The Setting of the Sun: Ephesians 4:26
26 ὀργίζεσθε καὶ μὴ ἁμαρτάνετε· ὁ ἥλιος μὴ ἐπιδυέτω ἐπὶ [τῷ] παροργισμῷ ὑμῶν (NA28)
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun set on your irritation (author translation).
The translation and application of this verse have to overcome quite a few questions. Is ὀργίζεσθε imperative or indicative? Does the mention of the setting sun refer to the end of the day, or is the meaning more metaphorical? What kind of anger is permissible (or even enjoined) and what is not? How is verse 27a related to verse 26?
In this short blog post, I will not attempt to tackle all of these issues. I will rely on several other scholars’ work to answer some of these questions, and then I will add some thoughts of my own about the setting of the sun.
Following Daniel Wallace, I translate ὀργίζεσθε “be angry” (1989). Thus, we start with the presumption that to become angry is not, according to this author, in itself, sinful. From a historical standpoint, preachers since Chrysostom have pointed out that “He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices” (Homily 11).
The injunction to be angry comes in a series of other commands, laid out for the purpose of harmony in the community (Barton 2015). It comes, indeed, right after the reminder to speak truth. Certainly this is an appropriate context for a discussion of anger, since one may be angered by the truth, or angered by untruths.
What kind of anger is being discussed? The word used, παροργισμός, is not simply a generic word for anger but carries some reference to a provocation (Wallace 1989: 365; BDAG 780). This, too, fits well in a context of community, since provocations of various sorts are sure to arise, both reasonable and unreasonable. I might use the word “pique” except that it seems to carry a connotation of unreasonableness. While παροργισμός does not go so far as rage, it has a sense of some force behind it; Louw & Nida say “quite angry” (88.176). “Passion” seems to capture the force of the emotion, as long as we remember not to import any sexual overtones into the passage. “Irritation” does not, perhaps, go far enough, but since (like παροργισμός) it can refer to both the cause of the emotion and the emotion itself, it seems the best choice.
On the one hand, now that all of these preliminary questions are decided, the meaning of not letting the sun set on one’s irritation seems plain. In a community, for the sake of unity, irritations must be dealt with immediately. Plutarch is helpful here:
We should next pattern ourselves after the Pythagoreans, who, though related not at all by birth, yet sharing a common discipline, if ever they were led by anger into recrimination, never let the sun go down before they joined right hands, embraced each other, and were reconciled. For just as it is nothing alarming if a fever attends a swelling in the groin, but if the fever persists when the swelling is gone, it is thought to be a malady and to have a deeper origin: so when the dissension of brothers ceases after the matter in dispute is settled, the dissension was caused by the matter; but if it remains, the matter was but a pretext and contained some malignant and festering reason (Moralia 488C; referenced in Talbert 2007: 124).
This is not to say, of course, that the author or the readers of Ephesians were familiar with Plutarch. Still, at least some in the ancient world were aware that short irritations could be dealt with quickly whereas deeper resentments would take more work.
Ephesians 4:26, then, suggests that when attempting to live in unity with fellow believers, provocations should be addressed immediately (see scholars who draw this conclusion listed in Mel 2015: 51 n. 17) and not allowed to fester (verse 27a). I want to suggest one further way the setting sun might be understood.
Clearly, the sun cannot set on an irritation; it sets in the sky, on the day, perhaps, or maybe over the hill. If we pick apart the implicit metaphor, however, we find that the setting sun signals the end of the day. Blending theory suggests that the inputs from this frame will be imaginatively combined with the inputs from the other frame, that of the irritation that can arise from living in community, in this case in a double blend (Fauconnier and Turner 2002: 340–45). When the sun sets, the day is over, and, when one observes that the sun is setting, one has the choice of hurrying to finish some last task, or accepting that the day’s activities are over and can no longer be changed. This framework is blended with the framework of relationships and irritations within a community, and what emerges is the observation that one can either hurry to address the irritation or accept that the new relationship has solidified (in a negative sense) and can no longer be changed.
Beatty Mel points out the strong linguistic similarities between Eph 4:26b and Micah 3:6 LXX. The context in Micah “associates the sun setting with the departure of the Lord’s Spirit or presence” (Mel 2015: 52), and Beatty Mel therefore suggests that the author cautions believers to “not lose sight of the Lord in their state of provocation” (52). This conclusion, however, seems too embedded in the Micah passage with no a priori reason to import it into Ephesians.
Micah 3:6, however, speaking of the prophets who have led Israel astray (v. 5), notes that “it will be night for you, without vision, and it will be darkness for you, without divination, and the sun will set upon the prophets, and the day will grow quite dark upon them” (LES). In this picture, it is not so much the prophets who have forgotten about the Lord, but rather the Lord has turned away from the prophets.
The Hebrew Bible has an expression for this, translated in English as “I will put my face against them.” In the LXX it is expressed variously: δώσω τὸ πρόσωπόν μου ἐπʼ αὐτούς (Eze 15:7a); στηρίσαι με τὸ πρόσωπόν μου ἐπʼ αὐτούς (Eze 15:7e) and ἐγὼ ἐπιστήσω τὸ πρόσωπόν μου ἐπὶ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἐκεῖνον (Lev 20:3). The verb is different, even within the same verse: δίδωμι (“to give,” Eze 15:7a); στηρίζω (“to establish,” Eze 15:7e); ἐφίστημι (“to stand,” Lev 20:3), whereas the preposition is the same, ἐπί. Thus, there is no direct linguistic connection between these expressions and the setting of the sun—the preposition is not enough on its own. However, what God does in the Ezekiel passage is to turn his face “on” or “against” the inhabitants of Jerusalem (v. 6). When God establishes his face on (or against) someone, his attitude against that person has solidified, and Ezekiel 15 suggests that in this attitude or decision, his mind will not be changed.
When the sun sets on a day, that day is finished, and nothing can alter its events. Perhaps, similarly, the author of Ephesians might have meant to suggest that to deal with one’s irritation before the sun sets is to address the offender before the attitude of the believer has become solidified against them. In community, no group member can be permanently treated as an outsider or an enemy.
Barton, Stephen C. (2015). “‘Be Angry But Do Not Sin’ (Ephesians 4:26a): Sin and the Emotions in the New Testament with Special Reference to Anger.” Studies in Christian Ethics 28.1: 21–34.
Brannan, R., K. M. Penner, I. Loken, M. Aubrey, and I. Hoogendyk, editors. (2012). The Lexham English Septuagint. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. New York: Perseus.
Mel, Deb Beatty. (2015). “Perspectives on Anger from Ephesians 4.” Africanus Journal 7.2: 49–54.
Septuaginta: With morphology. (1979). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft. Electronic edition.
Talbert, Charles H. (2007). Ephesians and Colossians. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Wallace, Daniel B. (1989). “Ὀργίζεσθε in Ephesians 4:26: Command or Condition?” Criswell Theological Review 3.2: 353–72.