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The Semicolon

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Let all things be done decently and in order, 1st Corinthians 14:40.

English is a language in which the order of the words is important. A thought is expressed in English by the choice of the correct words and the order in which those words are used. Nevertheless, in its written form English needs help beyond the words themselves and the order of those words. The finest baseball team that could be put on a field still needs coaches who stand near the bases, and while seeing the entire play of the field, either wave a runner on or hold up a hand to stop him.

We understand the order to stop. A coach can just hold up his hands with his palms forward and the runner knows that he needs to stop. We can understand the gesture to keep running. As that runner rounds the base he can see that coach waving him on.

The semicolon is that base coach who neither tells the runner to stop, nor waves him on enthusiastically. Instead, that coach is signaling the runner that he needs to be wary as he approaches the base. He needs to be looking for the play to develop and to make his move accordingly.

We will look at the semicolon as that base coach as we look at a passage in the Book of Romans. The King James translators themselves did not choose to use semicolons. Semicolons did exist in 1611 and had been in use since the the late 1400s in Italy. It is apparent from their absence in the 1611 printing, that they were not in use among serious writers in the English Language. Instead, the translators used more commas and colons. (See the note at the end.)

It is important to remember that the King James Bible is more than a translation. It is the Holy Ghost's interpretation of the words of God in the English Tongue. It is as fine an amalgamation of the work of man under the direction of God as the Tabernacle itself. When the Tabernacle was done, both the personality of Bezaleel the son of Uri was made manifest as well as the exactness of God's design.

Bezaleel was given an exact pattern but was also given wide latitude. He was told exactly how large an object was to be, he was told to use the exact right materials, but he had his own choices to make. Speaking of the table for the Tabernacle, the Lord commanded Bezaleel; And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, and make thereto a crown of gold round about, Exodus 25:24. How should that crown look? How thick should the covering of Gold be?

Bezaleel himself made those choices as he did with many things throughout the Tabernacle. When the Tabernacle was done we know that the Lord was pleased. Likewise, when Solomon was finished dedicating the Temple, the Glory of God filled that temple. Throughout that temple could be seen the choices of God's craftsmen as they chose how to depict trees and cherubims, and yet the temple was made exactly as God wanted.

Both the Tabernacle and the temple needed to fulfill God's commandment; And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount, Exodus 25:40. Yet, they needed a man to make decisions that were not specifically communicated by God. A person reading this who does not have a God big and powerful enough to have a perfect Tabernacle or Temple which pleased God and fulfilled every requirement of God and to have still implemented the craft of man needs to ditch their peanut god and get the God of Israel.

God gave us the King James Bible. Its words are perfect. They are the perfect words in the perfect order to tell us exactly what God wants to reveal to man. Men have punctuated those words to guide the reader as to when a thought stops, when a thought needs to keep going forward and when the reader needs to slow down and be alert to what the thought is doing.

By the mid 1700s it became apparent to those entrusted with the words of God (Cambridge and Oxford) that the development of the semicolon in English literature needed to be introduced into the words of our King James Bible. If your god isn't big enough to handle that, go find a bigger God.

I received a phone call from a man who wanted to discuss the punctuation of Romans 1:28-32. It is all one sentence. The interaction between commas, semicolons and colons intrigued him.

Romans 1:28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;

Rom 1:29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,

Rom 1:30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,

Rom 1:31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:

Rom 1:32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

In verse 28 the commas make sense as we gently round the base after the word "knowledge" and again after the word "mind". As we read the verse aloud or think of it in our minds, those are two natural turning points. The verse ends with a semicolon. Why? Because we need to slow down and realize that the next phrase "Being filled with all unrighteousness" is not something that God did to man as the last half of verse 28 talks about, it harkens back to the subject of the sentence, "They". The base coach has signaled us to slow down and think about the transition.

It is the "they" of verse 28 that is filled with all unrighteousness. Then we are given a list of things with which they are also filled. That list is properly separated by commas. Then the good Apostle wants to remind us that these are things that fill men. A semicolon is used to distinguish "full of envy" from the preceding list. Why? Because he is reemphasizing his point with the word "fill". Something more powerful than a comma is needed.

We are then given four more things of which men are full, then a semicolon is used to separate the word whisperers from malignity. That should be obvious. The first two lists are lists of things that fill men. With the word whisperers and the following list we are told what men are, not what which fills them. Those descriptions of men continue until the end of verse 31 when a colon is used.

The sentence itself is not over, but the reader needs to stop the brief train of thought describing what fills men and what men are, and the reader needs to go back to the subject of the sentence, "they" and see God's judgement and opinion of such men.

A bible without proper punctuation is a bible without order. The Cambridge Text as edited during WWI and having been printed by Cambridge until 1985 is the perfect word of God in every jot and tittle.

( An astute reader of this blog, Frederick Langit has found a semicolon in Galatians 1:7 in the original 1611. Good work and thank you Fred.)

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