Amen — ‘A Sound Like Thunder’
Usage certainly varies. There is the sonorous ‘Amen’ from the pulpit to which the response is total silence. There is the elaborate musical ‘Amen’ which in some congregations is considered to be the appropriate finale to the service. There is a congregational response which ranges from a perfunctory mumble to a virtually non-stop background sound. For some it seems to be a kind of liturgical semi-colon or full stop indicating either the ending of one item of worship or the final closure of the service. For some it appears to be come form of emotional release; for others a routine formula to be repeated at traditional intervals — the local tradition dictating how long or short those intervals should be. Mercifully there are also many for whom a fervent ‘Amen’ is clearly an expression of confident faith and of glad worship.
Turning to the Bible we find the word ‘Amen’ used extensively in both the Old and New Testament, and particularly by the Lord Jesus Christ. It comes from a Hebrew word whose root meaning is ‘to strengthen’. Hence it is used as a word of confirmation by which a statement is firmly underscored by the speaker, or complete acceptance is indicated by the hearer. In either case the one who says ‘Amen’ lends his personal weight to what is said whether by stressing that he means what he says, or by assuring others that he welcomes and concurs with the statement which has been made.
Christ’s very frequent use of the word is obscured for English readers by the A.V. which translates it ‘verily’. It is, however, his regular word for emphasising his message and especially an issue of particular significance. His ‘Amen’ thus precedes many of his claims, his commands, and his promises. This element of emphasis is brought out even more forcibly in John’s Gospel where the ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you’ with its duplicated refrain adds a further dimension of emphasis. It is as it the Lord were saying — ‘This is of signal importance and particular significance to you. So I want you to pay especial heed to it and that is why I am emphasising it’. So the ‘Amen’ of the Lord Jesus is his assurance that we may take his word seriously and rely on it with implicit confidence.
This same truth is reflected in Paul’s emphatic words to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 1:20) where all the promises of God are reinforced by the emphatic ‘Yes’ of Christ. If we follow Calvin and most of the commentators, ‘the Amen’ which follows is the response of the believers to these promises. But this brings into focus the fact that our ‘Amen’ is simply an echo of his ‘Yes’; and in speaking his decisive ‘Yes’ to the promises he is continuing the ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you’ of John’s Gospel.
John’s vision on Patmos of the ascended and glorified Lord has the same message. Each of the letters to the seven churches comes with the solemn authentication of the authority of the Lord. In the message to Laodicea (Rev. 3:14) he not only speaks ‘the Amen’ which corroborates the promises but is himself personally ‘the Amen’. His present exaltation as the one whose work has been finished and whose sacrifice has been accepted, is the pledge that the promises of God will be fully honoured. Having been designated Lord, and given all authority in heaven and on earth, he embodies in his own person the emphatic ‘Amen’ of God that no word of the promise will fail.
It is with the background of the Lord’s use of ‘Amen’ that its widespread employment in Scripture by the Lord’s people can be appreciated. Their ‘Amen’ is their response to his. This is, of course, the basic pattern of Scripture. God at every point has taken the initiative both in creation and in redemption. He has taken the first step in revealing himself to men. He has spoken, both in his mighty deed and in the commentary on those deeds which he himself has given. The answering response to the divine initiative is faith, and faith utters its grateful ‘Amen’ to all that God has said and done.
Thus we find the word used in the first place as assent to the declaration of the word of God. When Moses proclaimed the curses of God which were to be read on Mount Ebal after their entry into Canaan the prescribed word of assent to each individual sentence of judgement on specific acts of disobedience was to be a united ‘Amen’ spoken by all the people. There is an echo of that response in the reply of the people to the call of Nehemiah. Again it was a word of judgement coupled with a summons to repentance. The people in acknowledgement of their sinful failure pledge obedience; and as a token of their fidelity to the pledge they unitedly join in the ‘Amen’ which, because it was an open response to the word of God, issued in praise.
The Book of Revelation (1:7; 22:20-21) has the same pattern of assent to the word finding expression in a spoken response. The recurring promise in the Apocalypse is the personal and triumphant return of Christ. So in the opening chapter John appends his own ‘Amen’ to his declaration of the coming of the Lord, and in the closing chapter he replies in the same way. The glorified Lord leaves his last work with his church ‘Surely I am coming soon’. John’s Spirit-taught reply is the continuing response of the church, in which assent moves into prayer: ‘Amen. Come Lord Jesus.’
The use of Amen in prayer and praise is a characteristic feature of the worshipping church, and it is rooted in biblical practice. In 1 Corinthians 14 when Paul is discussing the issue of speaking in a tongue in the congregational gathering, he insists that either an interpretation must be given or the speaker must be silent. His argument is that the congregation must be able to participate in the prayer which is being offered. So he must be able to participate in the prayer which is being offered. So he puts the issue firmly — how can the man who does not know the tongue say ‘the Amen’ at the giving of thanks. Clearly Paul envisages the utterance of this ‘Amen’ as being the normal practice of the church. It is the believers’ affirmation before God that they are united in spirit with the one who is leading them in prayer. It is no mere mechanical or routine performance for it involves an intelligent grasp of what is being said.
Benedictions in the New Testament are really forms of prayer. To pronounce a blessing on an individual or a church is an implicit prayer that God would bless them. This explains why the blessings of Romans 15:33: ‘The God of peace be with you all’, and that of Galatians 6:18: ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren’ are both followed by the customary endorsement, ‘Amen’. Paul’s personal greeting in 1 Corinthians 16:24 ‘My love be with you all in Christ Jesus’ is so close to a benediction that it obviously seemed appropriate that he should round it off with his own ‘Amen’.
It is in the realm of praise that the Amen rings out so powerfully and so frequently both in the Old Testament and in the New. Believers cannot listen to praise being offered to God and remain dumb. They are not spectators watching someone else perform, not hearers listening to another’s words. Such is their own grateful response to the glory of God that they must participate. The praise which one believer offers is theirs as well, and their fervent ‘Amen’ is their own glad affirmation of their indebtedness to the grace of God. When David appointed the psalm of thanksgiving to be sung to the Lord by Asaph and his brethren who offer praise, it was not only for them but those who join with them in worship. But it is no silent assent for ‘All the people said “Amen” and praised the Lord’ (1 Chron. 16:36).
The Psalter is supremely the praise manual of the Old Testament, and here again the ‘Amen’ rings out. Particularly noticeable is the usage in Psalms 41:13; 72:19 and 89:52 where the response is duplicated. It is as if the majesty and glory of God so overwhelm the Psalmist that he cannot content himself with a single ending to the Psalm, but must overflow in the repeated finale ‘Amen and Amen’. There were doubtless those in the Old Testament church who were as sluggish in spirit as we often are. But David leaves no room for a silent congregation giving a muted assent. Praise must come from all the people, so ‘let all the people say”Amen!”‘ (Ps. 106:48).
The New Testament writers, steeped as they were in the Psalms, naturally reflect the same pattern of praise. When Paul in Romans 11:36 pens his great paean of praise to the sovereign God who is the source, the sustainer and goal of all things, he adds to his ascription of praise his heart-felt ‘Amen’. He repeats it in Ephesians 3:21 when he ascribes glory to the God ‘who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think’. In the closing verses of the epistle to the Hebrews the Amen is repeated twice after both the doxology and the benediction . The praise of the Apocalypse (Rev. 1:6; 19:4) receives the same joyful affirmation from the apostle on Patmos and from the congregation in heaven as they utter their ‘Amen’. In the latter case it is fittingly coupled with its appropriate companion ‘Hallelujah’.
The God of Scripture is the faithful God. He comes to his people in grace and makes his promises with an abundant liberality. Nor does he leave any room for doubt. He means what he says and will perform every word. Christ is his pledge and the Son’s ‘Amen’ is the declaration of the Father’s faithfulness. To such reiterated promises from heaven the response of the believer is a humble and grateful acknowledgement of the goodness of God, prayer for the fulfilling of God’s purposes, and praise that God is able to exceed in bounty all that he may ask. Whether in such acknowledgement of God’s goodness, whether in prayer or in praise, the characteristic response to the gracious Amen of heaven is the glad and adoring Amen of the church.
Jerome in the fourth century described the worship of the church of his day. The Amen of the congregation sounded, he said, like thunder. He would hardly write like that of many of our congregations today, where a barely perceptible whisper or at best a slight murmur is the most that people seem able to muster. How can we sing the Psalms of David, or how can we read the ascriptions of praise in the New Testament without being moved? But to be moved deeply is to look for a means of expression. The biblical expression is, however, ready for use. Let David himself emphasise the point: ‘Let all the people say “Amen”.’ Let Nehemiah describe the uninhibited response to such a summons to praise — ‘And all the people answered “Amen, Amen”.’ Let Jude touch our lips with the fire of the Spirit as he reaches his final crescendo of praise: ‘Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Saviour through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever, Amen.’
This article was first published in issue 183 of the Banner of Truth magazine.
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