Friday, November 26, 2010

A Christmas Grammar Lesson: The Lord is Come?

In my excitement today over beginning to decorate for Christmas, I realized that it was now time to take down my Give Thanks banner that Jude and I made for Thanksgiving.  I was thinking about making a similar one for Christmas, and thinking about possible things it could say besides just "Merry Christmas," when I thought of using the phrase "The Lord is Come!"

Immediately, my grammar-nerd self wondered why the hymn "Joy to the World" says, "the Lord is come," rather than, "the Lord has come."

After doing some research, I found that Grammar Girl (love her) has already tackled this issue.  She said:
It actually turned out to be a pretty tough question, but I eventually discovered that the phrase the Lord is come uses an archaic form of English that was very common back in 1719 when “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts. A number of references say that this construction uses the word come as an unaccusative intransitive verb (and don't worry: you don't need to remember that because it's a form that's now nearly extinct in the English language).
Okay... so what's an unaccusative intransitive verb?   Two things that GG linked to in her "Further Reading" list at the bottom of the page helped me understand. said:
The verb to be gives a clearer adjectival significance to the participle as expressing a state or condition of the subject, while the auxiliary have expresses simply the completion of the action signified by the verb (emphasis mine).
Huh?  English, please?   Basically, to say "the Lord is come" puts the emphasis on the state of having come and now being here, as opposed to saying, "the Lord has come," which simply puts the emphasis on the action of coming.  Do you see it?  The Lord didn't just come, he is here!

Whew.  Okay.  Let's take a quick breather before moving on.  How about a cute picture of my sweet little boy last year on his first Christmas:

Perfect.  Now, moving on.

To put this unusual phrasing into even deeper theological waters, the Wikipedia definition of an unaccusative verb says:
In linguistics, an unaccusative verb is an intransitive verb whose (syntactic) subject is not a (semantic) agent; that is, it does not actively initiate, or is not actively responsible for, the action of the verb.
The first part of that sentence may as well be in Greek to me, but look at the second half of the definition.    To say that "The Lord is come," is not only to emphasize that he is here, as the first definition said, but it also demonstrates that the subject-- the Lord-- did not actively initiate the coming!  And what did Jesus tell us time and time again? "As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me." (John 6:57 ESV, emphasis mine)

So, to summarize, just in case your eyes glazed over with all of the technical grammar mumbo-jumbo:

  • To say, "The Lord has come," puts the emphasis on the action of coming, and implies that the Lord is the one who initiated the coming.
  • But to say, "The Lord is come," puts the emphasis on the fact that he is now here, and implies that the Lord is not the one who initiated this coming, but that he was sent by the Father.
Wow!  That one little line is a lot more theologically rich than I ever realized!


  1. I like the SOUND of your explanation -- it would fit in with a distinction made in N.T. GREEK. I'm not so sure it's quite accurate in this case here. Rather, "to be" was the REGULAR auxiliary used for the perfect of verbs like "come", but has since been displaced by "have". See the following for several examples:

  2. If you songwriter wanted to say "the Lord is HERE" then he should have just written that!