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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xxviii. κύριος, δεσπότης.

A man, according to the later Greek grammarians, was δεσπότης in respect of his slaves (Plato, Legg. vi. 756 e), therefore οἰκοδεσπότης, but κύριος in regard of his wife and children; who in speaking either to him or of him, would give him this title of honour; “as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (κύριον αὐτὸν καλοῦσα, 1 Pet. 3:6; cf. 1 Sam. 1:8; cf. Plutarch, De Virt. Mul. s. vv. Μίκκα καὶ Μεγιστώ). There is a certain truth in this distinction. Undoubtedly there lies in κύριος the sense of an authority owning limitations—moral limitations it may be; it is implied too that the wielder of this authority will not exclude, in wielding it, a consideration of their good over whom it is exercised; while the δεσπότης exercises a more unrestricted power and absolute domination, confessing no such limitations or restraints. He who addresses another as δέσποτα, puts an emphasis of submission into his speech, which κύριε would not have possessed; therefore it was that the Greeks, not yet grown slavish, refused this title of δεσπότης to any but the gods (Euripides, Hippol. 88: ἄναξ, θεοὺς γὰρ δεσπότας καλεῖν χρεών); while our own use of ‘despot,’ ‘despotic,’ ‘despotism,’ as set over against that of ‘lord,’ ‘lordship,’ and the like, attests that these words are coloured for us, as they were for those from whom we have derived them.

Still, there were influences at work tending to break down this distinction. Slavery, or the appropriating, without payment, of other men’s toil, however legalized, is so abhorrent to men’s innate sense of right, that they seek to mitigate, in word at least, if not in fact, its atrocity; and thus, as no southern Planter in America willingly spoke of his ‘slaves,’ but preferred some other term, so in antiquity, wherever any gentler or more humane view of slavery obtained, the antithesis of δεσπότης and δοῦλος would continually give place to that of κύριος and δοῦλος. The harsher antithesis might still survive, but the milder would prevail side by side with it. We need not look further than to the writings of St. Paul, to see how little, in popular speech, the distinction of the grammarians was observed. Masters are now κύριοι (Ephes. 6:9; Col. 4:1), and now δεσπόται (1 Tim. 6:1, 2; Tit. 2:9; cf. 1 Pet. 2:18), with him; and compare Philo, Quod Omn. Prob. Lib. 6.

But, while all experience shows how little sinful man can be trusted with unrestricted power over his fellow, how certainly he will abuse it—a moral fact attested in our use of ‘despot’ as equivalent with ‘tyrant,’ as well as in the history of the word ‘tyrant’ itself—it can only be a blessedness for man to regard God as the absolute Lord, Ruler, and Disposer of his life; since with Him power is never disconnected from wisdom and from love: and, as we saw that the Greeks, not without a certain sense of this, were well pleased to style the gods δεσπόται, however they might refuse this title to any other; so, within the limits of Revelation, δεσπότης, no less than κύριος, is applied to the true God. Thus in the Septuagint, at Josh. 5:14; Prov. 29:25; Jer. 4:10; in the Apocrypha, at 2 Macc. 5:17, and elsewhere; while in the N. T. on these occasions: Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24; Rev. 6:10; 2 Pet. 2:1; Jude 4. In the last two it is to Christ, but to Christ as God, that the title is ascribed. Erasmus, indeed, out of that latent Arianism, of which, perhaps, he was scarcely conscious to himself, denies that, at Jude 4, δεσπότης is to be referred to Christ; attributing only κύριος to Him, and δεσπότης to the Father. The fact that in the Greek text, as he read it, Θεόν followed and was joined to δεσπότην, no doubt really lay at the root of his reluctance to ascribe the title of δεσπότης to Christ. It was for him not a philological, but a theological difficulty, however he may have sought to persuade himself otherwise.

This δεσπότης did no doubt express on the lips of the faithful who used it, their sense of God’s absolute disposal of his creatures, of his autocratic power, who “doeth according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Dan. 4:35), more strongly than κύριος would have done. So much is plain from some words of Philo (Quis Rer. Div. Hoer. 35), who finds evidence of Abraham’s εὐλάβεια, of his tempering, on one signal occasion, boldness with reverence and godly fear, in the fact that, addressing God, he forsakes the more usual κύριε, and substitutes δέσποτα in its room; for δεσπότης, as Philo proceeds to say, is not κύριος only, but φοβερὸς κύριος, and implies, on his part who uses it, a more entire prostration of self before the might and majesty of God than κύριος would have done.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G1203,G2962.]

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