As many are aware, a Democratic congressman in the USA ended an opening prayer to “the monotheistic God” on the first day of the new Congress by saying not simply “amen” but “amen and a-woman.” The phrase of course is a Hebrew word with no connotations of gender. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a United Methodist minister, responded by saying that it was intended to be “a light-hearted pun in recognition of the record number of women” serving in Congress. Clearly it was a mockery of a prayer. But it certainly got people reaching for the definition of Amen as “so be it”. Yet few perhaps realised just how far it cheapened such a vital word. There is far more meaning to the word than we may realise. Since we use the word so often, ought we not to know something more of its fuller significance?
The Shorter Catechism crisply summarises aspects of the significance when it says “in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen” (Question 107). As Thomas Manton (member of the Westminster Assembly) observes, it is a word that functions like a seal on our requests. It is “an expression of our faith and hope” as well as “the strength of our desire”. “There is the Amen of faith, and the Amen of hearty desire.” These are the two key things required in prayer. The word can mean “so let it be, or so it shall be”. Sometimes it affirms the truth of something and other times it expresses a hearty desire that something will be so. When we use it in prayer it expresses both “our hearty desire that it may be so; and our faith, that is, our acquiescence in the mercy and power and wisdom of God concerning the event.” Another member of the Westminster Assembly, William Gouge explains further the fulness of what this word means in this updated extract.
1. How is Amen Used in Scripture?
It was usual for the apostles to add Amen when they made a prayer, or gave thanks, or pronounced a blessing (Romans 16:24,27; 1 Corinthians 16:24; 2 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Peter 5:14; 1 John 5:21; Jude 25). It was usual for the people of God also to say Amen when they heard this, whether it was only one (1 Kings 1:36) or many together (Nehemiah 5:13). There are many are kinds of speech to which Amen is added in Scripture.
- Petitions. (Romans 15:33)
- Benedictions and Praise (Nehemiah 8:6)
- Curses (Nehemiah 5:13)
- Exhortations to Duties (1 John 5:21)
- Declarations and Promises (Revelation 22:20)
- Denunciations of Judgment (Revelation 1:17)
2. What Does Amen Imply in Scripture?
(a) True assent. The apostle directs the Church to pray, read and preach in a known tongue so that even the unlearned hearer may say Amen, that is, give assent to what he hears with understanding (1 Corinthians 14:16).
(b) Earnest desire. When the prophet Jeremiah heard the prophecy of Hananiah concerning the return of the king of Judah to his kingdom, and the other captives to their land, and of the vessels that were taken away to the temple, he knew it to be a false prophecy. Yet to show how earnestly he desired that it might be so (Jeremiah 28:6), he says Amen. And fully to declare what he meant by that, he adds, “The Lord do so.”
(c) Steadfast faith. Where Christ give a promise of his second coming, saying, ‘Surely I come quickly’: the Church, to show her steadfast faith in that promise, says, Amen, which implies, ‘Lord, I believe this: Even so, come Lord Jesus’ (see Revelation 22:20).
The proper reason for saying Amen is to manifest assent, desire and faith. Whoever says Amen, must understand what he says Amen to. In this case, two things must be understood: the words that are uttered and the meaning of those words (1 Corinthians 14:9).
3. Why is Amen Used in Scripture?
(a) Although the apostles wrote and spoke in Greek, they used this Hebrew word (Romans 1:15). We, therefore, have a clear justification for retaining this word in another language even though Hebrew is not spoken and understood.
(b) Continual use has made this word familiar to all persons, of all languages, in all nations. It is everywhere like a vernacular word. Similarly, these two titles Jesus Christ, though one is Hebrew, and the other Greek, have become so familiar, that they are retained in all languages.
(c) No other single word is so fitting for this purpose as Amen and no other language can invent such a word. It is not therefore without reason and just cause that it has been included as a word in all languages. It comprises under it whatsoever is expressed or understood in and by the speech to which it is added. The people were to add their Amen to the full extent of the law and the curses for not keeping it (Deuteronomy 27:26).
4. What Does Amen Require Of Us?
(a) As speakers it requires us to:
- speak intelligibly in a known tongue (1 Corinthians 14:2)
- speak audibly, so that those who are to say Amen may hear what is said
- speak distinctly, so that those hearing may observe every petition and every particular point for which thanks is given. If prayer or thanksgiving is uttered too fast hearers cannot properly observe the several parts and their Amen cannot be to all that is said but only some parts.
(b) As those who hear it requires us to
- listen diligently to that which is uttered. The people that said Amen to Ezra’s blessing stood up while he spoke, a gesture that implies diligent attention. If our minds are wandering, and not attentive to that which is uttered, what assent, what desire, what faith can there be? And if there is none of these, why is Amen said? Surely it is a plain mockery of God.
- to give assent. If there is no assent in the heart it is hypocritical to say Amen. The apostle implies assent is essential when he asks how we can say Amen if we do not understand (see 1 Corinthians 14:16).
to manifest assent. Such a sound of Amens from the congregation would enliven a minister’s spirits, and put a kind of heavenly life into the people themselves.
(c) As speakers and hearers it requires us to
- know that all that is uttered is grounded on God’s Word and agreeable to His will. This is the confidence which we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He will hear us (1 John 5:14).
- have the mind fixed. All must hold their mind steady on what is said or else they will be as those who “draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me (Isaiah 29:13). This is an abomination to God.
- retain, as well as we can, in our memory all that is uttered because Amen applies to all that is said. That which is forgotten is as though it was not heard, understood, or given attention to.
- be affected by the prayer. This will make men double their Amen, as the Jews did when Ezra “blessed the Lord. All the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands” (Nehemiah 8:6). Their speech and gesture both declared great affection of heart. Without this inward affection Amen will only be uttered coldly.
- believe God’s gracious acceptance of the prayer. Amen ratifies all that has been previously uttered. But how can the heart ratify what it does not believe (Matthew 11:24)? As the apostle says concerning prayer, “Let him ask in faith” (James 1:6).
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