In 2011 I was serving as the interim youth group minister at my local church. In order to inform the other youth workers and leaders on the direction and leadership that they should expect during my interim role, I called a meeting and a member of senior leadership attended also. One of the first items of business was to unify our usage of Bible versions and in doing so distance ourselves from the latest version of the New International Version (NIV), around which there had already been much debate over the neutering of language and shift to gender inclusive language. At the time, there had already been much discussion within our local body and broader evangelicalism concerning this latest version. I’ve written elsewhere about the differences in translations, including a brief background of translation philosophy to help determine which translation is right for you.
In my discussion of the translations, I was unprepared for the push-back I received regarding my stance against this latest version of the NIV and my pro-English Standard Version (ESV) usage in our youth group. It’s not a perfect translation, as none are, but my choice of the ESV was based on its literal translation philosophy and its level of readability. When doing exposition, it’s been my experience that the more literal translations (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) are simply easier to navigate, closer to the original meaning, and easier to explain than more dynamic translations.
One particular area of pushback from the senior leader was an off-the-cuff comparison between the antiquated language that the ESV often uses and the more modern, contemporary language of the NIV, specifically as it relates to the ESV’s use of the word “behold.” The argument against the ESV, as I remember it, went something like this: “I seriously doubt that as you are driving around with your wife that you point something out to her and say ‘Behold!’ Instead, you say ‘Look!’” Senior leader for the win, as the kids say.
That public rebuke aside, the content of the statement bothered me then and it bothers me now, particularly as I heard a statement recently by Dr. Wayne Grudem explaining the ESV’s use of the word “behold” over 1100 times. In regards to the abundance of usage he states “I love them.” In contrast, the latest NIV uses the word behold 1 time, in Numbers 24:17.
But what’s in a word, as the saying goes. Is there really that big of a difference between the words Behold and Look? Take the well-known passage from John 1:29 as an example comparison:
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 NIV
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 ESV
Interestingly, the word used here ide carries with it much more significance than merely a visual observation. HELPS Word Studies points out that this Greek imperative literally means, “Be sure to see . . . !,” i.e. “Don’t miss this! It is an observable, objective fact!” Additionally, Strong’s concordance and Vines Expository Dictionary imply that this word involves a spiritual perception, again not merely the outward sight with the eyes that the word “look” carries with it.
So then, is there significance in the ESV’s decision to use the word “behold”? Clearly there is. Behold is pregnant with meaning and intensity that the word “look” simply cannot convey. In the example above, the Apostle John is not merely saying “”Look,” as in visibly observe, “the Lamb of God”. He is calling attention to Christ that people should behold, literally to spiritually perceive and embrace the Lamb of God and pay attention to who He is and what He says.
“I find one of the primary advantages of the ESV to be more literal accuracy in the details of a translation. This is evident in the ESV’s use of “behold” in Exodus 2:6, a word which the HCSB, NIV and NLT all omit. But it translates a word in the text, the Hebrew word hinneh. In earlier translations (KJV, ASV, RSV), the word “behold” was found many times. It was the common translation used for the Hebrew word hinneh in the Old Testament and the Greek word idou in the New Testament. Both words simply mean something like “Pay attention – what follows is especially important or surprising!” Early in our translation work on the ESV, our committee discussed what to do about “behold.” We realized that in some cases there was an alternative such as “look!” or “listen!” and in a few cases that was what we used. But in hundreds of other cases, neither “look” nor “listen” seemed quite suitable (as in Exod. 2:6 above). We also found that some modern translations had just decided to leave Hebrew hinneh and Greek idou untranslated in many places where “look” or “listen” did not seem to fit (the HCSB, NIV, and NLT simply fail to translate it here). But we believed that all the words of God are important, and we did not want to leave hinneh and idou untranslated.
After a lot of discussion, we concluded that there simply was no other English word that meant, “Pay attention to what follows because it is important or surprising.” But the word “behold” still carried that meaning in English. We realized that people didn’t often use the word “behold” in conversation today, but we also recognized that almost everyone knew what it meant. It was in people’s “passive” vocabulary rather than in their “active” vocabulary. So we decided to retain “behold” as the common translation that we would use for hinneh in the Old Testament and for idou in the New Testament. We were striving for literal accuracy in the details, and we recognized that these words conveyed meaning for the original reader, meaning that we did not want today’s readers to miss. Therefore readers will find “behold” 1,102 times in the ESV. Often it seems to me to add dignity and strength to important verses in the Bible, such as the following: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa.7:14 ESV)
Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 ESV)
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (1Cor. 15:51-52 ESV)
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20 ESV)
I have come to really enjoy the “beholds” in the ESV. They make me pay attention to what follows and ask why the author put emphasis here. And they seem to me much stronger than the great variety of alternatives that other translations use when they do translate hinneh or idou at all. For instance, in Revelation 3:20 (see above) other translations have a variety: “Listen!” (HCSB). “Here I am!” (NIV). “Look!” (NLT). It seems to me that “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” is much stronger, and more consistent.
In addition, now I actually notice “behold” from time to time in contemporary English, whether it be in a shop window with a sign that says “Behold: New low prices!” or an ad on TV that says something like, “Behold! The new Honda sedan!” This example also shows one reason I don’t put too much stock in statistical counts of word frequency such as the Collins Word Bank that was used by the NIV translators. No doubt it would show “behold” to be uncommon in modern English. But if we ask, “How did they say it back then?” we find the need to use “behold” quite frequently, because there is no other single word in English today that means, “Pay attention—what follows is important or surprising.”
If that’s not compelling enough, then perhaps the song below might help (excuse the ad at the beginning). Though far from inspired Scripture, the use of behold certainly carries the same emphasis that the ESV translators were trying to convey. After all, what would it sound like if the chorus were, “Look, our God”? Not quite the same resounding emotion.