Nehemiah's prayer (image)

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inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (Neh. 1:6)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). (Click or tap here to see more details)

The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, the Jarai translation and the Adamawa Fulfulde translation use the exclusive pronoun “because it includes the speaker and those with whom he identifies, but it excludes God to whom he is speaking in his prayer.”


The Hebrew and Greek that is typically translated as “sin” in English has a wide variety of translations.

The Greek ἁμαρτάνω (hamartanō) carries the original verbatim meaning of “miss the mark.” Likewise, many translations contain the “connotation of moral responsibility.” Loma has (for certain types of sin) “leaving the road” (which “implies a definite standard, the transgression of which is sin”) or Navajo uses “that which is off to the side.” (Source: Bratcher / Nida). In Toraja-Sa’dan the translation is kasalan, which originally meant “transgression of a religious or moral rule” and has shifted its meaning in the context of the Bible to “transgression of God’s commandments.” (Source: H. van der Veen in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 21ff. ).

In Shipibo-Conibo the term is hocha. Nida (1952, p. 149) tells the story of its choosing: “In some instances a native expression for sin includes many connotations, and its full meaning must be completely understood before one ever attempts to use it. This was true, for example, of the term hocha first proposed by Shipibo-Conibo natives as an equivalent for ‘sin.’ The term seemed quite all right until one day the translator heard a girl say after having broken a little pottery jar that she was guilty of ‘hocha.’ Breaking such a little jar scarcely seemed to be sin. However, the Shipibos insisted that hocha was really sin, and they explained more fully the meaning of the word. It could be used of breaking a jar, but only if the jar belonged to someone else. Hocha was nothing more nor less than destroying the possessions of another, but the meaning did not stop with purely material possessions. In their belief God owns the world and all that is in it. Anyone who destroys the work and plan of God is guilty of hocha. Hence the murderer is of all men most guilty of hocha, for he has destroyed God’s most important possession in the world, namely, man. Any destructive and malevolent spirit is hocha, for it is antagonistic and harmful to God’s creation. Rather than being a feeble word for some accidental event, this word for sin turned out to be exceedingly rich in meaning and laid a foundation for the full presentation of the redemptive act of God.”

In Kaingang, the translation is “break God’s word” and in Sandawe the original meaning of the Greek term (see above) is perfectly reflected with “miss the mark.” (Source: Ursula Wiesemann in Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 36ff., 43)

In Warao it is translated as “bad obojona.” Obojona is a term that “includes the concepts of consciousness, will, attitude, attention and a few other miscellaneous notions.” (Source: Henry Osborn in The Bible Translator 1969, p. 74ff. ). See other occurrences of Obojona in the Warao New Testament.

Martin Ehrensvärd, one of the translators for the Danish Bibelen 2020, comments on the translation of this term: “We would explain terms, such that e.g. sin often became ‘doing what God does not want’ or ‘breaking God’s law’, ‘letting God down’, ‘disrespecting God’, ‘doing evil’, ‘acting stupidly’, ‘becoming guilty’. Now why couldn’t we just use the word sin? Well, sin in contemporary Danish, outside of the church, is mostly used about things such as delicious but unhealthy foods. Exquisite cakes and chocolates are what a sin is today.” (Source: Ehrensvärd in HIPHIL Novum 8/2023, p. 81ff. )

See also sinner.

addressing God

Translators of different languages have found different ways with what kind of formality God is addressed. The first example is from a language where God is always addressed distinctly formal whereas the second is one where the opposite choice was made.

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Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

In these verses, in which humans address God, the informal, familiar pronoun is used that communicates closeness.

Voinov notes that “in the Tuvan Bible, God is only addressed with the informal pronoun. No exceptions. An interesting thing about this is that I’ve heard new Tuvan believers praying with the formal form to God until they are corrected by other Christians who tell them that God is close to us so we should address him with the informal pronoun. As a result, the informal pronoun is the only one that is used in praying to God among the Tuvan church.”

In Gbaya, “a superior, whether father, uncle, or older brother, mother, aunt, or older sister, president, governor, or chief, is never addressed in the singular unless the speaker intends a deliberate insult. When addressing the superior face to face, the second person plural pronoun ɛ́nɛ́ or ‘you (pl.)’ is used, similar to the French usage of vous.

Accordingly, the translators of the current version of the Gbaya Bible chose to use the plural ɛ́nɛ́ to address God. There are a few exceptions. In Psalms 86:8, 97:9, and 138:1, God is addressed alongside other “gods,” and here the third person pronoun o is used to avoid confusion about who is being addressed. In several New Testament passages (Matthew 21:23, 26:68, 27:40, Mark 11:28, Luke 20:2, 23:37, as well as in Jesus’ interaction with Pilate and Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well) the less courteous form for Jesus is used to indicate ignorance of his position or mocking (source Philip Noss).

In Dutch and Western Frisian translations, however, God is always addressed with the formal pronoun.

Translation commentary on Nehemiah 1:6

Let thy ear be attentive, and thy eyes open, to hear the prayer: Nehemiah’s thoughts about God lead him to recognize by contrast the sinfulness of the people of Israel and himself. He uses figurative language for God with the use of thy ear and thy eyes, as though God had the physical characteristics of a human being. In this way he appeals to God to listen to his prayer. The Hebrew text uses the singular noun thy ear and many translations keep the same singular form (New International Version, Traduction œcuménique de la Bible). The object of the ear’s attentiveness is Nehemiah’s prayer. According to the Hebrew structure, the logical object of thy eyes is also Nehemiah’s prayer. However, a prayer that is spoken cannot be seen and therefore the eyes must imply seeing the person who is praying the prayer, namely, Nehemiah himself. Some versions like Good News Translation avoid using figurative language here and give the meaning in ordinary language. Bible en français courant translates “Turn your look to me, be attentive, listen now to the prayer that I address to you.”

In the first part of this verse Nehemiah emphasizes his plea by using the Hebrew particle naʾ. This is similar to the archaic English expression, “I pray thee.” Darby translates the same expression in French, where it does not have the same archaic connotations as in English. The Hebrew particle is sometimes rendered as “now” or as “then” (Chouraqui). Some languages have phrase particles or sentence final particles that may be used for emphasis, though care must be taken to express an appropriate level of insistence. Nehemiah is not harsh or rude in his prayer to God.

Thy servant is a typical Hebrew expression of humility in referring to oneself before one’s superior (see Ezra 4.11). Here Nehemiah refers to himself in the third person and many translations retain the Hebrew pattern. However, not all languages do this easily, and therefore Bible en français courant makes it explicit that Nehemiah is referring to himself: “I your servant” (also Contemporary English Version).

I now pray before thee day and night: To pray day and night does not literally mean to pray constantly all the time but rather to pray during both the day and the night. This expression is hyperbole and it emphasizes the intensity of Nehemiah’s prayer. The translator should choose an equivalent expression in the receptor language, such as “I pray without resting” or “I pray on and on without tiring.” In some languages the comparable expression will reverse the order of day and night to say “I pray night and day.”

For the people of Israel thy servants: Nehemiah prays on behalf of the people of Israel (literally “the sons of Israel”; see Ezra 3.1). Just as he refers to himself as thy servant, he now describes the Israelites as thy servants. While this is an expression of humility, using the same description for himself and for the Israelites, it is also a means of personally identifying himself with the people.

Confessing the sins of the people of Israel … against thee: To confess sins is to openly acknowledge evil deeds that one has committed. Nehemiah admits the wrongs that the Israelites have committed against thee, that is, against God. The Hebrew words used here do not refer to any single or specific kind of wrongdoing but rather to deeds that are in disobedience against God’s commandments as is specified in the next verse.

We have sinned: Nehemiah shifts abruptly from speaking about the people of Israel in the third person to speaking in the first person plural. Just as he identified himself with them through the servant description, so he now includes himself as one of them by saying we have sinned. In many languages a first person plural exclusive pronoun will be required here. It includes the speaker and those with whom he identifies, but it excludes God to whom he is speaking in his prayer.

Yea, I and my father’s house have sinned: My father’s house is a literal translation of the Hebrew expression referring to Nehemiah’s “ancestors” (Good News Translation) or “family” (New Revised Standard Version). Nehemiah not only acknowledges the sins of the people of Israel, but explicitly identifies himself and his own family with them as sinners. Bible en français courant translates this clause as an emphatic statement and links it with the following verse: “Yes, I myself and my ancestors, we have sinned; 7 we have….”

Quoted with permission from Noss, Philip A. and Thomas, Kenneth J. A Handbook on Nehemiah. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2005. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .