Question: What does “let not the sun go down upon your wrath” mean?
The most common explanation of this phrase is “don’t go to bed angry” (also, “don’t sleep on anger,” “suppress it speedily,” “put a strict time limit on it,” or “it should not be prolonged beyond the sunset”). This is further morphed into the idea that conflicts must be resolved before bedtime. What is that the correct or best understanding?
In a series of moral exhortations about putting off the old man and putting on the new man, Paul stated, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath (Ephesians 4:26).” A close inspection suggests that Paul alludes to Psalm 4:4 from the Greek Old Testament, which reads (as translated into English),[i] “Be ye angry, and sin not; feel compunction upon your beds for what ye say in your hearts. Pause.”[ii]
Comparing some of the texts (for those to wish to do so)
Psalm 4:4 Greek Septuagint - καὶ γνῶτε ὅτι ἐθαυμάστωσε Κύριος τὸν ὅσιον αὐτοῦ· Κύριος εἰσακούσεταί μου ἐν τῷ κεκραγέναι με πρὸς αὐτόν.
Psalm 4: 4 Brenton Septuagint Translation - Be ye angry, and sin not; feel compunction upon your beds for what ye say in your hearts. Pause.
Psalm 4:4 Wycliffe Bible - Be ye wroth, and do not ye sin; and for those evils to which ye say in your hearts and in your beds, be ye compunct.
Psalm 4:4 1599 Geneva Bible - Tremble and sin not: examine your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.
Psalm 4:4 King James Version - Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.
Psalm 4:4 New International Version - Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.
Ephesians 4:26 1550 Stephanus New Testament - οργιζεσθε και μη αμαρτανετε ο ηλιος μη επιδυετω επι τω παροργισμω υμων
Ephesians 4:26 Wycliffe Bible - Be ye wroth, and do not do sin; the sun fall not down on your wrath.
Ephesians 4:26 1599 Geneva Bible - Be angry, but sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath,
Ephesians 4:26 King James Version - Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath:
Ephesians 4:26 New International Version - “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,
Since Paul’s exhortation alludes to Psalm 4, it should be considered in deciding the full meaning Ephesians 4:26. Because the Lord has set apart him that is godly, David knew the Lord would hear his call (verses 1, 3). Due to that knowledge David resolves to stand in awe of God, tremble before him and not sin in his anger at the lying vanity surrounding him (v. 3). In doing so we should stand in awe before God and look within ourselves – talk to ourselves. Though we may joke about people being crazy if they talk to themselves, the fact is we often need to have a dialogue with our soul (Cf. Joseph Hart’s A Dialogue between a Believer and His Soul for a poetic example of the concept).
All anger is not bad or wrong. Righteous indignation is a true concept. Jesus speaks of being angry “without a cause” – indicating we can be angry with cause (Matthew 5:22). If we commune with our own hearts on our beds we will likely most often find our anger is a human reaction that is sinful, without a cause. Let’s not be guilty of excusing ungodly reactions as righteous indignation.
If we have been angry, the close of the day must bring reflection upon it. Says Charles Spurgeon in The Treasury of David, Psalm 4, “Stay, rash sinner, stay, ere thou take the last leap. Go to thy bed and think upon thy ways. Ask counsel of thy pillow, and let the quietude of night instruct thee!” John Calvin rightly notices “…in solitude, we can give to any subject a closer attention…”[iii]
The apostle is not putting the onus on us to resolve every personal conflict before the sun goes down, or before we go to bed. That may not be possible (e.g., the other person may not want to resolve the conflict). But the going down of the sun and the laying down of our heads is a perfect time for reflection, for prayer, and, if need be, repentance.
The text teaches the limitation of anger, even when it is proper. Sundown was the time when one Jewish day ended and a new day began. End your day well! Start your day out right! The big picture of Ephesians 4:26b is: Resolve your anger. Don’t nurse it. Even if it is legitimate anger, don’t let it fester and grow into sin.
Don’t get angry and sin…but when you do sin, reflect and repent.
[i] English Translation of the Greek Septuagint Old Testament, by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton, 1851; Greek: καὶ γνῶτε ὅτι ἐθαυμάστωσε Κύριος τὸν ὅσιον αὐτοῦ· Κύριος εἰσακούσεταί μου ἐν τῷ κεκραγέναι με πρὸς αὐτόν.
[ii] Psalm 4:4 (KJV): “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.”
[iii] From Calvin’s Commentaries, translated by John King