“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!” Then all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the LORD. 1 Chronicles 16.36.
The use of “Amen” as a kind of endorsement or affirmation of what has been said in prayer clearly goes back a long way. This morning’s reading relates to the time when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem about a thousand years before Christ, but going back another five hundred years we find Moses instructing the children of Israel to use the “Amen” to endorse the solemn curses pronounced on those who broke God’s law — “And the Levites shall declare to all the men of Israel in a loud voice: ‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.'” (Deuteronomy 27.15 etc). So what does “Amen” mean and why do we use it in the way that we do?
The word itself is derived from the Hebrew verb aman which means, when used actively, “to confirm” or “to uphold” and, when used passively, “to be established, to be faithful”. At its root are the ideas of certainty, firmness, constancy, reliability. So when I say “Amen” to either my own prayer or that of others I am saying “I confirm what has just been said, “I am in certain agreement with it and uphold it.”
Jesus, however, put a slightly different twist on the word. Although it is almost never left untranslated, it is the word “Amen” that Jesus always uses to introduce his most solemn pronouncements — “Amen, I say to you …” or (only in John’s gospel) “Amen, amen, I say to you …” These amens have become “Verily” (KJV) or “Truly” (ESV, ISV, MKJV) or have been replaced by a phrase such as “I tell you the truth” (NIV, GNB); but perhaps if the word has to be translated at all, the CEV gets it right when it has Jesus saying ” I tell you for certain …” (John 1.51 etc). It is Jesus’ way of telling his hearers that what he is saying is absolute truth that has been established in the heavens and can be utterly relied upon. And that is why, I suppose, it is the way that Paul and others end their letters in the New Testament (Romans 16.27; 1 Corinthians 16.24 etc) and the way in which the Bible ends itself (Revelation 22.21). The “Amen” there says to all who read the Book: “To be relied upon. This is truth”.
Which brings me to the remaining use of “Amen” that I want to end by thinking about this morning. It arises first, when the Lord says to his people through Isaiah, “he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of truth, and he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of truth” (Isaiah 65.16). There, the Hebrew expression that has been translated “the God of truth” is elohim amen — quite simply, “the God of Amen”. Why does God use such an expression to describe himself? Because he wants to emphasise his total reliability, the certainty of fulfilment of all his promises, the utter immovability and firmness of his purposes. And that comes again, secondly, in John’s revelation on the Isle of Patmos when, in vision, he hears Jesus say to the church in Laodicea: “These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation” (Revelation 3.14).
Here I am brought to the point of prayer, for I see here that Jesus himself is the “Amen” from which all other amens come. He is Certainty. He is Utter Reliability. And this is what Paul is recognising when he says: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1.20). That is why this morning, as I turn to prayer, I say my “Amen” to the “Amen” who is Jesus. I say my “Yes” to God’s “Yes”; for it is when I look to Jesus … indeed, only when I look to him … that I am “sure of what I hope for and certain of what I do not see” (Hebrews 11.1).