Recently, a reader left a request, asking me to write my views on the difference between “Adonai,” “Lord” and “adoni,” “my lord”. He also asked me to explain how “adoni” is used in Psalm 110:1 and whether Psalm 110:1 is a prophecy of Jesus Christ.
Before proceeding with the study of the words “Adonai” and “adoni,” it is necessary to review the translation problems in Psalm 110:1. There are three different ways by which English Bibles have translated Psalm 110:1.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “The LORD says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
King James Version (KJV): “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”
English Standard Version (ESV): “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
The first issue to notice in these translations is the tense of the verb: the NRSV and the ESV use the present tense: “The LORD says.” The KJV uses the past tense: “The LORD said.”
None of these translations reflect the Hebrew text, since the text contains a nominal sentence, a sentence in which there is no verb. A literal translation of verse 1 should read: “A saying of Yahweh to my lord: ‘sit at my right hand.’” I will explain the significance of this expression as I study Psalm 110.
The second issue is how to translate the Hebrew word “adoni.” Both the KJV and the ESV use a capital L as in “Lord” to translate the word while the NRSV uses a small “l” as in “lord” to translate the word “adoni.” How the word “adoni” is translated makes a huge difference in the proper interpretation of the verse and of the psalm.
The use of Lord with capital L reflects a theological view that the person being addressed by the psalmist is Jesus Christ. Allen P. Ross, in his commentary on Psalms wrote: “In Psalm 110, David received an oracle about the exaltation of his Lord” (p. 873). According to Ross, the word “adoni” is a reference to Jesus Christ, who was David’s Lord.
Before proceeding with a study of Psalm 110:1, it necessary to discuss the meaning of the word “Adonai” and “adoni.” Unfortunately, I will have to use Hebrew in order to explain the difference between the two words.
In order to understand the meaning of the words “Adonai” and “adoni,” it becomes important to consider how these two words and a third word are used in the Hebrew Bible. These three words are: אָדוֹן (’ ādôn), אָדֹנַי (’adōnai) and אָדֹנָי (’adōnāi).
The first word, אָדוֹן (’ ādôn), refers to an earthly lord or to people in authority over other persons. When the word received a personal pronoun, it becomes “adoni” and it is translated “my lord.” Thus, the word is used of a man who is over his servants or his house. The word is used of kings, rulers, and governors, people who are superior to other people. The word is also used of a husband as the lord over his wife. In this secular sense, the word “adon” is used more than 300 times in the Hebrew Bible. The word “adon” is also used 30 times to refer to God as the divine Lord. Below are two examples of the use of the word “adon.”
In Genesis 45:8 Joseph said that God made him “adon” over Pharaoh’s house: “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
In Exodus 34:23 the word “adon” is used to refer to God as the divine Lord: “Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel” (Exod. 34:23 HCSB).
The second word, אָדֹנַי (’adōnai) is the plural of the word “adon” and is used to refer to more than one “adon,” more than one lord. The word is used with this sense in Genesis 19:2. Lot said to his visitors: “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way. They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square’” (Gen. 19:2).
The third word, אָדֹנָי (’adōnāi), is used 449 times in the Hebrew Bible. The word is used 315 times to refer to Yahweh in two different constructions: ’adōnāi yhwh 310 times and yhwh ’adōnāi 5 times.
According to Eissfeldt, the word “adon” appears in several languages and cultures in the Ancient Near East, but the word “adonai” only appears in the Old Testament. The natural form of the word should be ’adōnai, but the Old Testament form of the word, ’adōnāi, which is unique to the Hebrew Bible, has generated much discussion and scholars are not agreed on the origin of this form of the word.
There are three possible ways of interpreting the āi ending in the word ’adōnāi. Gesenius believes that the word used a plural form for the sake of intensity and should by translated “My Lord.”
Some scholars have proposed the view that the āi ending is used as an amplification of the plural word for ’ ādôn and should be translated “Lord of all.”
A third explanation, which probably reflects the uniqueness of the word in the Hebrew Bible, is that the Masoretes, in order to differentiate human lords from the divine Lord introduced the lengthening of the ā in order to indicate that the word was referring to God. Thus, in order to avoid the connection between human lords, “adonai” with the Lord God of Israel, “Adonai,” the Masoretes created a different way of writing the name of God in order to distinguish the human from the divine.
In the post-exilic period, at a time when the Jewish people were reluctant to use the Tetragrammaton and pronounce the divine name, they began to use the name Adonai as a substitute for the divine name Yahweh.
When the Masoretes put vowels on the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, they used the vowels of ’adōnāi with the consonants of Yhwh to express the divine name. As a result, when the Old Testament was translated into English, the word Jehovah was used to translate the divine name Yahweh. Jehovah is not the name of God. Jehovah is a composite name. It contains the consonants for Yhwh and the vowels for ’adōnāi.
Thus, after studying the meaning of the words “adon” and “Adonai,” the proper foundation has been established for the study of Psalm 110:1, which will be the subject of the next post.
NOTE: For other studies on the name of the God of the Bible, read my post Studies on the Name of God.
NOTE: For a comprehensive list of studies on the Book of Psalms, read my post Studies on the Book of Psalms
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Allen, Ross P. “Psalms.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Wheaton:
Victor Press, 1988.
Eissfeldt, Otto. “’ādhôn.” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: