NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXXI)
Reformer Martin Luther knew what it was to plead with moans and groans before the Lord. He learned that such groanings are so profound that only God can understand and appreciate them. Luther points to David having a similar prayer which made him feel so crushed inside that his anguished heart made him groan out loud.1 Luther then goes on to say that we should not consider it a bad sign, rather a good sign if our petitions to God bring us the opposite of what we asked for. By the same token, it would not be a good sign, rather a bad sign, if we were granted everything we prayed for.2 Therefore if the Holy Spirit carries our inexpressible groans to God’s heart, then we should also be willing to accept the answer from His heart. All He wants is that His will is done, even though we may not understand all the reasons why. We must trust Him and by faith accept His answer as best for us.
John Calvin has an interesting way of sharing his thoughts on what Paul says here. He tells us that the Holy Spirit helps us carry part of our burdens, especially those that weigh us down the most. That way He not only gives us some relief but lifts us up so that we can walk with our heads held high. He goes on to say that this is connected with what Paul said earlier about how the creature and creation must deal with the emptiness of this life. This sometimes leads to our being unable to know exactly how to pray and what to pray for. Calvin admits that there are various scholarly expositions of this passage. But for him, Paul seems to have had this in mind: When we go to God in prayer we know what we want but we don’t know what we really need. We are so disturbed by a situation that we don’t know what is best to ask God for. So it is no secret that we should follow the example of our Lord Jesus and simply say, “Father, not my will but Your will be done.3”4
This is why the Spirit was sent to help us. Calvin says it is not we who groan, but that through the impulse of the Spirit we express our deepest feelings with groans because they are beyond our capability of formulating them into words. Think of it this way, you have a child or spouse in another room of the house, and they are trying to let you know sick they are. If their words do not carry the urgency that would prompt you to take immediate action, their painful groans will. When you hear them moan in agony, it causes you to drop everything and run to find out what’s wrong. Paul is saying something similar here, in that God hears such groans, and through the Spirit knows exactly what’s wrong and what is needed.
Adam Clarke points out an interesting aspect of the composite Greek word synantilambanomai (Literally – to take [hold] with me) that Paul uses here. It is translated into English as “help or helps,”5 meaning: To grab hold of along with another, to strive to obtain with others, to help someone in obtaining something. Clarke explains that it is a compound word that signifies one person helping another person to carry their burden. That helps us understand that the one who prays receives assistance from the Spirit of God so that their prayer gets to God swiftly. We must be ready to use whatever strength we have to do our part, while at the same time leaning on the strength of the Holy Spirit within us to get things done for God’s glory.6 Therefore, when we have needs and do not know exactly how to pray as we should, and are thereby liable to make endless mistakes, we must depend on the Holy Spirit to assist us in bringing them by prayer before God’s throne of grace and mercy.
Robert Haldane points out that as believers we need to exercise patience. It is only after we have done the will of God that we can expect the promises that He has made to the faithful. Sometimes our patience is not what it ought to be, and we start thinking about dismissing any hope of accomplishing what He sent us out to do, in spite of the great reward that awaits a faithful servant. That’s why the Apostle Paul presents the Roman believers with a variety of options to consider during the time of conflict, especially when things get difficult. First, he reminded them, in verse 17, of their communion with Jesus Christ, and that, if they suffer with Him, they will also be glorified with Him.
Then in verse 18, Paul told them that their sufferings cannot be compared to the glory of which they will be made partakers of when it’s over. Paul offers that what they are currently going through is part of waiting for the day of deliverance when the children of God will be presented for all the world to see. Paul does so by reminding them of the promise God has already made assuring them that although it is still in the future, they can take hold of it now by hope. No doubt, those who are weak in the flesh and feel inferior to the powers of the enemies they face, will object, in spite of all the encouragement they are given. They do not want to continue going through so many trials and testings before final victory is won. That’s why now the Apostle Paul points out an additional, internal source of encouragement of the highest consideration. That is, the Holy Spirit residing in them is there to help them with their frailties as He intercedes for us to the Father. Haldane wants everyone to know that the Holy Spirit’s presence is sufficient to ease every despondent fear, and give them the strongest assurance that it will end just as God promised it would.7
Then Albert Barnes focuses on the Greek word hyperentygchanō that Paul uses here. It is used nowhere else in the NT. It means: to intercede for someone. According to Barnes, it also means to be present with someone for the purpose of aiding them in any manner, just as a lawyer does in a court of law. Barnes makes it clear that the Holy Spirit does not do it on His own, but assists and aides us in our petitions to God the Father. In other words, the Spirit does not pray for us but assists us as we pray for our needs and how to cope with our infirmities. Barnes gives us his understanding of how the Spirit helps when our groans represent needs that cannot be put into words. For him, these are emotions which are sometimes too deep to articulate. We, therefore, need another language, the language of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Spirit produces these groanings on His own. These come from deep-felt emotions caused when the soul is oppressed and overwhelmed. That’s when He lends us His assistance and sustains us. This verse may be thus translated: “The Spirit greatly aids or supports us in those deep emotions, those intense feelings, those inward sighs which cannot be expressed in language, but which He enables us to bear, and which are understood by Him that searches the heart.”8 No wonder Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the “comforter.”9
Baptist preacher Octavius Winslow speaks of those who complain about the hold sin still has on their lives when they pray. In one sermon he acknowledges that there is never a time when a person feels the chafing of sin’s chains more than when they get away from others into the sacred presence of God. How great it would be if they could then feel free! Then they could pour out their unchained emotions as they are moved, prompted, and pray unhindered because of the freedom of God’s Spirit! But instead, they find that prayer comes hard. What can they say? What should they ask for? What do they really need? It seems that their emotions are dried up, and the things they want to tell God stop at the tip of their tongue, freeze on their lips. So they rise from their knees feeling that their prayer has turned into nothing but worthless chatter, like a chirping sparrow.
But why do they feel so bound? Can it be of their own creation? Might it be that they are trying to get enthused about praying to God instead of letting the influence of the Holy Spirit be their source of excitement about talking to the Living Creator? Are they trying to impress God with their own knowledge of His Word and move Him with their pious words? Why are they not bowing before Him with a humble heart and a contrite spirit? Are they looking at themselves instead of looking to Jesus who stands beside the Father as their Mediator? Are they guilty of coming to God with the proud spirit of a Pharisee, rather than with the contrite spirit of the publican!10 Is it possible that they come to God thinking that they deserve a blessing instead of asking for a blessing? How can they feel so satisfied with themselves when without Him they are poor and miserable? But listen to Paul share God’s remedy, “Be filled with the Spirit.” Part of His indwelling is to set us free to go to our Father in prayer with an open heart and open mind.11
Charles Hodge also comments on the Holy Spirit as our helper, representing Him as condescending enough to take upon Himself; as it were, a portion of our sorrows to relieve us of their pressure. Hodge says that this is an example of how the Holy Spirit can assist us: “The Holy Spirit helps us where we are weak. We do not know how to pray or what we should pray for” (v. 26). The necessity for this kind of help is not because we don’t know how to pray, but the fact that we often do not know what to pray for. We just don’t know what’s best for us under the circumstances.12 Hodge then points to something that the Apostle Paul may have already known from reading Greek literature where it was said that Pythagoras13 thinks it is wrong when we pray for ourselves because we do not know what will help us.14 For Hodge, that would be a miserable condition. So instead of letting our ignorance putting a lock on our lips while our hearts break inside, allow the Holy Spirit to give us a language heard and understood by God. If we are not sure what to pray, let the Holy Spirit show us the way.15
Charles Spurgeon suggests that instead of it saying that the Spirit makes intercession for us, it should read this way: “The Spirit Himself teaches us what we should pray for.” Spurgeon goes on to question whether or not we really know what our groanings are for. In one sermon he expressed the fear that those who’ve never had groanings which cannot be put into words, will then never know anything of that delight which also cannot be expressed because it’s the only way to help us get relief. As Spurgeon sees it, the groanings that cannot be uttered lead on to unutterable joy. For Spurgeon, if there is any place that our feebleness can be expressed it is in prayer. Even the strongest among us are on their knees seeking more strength. None of us need to stop short of the reaching our full stature in Christ Jesus. We could then go from asking to seeking, and from seeking to knocking so the Spirit can help us find what we need in order to be at full strength for the battles ahead.16
1 Psalm 38:9
2 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 126
3 Luke 22:42
4 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 See Luke 10:40
6 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 156
7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 385
8 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 John 14:26
10 Luke 18:10
11 The Works of Octavius Winslow: op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 430
13 Pythagoras of Samos (570-495 BC), Greek philosopher and mathematician
14 Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius (404-323 BC), Translated by Robert Drew Hicks, Bk. 8:9
15 Hodge, ibid, pp. 430-431
16 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.