There is a provocative word in Mark 7:32-35 that has been translated as “deep sigh.” Jesus had just healed the daughter of a Gentile in Tyre and was traveling to the Sea of Galilee when he encountered a crowd of people in the region of the Decapolis cities:
32 They brought to Him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they implored Him to lay His hand on him. 33 Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; 34 and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!” 35 And his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was removed, and he began speaking plainly. Mark 7:32-25 (NASB)
The Greek word translated “deep sigh” is stenazó (στενάζω), and Strong’s definition of this word is “to groan (within oneself); I groan, expressing grief, anger or desire.” It goes on to say, “This term denotes feeling which is internal and unexpressed’” (J. Mayor, Js,162). The Hebrew equivalent is anach (אָנַח) and Strong’s definition of this word is “to sigh, groan.” Strong’s lists 12 occurrences of the Hebrew word, anach, and 6 occurrences of the Greek word, stenazó.
When I first read the story in Mark 7:32-35, I was tickled by the imagery of Jesus pulling this man aside and sticking his fingers in his ears. What?! And then Jesus goes on to spit and touch the man’s tongue! Okay, you have to admit this imagery is pretty strange (if not downright comical)…at least it was for me. I think I even chuckled the first time I read it and I had to go back and read it again. I decided that this is exactly what Dr. Davis meant by something startling. Because it was startling for me, I figured this would be a good place to start a word study.
Even though it was the initial imagery of Jesus sticking his fingers in this man’s ears that caught my attention, what really struck me was, “…and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’” Wait! Why did Jesus sigh? I wrestled with this quite a bit. The initial imagery for me was of Jesus sighing and looking heavenward, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but think about it! I know that if I sigh (deeply) and look heavenward, I’m usually irritated and rolling my eyes. Surely, my infinitely patient, compassionate, and understanding Savior wasn’t rolling his eyes at this poor man. A man afflicted. A man with enough faith (or was it hope) to submit to Christ for healing. No, that imagery just didn’t sit right with me.
The more I pondered this, the more I started considering what this meant. Could Jesus have been gathering his strength and looking to His Father for the supernatural power that must have been needed for such an awesome and important task as that of healing the afflicted? After all, Jesus looked up to heaven when He blessed the five loaves and two fish before feeding a multitude of people. I could get my head around this idea; however, something was still poking at me. I finally realized that the Holy Spirit was bringing to my mind the voice of my dear friend, Anne, prompting me to get into the Word of God and do a word study. It is only there, in God’s Word, where truth can be found. And the journey this word study took me on was beyond my expectations.
God Hears Our Cries for Help and Releases Us from Bondage
The first time this word is used is in Exodus 2:23, which reads:
23 Now it came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died. And the sons of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God.
The next time it is used is in Proverbs 29:2, which reads:
"When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan."
The people of Israel sighed (groaned) because of their bondage (slavery). Could it be that Christ sighed deeply (groaned) before he healed the deaf man because He completely understood the extreme bondage this man, who could neither hear nor speak, mus have been subjected to? I could not imagine being unable to communicate with the people around me. In my mind, my body would be like a prison, and I imagined that it was for this man too.
Romans 8:23 seems to bear out this very idea of being imprisoned: “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” Could Christ’s sigh be a demonstration of His incredible empathy and compassion for the bondage of the flesh? Christ walked this earth as a man and this is a testament as to how well he understood our suffering. I believe that Christ looked to the Father and groaned in solidarity with the man that He was about to heal (release from the bondage of his flesh). Beyond this, however, I also believe that this sigh was Christ’s cry that “rose up to God” on this man’s behalf. God heard Christ’s cry and, through Christ, released the man from the bondage (prison) of his flesh.
The bondage of the flesh is only one form of bondage. We are also subject to spiritual bondage. This is a bondage that people sometimes don’t even know they need to be released from; and there will come a point at which we will be beyond healing. Oh, how Christ must suffer for us knowing what that really means. His sorrow (groaning) must be immense.
It should be noted that when I was reading Proverbs 29:2, I looked at the verse just preceding it, which reads: “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.” (Prov. 29:1, NASB) The Contemporary English version puts it this way: “If you keep being stubborn after many warnings, you will suddenly discover you have gone too far.” I only mention this because it contributed to what I saw as I continued with my word study. The remaining 10 verses in the Hebrew Scriptures, which use the word anach (אָנַח), relate to God’s judgment on Israel and the groaning of the people in their suffering and out of their sorrow (heartbreak) over the condition of Israel.
The next verse on my list is Isaiah 24:7, which reads:
The new wine mourns, The vine decays, All the merry-hearted sigh.
Read the beginning of Isaiah 24 to get a better understanding of why “all the merry-hearted sigh.” This groan (or sigh) is one of deep despair or sorrow as the people of Israel are caught in the bondage of God’s judgment. This holds true throughout the remaining verses in the Hebrew Scriptures in which this word is used. As I continued through my word study, the intensity of the meaning of this word increased as I worked through the various passages of Scripture.
When I overlaid Christ’s complete and compassionate understanding of why we groan over the verses in the Hebrew Scriptures, they built to a sort of crescendo of compassion on the part of Christ for our condition. I believe that Christ’s sighing can be expanded to include the idea that His understanding of our suffering as a result of our sin/iniquity is depicted and amplified from verse to verse in the Hebrew Scriptures. The sighing resulting from bondage is amplified from Exodus to Proverbs and culminates in the deep and terrible sighing and groaning that results from God’s judgment when we turn away from Him and walk in the ways of the world.
Our Human Condition and Our Hope for Eternal Life
As my word study moved from the Hebrew Scriptures and into the New Testament, I still found the imagery of Mark 7:32-35 humorous, and I giggle a little when I picture it. But then I get past my 14-year-old self and consider the intimacy of the scene. This may be stretching it a bit, but another thing about this passage that struck me is that Christ “took him aside from the crowd.” Why did he do this? To me, this implied intimacy like that between a husband and wife.
To know someone intimately is the Hebrew word Yada (יָדַע). Strong’s defines yada, as “to know” and includes intimate friendship and deep understanding, which would lend itself to the idea that Christ (as the bridegroom) knows and understands us (the bride) intimately. As anyone who has experienced an intimate relationship with another person knows, compassion for the suffering of the other person is par for the course. The imagery of Christ pulling this man aside and healing him in private fits well with this line of thinking and reinforces my belief that Christ’s sigh is one of compassion.
The next three verses in the New Testament that use the word stenazó (Romans 8:23 and 2 Cor 5:2,4) also imply a longing to be released from the bondage (prison) of the flesh and to be redeemed to live with Christ. We groan while we are imprisoned in our flesh (“this tent”) in longing to be with God. Our flesh is our bondage, a burden that we would just as soon be rid of in order to be in the presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The last two verses listed in the New Testament that use the word stenazó refer to more of a grumbling and complaining than groaning under our burdens or suffering. The groaning and sighing that is our cry against our burdens crosses a fine line and becomes grumbling and complaining. Maybe our cross is to be borne with a legitimate sigh (and a glance up to heaven), a cry out to God. But we are to be wary of our sighing becoming a constant complaint, which would distract us from our focus on Christ as our savior and redeemer.
Maybe, like the Israelites, our sigh is a cry out to God, a prayer of the flesh, a reflexive prayer that requires the same amount of thought as it takes to breathe. But, like with breathing, if we “breathe too much” we hyperventilate, and when we sigh too much the “prayer of the flesh” becomes the groaning and complaining of man.
The idea that Christ’s sighing was because of a compassionate understanding of our human condition was so profound that I could not even conceive of its depth which was so startling to me. My initial impression about why Christ sighed was way off-base (of course I already knew that). It is my belief that Christ’s sigh was a cry out to God and a testament to his knowing our burdens and suffering, maybe even better than we do ourselves. He is the sympathetic friend who feels our pain and cries with us. He not only understands our suffering but he also suffers for us; and that gives so much more meaning to His work on the cross.
This word study was quite a journey for me, and one I will never forget. By the way, the image of Christ sticking His fingers in that man’s ears still makes me laugh!
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