As a young Christian, I spent hours listening to and reading from the King James Version. The archaisms and semantically shifted words that confuse modern readers became normal for me. So when God told Adam he had given him herbs and trees for *meat*, I understood without thinking about it that Adam wasn’t using them to make veggie burgers, but rather he had plants and fruit for food.
But it’s easy to get the wrong idea about how the English language was used by the KJV translators and as a result, come to wrong conclusions about the nature of the Bible and how it speaks about God.
For example, by the early 1600’s when the KJV was published, people were saying “walks”, “runs”, and “falls” for “walketh”, “runneth”, and “falleth”. The translators weren’t using the -eth forms of verbs to make them sound more stuffy and formal (the way we hear them today), but were rather borrowing the language of older English translations in order to make the text seem more familiar and traditional.
For example, the Tyndale Bible from 1525 (about 85 years before the KJV) had this for Matthew 17:15:
“Lord have mercy on my son, for he is frantic: and is sore vexed. And oft times he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.”
The KJV of 1611 reads:
“Lord, haue mercie on my sonne, for he is lunatike, and sore vexed: for oft times he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.”
The KJV retains the -eth ending as a callback to the Tyndale Bible.
The other thing we obviously see is what appears to be a step backwards in spelling. The KJV spells “have” as “haue” and “mercy” as “mercie”. Most people don’t understand the degree to which English was in flux at the time. Spelling was definitely not standardized, though efforts were being made in that direction. People tended to spell as they spoke, so spelling might reflect a regional dialect or accent.
The problem comes when we try to cite the KJV as authoritative in one of these areas. We might make an uneducated assertion that “mercie” was the correct spelling or even preferred spelling on the basis of it being used instead of “mercy”. In reality, it’s hard to justify that position.
If this verse were written in the vernacular of 1611 (at least the vernacular of some of the people of that day), it would not be out of line to say it might read:
“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he’s mad and deeply troubled: for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water.”
This is much closer to the way we might write it today. Here it is from the ESV:
“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water.”
Second Person Pronouns — Thou vs. You
Another mistake we might make from the language of the KJV is to believe that God is being addressed with great respect through the use of “thee” and “thy” instead of “you” and “your”. Consider this passage from Psalm 25:
4Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.
5Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.
6Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old.
7Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD.
English used to have “formal” and “informal” pronouns for “you”. This is comparable to “tu” (informal) and “usted” (formal) in Spanish. When speaking to a superior, one would say “You are correct; your will be done.” But when speaking to a child or a close friend, you would use the more intimate “thou” and “thy”. These informal forms sound exactly the opposite to us today. They sound stuffy and formal. But consider Shakespeare — throughout Romeo and Juliet, the various noblemen of Verona refer to each other as “you”. But when Juliet speaks of (actually, unbeknownst to her, to) Romeo, she uses more intimate pronouns:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Denie thy Father and refuse thy name:
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworne my Loue, And Ile no longer be a Capulet.
A better example comes a couple centuries earlier in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Chaucer wrote in the Middle English Period (late 14th century). In The Miller’s Tale, there’s a scene between the characters Nicholas and Absolon:
Absolon: “Speak, sweet bird, I know not where thou art.” (This line uses “thou,” the informal singular pronoun.)
Nicholas (pretending not to recognize him and using the formal): “Who is it that calls thus? Who is it? You?”
In this brief exchange, Absolon uses “thou” in an intimate, playful manner, while Nicholas responds formally with “you,” establishing a social distance.
What’s Going On?
I believe the KJV transators intentionally refer to God using informal pronouns to make Yahweh seem more personal and accessible. I can’t prove it, but I would observe that Greek has different pronouns for “you” (the one person reading this blog article) and “you all” (all of you who read it over time). It doesn’t have “formal” and “informal” forms of second person pronouns. So the use of “thou” for God and “you” in many other cases isn’t necessarily following the original languages.
Further, as pointed out above, by 1611 “thou” forms had fallen out of popular use, so whatever was going on in the KJV was not following that trend.