The Communication of Understatements

A photograph I took of Van Gough's StarryNight

Can you give me an example of an understatement? 

An understatement is when the emphasis of words is less emphatic than the action they’re defining. For example: “After fasting 40 days, Jesus was ‘hungry’.” After fasting 40 days, Jesus was obviously more than hungry, for anybody in the medical field could tell you that in about 30 days of no food (or water?), the body begins to cannibalize itself, living off the saved resources (fat, muscle, etc.). So to go another 10 days after that with again no food (or water?) really puts a strain on the body…hunger like none of us (I hope) have ever experienced (or should ever)…we’re talking the brink of death by starvation. So to say that after fasting for 40 days, Jesus was “hungry”, is an understatement.

When reading the Bible, the language that it’s translated into (from the Greek) can often be expressed as an understatement. In fact, if you’ve ever read from the Greek, then you will notice almost immediately just how much is lost in the English. Understand though that it’s not the translator’s fault, for they’re just simply doing their best to interpret what’s being said…the English just doesn’t always have the selection of words to fully describe something, and thus falls short. For example: In Acts 5:28, after Simon and John were arrested, the officials decided to let them go. But before they did, they…now, the Greek says they gave Simon and John “Strict” orders not to preach Jesus Christ. What does the English say?

  • KJV: “straightly command” (what is “straightly? MS Word doesn’t even show it as a word)
  • NLT: never again to…he demanded
  • NIV: Strict orders
  • ESV: “Strictly charge” (that’s good one)

Believe it or not, even saying “strict orders” can be seen as an understatement. The first reason we know this is because when the authors of the Greek wanted to emphasize something, they would put a couple words that mean the same thing next to each other. In this passage, they used 2 of the same word, “παραγγέλια” just in different forms: παραγγέλια and παρήγγειλαμεν. So it’s like, “they ordered-ordered or commanded-commanded them to not preach…”

The second way we can know the emphasis is by looking at the context of what’s actually going on here. The Sanhedrin had arrested Peter and John, gave them the strictest orders they could give to not say a word about Jesus, and released them. But now Peter and John are standing in front of them again for the same charges that they had stood before them before. If you have ever babysat an unruly child, you may understand the officials’ view. You put the kid into a time-out for doing something, let them out giving them strict instructions not to do it again, only to be in that same position again within minutes. You weren’t happy about them doing it the first time, but now you’re twice as upset because for one, if they didn’t know it was wrong the first time, they did before the 2nd time; and two, you told them not to do it again and they did anyway…a clear sign of disrespect. So now, the Sanhedrin, the same guys who put Jesus to death, can’t seem to figure out why Peter and John not only disregarded their previous threats, but even committed the same action that put them there the first time. So to say that ‘they were upset’ is an understatement, and to put that into perspective of their comment to the Apostles, shows us that words would be difficult to express what they were actually trying to communicate.

The reason I mention all of this is because in Matthew 2:10, we read that when the Magi saw the star, they:

  • NKJV: rejoiced with exceedingly great joy
  • NIV: were overjoyed.
  • NRSV: were overwhelmed with joy

To say they “rejoiced” or were “overwhelmed with joy” are two HUGE understatements, for in the Greek you find:

   έχαρησαν     – χαραν        –  μαγαλην                     –     σφοδρα

Literally: rejoiced        –  joy              –   loud/great sound    –     very much/greatly

In other words, 4 words were used to emphasize the joy expressed by the Magi. 4 words! When the star stopped at the boy’s house, they “rejoiced – joy – loud/great sound – very much/greatly”. I’m not sure the English could really emphasize what they felt. Like I said, the NKJV is probably the closest of these 3 translations for this example.

The context also explains this great joy, for when these Gentiles saw a star in the sky, they actually set out to follow it to this place. Have you ever tried to follow a star? Nowadays, if it wasn’t the North Star, people might see you as nuts. I mean, it’s a star…it’s in the sky, it’s always there, and as we know today, most stars are so far away from us that their light takes hundreds of years just to get to us. So to say that we are following a star (whether new or old) would have to take either great faith, great dedication, or great insanity.

So the Magi knew that there was something special about the appearance of this star. Remember also that the Magi were astrologers…not astronoMers, but astroloGers. They studied the stars, the planets, the prophecies of the Jews, and combined them all into meaning. They were Gentiles from the East, most possibly from Persia (which is Iran today), when you look at their gifts. So when they saw the star, their actions were in response to the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Messiah that they had been studying all their lives. So to say they were overjoyed, again, is an understatement. But the context helps us understand just how excited they must have been. Then they were even more overwhelmed to a great extent when entering into the presence of the promised Messiah, for the Bible says that they fell to their knees and honored Him with gifts of royalty.


  1. If you speak another language, then you know that when you’re asked to translate something, there are not always words that emphasize what’s actually being said.  Reflect on (if you’re alone) or describe (if you’re in a group) some examples of such translation difficulties.
  2. If you don’t speak any other languages and can’t relate, then reflect on/describe some examples of “understatements” in your life.  How could you do a better job of expressing the true meaning in words?  For example, “I hit my thumb with a hammer and it hurt.”  That would no doubt be an understatement. So what are some examples that you can think of in your own life, and how would you better word the events?
  3. I think everybody knows the story of Jesus’ birth, but at the same time, I also think that a lot about the event is reflected as an understatement, even (maybe especially?) during the time when we celebrate it (Christmas).  In your own words, how would you express or describe the great importance of this awesome day and events?

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