Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Will" vs. "Shall" in the Bible

Today is the third day of our 30th week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  2 Chronicles 22-23; 2 Kings 11; Matthew 8; Psalm 131.

I love words.  That's part of the reason why my blog is called "Love the Word."  (Read my side bar entitled "Why Is My Blog Called 'Love the Word?'" for more details on this.)  My wife calls me a "word nerd."

This blog post is for word nerds everywhere.  If you're not a word nerd, then turn back now--the content of this post may be too dangerous for you.  If you are a word nerd, then I shall talk about something today that shall be of great interest.  This is about the difference between these two similar words, in biblical usage.  Youshall find that it matters a lot, which words we use.

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend told me that I had been using the two words incorrectly.  He should know, because he learned English as a second language (and spoke it immaculately).  Sometimes ESL people know our language better than we do ourselves, because they learned it more intentionally.

My friend told me something about these two words that checks out, according to an article entitled The Difference Between "will" and "shall", by Maeve Maddox. While both helping verbs indicate the future tense, will involves a person's intention, and shall suggests a certainty that this thing is definitely going to happen.  In legal terms, shall also indicates obligation on someone's part.  Maddox points out thatshall is rarely used by Americans these days--something that I think is sad, because the difference between these two words is significant.  In British English there's a difference between will and shall when you use the two words in the first, second, or third person, but I'm not going to get into that.  Maddox shares something about the etymological history of these words, that as a "word nerd" I really enjoyed:

The two words existed as separate verbs in Old English, the form of English spoken from 450-1150 C.E.
The verb willan meant “wish, be willing, be about to.”
The verb sculan (pronounced [shu-lan], had the meanings “be obliged to, have to, must, be destined to, be supposed to.”
In modern usage traces of the old meanings persist for speakers who use both forms.
Will can imply volition or intention, while shall can imply necessity:
I will scale Mount Everest. (“and no one can stop me!”)
You shall take the garbage out before you do anything else. (“You have no choice, Junior!”)

You might ask, "Why does any of this matter?"  Of course it does--let's look at Matthew 8:1-22.  First, I'm going to use the New King James Version, which I believe does a horrible job distinguishing between these two words.  Please note the places where I have underlined, and my own comments in parentheses.

Jesus cleanses a leper
When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, (indicating, of course, intention) You can make me clean.”
Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; (indicates Jesus' desire to heal the man) be cleansed.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
And Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.”
And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” (Jesus is indicating what He plans to do.)
The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will (should read "shall") be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.
10 When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed,“Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! 11 And I say to you that many will (should read "shall" because the point isn't that they will desire to come, but that they definitely are going to come) come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.12 But the sons of the kingdom will (should read "shall" because it's not the father's will that any should perish [Matthew 18:14].) be cast out into outer darkness. There will (should read "shall") be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour...
18 And when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave a command to depart to the other side. 19 Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will (correct word is used here, because he's indicating his intention) follow You wherever You go.”
20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
21 Then another of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

The King James Version does a much better job with the will vs. shall issue.  No doubt the NKJV editors changed the "shalls" to "wills" because "shall" sounds stilted...but they've lost a lot in translation.  Here's the KJV:

When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him.
And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thouwilt, thou canst make me clean.
And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
Jesus and the Centurion
And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him,
And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.
And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.
The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.
For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
10 When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shallsit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.
12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: thereshall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
13 And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour...
18 Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side.
19 And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.
20 And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
21 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
22 But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

In the KJV, the English is much more precise.  Every time the word will or wilt is used, it indicates intention.  When the word shall is used, it indicates certainty, but you can't read into that certainty any hint of intention.  Why does this matter?
When these words are correctly used, they indicate the areas where God is willing, and the areas where God is not willing.  Jesus is willing to heal.  Jesus is willing to cleanse.  But Matthew 18:14 (KJV) says, "Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish."

When we understand the heart of God as unwilling that any should perish, then we must translate the future tense as shall whenever it speaks of damnation.  Shall it happen with certainty?  Yes.  Some will be condemned.  But is it the Father's will?  No.  It is the natural consequence of our sin, but it is not the Father's will.

You see, there's a lot of theology tangled up in the difference between will andshall.  This isn't arguing "about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers (2 Timothy 2:14 ESV)."  These words matter--and the difference in meaning matters.  

When you approach the Greek or Hebrew Bible in order to translate it into English or any other language, it's important not only that you translate it into language that uses common vernacular.  It's important that you translate it correctly in order to give a sense of who God is and what God wants.  Translations that abandon "shall" because it's not used everyday in modern American English lose an important quality in understanding God's will.  And understanding the difference between these two words shall serve you well, in the future.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Greg for this great info on "will" vs "shall". I've been wondering about "will" vs "shall" for a while and you really shed light on the subject. I too am a fan of words, I'm actually writing a book about word patterns in Scripture. If you're a fan of the KJV, you might also check out the Douay-Rheims translation which is utterly faithful. God Bless!

J. Barry

Anonymous said...

Thanks brother,great info.This shall help while i continue to seek the heart of God.

Laurel said...

I was reading Matthew 7:7 in an article which quoted from ESV where they used "will" with the ask, seek and knock, but my TLV used "shall" and I was curious why the difference between the two versions and the importance of which one is used. Your article helped me understand better. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi Greg,
Thank you so much for you post, It has helped a lot. I am Brazilian and I teach English as a second language here in Brazil. I created this year a playlist on my Youtube channel where I teach English with the Bible, and I teach the Bible in English. I´m making now my second video, and I "will" teach about the difference between "will" and "shall" in the Bible. I loved to understand the differences and I do think it´s very important to maintain the use of this old language. That´s why I keep studying the King James Version of the Bible. If you would like to take a look at my channel, I´m sending you the link below. Congratulations for your service and thanks again for your help.

Sandra Lee Lloyd said...

Read Isaiah 35. (KJV) The entire chapter. Very verse 4, it states that God will, twice. But throughout the rest and before in the scripture,every time the word shall was used...even though all of it is foretelling what is to come. The NIV uses will throughout as does the LBV. I grew up with the KJV. I mainly use the NKJV, but use the Parallel Bible to see what is writtne there. Then I always go back to the KJV to check them all. I know there is a difference in wording. I try to avoid misunderstanding what God is telling me. I worry about people using so many different translations because so much is missed. Please tell me how you feel on the stressing of will and shall in this scripture. I feel that I know but I relish your thoughts on this. my email to use is:

Greg said...

Sandra, it's good to hear from you, and I'm pleased you are enjoying my blog. Most people tend to have one or two favorite translations that they stick with, or that they go back to when they're struggling to understand. When I was in seminary over 20 years ago, we used the NRSV. My professors at the time believed it to be the most scholarly translation. Personally, I like the most recent edition of the NIV, the NRSV, the ESV, and (just for fun) the NLT--though, the NLT never claims to be a scholarly translation. My article about "will" vs. "shall" is a generalization that can't possibly cover all the translations of the Bible, as certainly different translation committees will choose different words. Generally speaking, "will" indicates less certainty than "shall," but translators will follow their own preferences. Unless you learn Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew, you're stuck with relying on translations. I don't regard any one translation (even the venerable KJV) as the one authoritative translation. So I do think it's best, if you don't read the original languages, to compare as many translations as you can, to see how they are similar, and how they differ. But more important than the translation is the inspiration of your heart as the Holy Spirit speaks directly to you through the words of scripture. So be open to that. Not just to translations, but to your own transformation as the Spirit speaks.