The secret behind the Bible’s most highlighted verse

The current issue of The American Prospect features a short piece on ebooks and social reading. It mentions in passing that the Bible is the Kindle’s most highlighted book and that the most highlighted verse of all is Philippians 4.6:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

It’s no scientific survey, admittedly, but it seems telling that the most underlined passage in the most underlined book addresses worry, doubt, and disquiet. Maybe we have a problem with anxiety out there. I know I have one in here.

Only half an answer

The passage is a favorite because it offers something for us to do with our worries. We’re directed to take them to the throne of God, and I’m sure that works for some. But the truth is that it’s not a complete answer to our problem.

If we read the simple admonition, it’s easy to see Paul as some sort of Bob Newhart character yelling, “Stop it!” But before you think I’m being flip, let me redirect the blame to the people who first invented our scripture notation system.

Paul obviously did not insert the chapter and verse numbers in his letters as he wrote; scholars in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries did that. And while this system has its merits, it also creates problems, including accidentally altering the meanings of certain passages — or at least the meanings we take from them.

What we miss

Paul’s statement is not merely a blunt admonition (don’t do it). It actually comes with comes with a rationale (you don’t need to do it because…). But the rationale is one we might miss because of the verse numbering.

If you read commentators before the advent of the numbering system, they do something different with the emphasis and structure of the passage. The end of verse 5 says, “The Lord is at hand.” The start of 6 says, “Have no anxiety about anything. . . .” Ancient commentators like John Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrus read these as one verse, not two separate verses. Chrysostom quotes it as, “The Lord is at hand, in nothing be anxious.” Theodoret’s treatment is the same: “The Lord is near. Have no worries.”

Let me repeat that: “The Lord is near. Have no worries.”

That’s what the passage actually says, and what Chrysostom and Theodoret commented on. But the verse numbering causes an unnecessary break and distortion in the meaning, particularly if we read the scripture as granularly as verse-by-verse, expository teaching often leads us to.

The full picture

Read instead as the ancient Christians read it, Paul’s statement is not merely that we should take our anxieties to God, good as that may be. It’s that the judge of the universe is near so we can have confidence that wrong will be set right. It’s not about trying to suppress our worries and trust God, which is for many a necessary but challenging effort that contains within it many of its own worries. That’s the wrong focus. It’s about the realization that God will soon wipe away every reason for worry. It’s a reminder of our real hope.

Our eyes are on the wrong thing if we’re merely praying to have life’s worrisome aspects eliminated so we can carry on stress free. Rather, we have no reason for anxiety because the judge of all the earth is already on his way.

To be clear, it’s easier to write these words than live by them. But if we needed to be convinced of anything, it is not that prayer is a means to reduce our anxieties. It’s that Christ is coming.

“The Lord is near. Have no worries.”

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Excellent Joel. I claim this to be my favorite post. We forget that the new testament was written as letter, without chapter and verse. What a difference it makes. Also, it was a message I really needed to hear tonight. Thanks for what you do friend.

    • Joel J. Miller

      You bet. I mentioned this to someone else, but when I blog I’m usually just preaching to myself in public.

  • Christopher de Vidal

    I’ve been saying this for a while now! And the next verse is, I think, equally important. “And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” There’s peace coming, which gives solid support to “The Lord is near, have no worries.” Thus we can have thanksgiving.

    And this astounding peace comes through the finished work of Jesus Christ. There’s the gospel!

    The whole chapter has some of the most championing, up-building verses in all of Scripture. I love to read the whole thing when I can. Think I’ll go read it now.

    • Joel J. Miller

      That makes me happy to read.

  • http://noahsdad.com/ Rick Smith

    Do you a link to the original article on The American Prospect

    • Joel J. Miller

      Not handy, no. It was in the print edition toward the back.

  • bdlaacmm

    (Although I understand the chapter/verse system is not part of the original text, it is nevertheless quite helpful. Just imagine trying to direct someone to a particular passage without it.)

    That said, I’m surprised by the popularity of Philippians 4:6. Never would have guessed that one.

    The one verse I most often repeat to myself is Mark 15:31. “He saved others. Himself he cannot save.” It reminds me to always put the needs of others first, and to in turn graciously accept what others do for me.


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