Lily Allen, Pink Floyd, Spurgeon, Slingshots, Hebrews and Quintuple Negatives
One of my favourite lines from Lily Allen’s last album* comes from the tongue-in-track track Silver Spoon where she sings:
Can’t say that life isn’t easy
Double negative: can’t nothing please me?
Double negatives are strange little things. In many languages they cancel each other out and resolve to a positive, sometimes with deliberately ironic results, as in the example above, or in the Pink Floyd lyric:
We don’t need no education.
In other languages, multiple negatives have the opposite effect; each one building upon and intensifying the others.
In Hebrews 13:5 we find not one, not two, not even three, but five negatives woven into one punchy little promise:
I will never leave you nor forsake you.
This quote, probably from Joshua 1:5, was a much needed reassurance to believers who were undergoing suffering, imprisonment and the temptation to renounce their faith (e.g. 10:32-34; 13:3). The combination of a double negative (οὐ μή) and a triple negative (οὐδʼ οὐ μή) makes for a pretty emphatic statement about the faithfulness of God in the midst of their trials.
I have no doubt you are aware that our translation does not convey the whole force of the original, and that it would hardly be possible in English to give the full weight of the Greek. We might render it, “He hath said, I will never, never leave thee; I will never, never, never forsake thee;” for, though that would be not a literal, but rather a free rendering, yet, as there are five negatives in the Greek, we do not know how to give their force in any other way. Two negatives nullify each other in our language; but here, in the Greek, they intensify the meaning following one after another, as I suppose David’s five stones out of the brook would have done if the first had not been enough to make the giant reel.