THORN IN THE FLESH In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul referred to “a thorn in the flesh,” “a messenger of Satan,” given him by God to ensure his humility following a profound experience of “visions,” “revelations,” and “ascent into the third heaven.” The nature of the “thorn in the
flesh” has been the subject of many speculations. Guesses ranging from epilepsy (a popular conjecture of classical liberalism, which sought to offer rational explanations for Paul's visionary experiences, especially his conversion), malaria (because of its prevalence in some of the regions of Paul's ministry), and eye disease (because of the unusual metaphorical expression in Galatians 4:15) have been suggested.
A more acceptable solution, however, relates to the context of 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 where “thorn in the flesh” parallels both “messenger of Satan” in 2 Corinthians 12:7 and the “weaknesses,” “insults,” “distresses,” “persecutions,” and “difficulties” of 2 Corinthians 12:10. The Old Testament use of the term thorn also offers some help. In Numbers 33:55; Ezekiel 28:24 we read of enemies who are “thorns” in Israel's side, a constant harassment to Israel as the agent of the Lord's redemptive judgments (compare Joshua 23:13; Hosea 2:6).
Therefore, in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “thorn in the flesh” refers more to the enemy, the “messenger of Satan,” than to any specific physical ailment. The “messenger of Satan” was a redemptive judgment (as Israel's enemies were also used) of God upon Paul “to keep me from exalting myself.” Thus Paul's entire apostolic experience of suffering (compare 2 Corinthians 1:3-11; 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10; 2 Corinthians 6:1-10; 2 Corinthians 7:2-7; 2 Corinthians 11:16-33), abetted by Satan and operative through the evils of this world, was the “messenger of Satan,” a “thorn in the flesh,” which God gave and used to keep the great apostle humbly obedient. Paul could truly say that he was an earthen vessel (2 Corinthians 4:7), one who shared the sufferings of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5), so that the life of Jesus might be manifested through his very mortality (2 Corinthians 4:11); “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV).
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.