In his famous paraphrase of Psalm 103 (‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’), Henry Lyte compresses verses 3 and 4 of the psalm to simply read, ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’. In doing so, he creates a number of dramatic images, one of which translates for us the idea of being redeemed by the use of the single word ‘ransomed’. We might think that this obvious change is no more than poetic licence, but this would be a wrong assumption on our part. What the author conveys to us in this variation is his clear understanding of what the psalmist meant when he used the term ‘redeemed’. In the Old Testament, the words ‘redeem’ and ‘ransom’ are mutually inclusive, so, for example, where someone was forced to sell themselves into slavery because of debt, Lev. 25. 47-49, the next of kin was legally obliged to take over his debts, and redeem him out of slavery, cp. the redemption of Naomi by Boaz in Ruth chapter 4.1 Such a payment for their release, or redemption, was closely linked to the process and was known as the ransom price.
The Hebrew noun pidyôm, which occurs frequently in the Old Testament, can be translated as ‘ransom’ or ‘redemption’ depending on the context, again confirming the enduring relationship between these words. The process of redemption by a ransom payment was primarily for individuals, Exod. 21. 30; 1 Sam. 14. 45, (but it could, additionally, include animals, Lev. 27. 27). In the majority of instances, the release related to some form of legal obligation made possible through the payment of a ransom. This is, however, qualified by Psalm 49 verses 6-10, for if a ransom payment could redeem time, then only the rich would secure eternal life. The word is also used figuratively in the Old Testament to explain how other nations were deemed by God to be the ransom price paid in exchange for the nation of Israel, Isa. 43. 3-4. Significantly, in this context, the basis of the symbolic ransom payment is love, not legal obligation.
The writers of the New Testament were not appropriating and applying new terminology when they used the word ‘ransom’, and the influence of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) should also be recognized in the development of this process of redemption. According to Moulton and Milligan, the word lytron (‘ransom’) was always used in the Septuagint to denote an equivalent.2 So when the Census Tax was paid by Israel, Exod. 30. 11-16, the ransom price of half a shekel would enable the individual to be released from a death sentence. In other words, this would reflect the corresponding price for life or the payment made by all classes of people as a substitute. Leon Morris states that whenever men perform the act of redemption they do it by paying the price and this price is denoted by lytron.3
Other examples from antiquity help us to understand this process of redemption by the payment of a ransom. Josephus tells how Aristaeus agreed to pay more than 400 talents to soldiers as the ransom price for their prisoners – the price of their release.4 It was the word used in papyri for the redemption of a pledge,5 and the sum paid for the freeing of slaves.6 Deissmann suggests that three documents from Oxyrhynchus show traces of sacral manumission,7 which was the solemn rite of the purchase of a slave from his master by depositing money in the sanctuary of a named deity. A declaration would then be made that as the ransom price had been paid, the slave was now free, and should not again be subject to bondage. Some modern scholars have challenged Deissmann’s view, but it should not be dismissed lightly, particularly as it may well provide us with the background to a number of New Testament texts, such as, ‘Ye are bought with a price, be not ye the servants of men’, 1 Cor. 7. 23 KJV, or ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of bondage’, Gal. 5. 1 ESV.
In the New Testament, lytron forms the basic word within the word-group relating to ‘redemption’. It is a composite term bringing together the twin concepts of loosing (lú from the Greek verb lúo meaning to loose), and the payment of something as a price (tron representing the means of loosing). The verb lytroô (to loose by a price) occurs three times in the New Testament, Luke 24. 21; Tit. 2. 14; 1 Pet. 1. 18. Surprisingly, the noun lytron (‘ransom’) only occurs twice in the New Testament, Matt. 20. 28; Mark 10. 45, and the later compounded verb ‘to pay a ransom’ (àntilytróo) only once, 1 Tim. 2. 6. Although the related word for redemption (ãpolytrosis) occurs far more often in the New Testament, Leon Morris confirms, even in non-biblical literature, this word has a clear and consistent meaning and refers to the payment of a ransom price to secure the desired release.8
What is therefore evident from all these sources is the common understanding that the biblical and non-biblical world had of the word lytron. In terms of our salvation, Christ gave Himself as a ransom to redeem us, and to release us from the bondage of sin. Since He gave Himself, the idea of substitution is all-pervasive, Gal. 1. 4. We should not, however, press the image of ransom too far. As Leland Ryken states, ‘The emphasis in Christ’s atoning work as a ransom lies in the divine costliness and the inability of humans to rescue themselves from bondage; it does not imply a figure such as Satan who has demanded and received a ransom price’.9
As we reflect on this word, let us rejoice in the knowledge that the price has been paid for our redemption or, in the words of the hymnwriter, ‘But this I know with all my heart, His wounds have paid my ransom’. If the consequence of that precious ransom is that we are now the Lord’s free people, 1 Cor. 7. 22, how can we ever again be enslaved to sin, Rom. 6. 6?
We will have more to say on the subject of the kinsman redeemer in a later article.
The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, pg. 383.
The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pg. 19.
P. Bad. 3, 4.
P. Oxy. 48b, 49 and 722.
Light from the Ancient East, pg. 327/328.
The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pg. 18.
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pg. 695.
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