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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
What's with the words “ye” and “thee” and “thou”, anyway? Aren’t they just archaic ways of saying “You” which survive in the works of Shakespeare and the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible?. Is there any advantage in retaining their use? How can we say that the pronouns “thou”, “thee”, “thy” and “thine” have a special reverential meaning when we read in the bible that the Lord (Jehovah) addresses Satan as “thou”? (Job 1:7,8).
Let’s look first of all at a grammatical comparison of 17th century and 20th century pronouns, then look at a couple of examples of their uses in context, and finally at their significance today, particularly in speaking to God.
Examples of their use in the KJV Bible
“And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou (singular)? --- Hast thou (singular) considered my servant Job? --- Then Satan answered the LORD --- Hast not thou (singular) made an hedge about him,” (Job 1:7,8,10)
“And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you (plural), that he may sift you (plural) as wheat: But I have prayed for thee (singular), and when thou (singular) art converted, strengthen thy (singular) brethren.” (Luke 22:31,32)
“And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee (singular): nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you (plural).” (1.Cor.12:21)
The quotations given above (particularly from Job) clearly show that the terms “thee” and “thou” in 17th century English did not have a reverential significance, given the context in which they are used. A reverential or familiar pronoun such as “tu” in the French language was not available in the English language at that time nor did the KJV translators need it. Neither the Hebrew or Aramaic in which the Old Testament was written, nor Greek in which the New Testament was written, contain such a pronoun.
The terms “thee” and “thou” in 17th century English do indicate that the person or object is singular as opposed to plural. To understand this give an added depth to the meaning of the verses quoted in Luke 22. If we were not aware of the difference between “thee” and “you”, we might make the mistake of thinking that the Lord was telling Simon that Satan desired to have Simon personally to sift as wheat rather than the disciples (plural).
The English language however is a living language and over the centuries continues to develop and change. The word “ye” originally used only as nominative plural was later used as nominative singular and later still as accusative singular and plural. It has now ceased to be used except in some regional dialects in the accusative (singular and plural). The words “thou” and “thee” have also dropped out of general use except for some dialects, some poetry and reverential use in addressing God.
So what does this all mean? For one thing the KJV is in this point obviously superior to modern translations in that it preserves the distinction between the singular and plural pronouns. How else would we know that Satan desired to sift the apostles (plural) as wheat, rather than just Simon Peter. (Luke 22:31,32). How else would we know that when the Lord Jesus said to Nicodemus “Ye must be born again” He meant “you all” not just Nicodemus, unless we had a knowledge of the original Greek.
Secondly, the KJV Bible has shaped and enriched the English language as no other body of literature has been able to do either before or since its publication. As the English language has continued to develop over the centuries the KJV Bible has continued to be a major influence on the collective mind of the English speaking world, particularly within the Christian community. “The great translation of the Bible, called the King James Bible, or Authorized Version, published in 1611, is significant because it was the culmination of two centuries of effort to produce the best English translation of the original texts, and also because its vocabulary, imagery, and rhythms have influenced writers of English in all lands ever since.” (Funk & Wagnalls)
While use of the old pronouns dropped off in normal secular usage they were retained universally in the prayers and hymns of the Church until quite recent times. We only have to think of the recitation of the "Lord's Prayer" in countless congregations, school assemblies and homes over the centuries to understand that such words as - "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name" have inescapably associated the pronoun "thy" with the name of God.
This use has been reinforced in the old favorite hymns. "Rock of Ages cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee." - "Thou art the Everlasting One." - "Lord Jesus Christ the thought of Thee, with sweetness fills my breast." are but three of many examples that could be cited. Through these agencies the pronouns "thee", "thou" and “thine” have taken on a special and legitimate significance that enable us to express our reverence for God by their use in worship, praise and prayer. This significance is recognized in all good dictionaries.
What does this mean to the Christian today? We who are familiar with, and use these pronouns in speaking to God, certainly should not be too critical of those, who, because of a limited exposure to traditional language and the widespread use of modern translations have difficulty in using such terms. But, if we understand the terms and appreciate the significance of using them in prayer to God, we should use them and encourage their use by others.
We should treasure these special terms of reverence as part of the rich heritage we enjoy in the English language and not let them fade out of use. To do so will not only impoverish the English language, but also the prayers of God’s people.