Shades of Thou: A KJV Postscript

In our last podcast, we lingered a bit on the aesthetic quality of the King James Version’s archaic language. There was one point I forgot to mention, though: namely, the way I read the word “thou.”

No one will be surprised to learn that my point in the podcast about the “KJV as the voice of God” is as much a personal confession as it an academic observation. I grew up in a fairly traditional Southern Baptist church, as I’ve mentioned before, and the KJV was the translation I heard from the pulpit and in Sunday School. Thus, when my conscience spoke, it was with God’s “King James voice”: “Thou shalt not!” What’s more, the language of the KJV was also the voice of the Church to God: I can still echo the cadences of a certain elderly deacon who began  his prayers, “We thank Thee, O Lord,” and ended them, “For in Jesus’ Name we do pray, amen!” All the “thees” and “thous” were archaic and so felt very formal, and that made sense to me, because God is God, and I am human. Using “thees” and “thous” helped preserve that sense of ontological difference in my childish mind, reminding me that God is holy and that my proper response to that holiness is reverence.

But then, much later, I learned that I was wrong about “thou.” In fact, “thou” was not more formal than “you”: it was the singular second person pronoun of which “you” was the plural second person pronoun, like the Southern “y’all.” This grammatical difference led to a difference of social usage, in which “you” was the formal form of address and “thou” the informal, intimate form. I imagine this is probably not news to most our readers/listeners. (In fact, I think Michial Farmer mentioned this in one of our music episodes.) Still, it was a revelation to me, particularly in how I read the Psalms: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee”  (Psalm 73:25).

I should make one thing clear, however: the later significance of “thou” didn’t replace the earlier significance of “thou” — it supplemented it. God did not cease to be God. He did not cease to be king in order to become my best pal. Instead, my experience of “thou” is of being uplifted or drawn into a realm too high for me. Perhaps the best way to express what I mean is to borrow the words of Julian of Norwich, from her Revelation of Divine Love (hint: “worship” means “honor,” and “homely” means “friendly” or “familiar”:

It is the most worship that a solemn King or a great Lord may do a poor servant if he will be homely with him, and specially if he sheweth it himself, of a full true meaning, and with a glad cheer, both privately and in company. Then thinketh this poor creature thus: And what might this noble Lord do of more worship and joy to me than to shew me that am so simple this marvellous homeliness? Soothly it is more joy and pleasance to me than [if] he gave me great gifts and were himself strange in manner. This bodily example was shewed so highly that man’s heart might be ravished and almost forgetting itself for joy of the great homeliness. Thus it fareth with our Lord Jesus and with us. For verily it is the most joy that may be, as to my sight, that He that is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is lowest and meekest, homeliest and most courteous: and truly and verily this marvellous joy shall be shewn us all when we see Him. (II.VII)

Do not mistake me: I know this isn’t serious exegesis, but instead a meditation on a personal aesthetic experience. In fact, it is an aesthetic experience based on a modified misconception. Still, God used this aesthetic experience to teach me something that is true about Himself and my relationship to Him. This is a point we did not address in talking about the KJV, but one that still should be considered. God’s Word is not so impotent that only the most accurate translations based on the most reliable manuscripts can possibly communicate His message to us. Such translations are priceless gifts of God’s grace to His people, and Bible translators should strive for them. But still God is gracious and His Spirit, ever creative, can enliven even clumsy or mistaken translations to disclose Himself. Our Shepherd seeks His sheep, and He can make Himself heard. If I may borrow Julian’s phrase, this is one of the manifestations of God’s “marvellous homeliness”: that He will speak to us even in and through our weakness. And so God speaks through the Septuagint, for all its emasculated metaphors; and through the Vulgate, though it says Moses had horns; and through the KJV, though we need a dictionary. As the seminary student labors over a knotty passage of Greek or Hebrew, God speaks, even in the tension that lies between discarded possible translations. Even in the fragments of half-remembered phrases from Sunday School long ago, caught up by a penitent conscience and stitched into a patchwork Gospel, God speaks. His Word will not return to Him void.

1 thought on “Shades of Thou: A KJV Postscript

  1. Thanks for this post, David. It reminds me of a discussion over liturgical reform that was going on (and is still, perhaps, to some extent on-going) in my own denomination some years back. I recall one pastor arguing that we should return to the oldest English liturgy that our brand of Lutherans had used (which is mostly ripped off from the Book of Common Prayer). But he didn’t believe the older form was somehow more theologically accurate or better artistically or any other such thing. His main concern was that we had abandoned reverence to God when we dropped the “thees” and “thous”. It came as quite a surprise to him to discover that the forms originally indicated familiarity.

    Personally, I like thees and thous, but then I suppose that’s to be expected since I spend a fair amount of my time reading 16th century works. I like your comment that knowledge of the earlier meaning of familiarity need not replace but can instead supplement the more commonly believed meaning of reverence. All at once, “thee” (properly understood) can reveal both the imminence and transcendence of God. As the KJV puts Jeremiah 23:23, “Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off?”

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