How very few people there are who can cope with punctuation! This
act or art of dividing sentences by points seems to trip up most
people. Not many can give the inflections, differences, and values
which belong to each small note of punctuation. That is, the
difference between the comma, the semi-colon, and the colon. How
much of our singing and how many of our hymns are spoiled because of
a careless ignoring and over-running of these little marks! On the
other hand, how a reading or a hymn can be changed from a heap of
words into a living message just by a simple and thoughtful
observance of these tiny points. Here is a matter in which there can
be displayed or betrayed care or carelessness; thought or
thoughtlessness; meaning or confusion. Anyone who has once been
awakened to this realm of rich values is very sensitive to the
violation of even a comma. A little thing like this dot with a small
tail can hurt, or give much pleasure.
But, you are saying, what has this to do with the Christian life?
Paul would say - "Much, every way"!
Our spiritual life is a book being written. It is a narrative of
God's ways with us, and of our history with God. It is a record of
what we learn in the school of Christ, and of how we learn it. This
narrative of real life can be given a great deal of meaning and be
saved from much confusion if we know and observe the laws of
spiritual punctuation: that is, where to pause; where to take a
breath; where to let down a little, or more, or completely. Unless
we do this we shall ourselves become embarrassed, like a singer who
has used up all his - or her - breath before the sentence is
finished. We shall also be unintelligible to others. Let us
illustrate and explain.
The Value of Clarity
What an important thing is clarity, and what a disastrous thing is
confusion! Upon the smallest punctuation marks hang these great
issues. An excellent example in very common usage is the way in
which the metrical version of the twenty third Psalm is sung. (Not
written, but sung.) Very rarely is this Psalm sung correctly. Take
it in hand with the tune Crimond. The way in which it is commonly
sung is not the way of the punctuation. This is the more usual way:
"The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want;
Thus, the lying down is detached from the green pastures, and the
quiet waters are something by themselves, unrelated to 'He leadeth
He makes me down to lie / /
In pastures green He leadeth me; / /
The quiet waters by."
This makes nonsense of the verse: and so also in later verses.
Clarity and intelligence are preserved by giving due respect to the
So, our first lesson is that a brief pause may save from confusion
and embarrassment. We have instances of this in Nehemiah and in the
Lord Jesus. Nehemiah was caught in a difficult situation which could
have led to serious complications. The monarch, whose cupbearer he
was, caught sight of his face when it was sad (a forbidden thing in
the king's presence) and challenged him about it. Being given the
reason, the king further pressed to know what his cupbearer wanted.
This was no small matter, and really carried very far-reaching
issues. Nehemiah paused - only for the value of the comma or
semi-colon; just to take a breath - in which infinitesimal break his
heart went up to Heaven (Neh. 2:4) and, instead of confusion, or
even disaster, order and tranquillity resulted. A similar pause for
lifting His heart to Heaven occurred in our Lord's life (John
12:28), when things were becoming very difficult. There are not
lacking indications that it was a common practice in His life. In
neither case was there opportunity for the much prayer and thought
that the situation seemed to demand, but, with a background of
habitual touch with Heaven, the instant pause, the simple spiritual
comma saved from confusion and gave meaning to the movement. We
cannot substitute sudden ejaculations for a more solid prayer life,
but there is a very great value in the periodic pause in which,
amidst the pressure of work, perplexity, sorrow, and care, we take a
spiritual breath of Heaven.
We shall, with this lesson, also come to know how very much can hang
upon a very little. A comma is not much in itself, but the real
value of the whole context may hang upon it. In the comma you need
not always raise or drop your voice. It just marks a little break,
while you continue on the same level. But when it is a semi-colon or
colon, there is a respective relating of pitch and starting again,
in a less maintained course.
"How oft in the conflict, when pressed by the foe,
May it not be that, not only the private withdrawal for a small
space of time, but the prayer or fellowship gathering, is like the
rule of the colon, in which there is a sufficient pause and let-down
to provide for a fresh start before the present phase is completed?
I have fled to my Refuge and breathed out my woe;
How often, when trials like sea-billows roll,
Have I hidden in Thee, O Thou Rock of my soul."
But what about the full period? How great is the value, the burden,
and the responsibility that it carries! How varied and many-sided is
the context of this that is represented by a dot! The greatest
matters in all the Bible (which is only a representation of all
human history) are governed by this 'period'.
"And on the seventh day God finished his work... and he rested on
the seventh day" (Gen. 2:2).
Thereupon and thereafter God established in the creation the law and
principle over which His most serious jealousy was manifested. It
would be a principle by which He would stand with greatest blessing
or fiercest judgment. The time came when the whole nation of Israel
would go into seventy years of exile for violating this
principle - ten times seven 'that the land should enjoy its
sabbaths'. A whole lifetime, a 'three-score-years-and-ten' of
frustration, impotence, unfruitfulness, desolation; the price of
violating - not a day but - a principle represented by the day. What
was - and is - that principle for which God will exact everything,
even a whole life-time and life-work? Hear it reverberating down the
ages backward and forward from the Cross - "IT IS FINISHED!"
The desolation, chaos, disruption, darkness, and ruin of an old
order has come to a climax in the person of God's Son; its cause has
been judged and destroyed: and now the ground is secured for "all
things new". The way of 'a new creation in Christ Jesus' is opened.
The closed Heaven is cleft. Pentecost is God saying from Heaven -
'It is very good'. "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well
pleased." God has entered into His rest. The Sabbath of God is more
than a day, it is a Person and His finished work. It is not the day
as such, but the finished work and new life, that lies behind, and
is implicit in, our 'coming together on the first day of the week';
the Table of the Lord being - for many - the first act, showing
forth the Lord's death.
How great is this period! No wonder that, even in the type, God
showed His supreme concern. It is no less a matter than all that the
Cross of Christ means in human history and the creation. The exile
of Israel, in Babylon, and now, declares that life has no meaning or
value with God when the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is counted
"an unholy thing", and made to mean just the opposite of what God
sees in it.
God has written this law, the law of this 'period', deep in human
life. Some of us have had to learn deep lessons by painful ways in
this matter. We cannot - even in what we call service to God -
violate this law of the rest period, without having to pay heavily
for it in lost values, maybe lost days or months, vitiated energies,
and frustrated labours. It is never lost time to take rest when
there is conscientiousness in work. Satan is all against rest. To
drive, harrass, and keep too busy is a part of his strategy to mar
the new creation life.
God has many points at which He puts a 'period' and says - 'That
phase is finished: that chapter is closed.' It is of very great and
serious consequence that we be sensitive to His punctuation.
So, meaning, intelligence, value, and effectiveness are bound up
with spiritual punctuation, from the comma to the full period; not
forgetting the parentheses, the hyphens, the notes of emphasis or
First published as an editorial in "A Witness and A Testimony" magazine, May-June 1960, Vol 38-3