Might rediscovering this lost language
help us grow closer to God?
If we sing the old hymns, or read a passage of Scripture from one of the King James English translations, or sometimes listen to someone pray, we might find God being addressed with the words thou, thee, thine, and thy. For example, as in The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven… For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever” (Matthew 6:9).
Throughout my childhood, I heard these archaic thou-type pronouns used at church to address God. To me, they had a formal, dignified weightiness that modeled what a relationship with God was to be like. Or so I thought…
A Shocking Lesson in Language
And then I went to college, where I studied German under a demanding, colorful, and delightful professor––a Berliner whom we called Herr B (pronounced “bay”). Early on I learned that the German language has two forms of the pronoun “you”. One form of the German “you” is polite and formal, implying an appropriate relational distance, and is used to address authority figures, acquaintances, and strangers. The other form has a familiar tone, and is reserved for family, friends, peers, and loved ones.
It was then that Herr B taught the most meaningful lesson I learned from him. The English language, he explained, just like German, formerly had two similar forms of second person pronouns: you, your, and yours and thou, thee, thine, and thy. Aha! I thought. So that explains that old King James English. Then, to my utter shock, he went on to say that you, your, and yours were of the formal category, while thou, thee, thine, and thy were of the familiar form, used for those close to a person.
To Herr B, this was a quick bit of language trivia. But to me it was explosive and confusing. For this was completely opposite to how, in church, we related to God as we used these words. I wondered, could this be true? Eventually I perused a Shakespearean play, noticing the pronouns, and found that, indeed, it was so.
With All Our Hearts
I’m not actually writing here about language; I’m writing about love––and about hearts. For I grew to realize that this reversal of meaning had distanced my heart from God. And that 400 years ago, the translators of Scripture into the common English had expressed, through their choice of pronouns, a precious truth about relationship with God that was missing from my world.
The Scriptures tell us that God wants us to love Him with all our hearts. This is part of what Jesus called the great commandment (Matthew 22:38). “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30).
So I ask, using the Old English as it was intended: If God is not a beloved “thou” to us, but a less personal, emotionally-distant “you”, how could we love Him with all our hearts? Doesn’t loving God with all our hearts require that He be a close, dear-to-our-hearts “thou”?
Again using the authentic meanings, envision how we feel and act with someone we could call “thou”. Most of us don’t put on formality, dignity, and solemnity with such persons. Rather––within healthy, loving relationships––when we see a beloved “thou”, we relax inside. Our hearts reach out to them with warmth, pleasure, and affection.
And so it is to be with God. Truly, there is nothing on earth more satisfying than such a relationship with Him. Thank you, Herr B, for the lesson.
Father God, draw us nearer to You! Teach our hearts of Your loving kindness until we come to know that we can relax with You and express our hearts to You! Thank You for Jesus, who opened up all this goodness for us! The Name of Jesus!