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12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
12. For the word of God is quick, or living, etc. What he says here of the efficacy or power of the word, he says it, that they might know, that it could not be despised with impunity, as though he had said, “Whenever the Lord addresses us by his word, he deals seriously with us, in order that he may touch all our inmost thoughts and feelings; and so there is no part of our soul which ought not to be roused.” 7171 It has been a matter of dispute whether the “word” here is Christ, or the Scripture. The fathers as well as later divines are divided. The former is the opinion of Augustin, Ambrose, and also of Dr. Owen and Doddridge: and the latter is held by Chrysostom, Theophylact, and also by Calvin, Beza, Macknight, Scott, Stuart and Bloomfield. The latter is clearly the most suitable to the words of the passage. The only difficulty is in verse 13; but there a transition is evidently made from the word of God to God himself; and thus both are in remarkable manner connected together. — Ed.
But before we proceed further, we must inquire whether the Apostle speaks of the effect of the word generally, or refers only to the faithful.
It indeed appears evident, that the word of God is not equally efficacious in all. For in the elect it exerts its own power, when humbled by a true knowledge of themselves, they flee to the grace of Christ; and this is never the case, except when it penetrates into the innermost heart. For hypocrisy must be sifted, which has marvelous and extremely winding recesses in the hearts of men; and then we must not be slightly pricked or torn, but be thoroughly wounded, that being prostrate under a sense of eternal death, we may be taught to die to ourselves. In short, we shall never be renewed in the whole mind, which Paul requires, (Ephesians 4:23,) until our old man be slain by the edge of the spiritual sword. Hence Paul says in another place, (Philippians 2:17,) that the faithful are offered as a sacrifice to God by the Gospel; for they cannot otherwise be brought to obey God than by having, as it were, their own will slain; nor can they otherwise receive the light of God’s wisdom, than by having the wisdom of the flesh destroyed. Nothing of this kind is found in the reprobate; for they either carelessly disregard God speaking to them, and thus mock him, or clamour against his truth, and obstinately resist it. In short, as the word of God is a hammer, so they have a heart like the anvil, so that its hardness repels its strokes, however powerful they may be. The word of God, then, is far from being so efficacious towards them as to penetrate into them to the dividing of the soul and the spirit. Hence it appears, that this its character is to be confined to the faithful only, as they alone are thus searched to the quick.
The context, however, shows that there is here a general truth, and which extends also to the reprobate themselves; for though they are not softened, but set up a brazen and an iron heart against God’s word, yet they must necessarily be restrained by their own guilt. They indeed laugh, but it is a sardonic laugh; for they inwardly feel that they are, as it were, slain; they make evasions in various ways, so as not to come before God’s tribunal; but though unwilling, they are yet dragged there by this very word which they arrogantly deride; so that they may be fitly compared to furious dogs, which bite and claw the chain by which they are bound, and yet can do nothing, as they still remain fast bound.
And further, though this effect of the word may not appear immediately as it were on the first day, yet it will be found at length by the event, that it has not been preached to any one in vain. General no doubt is what Christ declares, when he says, When the Spirit shall come, he will convince the world, (John 16:8 9.) for the Spirit exercises this office by the preaching, of the Gospel. And lastly, though the word of God does not always exert its power on man, yet it has it in a manner included in itself. And the Apostle speaks here of its character and proper office for this end only, — that we may know that our consciences are summoned as guilty before God’s tribunal as soon as it sounds in our ears, as though he had said, “If any one thinks that the air is beaten by an empty sound when the word of God is preached, he is greatly mistaken; for it is a living thing and full of hidden power, which leaves nothing in man untouched.” The sum of the whole then is this, — that as soon as God opens his sacred mouth, all our faculties ought to be open to receive his word; for he would not have his word scattered in vain, so as to disappear or to fall neglected on the ground, but he would have it effectually to constrain the consciences of men, so as to bring them under his authority; and that he has put power in his word for this purpose, that it may scrutinize all the parts of the soul, search the thoughts, discern the affections, and in a word show itself to be the judge.
But here a new question arises, “Is this word to be understood of the Law or of the Gospel?” Those who think that the Apostle speaks of the Law bring these testimonies of Paul, — that it is the ministration of death, (2 Corinthians 3:6, 7,) that it is the letter which killeth, that it worketh nothing but wrath, (Romans 4:15,) and similar passages. But here the Apostle points out also its different effects; for, as we have said, there is a certain vivifying killing of the soul, which is effected by the Gospel. Let us then know that the Apostle speaks generally of the truth of God, when he says, that it is living and efficacious. So Paul testifies, when he declares, that by his preaching there went forth an odor of death unto death to the unbelieving, but of life unto life to believers, (2 Corinthians 2:16,) so that God never speaks in vain; he draws some to salvation, others he drives into ruin. This is the power of binding and loosing which the Lord conferred on his Apostles. (Matthew 18:18.) And, indeed, he never promises to us salvation in Christ, without denouncing, on the other hand, vengeance on unbelievers; who by rejecting Christ bring death on themselves. 7272 See Appendix P.
It must be further noticed, that the Apostle speaks of God’s word, which is brought to us by the ministry of men. For delirious and even dangerous are those notions, that though the internal word is efficacious, yet that which proceeds from the mouth of man is lifeless and destitute of all power. I indeed admit that the power does not proceed from the tongue of man, nor exists in mere sound, but that the whole power is to be ascribed altogether to the Holy Spirit; there is, however, nothing in this to hinder the Spirit from putting forth his power in the word preached. For God, as he speaks not by himself, but by men, dwells carefully on this point, so that his truth may not be objected to in contempt, because men are its ministers. So Paul, by saying, that the Gospel is the power of God, (Romans 1:16.) designedly adorned with this distinction his own preaching, though he saw that it was slandered by some and despised by others. And when in another place, (Romans 10:8,) he teaches us that salvation is conferred by the doctrine of faith, he expressly says that it was the doctrine which was preached. We indeed find that God ever commends the truth administered to us by men, in order to induce us to receive it with reverence.
Now, by calling the word quick or living he must be understood as referring to men; which appears still clearer by the second word, powerful, for he shows what sort of life it possesses, when he expressly says that it is efficacious; for the Apostle’s object was to teach us what the word is to us. 7373 See Appendix Q. The sword is a metaphorical word often used in Scripture; but the Apostle not content with a simple comparison, says, that God’s word is sharper than any sword, even than a sword that cuts on both sides, or twoedged; for at that time swords were in common use, which were blunt on one side, and sharp on the other. Piercing even to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, or to the dividing of the soul and spirit, etc. The word soul means often the same with spirit; but when they occur together, the first includes all the affections, and the second means what they call the intellectual faculty. So Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, uses the words, when he prays God to keep their spirit, and soul, and body blameless until the coming of Christ, (1 Thessalonians 5:23,) he meant no other thing, but that they might continue pure and chaste in mind, and will, and outward actions. Also Isaiah means the same when he says,
“My soul desired thee in the night; I sought thee with my spirit.” (Isaiah 26:9.)
What he doubtless intends to show is, that he was so intent on seeking God, that he applied his whole mind and his whole heart. I know that some give a different explanation; but all the soundminded, as I expect, will assent to this view.
Now, to come to the passage before us, it is said that God’s word pierces, or reaches to the dividing of soul and spirit, that is, it examines the whole soul of man; for it searches his thoughts and scrutinizes his will with all its desires. And then he adds the joints and marrow, intimating that there is nothing so hard or strong in man, nothing so hidden, that the powerful word cannot pervade it. 7474 The metaphor of a sword is evidently carried on; the word is like the sword which “penetrates so as to separate the soul (the animal life) and the spirit, (the immortal part,) the joints also and the marrows, being even a strict judge of the thoughts and purposes of the heart.” — Ed. Paul declares the same when he says, that prophecy avails to reprove and to judge men, so that the secrets of the heart may come, to light. (1 Corinthians 14:24.) And as it is Christ’s office to uncover and bring to light the thoughts from the recesses of the heart, this he does for the most part by the Gospel.
Hence God’s word is a discerner, (κριτικὸς, one that has power to discern,) for it brings the light of knowledge to the mind of man as it were from a labyrinth, where it was held before entangled. There is indeed no thicker darkness than that of unbelief, and hypocrisy is a horrible blindness; but God’s word scatters this darkness and chases away this hypocrisy. Hence the separating or discerning which the Apostle mentions; for the vices, hid under the false appearance of virtues, begin then to be known, the varnish being wiped away. And if the reprobate remain for a time in their hidden recesses, yet they find at length that God’s word has penetrated there also, so that they cannot escape God’s judgment. Hence their clamour and also their fury, for were they not smitten by the word, they would not thus betray their madness, but they would seek to elude the word, or by evasion to escape from its power, or to pass it by unnoticed; but these things God does not allow them to do. Whenever then they slander God’s word, or become enraged against it, they show that they feel within its power, however unwillingly and reluctantly. 7575 See Appendix R.