AMEN

AMEN

The lack of a common language has always been a barrier to the mutual knowledge and intercourse of the great nations of mankind, all the more that the days when the educated men of all European nations were wont to converse in Latin have long since passed away. To a certain extent the gulf has been bridged for men of science by a newly-invented vocabulary of their own, and a general use of Latin and Greek names for all the objects of their study. In the world of religion it still remains a great obstacle to all attempts to realize a truly catholic and universal Church. The Latin of the Roman Catholic missal, which seems so unintelligible to the mass of the worshippers that a sign language (of ritual) is largely the medium by which they follow the services when not absorbed in the reading of devotional manuals in their own mother tongue, is but a caricature of such a general medium of interpretative forms of worship. It is, therefore, a matter of great interest to study the use of those few words of ancient origin which have taken root in the religions language of so many great Christian nations, and have come to convey, in all the services where they are used, the same or a similar meaning. Of these, perhaps the most familiar are the words ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah.’ These old Heb. phrases were taken, of course, from the Bible, where, save in the case of Luther’s edition and the LXX version of the earlier books of the OT, no attempt has been made to replace them by foreign equivalents. They have a deep interest for Christians, not merely as a reminder of their essential unity and their ancient history, and as a recollection of the debt which we owe to a race so often despised, but as a reminiscence of the very words which came from our Lord’s own mouth, in the days when He was sowing the seed of which we are reaping the fruits.

A brief examination of the history of the word ‘Amen’ will be sufficient to prove the meaning which it had, the way in which it acquired this meaning, and the certainty that it was one of the very words which fell from the Master and had for Him a message of rare and unusual significance. The original use of the word (derived from a Heb. root אמן, meaning ‘steadfast,’ and a verb, ‘to prop,’ akin to Heb. אֱמֶח, ‘truth,’ Assyr. temenū, ‘foundation,’ and Eth. amena, ‘trust’ [Arab. aminun = ‘secure’]) was intended to express certainty. In the mouth of Benaiah (1 K 1:36) and Jeremiah (Jer 28:6) it appears as first word in the sentence, as a strong form of assent to a previous statement. It was not till after the Exile that it assumed its far commoner place as the answer, or almost the refrain in chorus, to the words of a previous speaker, and as such took its natural position at the close of the five divisions of the Psalms. It is uncertain how far this formed part of the people’s response in the ritual of the Temple, but it is certain that it acquired a fixed place in the services of the synagogues, where it still forms a common response of the congregation. This was sometimes altered later, in opposition to the Christian practice, and ‘God Faithful King’ was used instead. The object of this use of ‘Amen’ was, in Massie’s words, ‘to adopt as one’s own what has just been said’ (HDB i. 80), and it thus finds a fitting place in the mouth of the people to whom Nehemiah promulgated his laws (Neh 5:13). To express emphasis, in accordance with Hebrew practice the word was often doubled, as in the solemn oath of Nu 5:22 (cf. Neh 8:6). This was further modified by the insertion of ‘and’ in the first three divisions of the Psalter. ‘Amen’ later became the last word of the first speaker, either as simple subscription—as such it stands appended to three of the Psalms (41, 72, 89), and in many NT Epistles, after both doxologies (15 times) and benedictions (6 timed in RV)—or as the last word of a prayer (RV only in Prayer of Manasses; but 2 others in Vulgate, viz. Neh 13:31, To 13:18). In two old MSS of Tobit (end), as in some later MSS of the NT, it appears by itself without a doxology. The later Jews were accustomed to use ‘Amen’ frequently in their homes (e.g. after grace before meals, etc.), and laid down precise rules for the ways of enunciating and pronouncing it. These are found in the Talmudic tract Berākhôth (‘Blessings’), and are intended to guard against irreverence, haste, etc. So great was the superstition which attached to it that many of the later Rabbis treated it almost as a fetish, able to win blessings not only in this life but in the next; and one commentator, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, went so far as to declare that by its hearty pronunciation in chorus the godless in Israel who lay in the penal fires of Gehenna might one day hope for the opening of their prison gates and a free entrance into the abode of the blessed, though Hogg suggests that this sentiment was extracted from a pun on Is 26:2 (Elijahu Zutta, xx.; Shab. 119b; Siddur R. Amram, 13b; cf. Ÿalḳ. ii. 296 on Is 26:2).

‘Amen’ would naturally have passed from the synagogues to the churches which took their rise among the synagogue-worshippers, but the Master Himself gave a new emphasis to its value for Christians by the example of His own practice. In this, as in all else, He was no slavish imitator of contemporary Rabbis, He spoke ‘as having authority and not as the scribes’ (Mk 1:22), and in this capacity it is not surprising that He found a new use for the word of emphasis, which neither His predecessors nor His followers have ventured to imitate, though the title applied to Him in Rev 3:14 is founded upon His own chosen practice. In His mouth, by the common evidence of all the Gospels (77 times), the word is used to introduce His own words and clothe them with solemn affirmation. He plainly expressed His dislike for oaths (Mt 5:34), and in Dalman’s view (Words of Jesus, 229)—and no one is better qualified to speak on the subject—He found here the word He needed to give the assurance which usually came from an oath. But in doing this ‘He was really making good the word, not the word Him,’ and it is therefore natural that no other man has ever ventured to follow His custom. That it was His habitual way of speaking is doubly plain from a comparison of all four Gospels, even though St. Luke, who wrote for men unacquainted with Hebrew, has sought where possible to replace the word by a Greek equivalent (ἀληθῶς, etc.). St. John has always doubled the word, probably for emphasis, since Delitzsch’s explanation from a word אֶמַינֶא = ‘I say’ is shown by Dalman (p. 227f.) to be wrong and based on a purely Babylonian practice.

The rest of the NT presents examples of all the older uses of the phrase, though the earliest is found only in the Jewish Apocalypse (Rev 7:12; 19:14) which has probably been worked up into the Christian Book of ‘Revelation,’ and in one passage (22:20) christianized from it. Here it is perhaps a conscious archaic form, brought in to add to the mysterious language of the vision, which may originally, like the Book of Enoch or Noah, have been ascribed to some earlier seer. The language of St. Paul in 1 Co 14:16 shows that the synagogue practice of saying ‘Amen’ as a response early became habitual among the worshippers of ‘the Nazarene,’ even if we had not been led to infer this by the growing reluctance of the Jews to emphasize this feature of their service. The use (? Jewish) in Rev 5:14 corresponds with this custom (cf. Ps 106:48). It is plain that the complete absence of the word in Acts—itself a link with the Third Gospel—must be ascribed to the peculiar style and attitude of the author, and not at all to the actual practice in the churches.

Twice in the NT (2 Co 1:20, Rev 3:14) the word ‘Amen’ is used as a noun implying the ‘Faithful God,’ but it is hard to tell whether this is to be understood as a play on words based on Is 65:16 (אֱמֶת, ‘truth,’ being read as אָמֶן, ‘Amen’), or whether it is connected with the manner in which the Master employed the phrase as guaranteed by His own authority and absolute ‘faithfulness.’

The Church of the fathers made much of the word ‘Amen’ in all its OT uses, and introduced it into their services, not only after blessings, hymns, etc. (cf. Euseb. iv. 15, vii. 9), but after the reception of the Sacrament—a custom to which Justin refers in his [the earliest] account of the manner in which this service was conducted (Apol. i. 64, 66). This is confirmed by Ambrose. The practice is still in vogue in the Eastern Church, was adopted in the Scottish Liturgy of 1637, and dropped only in the 6th cent. by the Western Church. Sometimes the ‘Amen’ was even repeated after the lesson had been read. From the Jews and the Christians it passed over to the Muhammadan ritual, where it is still repeated after the first two sūras of the Qur’ān, even though its meaning is wholly misunderstood by the Muslim imāms who guess at various impossible explanations. In the Book of Common Prayer it appears in various forms—as the end of the priest’s prayer, as the response of the people, or as the unanimous assent of both priest and people. Curiously enough, among Presbyterians it is said by the minister only. One relic of the Gospel language is retained in the Bishops’ Oath of Supremacy, which commences almost in the style of one of Christ’s famous declarations. In legal terminology the term has been introduced to strengthen affirmation, and formed an item in the ‘style’ of proclamations until the 16th century. Hogg notes that in English, as in Syriac, it has come to mean ‘consent,’ and has been enabled thus to acquire the sense of ‘the very last,’ even though it commenced its career as first word in the sentence.

The foregoing remarks may enable the reader to judge of the strange changes to which the meaning of this word has been subjected, the important part it has played, and the historical interest which attaches to its every echo.

Literature.—The artt. in HDB, DCG, EBi, and JE; G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, Eng. tr., Edinb. 1902, p. 226ff.; H. W. Hogg, in JQR ix. [1896] 1–23; Oxf. Heb. Lex., s.v. אמן; Grimm-Thayer, s.v. ἀμήν; artt. in ExpT viii. [1897] 190, by Nestle, and xiii. [1902] 563, by Jannaris.

St. Alban Wells.

LXX Septuagint.

Assyr. Assyrian.

HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).

RV Revised Version.

MSS manuscripts.

artt. articles.

  1. translated, translation.

Grimm-Thayer Grimm’s Gr.-Eng. Lexicon of the NT, tr. Thayer.

St. Alban Wells, L. (1916-1918). Amen. In J. Hastings (Ed.), Dictionary of the Apostolic Church (2 Vols.) (J. Hastings, Ed.) (1:52-54). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

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