Ancient of Days

I often end a night of sleep with the words of some hymn running through my mind. Today the hymn was Come Thou Almighty King. As my half-asleep mind sang the words I paused at the name “Ancient of Days” which ends one of the verses.

Ancient of Days, by William Blake

Ancient of Days, by William Blake

For the first time I thought about the fact that the phrase “Ancient of Days” is not standard in my dialect of English (it might be in yours). It was too early to get up and I needed more sleep. But my mind wanted to think about the translation issue with. And so it did.

The syntactic formula is simple enough: X of Y, where X is an adjective and Y is a noun. But does English, current English, anyway, actually have this syntactic formula as part of its grammar? I’m not sure. I think I can recall reading phrases using the Adjective of Noun formula, but each example my brain generated, as I was groggy of sleep (!), did not sound natural to me. Possibilities could include “fleet of foot”, “full of face”, “thin of lips”, “sparse of hair”, “generous of heart”, “narrow of nose”, “thick of eyebrows”, “broad of knowledge”, “loquacious of speech.” Perhaps some of these phrases were natural English at an older stage of English.

I suggest that titles of people or deity in the Bible should be translated to standard varieties of English syntax, just as we should do with other language. The more that we can translate using the available grammatical forms of the target (e.g. English) language, the more accurately we can *communicate* the message of the biblical texts and the more clearly people can understand it (except, of course, for texts which were originally obscure).

What does “Ancient of Days” mean? I *assume* that it is referring to someone who is very, very old. If that is true, then how about translating the original biblical phrase as “The Ancient One”? Or what are some other ways you can think of which would have the same meaning as “Ancient of Days” has been intended to have, but is expressed using standard English syntax.

I’m leaving this morning for a quick visit with my parents in their nursing home in Alaska. My father has had a difficult time recently with intense pain all over his body. It seems that infection has spread from a bad sore throughout his body and into his bone marrow. The doctors are now treating the infection with antibiotics and he is improving. But his condition was scary for awhile, so I felt I needed to visit my parents before it was too late. I may not read any comments to this post until I am in the nursing home (of my parents, not for myself!), if there is a wireless signal there.

3 thoughts on “Ancient of Days

  1. Dru says:

    Wayne you seem to have flummoxed us. Some translations have other phrases, ‘the Ancient one’ for example, but I don’t think they’re any better. I assume it means something like ‘he who is from the beginning’. This is one of the occasions where I’m inclined to say, it may not be colloquial modern English but the traditional translation expresses both the meaning and the majesty of the original better than any of the alternatives.

    I hope your father is responding to the treatment.

  2. Joel H. says:

    Wayne, I hope your Alaska trip is successful.

    Regarding “Ancient of days,” the phrase, as you probably know, is from the KJV rendering of Daniel 7 (variously atik yamin or atik yomaya in Aramaic) and it looks like it does mean “Ancient One.” In Come Thou Almighty King, “Ancient of Days” was almost certainly chosen to rhyme with “praise,” and — believe it or not — there are sometimes different grammar rules for things that rhyme, though generally not as regards lexical choice.

    At any rate, I think two things are going on.

    First, in Hebrew and Aramaic (but generally not English) an adjective can refer to an entity described by the adjective. So hechacham means “the wise (person).” (In English, “the wise” can mean “wise people,” but not “a wise person,” and *”a wise gave me advice” doesn’t make any sense at all. And the construction seems to be limited to humans. *”[Speaking of cars and attracting police attention] the red get ticketed more often” doesn’t mean anything — though in some languages it’s used for “red cars….”)

    Secondly, you are right that the “Adj of Noun” construction is rare in English. Essentially, the noun in these cases acts as a modifier, so (I think) it’s the same sort of thing as “Noun of Noun,” where the second noun is a modifier: “bricks of gold,” for example, for “gold bricks.” Both constructions are rare, formal, and only partially productive in English.

    I wonder if this phrase made sense 400 years ago.


  3. Will says:

    Interestingly, the HCSB, ESV, NET, NIV and TNIV all translate Daniel 7:9, 13, and 22 with “Ancient of Days” while the CEV uses “Eternal God.” The NLT uses “Ancient One.” This is one of those rare occasions when I would go with the NLT.

    I don’t care at all for The Message, but I checked it anyway. I laughed when I read that it uses, “the Old One.”

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