It has become custom to say, “Amen,” when a prayer comes to an end. In fact, for many, the word Hebrew “Amen,” has come to mean, “this prayer is officially over.”
This was aptly demonstrated, some years back, when, in a worship service, an individual leading in prayer had the smart idea of concluding his prayer somewhat differently. After he had finished praying earnestly on behalf of the congregation, instead of saying, “Amen,” he instead intoned, “We ask that you let these things all be done in the name of your Son.” Having thus concluded, he prepared to step down from the podium. The congregation, heads bowed, shuffled uncertainly. It seemed as if the prayer was over, but they weren’t quite sure whether or not it was safe to sit back down, as normal. Things hung together uncertainly for an uncomfortable length of time, until, sensing the doubt, the individual praying stepped back to the microphone and said that magic word, “Amen.” With a sigh of relief that all was once more right, everyone sat.
While concluding prayers with the word, “Amen,” has indeed become traditional, and while the word is certainly appropriate at the end of a prayer, we might point out that not every prayer recorded in the Bible concluded thusly, and, the word, when used in the Bible is used much more outside the realm of prayer than within.
Originally of Hebrew origin, the meaning of “Amen,” is something akin to, “so be it.” The word signifies an affirmation that the speaker is in agreement with what has just been said, and wants it to happen.
The word is first used in the Bible in Numbers 5:22, where a woman, accused of adultery, is to agree to be cursed if she is guilty. The priest was to intone the curse, and the woman was to affirm, “Amen, Amen.” That is, she was to say, in effect, “If I am indeed guilty, let it be so to me.” In like fashion, in Deuteronomy 27:15, all the people were to say, “Amen,” to the proposition that a man guilty of making an idol was cursed.
Neither of these instances were, we notice, prayers, but rather affirmations that the speaker was in agreement with God’s word. Throughout the Bible, the word Amen is used thusly.
A second use of the word is to signify the speaker’s agreement with the exaltation of God. That is, when someone praises God, blessing His name, the Bible instructs God’s people to say, “Amen.” (cf. Nehemiah 8:6; Psalm 41:13, 72:19; etc.) Again, this is not an instruction to conclude prayers with some special word, but rather it is a command to express approval of what was said, when what was said was in praise of God.
Which brings us to the text we want to consider: 1 Corinthians 14:15-16. “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say, “Amen,” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (ESV)
Paul is speaking of the activities of a worship assembly and instructing the Corinthians that the things they do in worship (for example: praying and singing) are to be done in a clear, controlled and understandable way (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:40). The reason for this was so that others could say, “Amen,” to what was done.
Some thoughts related to this
Firstly, God obviously wants individuals to say, “Amen,” in worship. Not just for prayers, but in the reading of His word, in the praising of His name, and the like. God wants us to express agreement with those things that are true. There’s nothing wrong with ending prayers with words of agreement as the content of the prayer, which, properly, is what an “Amen” at the end of a prayer originally signified (which the fellow in the story above understood). But if we only use the
word in such instances, and especially when we don’t understand why we say it, we aren’t using it properly. There’s no command as to how loud we are to utter the words, or even if they must be verbalized, but we should be in conscious assent to what is said and done.
Which circles us back around to Paul’s point: when we say, “Amen,” it is to be a sign of understanding and assent. There is irony of a sorts in expressing, “Amen,” and not even understanding what you are saying when you say it. Beyond this though, in worship, God wants us paying attention to what is said and done in such a way as to understand what it is we should be agreeing with. Daydreaming during the prayer, and then muttering a hasty, “Amen,” when it is over is hypocritical. If we are going to worship God, then it needs to be an activity which demands our full attention.
Only then can we properly say, “Amen.”
The church of Christ invites you to visit with us, study God’s word with us, and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions, including subjects you might like to see addressed, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.