Updated: Jun 18, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek verb kenoo, which means “empty”. This word, in the form ekenosen, appears in the Second Reading of Palm Sunday (year A), from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:6-11), where the apostle says that Jesus “emptied himself”.
The verb kenoo is one of a group of 5 other related words, all with meanings related to being empty. The words are not very common in the New Testament: there are only 5 occurrences of the verb, 18 of the related adjective kenos (meaning “empty” or “in vain”), and only 5 uses between the other 4 words. There are no commonly-used English words derived from the Greek, only the theological terms “kenosis” and “kenotic”, which refer to the use of the verb ekenosen in the letter to the Philippians. So, although the word may not be widely used, it is significant for what it tells us about Jesus Christ.
In the secular Greek literature of the ancient world, the basic meaning of kenoo the verb, or kenos the adjective, is “empty”, as we see in the historian Thucydides, who describes how during a war, many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse. Plato says in his Timaeus that “the universe will not allow any place to be left void [kenon]”; and the medical writer Hippocrates uses the word keneon to describe the cavity within the head. The sense of the word could be extended to metaphorical emptiness, for example when, in the Odyssey book 10, Odysseus’s travelling companions complain that they “return home with hands empty [keneas]”. And the idea of emptiness leads to kenos being used to indicate vanity or lack of substance – so that in Aeschylus’s Persians, the ghost of Darius observes that it is only in “vain hopes” that the Persians leave an army in Greece. And in Sophocles’ Antigone, a man is described as empty of soul, if he thinks that he alone is wise.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, we see the same literal and metaphorical senses as the secular Greek literature:
Physical emptiness is seen in the empty well into which Joseph’s brothers cast him in Genesis 37:24, and in the empty vessels which Elisha advised the “wife of one of the sons of the prophets” to ask to borrow “empty [kená] vessels” from her neighbours (2 Kings 4:3). In Jeremiah 14:2, Judah’s gates are emptied [ekenothesan].
Emptiness may in some cases be on the one hand literal, and also have a more figurative meaning, for those who feel that God has abandoned them. For example, both real drought and also spiritual desolation may be described in the empty vessels of those who go to the well but find no water, in Jeremiah 14:3. In Ruth 1:21, Naomi laments: “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty [kenén]”, and this is both literally and metaphorically true, since she has lost her husband and her two sons. On the other hand, the Psalmist promises that God satisfies the empty [kenon] soul (Ps 107:9).
The adjective kenon is used in the sense of “empty-handed” in Genesis 31:42, where Jacob complains that Laban would have sent him away with nothing after his work. It is an important part of Hebrew piety not to allow the vulnerable to be empty-handed, as we see in Boaz’s promise to Ruth, that she “should not return empty-handed [kené] to [her] mother-in-law” (Ruth 3:17).
A purely metaphorical sense of emptiness is seen in the LXX phrases eis kenon and dia kenes, which express the ideas of “in vain” or “without cause”, particularly in Job and in the prophets: Job feels that God has “made many of my bruises without cause [dia kenes]” (Job 9:17), and Jeremiah describes various human activities (such as the silversmith’s work or burning incense) which will be in vain [eis kenon] unless the people turn back to God (Jer 6:29, 18:15). On the other hand, the prophet Habakkuk offers a message of hope, that the vision that God has given him awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not be in vain [eis kenon]” (Hab 2:3).
The word kenos acquires a moral sense when it is applied to those who fall away from God. In Hosea 12:1, “Ephraim multiplied empty and vain things”, a mark of Israel’s unfaithfulness. In Isaiah 59:4, sinners speak “empty things [kená]”. In Judges 9:4, we hear that “Abimelech hired worthless [kenous] and reckless men”. In contrast, God promises in Deut 32:47 that His word is not “empty”, but is “your life”: God’s word is both morally true and practically effective.
In the New Testament, the literal sense of kenos is preserved in the servant who is sent away empty-handed (in other words, with none of the “fruit of the vineyard”) by the wicked tenants in Lk 20:10-11 and its parallel Mk 12:3. There is also a memorably concrete image in the Magnificat, echoing the imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures, where Mary says (Lk 1:53) that the Lord has “filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty [kenous]”.
However, the majority of New Testament uses of kenoo and kenos are metaphorical.
The idea of things potentially being in vain, not achieving their aim, is found in a number of places, several of them using the phrase eis kenon that we saw in the LXX. However, none of these activities are actually in vain, because they are guaranteed by the power and grace of God. So Scripture does not speak in vain, in James 4:5; and for the Apostle Paul, neither his preaching (1 Cor 15:14), nor his work (1 Cor 15:58), nor his visit (1 Thess 2:1) are in vain, because the grace of God in him is not in vain (in 1 Cor 15:10), and therefore the cross of Christ has not been rendered ineffective (1 Cor 1:17). Nor is the faith of the Corinthians in vain in 1 Cor 15:14, because Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. And therefore Paul can even be confident that his own ground for boasting is not nullified nor made empty in 1 Cor 9:15 and 2 Cor 9:3.
Some New Testament occurrences of kenos are morally weighted, carrying the sense of “without value or substance”: James 2:20 addresses anyone who doubts that faith needs works, calling them a “shallow” [kene] person”. Col 2:8 warns against “empty deceit”; and Eph 5:6 against those who deceive with “empty words”.
This moral sense is continued in a series of compound words, formed from the word kenos: kenophonia means “empty words”, which are to be avoided in 1 Tim 6:20 and 2 Tim 2:16; the adjective kenodoxos (in Gal 5:26) and the related noun kenodoxia (in Phil 2:3) refer to vain boasting or conceit, literally “empty glory”.
In Philippians chapter 2, such kenodoxia, such conceit and self-interest, are to be avoided by the Philippians; they must focus instead on the counter-example of Christ, who is their pattern of humility. It is in this very context that the apostle goes on immediately to say that although Jesus was “in the form of God”, He did not cling to such equality with God – but instead “emptied himself [ekenosen] to assume the condition of a slave” (Phil 2:7). This use of the verb kenoo carries the full semantic weight of the word, in all the different senses we have encountered:
Jesus emptied Himself of all claims of His own rights, in order to serve us. He was never anything less than God, for in Him all the fullness of God dwelt (Col 2:9), but He did not exploit His divine power for His own self-interest. He could have turned stones into bread (Mt 4:3-4); He could have saved Himself on the cross (Lk 23:39) – and yet despite the taunts of His enemies, He chose not to. As one scholar has memorably said: it is not that Jesus was unable to assert His equality with God; rather, He was able not to assert it.
In doing so, Jesus became as one who is ineffective, of little value, a “nothing”: a slave.
Jesus is therefore the very opposite of kenodoxia: He had everything to boast about, but did not boast at all – instead He humbled himself: not just in becoming man, not just as a slave, but even in accepting death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
And Jesus's kenosis, His self-emptying was not in vain, unlike so many human actions that we have seen in Scripture, which are, or risk becoming eis kenon, Instead, God raised Him high (the Greek word huperupsōsen in Phil 2:9 literally means “super‑exalted”).
So, what does all of this mean for us?
First, are we full of ourselves, and need to be emptied – to fill ourselves instead with Christ? Can we imitate John the Baptist in saying “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30)? Jesus emptied Himself to take on our human nature; can we now empty ourselves to become like Him? Such an exchange of our sinful selves for the goodness of Christ is what the apostle Paul means in 2 Cor 5:21, that Jesus, Who knew no sin, “for our sake became sin, so that we might in Him become the righteousness of God”.
Second, can we imitate Christ the servant in putting others before ourselves? Can we resist the temptation to “cling to” our own rights, our own desires, our own interests – and follow the true path of love, which “does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:5)?
Finally, do we believe that glory awaits us if we unite ourselves to Jesus? Not glory for ourselves, and certainly not through our own merits – but through His grace and mercy. Let us pray for Christ to make us more like Him, to be formed in His image, and so (2 Cor 3:18) to be “changed from glory into glory”?