Have you ever wondered why congregations say, “Amen” after prayers? Many people have said “amen” hundreds or thousands of times to opening and closing prayers at church services or after the blessing on a meal. What does this word mean, and why do we say it?
In the church, when a prayer at services closes with the word amen , the people who are listening often repeat it: “Amen.” This also happens when someone asks a blessing, or after a wedding ceremony or when someone is being anointed by a minister and prayed for when he or she is sick. Yet people sometimes don’t know whether or not to say amen—and some who do don’t know why they’re saying it. How do we know whether we should say amen—and what are we saying if we do?
Saying amen is more than just a custom; there are important reasons for this tradition. There is deep significance to this little word.
Meaning and Origin of the Word
The word amen has several meanings in English. Webster’s Dictionary, Strong’s Concordance and the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary (jfb) all agree that amen means: “true, faithful, and so be it.” jfb says that it is a word used to affirm and confirm a statement.
Amen is actually a Hebrew word that is commonly defined as “so be it.” The Hebrews used it to express assent and agreement. The word is derived from a root that signifies “truth.” Therefore, anyone saying amen confirms that what has just been said before in speech or in song is “true, trustworthy and reliable.” When you say amen, you are agreeing with what someone just said, and making it as if you said those words yourself.
So this little word certainly has outsized significance. If you listen to a prayer and agree that what has been said is true, trustworthy and reliable, that’s the reason why you should say amen and make the prayer even more effective and powerful in God’s eyes. If you aren’t paying attention to what has been said and simply repeat amen because everyone else has, then your affirmation isn’t sincere, and it may make the prayer less effective to God (1 Corinthians 14:16).
The word amen is the most frequently used religious word. Not only is it used by Christians, but it is also used by Jews and by Muslims, who conclude hymns, prayers and recitals of the Koran, with it (How Did It Begin?).
This word is used 13 times in the Old Testament and 119 times in the New Testament. The first time it is used is in Numbers 5, concerning the trial of jealousy. If a man suspected his wife of adultery, he took her to the priest to prove or disprove her innocence. The priest had her drink of the bitter water, and if she was innocent, nothing happened; but if she was guilty, her belly would swell and her body would rot. She was informed of this before she drank of the bitter water, and to prove she knew the consequences, we read in Numbers 5:22 that she said, “Amen, amen.”
The last time it is used is at the end of the book of Revelation. The very last word in the Bible is amen , which means that everything that has been said before is true, trustworthy and reliable.
Amen does mean, “so be it,” yet that isn’t all it means as some seem to think. Sometimes it does mean “so be it,” but at other times “so be it” would not be appropriate. The example, in Numbers 5, would be correctly translated “so be it,” but in the book of John the word amen appears 25 times, and usually at the beginning of the sentence. When used at the beginning of a sentence, it emphasizes what is to be said. Jesus Christ used it frequently this way. It is translated in the King James version (kjv) as “verily.” When used at the beginning of a sentence it should be rendered “truly.” For example, in John 3:3 Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God ….” This word “verily,” is the same word rendered amen in other places. So in this case the word would be rendered, “truly, truly,” or “it is true, except a man be born again ….”
Unger’s Bible Dictionary says, “It was a custom, which passed over from the synagogues, into the Christian assemblies …. When he had offered up a solemn prayer to God, and others in attendance responded amen , and thus made the substance of what was uttered their own ….”
Here again we can see the importance of not taking this tradition lightly. Unger’s says, “Several of the church fathers refer to this custom, and Jerome says that at the conclusion of public prayer the united voice of the people sounded like the fall of water or the noise of thunder.”
Every book in the New Testament, with the exception of Acts and 3 John, closes with the word amen. Probably any of the definitions we’ve discussed would be appropriate at the end of these books, whether it be “so be it,” or “everything that has gone before is true, trustworthy and reliable.”
Christ used this word many times. Christ gave us an outline for prayer in Matthew 6:7-13, in which He concluded with the word amen. Here we are given direct authority to use amen at the end of our prayers. According to Thayer’s Lexicon the word amen here means, “So it is, and may it be fulfilled.”
The reason we say amen in God’s Church after a prayer is because the example comes from the Bible. When God had Moses tell the people to obey His laws, Moses went over each one so that they all understood what was expected. Then, after each law was given, the people were to say amen (Deuteronomy 27). This was not a church service but a special assembly where they were told about the blessings and curses that would come as a result of certain conduct. Then they had to say amen after this was pronounced.
A Form of Praise
Praising God and saying amen is not new. God shows us by His Word that saying amen is proper. In Nehemiah 5:13, we read that all the congregation said amen and praised the Lord. The Scriptures show that when the people said amen they were praising God.
After David had brought the ark to Jerusalem, the choir came out and sang David’s song of thanksgiving. It was a joyous occasion. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for ever and ever. And all the people said amen and praised the Lord” (1 Chronicles 16:36).
Saying amen is a type of praising God. Notice: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting: let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise ye the Lord” (Psalm 106:48). Again we see that after the word amen , we read, “Praise ye the Lord.” Therefore, saying amen is a type of praising God. It is biblical, and we follow Christ’s and the apostles’ example when we do this.
Answers to Some Often-Asked Questions
Should we say amen after a prayer? Yes! We have seen that this is scriptural; and if you agree with what has been said, then you are willing to make the words spoken in the prayer your words, saying, “so be it,” and mean it and that everything that was said was true, trustworthy and reliable.
Should we say amen if we did not clearly hear or understand what was said? No! How can you make the words that were said yours if you don’t know what was said? “[H]ow shall he … say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?” (1 Corinthians 14:16). It is speaking here of someone speaking in another language, but the same principle applies.
This puts a lot of responsibility on those who have the opening and closing prayers. These men should speak slowly and clearly, so that everyone can hear what is being said. You need to understand what was said before you say amen, or you may be saying amen to something to which you do not agree.
Should you say it at a wedding or a funeral when one of God’s ministers is officiating, and maybe not all are believers? Yes, here again, if you agree with the prayer. But if you would be embarrassed, you could even say amen silently.
Since we have seen that it is scriptural to say “amen,” then we need to say it after the prayer of anointing. You need not feel ashamed or embarrassed to say amen in the presence of the minister, after all he is praying for you.
Should we say amen with the long sound of the vowel A or “ah-men,” with the short sound? The dictionary says either way is acceptable. I myself prefer Amen (long vowel), when speaking, and ah-men (short vowel), when singing. The sound is not nearly as important as the reason why we do it.
Saying amen should be meaningful to you. You should not say it just because everyone around you does. We all need to listen very intently to the prayer, and be certain that you can agree with what is being said. Then, by saying amen, you can make “the substance of what is uttered, your own.” Then God can hear the united voice of His people coming up to His very throne.
I hope that the next time you say amen, it will have a much better and clearer meaning to you.
From the Archives: Philadelphia News, May-June 2001