Recently I searched on google for the word “Amen,” and what I found was quite bewildering. On the first page of my search results, under the section titled, “People also ask,” the fourth highest ranked question turned out to be: “Is it wrong to say amen?” I did more searches, this time using variations of “amen and awomen,” which uncovered other questions from “People also ask.” On the top of one search was the question, “Is it rude to say amen?” Another list topper was, “Why do we say amen and not Awomen?” And yet another included, “Is it okay to say amen?”
These types of questions may suggest that a congressman-minister’s prayer earlier this year, and responses for or against it, have been far more influential than I could have imagined.* I never thought I would see the day when a number of people would apparently think it a bad or wrong thing to simply say, “Amen!” Obviously, confusion abounds regarding the word. And so this little study aims to clean up some of the many feathers of misinformation driven about by the winds of social media that burst open from the pillow of a prayer from a congressman earlier this year.
“Amen” according to Scripture
To start off—no, it is not wrong to say, “Amen”! The expression “amen” is a characteristic response of confirmation and a form of praise in the Bible. It comes from the Hebrew word אָמֵן (amen). The basic meaning of these consonants is “to be firm,” “trustworthy,” and the adjectival expression translated as “amen,” means, “so be it,” “may it be so,” “surely,” or “truly” (Numbers 5:22; 1 Kings 1:36; Nehemiah 5:13; Psalm 41:4; Jeremiah 28:6; 35:6).**
A few examples of its use are in order:
The most prolonged use of the expression took place during the renewal of Moses’s covenant at the end of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. For forty years they had been in that predicament after being delivered from Egypt. Moses instructed the Israelites on what to do once they cross the River Jordan into the Promised Land. A portion of the Israelites is to stand on Mount Gerizim and another portion on Mount Ebal. At the event, the priestly tribe of Levi is to announce twelve curses upon those who create idolatrous images, who dishonor parents, who move land boundaries, and so forth up to twelve distinct transgressions. After each curse is given, the Israelites are to respond shouting “amen” or “may it be so!” (amen/ אָמֵן:Deut 27:15–26).
In Jeremiah 11:1–5, the Lord declares a curse on those who do not obey the covenant of Moses and do not hear the Lord’s voice to do all He commands so that He might give them the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Jeremiah responds to the Lord, amen: “may it be so.” In both Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, then, the expression “amen” signals agreement with the use of a curse and its effect as punishment for disobeying Mosaic Law. The term’s agreement with what is spoken can also be the case when no curse is evident (compare with 1 Kings 1:36; Jeremiah 28:6).***
“Amen” can also be an expression of praise. In Psalm 89:53, after an affirmation that the Lord is blessed forever, the word “amen” appears twice. This use of the expression also seems to signal the end of a doxology or writing. We notice how the word appears at the end of Psalms 41, 72, and 106.
The Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint/LXX) normally translates the Hebrew amen with the Greek γένοιτο/genoito.**** St. Paul frequently uses the Greek expression with a negative particle μή to respond, “Μay it never be so!” (Romans 3:4, 6, 31, etc.). For benedictions and doxologies, however, Paul retains the Hebrew amen (אָמֵן) though written in Greek (ἀμήν). See Romans 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 15:33; Galatians 1:5; etc. He also ends some of his letters with the expression, which may be motivated by typically ending his letters with a benediction (cf. Roman 16:27; 1 Corinthians 16:24 [ESV]; Galatians 6:18; cf. Philippians 4:20).
Other New Testament authors also use amen (Hebrews 13:21; 1 Peter 5:11; Jude 25; Revelation 1:6), and Christ designates himself as “The Amen, the faithful and true witness” in a prophetic vision in Revelation 3:14. The reason why the Hebrew word became so popular among early Greek-speaking Christians probably had to do with Jesus using the term. Jesus is remembered as using of the expression, “Amen (truly), I say to you” (Matthew 5:18; John 1:51).
In a nutshell, the reason why the churches have used “amen” for multiple centuries is because it was used by the apostles who themselves seem to have derived it from Jesus. If our society starts correcting and censoring what Jesus said, then I fear we are making ourselves out to be Lord instead of him.
* If you are not familiar with what happened, in January this year congressman-minister Emanuel Cleaver ended his prayer with the words, “Amen and a woman” during the opening day of the 117th U.S. Congress. His critics responded that “Amen” has nothing to do with the male gender; it is a non-English word. The congressman later replied in an interview that his words were just a pun, and he recognizes the Hebrew origin of the word, “Amen.” For the criticism, see this link here. For his reply, see this link here.
** See Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 64; Bruce Chilton, “Amen,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 1:184-86.
*** See Alfred Jepsen, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 1:320–22, whose distinctions help inform my discussion.
**** The middle aorist optative of ginomai/ γίνομαι: “to become,” “happen,” etc.
Image 1: Amen Message Notice via pixabay.com; Image 2: Torah Bible Inside via pixabay.com