For an Informed Love of God
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Who’s Doing the Groaning? (Rom 8:26)
I was a bit surprised to find that this is an issue of some debate: who is doing the groaning in Rom 8:26, the believer or the Holy Spirit?
The Greek seems so straight forward. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself (αὐτὸ τὸ πνεῦμα) intercedes (ὑπερεντυγχάνει) for us with groaning (στεναγμοῖς) too deep for words” (ἀλαλήτοις).
Word order almost demands that the στεναγμοῖς ἀλαλήτοις go back to the nearest referent, which is the Holy Spirit. In fact, the word order is so explicit that I would need a pretty strong contextual or lexical clue to see it otherwise.
Almost all the translations treat the dative the same way, as “with.” The one exception is the NIV, which reads, “through wordless groans.” I don’t know if this is leaving the door open for another interpretation, but the word order of “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” still strongly argues that it is the Spirit’s groaning.
Some people see a connection (through the “in the same way,“ Ὡσαύτως) between creation’s groaning (συστενάζει, v 22), the believer’s groanings (στενάζομεν, v 23), and, it is argued, the groaning of the believer in v 26. But the supposed parallelism isn’t strong enough to argue against the word order; and if there is an intentional triad, then why not make the third “groaning” that of the Spirit?
Moo’s commentary has its usually helpful comments. Doug points out that ἀλαλήτοις could mean “ineffable, incapable of being expressed,” and sees this as an argument that it is the believer’s groaning. ἀλαλήτοις, which is found only here in biblical Greek (and hence we have no larger context), could also mean “unspoken, never rising to the audible level at all,” which would argue for the Spirit’s groanings. He prefers the later and sees the groans as metaphorical; “our failure to know God’s will and consequent inability to petition God specifically and assuredly is met by God’s Spirit, who himself expresses to God those intercessory petitions that perfectly match the will of God” (page 526).
I agree with Doug’s footnote that “if Paul had meant to identify the groanings as believers’, we would perhaps have expected a ἡμῶν (“ours”) after the phrase to make this clear.” While it is dangerous to say how a writer “would” have expressed something, the word order is so specific that I can’t see any other interpretation.
One thing that this emphasizes is why it is so important not to say that Greek word order does not matter. I have been guilty of this in the past in teaching first year Greek, and I quit saying it years ago. Greek word order does not contain the same kind of significance that it does in English, but the order is important. And while a dative phrase can modify something other than the preceding word, the order of words does give us major clues in exegesis. If Paul did not mean the groanings were the intercessory work of the Spirit, it is hard to imagine a more confusing passage.
Because of our human limitations, there will be times we simply do not know how to pray in compliance with the will of God, so the Holy Spirit intercedes in our prayers, not with words, but with his own groans, which — and this is the point of the passage — “God, who searches our hearts, knows the desire of the Spirit,” and therefore hears and answers the prayers.