Thursday, July 7, 2016

Wanting And Desiring In The Bible

TWH: Wanting and desiring are basic human emotions that appear in every single book of the Bible. They can be communicated through specific lexemes, but also indirectly through commands and actions. These emotions develop in humans usually by the age of two. Thinking about such a basic human emotion in the Bible is an overwhelming task. There are a number of different words connected to want and desire. For example, the following Hebrew words are tied to this emotion: חָסֵר (e.g., Neh. 9:21),מַחְסׄור (Ps. 34:9),אָבָה (Prov. 1:25), and יָרַשׁ (e.g., Prov. 30:9). The most famous “want” passage in the Old Testament is probably Ps. 23:1: “The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want.” In the New Testament, the following words are used: βούλημα/βούλομαι (e.g., Rom. 9:19), θέλησις/θέλω (e.g., John 17:24), ἐλπίς/ἐλπίζω (Rom. 15:24), ἐπιζητέω (e.g., Acts 19:39), ἐπιθυμητής/ἐπιθυμία/ἐπιθυμέω (e.g., Matt. 5:27; 1 Cor. 10:6), εὐδοκία (Rom. 10:1), and ζηλόω (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:1). The Pharisees, for example, requested that Jesus perform a sign for them: “We want (θέλομεν) to see a sign from you.” Unfortunately for them Jesus had already performed numerous miracles. They chose to attribute those works to Satan, thus blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

Analyzing this emotion lexically reveals only a portion of what the Bible says about wanting and desiring. In other words, there are a number of passages in the Bible that reveal a want/need or desire that do not explicitly say so by using one of the Hebrew or Greek lexemes. Wants and desires can be communicated through the use of commands. For example, God’s command in Gen. 1:28 demonstrates part of what God wants from mankind, namely to bear fruit and multiply. Likewise, his commands in Deut 6:7, 20–25 show God’s desire for the Jewish people to know and never forget Him. This is true for God and individuals alike. Moses prays, “Show me your glory” (Exod. 33:18). The same is true in the New Testament, of course. Another way want and desire is communicated in the New Testament is through the use of ἐρωτῶ (“I ask”). Jesus makes a request of the Father twice in John 17 (vv. 15, 20) using this word. The very fact that He petitions His Father for what follows in vv.15 and 20 reflects His own desire.

When exploring different lexemes dealing with want or desire, it is especially important to think about the context. In the same way that πειράζω and πειρασμός can refer to both a test and a temptation, certain words have a lexical range that includes positive and negative elements. For example, ἐπιθυμία can refer to a general longing or desire. In Phil. 1:23, Paul shares his dual desire of both going to be with Christ and also staying alive for a period of time so that he can continue serving Christ around the world. In Rom. 1:24, however, the same word is used in a negative sense. Paul says that God handed people over to the ἐπιθυμίαις of their hearts. A better translation in this place probably is “lusts.”

Another feature to consider when thinking about this emotion is the context. There are different words to communicate a want or a desire. In addition to this, there are functionally-equivalent ways to express a want or desire beyond using a want- or desire-lexeme. Paying attention to the context is critical in a place like John 17. In Jesus’ prayer, he makes a number of requests to God in different ways. He uses imperatives, such as ἐρωτῶ, and even θέλω. The latter is the only one that is lexically related to want and desire. The use of θέλω comes in John 17:24, which draws more attention to the desire of Jesus. Bible students would expect to hear Jesus pray that the Father would glorify Himself or glorify the Son (17:1, 5). What Jesus prays for in John 17:24 is profound, something that usually remains underdeveloped in expositions of the prayer. Jesus wants his disciples to be protected (John 17:11–12). He wants them to grow (John 17:17). But he reveals his deepest desire in John 17:24. He wants his disciples to be with Him forever and to witness his glory, something of which only three disciples at that point in time had only seen a shimmer.



Berger, Klaus. Identity and Experience in the New Testament. Translated by Charles Muenchow. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Elliott, Matthew A. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006.

Hudgins, Thomas W. "An Application of Discourse Analysis Methodology in the Exegesis of John 17." Eleutheria 2:1 (2012): 24–57,
 available at:

Voorwinde, Stephen. Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels. New York: T&T Clark International, 2011.

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