The Gnashing of Teeth

I’m reading through the Psalms for my daily devotionals, and today I read Psalm 35 [34 LXX]. In this psalm, the speaker asks the LORD to contend for him and deliver him from his adversaries. Interestingly, in v. 16 when speaking of these enemies, he says “like profane mockers at a feast, they gnash at me with their teeth.”

The Greek verb used in Ps. 35:16 [34:16 LXX] for “gnash” is bruxō, and it is also found in Ps. 37:12 [36:12 LXX]; 112:10 [111:10 LXX]; Job 16:9; and Lam. 2:16. Of the occurrences, the ones in Psalms and Job both speak about adversaries of those under God’s protection, while the occurrence in Lamentations speaks about the adversaries of God himself. Of course, in the Psalter, “the righteous afflicted one” can be seen as a type of the Messiah, and this is especially true of Psalm 35. This particular psalm follows on the heels of Psalm 34:19 – “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” Psalm 37:12 also suddenly shifts to the singular in its mention of the righteous being afflicted by those who gnash their teeth.In other words, it is possible to read at least Psalm 35:16 and 37:12 as speaking about the LORD’s anointed, and then along with Lamentations 2:16 we have three specific instances where this “gnashing of teeth” is done by those who are enemies of the LORD. Even if one does not take the Psalms references as explicitly Messianic, though, we are still dealing with enemies of God’s people, which in the OT makes them enemies of God himself. The phrase in the OT, then, appears to exclusively refer to God’s (or God’s people’s) enemies.

In the NT, the phrase “gnashing of teeth” occurs exclusively in Matthew. bruxō is the verbal equivalent of the noun (brugmos) used in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus describes what will happen to those who are not part of God’s kingdom (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51). I think this verbal parallel with the OT occurrences tell us a few things:

  1. Hell is a place for the enemies of God. This phrase “gnashing of teeth” indicates rebellion against God in the particular state in which they find themselves. In other words, “gnashing of teeth” isn’t some sort of pain metaphor; it’s an indication of the disposition of the person’s heart in hell. Note that this says something to Rob Bell’s transformational view of punishment in eternity; people in hell are not inclined to turn to God, but in fact continue to rebel against him even in their judgment. They aren’t puppies with their tails between their legs who recognize that they’ve done wrong, but are in continual rebellion.
  2. I think Jesus’ use of the phrase lends greater weight to seeing Psalm 35, 37, and 110 as Messianic. Of course, Psalm 110 is used messianically all over the NT, but this may be further indication that it ought to be read as such. The parallels with Psalms 35 and 37 lend weight to reading them messianically as well.
  3. Finally, I think this tells us something about Jesus’ ministry and message in the Gospels. Jesus knew very clearly what he was saying and to whom he was saying it, and in many (all?) of the occurrences in Matthew he is speaking to Pharisees. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Matt. 22:13, where he follows up his argument with the Pharisees and Sadducees and their request for a sign with this reference to God’s enemies gnashing their teeth. The implication is that it is they who are God’s enemies for not recognizing him as the Messiah. Another striking use is Matt. 8:12, where Jesus heals a centurion’s (read: GENTILE’S) servant, and then says he will sit at **Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s** (read: ISRAEL’S) table, but many “sons of the kingdom” will be cast into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. What is this besides a declaration that those Israelites who do not have faith in Jesus as the Messiah are no longer part of God’s people and even more bluntly are now enemies of God? No wonder the Jewish leaders wanted him killed.