You – and You – and You

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We have a problem in the English language when reading the Bible—a problem that most other languages do not have. When we read the word “you” and “your” in a passage, there is no way to tell whether the message is being directed to a single person or to a group of people. Such is not the case with the biblical languages. Greek has a unique ending in a verb paradigm for the second person singular and different one for the second person plural. As for pronouns, Greek has the σύ paradigm for the singular and ὑμεῖς for the plural.

Hebrew is even more defined than Greek. In its verb paradigms there are separate forms for the second person masculine singular and for the second person feminine singular. This also occurs in the plural: separate forms for second person masculine plural and second person feminine plural. The same thing goes for the possessive endings on nouns. If a noun has “your” attached to it, its ending will be ךָ (kā) in the masculine singular and ךְ (k) in the feminine singular, and כֶם (kem) in the masculine plural and כֶן (ken) in the feminine plural.

Are these differences important in exegesis? Absolutely! Recently I had two different occasions in which I had to look up whether a “you/your” was singular or plural. One of the attendees at the Woodland Drive-In Church, where I preach every Sunday morning, wanted me to address the issue of tithing in Malachi. I decided to honor this request by doing four messages on Malachi (context is always important). Whenever I had heard messages on Malachi 3:10 in the past or even occasional references to this verse, they were almost always addressed to the individual: “You individually must bring your whole tithe into the storehouse [church], and I will bless you individually with so many blessings that you won’t have room to store it” (televangelists love this understanding of this text, unfortunately).

Wrong! The verbs are plural; God is addressing the entire nation here—and, if you look at the context of the entire book, Malachi is especially speaking to the priests and the wealthy leaders, who in their greed were scamming the sacrificial system in order to build up their own coffers. (In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that Malachi is not addressing the widows, the orphans, and the poor in this verse, who were supposed to be included as recipients of these very tithes.)

The second occasion came from a fellow editor at Zondervan who was asking (and I am modifying his question a bit) whether we should be editing to say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” or “…with all your hearts.” (The NIV, by the way, in all cases except one, uses the singular, regardless of the original language reading.) That drove me to Deuteronomy 6:5, and there I discovered that this command in the Hebrew Bible is singular. In fact, all of the second person verbs and pronouns in Deuteronomy 6:5–9 are singular; each Israelite is to make the personal confession as stated in 6:4 (the Shema) and is required to teach it to his children. God is addressing the individual covenant person here.

One final comment or footnote. There is an easy way to tell, instead of pulling out your Hebrew or Greek Bible, whether the Hebrew and Greek have singular or plural “you”—some might call it a “cheater” way. Get out an old King James Bible. For the most part, when the singular “you” is used in the original text, the KJV will use “thou, thee, thy,” and when the plural occurs, the KJV will use “ye, your.” Check out Deuteronomy 6 and Malachi 3 in the KJV.

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The folks in the southern US have it figured out -- ya'll.

On a more serious note -- one of my pet peeves is the way that Jeremiah 29:11ff is used. Our north American culture loves to make everything about "me" never about "we."

Very much appreciated this reminder. I also note that it can be difficult to present "new information" to a congregation that is rooted in the translation they use and the way they've memorized the verses since a young age. However, the Bible is very much alive and continues to speak anew, and the sermon series you presented seems to have been a great way to weave in the Greek and Hebrew knowledge in a way that's teachable and relatable to people not as familiar with the original languages. That was always a challenge we were given by our language profs at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI) - "How are you sharing your language knowledge with the congregation?" Amen! It's a shame not to put all those long (and I dare say grueling) hours of memorization and study to use. Also, whenever I have shared a Greek word or Hebrew nuance in my sermons, it never fails that at least one person thanks me for sharing it and lending some richer information.