Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

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.


Some years ago a young man told me that the "groanings" were tongues. This was before I learned what "cessationist" and "continuationist" meant. Perhaps this is the source of the confusion?

Actually, the groaning are the exact opposite of tongues. They are "wordless groans," not a language/

When i was a young girl and the Lord tranform my life comply I would spend hour praying and reading the bible. The Lord gave a decir to pray for people to Love people and to pray for God to tranform people life. By transforming peaple life people automatically think people start going to church and start acting like a Christian, but when I talk about God tranforming life by the Spirit I mean that there one way or another people have being hurt by the enemy wish is satan an blame God for it would be heal and begun to have a everday relationships with our Saviour. So when i was young God begun a beautiful journey with my life. When I was in my room i would start praying on my bed or in the floor but i remember that when the Spirit will pray for me i would have this pain on my stomic and i would have this uncontrollable craid. It was hard when it happen but after it was done I was feeling like if a lost 100 pound. The Spirt of God have safe my life. Also when i went to a church from the beginning of the church service to the end I could not stop praying for people and before the Spirit of God begun to heal peaple Spiritual I will begin to have pain on my stomic and start crayind uncontrollable it was great and is still is .The Love of God is so great still at the age of 35 I am desperately in Love with him. I was raised in church but went through alot as little girls had alot of wounds in my heart try taking my life a couple of times with so much anger in my hearth. But thank God the amazing God save me from my self and wipe away my tears and made me new. Church is important but is not your salvation if you put your focus on man you will not stand form but if you put you 100 % focus on Jesus Christ the holly one will never let you down. Amen