Question: "What is the majestic plural, and how is it used in the Bible?"
Answer: The majestic plural, also called the royal plural, is the use of a plural word (such as the pronoun we or us) to refer to a single person. As a type of nosism, the majestic plural emphasizes something or honors someone in a stylistic way. Basically, when a member of royalty, referring to himself, says, “We” instead of “I,” he is using the majestic plural. For example, Queen Victoria, upon hearing a tasteless joke, is said to have replied, “We are not amused.”
The ancient Hebrews used the majestic plural, and some examples are found in the Old Testament. But the construction is not unique to Hebrew. The Latin language also had what the Romans called pluralis maiestatis (“the plural of majesty”), and, as has been noted, English sometimes uses it as well. Other modern languages using the royal plural include Punjabi, Hindustani, Telugu, and Egyptian Arabic (in which the President of Egypt is referred to as “Your Excellencies”).
The effect of the majestic plural is to indicate greatness, power, and prestige. It is normally reserved for use by nobles, kings, popes, and other persons of high rank when speaking in an official capacity or by those of lower rank when speaking of or to their betters.
In the Bible, we find four verses in which God refers to Himself using plural pronouns. The most well-known passage is Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.’” See also Genesis 3:22; Genesis 11:7; and Isaiah 6:8. The One God is speaking of Himself in plural form: us and our. This is a perfect example of the majestic plural. God’s divine greatness and transcendence are emphasized through the simple use of pronouns.
The majestic plural is also found in one of God’s most common names in the Old Testament, Elohim. The word itself is plural (the singular is Eloah), and it is sometimes translated as “gods” (when referring to a plurality of false gods). When it refers to the One True God, Elohim (plural) is correctly translated as “God” (singular).
Deuteronomy 4:35 says, “The LORD is God”—literally, “Yahweh is Elohim.” And the famous Shema says, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Again, we have the singular Lord coupled with the plural Elohim, and this time in a verse that is crystal clear that there is only one God. His name’s plural form indicates His sovereign supremacy, His matchless might, and His exceeding eminence.
We carefully note that the majestic plural in the Old Testament was not meant to teach the doctrine of the Trinity. It is simply a linguistic tool that God employed to accentuate His greatness. However, the use of plural constructions to refer to God leaves open the possibility of God’s triune nature. Later, when the doctrine of the Trinity is revealed in the New Testament, the use of the majestic plural fits right in.