to squeeze it into the “Law of the Fourth,” or match it up with other quartets like the four Gospel accounts. But “Wonderful” is a noun, not an adjective. It is not saying the Lord has a wonderful name (although that, of course is blessedly true), or that He is a wonderful Counsellor (again, absolutely correct; Isaiah himself records this in 28:29). It is saying “Wonderful” is one of His names. Just as the words, “They shall call His name ‘Emmanuel,’” or “Call His name ‘Jesus,’” identified a name of the Lord Jesus, so He bears the name “Wonderful.” Our English word comes from the German and conveys the concept of “Miracle” and “Marvel.” That is actually quite close to the idea in the Hebrew. If His wisdom is expressed by “Counsellor”; His power and unique glory by “Mighty God”; His eternality and love by “The Everlasting Father”; His distinctive and unique work for the world by “The Prince of Peace”; then it is His own blessed character that is revealed in the name “Wonderful.” I will leave it to more intelligent minds than mine (which should not be difficult to find) to comment on the experience of Manoah’s parents with the Angel of the Lord. Just with this passage before us, our hearts should be filled with praise that His works are wonderful (Psalm 107:8). Our hearts should be filled with gratitude that His words are wonderful (Psalm 119:129). And our hearts should be filled with worship that “Wonderful” is His name.

A Comma Distinguishing a Divine Nature

“And there were also two other, malefactors, led with Him to be put to death” (Luke 23:32). If a comma is like a stop sign, telling you to pause in your reading, then every Bible reader – in every reading of this verse – should come to a complete stop after the word “other” and before the word “malefactors.” There are few occasions where this tiny punctuation mark shines brighter than amid the looming darkness of Calvary. There are few occasions where its mute eloquence speaks louder than amid the false accusations hurled at our beloved Lord in that place. They were malefactors. He was not. In fact, the Holy Spirit, guarding as always the spotless humanity of the Son of God, employed the word, “heteros,” (“There were also two others of a different kind”), not “allos” (which would indicate, “There were also two other similar ones”). Furthermore, the absence of a corresponding noun (as in, “there were also two other men” or “two other persons”) requires that this “heteros,” since it is modified by the word “two,” be plural. It would better read, “There were also two others, malefactors, led with Him to be put to death.” Standing like a lone sentinel, a lowly comma humbly guards the lofty creed of the spotless, stainless, sinless impeccability of the holy Son of God!

I think it is significant to note that when the Holy Spirit wishes to convey to us what was in the heart of the accusers of the Lord Jesus, He inspired Luke, who was writing in Greek, to record their words as, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God.” Just two verses separate the two mentions of the word “others.” But while the Holy Spirit saw to it that the word “heteros” (“others of a different kind”) was used to describe the difference between the Savior and the malefactors in Luke’s account, the word that was in the heart of the enemies of the Lord was “allos” (“others of the same kind”). This is what lent such venom to, and displayed such vituperation in, their words. Earlier, they had accused Him of being “a Friend of publicans and sinners.” Here, they were saying that He was no different from the kind of people He saved – people who were, in their estimation, worthless.

Think of what this means: The One Whose name is Wonderful was treated, by mankind, as a worm – “a worm and no man.” The One Who, compared to every other human being, is “Other,” apart, distinct, unique, and sinless, was, by mankind, included with insurrectionists; executed with brigands; crucified with criminals; listed on a Roman register with murderous malefactors; “numbered with transgressors.” What matchless grace was His to be willing to endure all this on our behalf!

But God has seen to it that the One Who was crushed as a worm will be crowned as King of Glory in the very city outside of which He once hung in shame. And God has seen to it that the One Who was numbered with transgressors and crucified in the midst of malefactors will be in the midst of the throne, in the midst of the redeemed, in the midst – at the center – of a new creation forever free from sin. What peerless glory is His forever and ever! Here is a partial description of that glory:

“[God has] set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come” (Eph 2).

“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2).

I hope the words of this old hymn will be in our heart all day long through this Saturday in May, in the year of our Lord 2020: 

Far above all, far above all,

God has exalted Him far above all.

Thrones and dominions before Him shall fall;

Jesus my Savior is far above all.

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