Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth
Sometimes the KJV translates it as “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28)
Sometimes it says “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:42, 50)
Both are translations of the same Greek phrase. (The King James is not as consistent as some like to make out). Yet the popular reception of the phrase has accommodated both versions: “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Speaking poetically, the form of the saying is very pleasing. Its pulsing, dactylic meter drives it forwards. And today people use it as short-hand for any discontent felt when a settlement pans out badly. After the vote went against them there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Parents might use the phrase to describe a teenage tantrum. Yet such a trivial use of the phrase blinds us to the horrors it describes. “Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” is the awful fate of those consigned to “outer darkness.”
Let’s consider the words more closely:
Weeping/Wailing: The Greek lexicons speak of “bitter crying” and “lamentation.” There is the deep sadness of mourning (e.g. Matthew 2:18) as well as self-recrimination – think of Peter’s weeping following his denials (Matthew 26:75). It is closely connected with the lament “Alas! Alas!” (Revelation 18:15-19). It is the cry of the hopeless (Revelation 5:4) and yet, through the triumph of Jesus, His people will be brought to the place where we “weep not!” There will be no such weeping in the new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:19). However the “outer darkness” is a place of continual weeping and wailing. And also gnashing of teeth…
Gnashing of teeth: This is consistently a description of anger in Scripture. The miserable comforters “gnash their teeth” at righteous Job. The wicked gnash their teeth at the righteous one of Psalm 35 (v15). They gnash their teeth at Stephen before stoning him (Acts 7:54). Outer darkness is a place of violent fury.
Put these two terms together and you get a grotesque portrait of humanity. Hell is self-pitying, self-righteous anger, stretching on into eternity. The damned cry bitter tears and grind their teeth in fury. Sullen self-pity and furious self-righteousness grow in the outer darkness.
The Bible is always painting its anti-heroes in shades of melancholy and murder.
Think of Cain, utterly downcast because his sacrifice was not accepted. He goes quickly from brooding to brutality.
Think of Saul, again we see someone rejected after offering the wrong sacrifices. He too descends into melancholy and murder – at least in intentions.
Think of Jonah, self-righteously waiting for Nineveh to burn, and when it’s saved he is “angry even unto death.” (Jonah 4:9)
Self-recrimination, self-pity and self-righteousness go together in Scripture and they produce both weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. When we seek to justify ourselves, even in this life, our failures produce petulant regret and an anger that needs to go somewhere, very often onto others. If we haven’t sought to lay our sins on Jesus, we bear the burden ourselves and it’s too much for us. Crushed under the weight of our failures we weep and wail and we gnash our teeth.
But that’s just the failures of this life. What about when Jesus judges the world in righteousness? What about when our whole lives are brought into the light, when eternity is at stake? Who could bear for the Judge of all to convict us of utter failure and lay the blame squarely upon us? No-one. And hell is the slavery, begun in this life, of sinners continuing to shoulder their own guilt. And just as they have done all their life, they remain in self-recrimination, self-pity and self-justification. Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
What do you do with your sin? Do you turn in on yourself? Do you harden up? Do you grow bitter and angry? Perhaps you even justify this spiritual sulk by calling it repentance. It is not repentance, it is hellish slavery. You were not meant to bear your own sins. You cannot do it, nor can you atone for your guilt. Lay it upon Jesus and walk free in Him. Weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth is a hell of a life. In Jesus you are redeemed from it all.
“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say”
by Horatius Bonar, 1808-1899
1. I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down,
Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting-place,
And He has made me glad.
2. I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down and drink and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream.
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.
3. I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light.
Look unto Me; thy morn shall rise
And all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that Light of Life I’ll walk
Till traveling days are done.