Sometimes a translation difference can have massive implications for our theology.  Take Hebrews 1:8 for example.  Today we are going to examine how this verse should be translated, and why.  The way that we translate the original Greek text of Hebrews 1:8 greatly influences what we teach concerning the divine nature of Jesus Christ.  Compare these two versions; there is a massive difference between them!

King James Version

New World Translation

But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever… But about the Son, he says: “God is your throne forever and ever…”
**This version (and most other reputable versions) plainly calls Jesus God.  As God, Jesus’ throne is eternal. **This version (and a few others) says that God is the Son’s throne.  This means that Jesus has a divine throne, but Jesus is not God.

Is Jesus God?  Or is he only a man, exalted to sit on a divine throne, but still only a man?  The answers to these questions involve the original Greek text of Hebrews 1:8.  I realize that, most likely, very few of my readers know ancient Greek fluently; so I will try to keep things as clear as possible.  Below is the Greek text of Hebrews 1:8.

πρὸς δὲ τὸν υἱόν Ὁ θρόνος σου ὁ θεός εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ αἰῶνος ῥάβδος εὐθύτητος ἡ ῥάβδος τῆς βασιλείας σου

In another blog post (coming soon) we will focus on the word order in this verse.  For now, we should focus our attention is the phrase ὁ θεός (God).

Greek is an inflected language—which means that the endings of words change slightly depending on how they are being used in a sentence.  In this verse, ὁ θεός (ho theos, God) is in the nominative case.  The nominative case is used to show that something is the subject of the verb.  To show who is being spoken to, the vocative case is normally used; but the vocative form for God, θέε (the-e), is not used.  At first glance, this would make the New World Translation look correct. The form ὁ θεός looks like it should be the subject; and if ὁ θεός (God) is the subject of the verb, the verse should be translated “God is…” instead of “O God.”

The nominative case means that the noun is the subject—most of the time.  There are exceptions.  Occasionally the nominative case can be used to point out who is being spoken to, something the vocative case would normally do; this is called a “nominative-as-vocative” by Greek scholars.  God is still the person being spoken to even though the nominative form ὁ θεός is used instead of the vocative form θέε.  If ὁ θεός (God) is the person being spoken to, the verse should be translated “O God.”  As we will see, this is the most appropriate translation.

When God is directly being spoken to in the scriptures (“O God”), the Greek Bible almost always uses ὁ θεός in the “nominative-as-vocative.”  To say the same thing a different way: when God is being directly spoken to, the Greek Bible uses the nominative form ὁ θεός 99.99% of the time (and that isn’t an exaggeration).

The actual vocative form θέε is only used a handful of times§, and none of those are in Psalms; this is important, because Hebrews 1:8 is actually a quote of Psalms 45:6.  In the Greek version of the book of Psalms, every time the Greek version says “O God,” it uses the phrase ὁ θεός (ho theos).  Below are just a few examples from the scores of times that this happens in the Greek version of Psalms.

Reference

English (KJV)

Greek (LXX)

Psalm 4:1

Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness ἐν τῷ ἐπικαλεῖσθαί με εἰσήκουσέν μου ὁ θεὸς τῆς δικαιοσύνης μου

17:6

for thou wilt hear me, O God ὅτι ἐπήκουσάς μου ὁ θεός

25:22

Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles λύτρωσαι ὁ θεός τὸν Ισραηλ ἐκ πασῶν τῶν θλίψεων αὐτοῦ

51:10

Create in me a clean heart, O God καρδίαν καθαρὰν κτίσον ἐν ἐμοί ὁ θεός

71:12

O God, be not far from me: O my God, make haste for my help ὁ θεός μὴ μακρύνῃς ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ ὁ θεός μου εἰς τὴν βοήθειάν μου πρόσχες

108:5

Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens ὑψώθητι ἐπὶ τοὺς οὐρανούς ὁ θεός

144:9

I will sing a new song unto thee, O God ὁ θεός ᾠδὴν καινὴν ᾄσομαί σοι

You don’t have to know Greek to notice the pattern I’ve underlined: every time the author wanted to say “O God” in Psalms he said ὁ θεός—not θέε. This is something that most people overlook when they talk about Hebrews 1:8.

We should also notice that the context of the verse is that someone is being spoken to.  The Father says something “unto the Son;” and the words “thy” are used repeatedly.  Someone is being spoken to, and so it is perfectly natural for ὁ θεός to be translated as “O God” here.

If we just look at Hebrews 1:8 in isolation, it would be easy to think that ὁ θεός looks like it means “God is…”.  But when we look at how the ὁ θεός is used in the Greek New Testament and in the Greek version of the Old Testament, we see that it is completely appropriate to translate ὁ θεός as “O God”—especially in the book of Psalms.

In our next post, we will look at how the Greek word order in Hebrews 1:8 confirms the translation “Thy throne, O God.”

NOTE
§The true vocative form for “God” is only used five times in the Greek Bible—Judges 16:28, 21:3, 2 Samuel 7:5, Ezra 4:14, and Matthew 27:46.  Matthew 27:46 is an interesting case, because it is the only time in the NT that the vocative form θέε is used; and the way that it is used is particularly noteworthy.

According to Matthew 27:46 when Jesus is on the cross he says, “My God, my God, (θεέ μου θεέ μου) why hast thou forsaken me?”  But these words are also recorded in Mark 15:34, and they are a quote from Psalm 22:1—and in both of those places the Greek Bible uses the nominative-as-vocative ὁ θεὸς [μου] ὁ θεός μου instead of the vocative form θεέ μου θεέ μου!  So even the New Testament itself treats these two forms as interchangeable when the context is appropriate.

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