Tears and Tantrums (Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth)

The New testament frequently refers to times when there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. But what does this mean? To find out we need to start by looking at where this is documented, which is in the following scenarios:

In Matt 8 and Luke 13 when the Israelites are “thrown outside into the darkness” while Gentile believers feast with Abraham. (Matt 8:12, Luke 13:28)

In Matt 22 when wedding invitees can’t be bothered to attend the feast and so the invitation is opened to any and all. One such guest does not put on the wedding garment, and this person is thrown into outer darkness. (Matt 22:13)

In Matt 13, at the end of the age, when the angels will throw “everything that causes sin and all who do evil” and “the wicked” into the fiery furnace. (Matt 13:41-42, Matt 13:49-50)

In Matt 24 when a wicked servant beats other servants and entertains drunkards. This man is “cut to pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites”. (Matt 24:51)

In Matt 25 when a lazy servant, out of spite. deprives his master of interest on his money. This man is “thrown outside into the darkness”. (Matt 25:30)

In all cases the person in question is “thrown” or “cast out” into a place that appears to be a place of suffering and torment (“outer darkness” or “fiery furnace”). And so the assumption is made that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are the responses of a soul in pain and torment.

But is this right?

Gnashing of Teeth

Let us look at how this phrase is used in Scripture:

“Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they gnashed their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54)

“He has torn me in his wrath and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me” (Job 16:9)

“like profane mockers at a feast, they gnash at me with their teeth” (Ps 35:16)

“The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes at him with his teeth” (Ps 37:12)

“A king’s wrath is like a lion’s gnashing” (Prov 19:12)

“All your enemies rail against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: “We have swallowed her!” (Lam 2:16)

“The wicked will see it and be angry, He will gnash his teeth…” (Ps 112:10)

As we can see “gnashing of teeth” is an active display of hostility full of anger and hatred. It is a passionate response of wrath and bitterness.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

So how can gnashing of teeth be connected to weeping (lament)? The two appear to be polar opposites. And how on earth can someone “cast into a furnace” (and thus we assume undergoing extreme torment) be actively engaged in a display of hostility?

The examples we’ve seen in Matthew’s gospel certainly look like they could be places of torment. But what if they represent places where our selfishness or hidden agenda becomes exposed? What if the purpose of the furnace is not punishment but purification (Prov 17:3)? And what if any torment is of our own doing – that is it is our sense of privilege that is challenged (like the Pharisees), or our sense of fairness (like the workers paid the same for a whole day’s labour as those who worked only 1 hour)? “How dare we be treated this way!” And in such an event, could there not be both weeping and bitter anger, both tears and tantrum? If we have been numbered with the hypocrites (Matt 24:51) when we thought we were in the right, might this not be our response?

And in such a case the weeping (lamentation) could be a sign not of repentance or remorse but rather of frustration and grief for the mistaken assumptions made, and of anger of the unfairness of it all – namely, that God is not operating according to our presumed “quid pro quo”. With this possibility in mind, we can see how this interpretation really does suit the context:

“Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:26-28)

So “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is most likely not about torment and suffering – or at least not one that is being cruelly inflicted upon us. It is, rather, most likely the fiery response of one cast out, brusquely removed from the circle of God’s favour. It is the tears and tantrums of an angry, bitter soul who has discovered that God doesn’t bow to our hierarchies and doesn’t play by our rules.

We can, perhaps, liken it to the response of Jonah when God saved Nineveh or the response of the prodigal son’s older brother. And so let us pray it is not our response when exposed to God’s overabundant favour towards others.

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