After his father prayed a blessing over the family’s supper, young Bobby asked “Dad, what does ‘amen’ mean?”
But before Dad could answer, Bobby’s younger sister, Jenny, chimed in with her own response, “It means ‘send’!”
We laugh at the childlike response, informed by a world of emails and text messages. But is there a kernel of fact in Jenny’s interpretation? Let’s explore the history of amen so we can understand where this word came from, and why we still use it.
Christians say ‘amen’ to express agreement or to invoke a blessing. Our present use of ‘amen’ resonates with both the Biblical origins and the ancient traditions of the word.
Definition and Origin
Before we get into our modern usage of the word amen, let’s take a minute to understand its meanings and origin. One Internet dictionary provides the following definitions:
· Interjection: it is so; so be it (used after a prayer, creed, or other formal statement to express solemn ratification or agreement).
· Adverb: verily; truly.
· Noun: an expression of concurrence or assent:
Of these definitions, we will spend most of our time with the first (which applies to the use of amen at the end of a prayer), and the third (which addresses the use of amen in response to a statement). But the second definition is not inconsequential, as it helps us understand a key Biblical use of amen.
Etymology and Biblical Use
The English amen traces its roots back through Latin and Greek to its source language, Biblical Hebrew. Surviving as a transliteration of the original word, its pronunciation has remained essentially unchanged.
Old Testament Use
“Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” – Deuteronomy 27:26
Amen is used 30 times throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Its earliest appearances are in Deuteronomy 27, where the people respond ‘amen’ to the pronouncement of various curses. In this context, amen is understood as ‘so be it’ or ‘let it be so’, not unlike how we use it in closing our prayers in the present day.
However, the Old Testament’s use of amen is not limited to curses or pronouncements of judgment. In 1 Chronicles 16:36, we also find the people responding with a collective ‘amen’ in response to a declaration of praise. Several Psalms also use amen in the same manner after a statement of praise.
We even encounter a curious use of amen in Isaiah 65:16, which reads ‘Whoever invokes a blessing in the land will do so by the one true God; whoever takes an oath in the land will swear by the one true God.’ Here, where we read ‘one true God’ (or ‘God of truth’ in some translations), the Biblical amen is rendered as ‘true/truth’. This gives us a preview of how the word took on additional responsibility in the first-century Greek of the New Testament
New Testament Use
And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3
Despite being a third of the size of the Old Testament, the New Testament uses amen over 150 times. The most common is the use of amen as an interjection prior to a statement, which we render in English as ‘truly’ or ‘verily’. This was a common manner of speaking used by Jesus either to declare a truth about God’s kingdom, as we read above in Matthew 18, or to foretell a future event or action.
As we move from the gospels to the epistles, we find amen reprising a role similar to its Old Testament usage. John’s gospel ends with amen, as do most of Paul’s letters. Paul customarily closed his letters with a benediction, pronouncing a blessing upon his readers. Ending such blessings with amen mirrors the response of the people to blessings, curses, and declarations that we see throughout the Old Testament.
And similar to the psalmists, Paul made regular use of amen after pronouncements of praise or blessing. Galatians 1:5 reads, ‘to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ We see similar uses in Romans, Ephesians, and Titus. But New Testament use of amen is not limited to Jesus and Paul. The anonymous letter to the Hebrews, as well as the epistles of Peter, John, and Jude, make similar use of amen.
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” – Revelation 3:14
Despite its literary uniqueness among New Testament books, Revelation also uses amen in conjunction with praise, worship, and pronouncements. And in one symbolic rendition, Amen is used as a proper name in reference to Jesus, declaring that he is true, and he is truth.
Amen was a deeply ingrained word in the religious lexicon of the early church. So it is no surprise that the word has been so durable as it has been handed down across centuries and languages to survive and thrive to this day. But how did it come to be used the way we use it today? Let’s look at the two most common modern applications of amen.
Ending a Prayer or Hymn
Readers may be familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13. Taught by Jesus to his disciples as a template for the content and substance of our prayers, the Lord’s Prayer is commonly memorized and recited liturgically across many Christian traditions and denominations.
Late manuscripts append the phrase ‘for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen’ onto the end of verse 13. This phrasing has survived in a number of English translations (and is referenced in the footnotes of others).
By closing prayers with amen, Christians are not only following the tradition of early church prayers, but we are also inviting God’s blessing on the content of our prayers, and His favor on our requests. We are declaring the truth of our praise and our confidence in God’s response to our needs. For as Jesus taught, what we ask in His name (meaning according to his will and character), he will provide (John 14:13).
Amen as Agreement
Likewise, the church has carried on the earliest traditions of God’s people by using amen as a declaration of agreement. In modern use, this is often done in response to a sermon point or in the course of a liturgical reading. Though this use varies across different traditions, the variance is more closely related to worship style and culture than to doctrine.
Whether we sing it, pray it, or shout it, amen has long been a part of our church vocabulary, and it will continue to be so. With each amen, we affirm God’s truth, seek His blessing, and grow in unity.
And all of God’s people said “Amen!”