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Out of the question: Gnashing of teeth

04 January 2010

Your answers

The phrase “They gnashed their teeth at him” occurs several times in scripture. What do we do to gnash our teeth?

Literally or metaphorically speak­ing, “gnashing of teeth” is a strikingly graphic description of the strong feelings of anger, fear, and pain. In unredeemed moments, it represents the all-too-common reaction, or at least attitude of mind, in moods of anger or when confronted by pain­ful circumstances of per­sonal adver­sity. It is, indeed, good to notice, as the questioner does, that the phrase translates the iden­tical idiom as used in the scriptures.

The Psalms provide several ex­amples, to describe the enmity and aggressive hostility of “workers of wickedness”, who hurled abuse at the “righteous”.

One psalmist lamented thus: “when I fell, they mocked me and they gnashed at me with their teeth” (Psalm 35.17), and another: “the wicked plot against the righteous and gnash at them with their teeth” (Psalm 35.12 and see also Psalm 112.10).

Similarly, in the New Testament, at the stoning of the proto-martyr Stephen, his enemies “were enraged and they ground their teeth against him” (Acts 7.54).

There is plenty of “gnashing of teeth” in St Matthew’s Gospel. Six times, this Evangelist introduced the familiar refrain “there men will weep and gnash their teeth” — which could be translated more literally “there will be the crying (ho klauth­mos) and the gnashing (ho brugma) of teeth.

The phrase — for which Matthew had a particular fondness — is used to conclude several parables of judge­ment. Gnashing of teeth is in every instance linked with the wailing and lamentation of those who have been judged un­worthy and have been banished to realms of “outer dark­ness”.

It may not be fanciful to sug­gest, as one distin­guished com­men­tator, C. F. Evans, has, that this may denote the com­mon sensation of “chatter­ing teeth” because of fearful fright — but certainly these Matthaean references are likely to convey shades of mean­ing, from the anger and pain of those excluded from the Kingdom, which others have entered in their place.
(Canon) Terry Palmer
Magor, Mon

I was reminded by this question of a story told by the Dean of Guild­ford, the Very Revd Victor Stock. A friend had attended a service in Northern Ireland led by the Revd Ian Paisley. There were only about a dozen elderly women in the con­gregation to hear him preaching that at the end of time there would be beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth. Sud­denly, one of the con­gre­ga­tion in the front row piped up: “But, Dr Paisley, I don’t have any teeth.”

The immediate reply was: “Teeth will be provided!”
Rosemary Hill (Reader)
Forest Hill, London

Your questions

A Free Church origin is suggested for the Watch Night service (Diary, 1 January). What is its precise origin? When was it introduced in the Church of England? What form does/did the service traditionally take? What would the “painful scenes” have involved?

W. M.


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