Thoughts on the Prayer of Manasseh

The Prayer of Manasseh is a fascinating little prayer. Today, it is included among the biblical apocrypha -and sometimes it is included among the Psalms or at the end of Second Chronicles.

It is an imagined prayer of Manasseh, successor king to Hezekiah of ancient Judah, as he makes an apologia in penitence for his sins -praising of other gods. The prayer is divided into fifteen verses, and was likely originally written in Greek many hundreds of years after the life of Manasseh. A separate work of the same title was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in Hebrew, though this work has no relation. Recall that in Second Kings and Second Chronicles, Manasseh is remembered as an idolatrous king of Israel, and he was taken captive by the Assyrians, only to be freed after praying to God, and he was eventually restored to the throne. Only after he fully prostrated himself before God, did Manasseh regain human power. God is conscious of humans becoming drunk on power, lusting for decadence. After all, God despises human power, and perhaps He even finds it challenging to His own divine rule.

Manasseh begins the prayer by axiomatically praising the greatness and power of God. He contrasts God’s power with his own inferiority, and he acknowledges his sinfulness and weakness. However, Manasseh speaks to God from a position of fear and trembling – he begs God to forgive him and not to ‘condemn him to the lower parts of the earth.’ He is afraid of death and suffering. He wants Christian forgiveness, a redemption not offered to the ancient Hebrews, as the God of the Hebrew Bible is complex, though not typically not a forgiving deity. Manasseh is aware that he has committed some sort of divine crime, and he sees his exile as punishment from God rather than the result of his own political failings, but he is not willing to accept divine retribution from God. Like all living things, Manasseh seeks a certain degree of power, and he appeals to God’s pity so that he may rise to be king once again. Note, this appeal to the pity of the gods is wholly different from the spirit of the power-loving, but decadent Greeks.

Jerome included the Prayer of Manasseh at the end of Second Chronicles in his Vulgate (the pre-eminent Latin translation of the Bible), and Martin Luther later included the Prayer in his translation, as well. It appeared in the 1537 Matthew Bible and the 1599 Geneva Bible, and has since appeared in many other Biblical versions around the world, such as the Book of Common Prayer most notably in the Apocrypha of the King James Bible.

The full text of the Prayer is copied below:

“O Lord, Almighty God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of their righteous seed; who hast made heaven and earth, with all the ornament thereof; who hast bound the sea by the word of thy commandment; who hast shut up the deep, and sealed it by thy terrible and glorious name; whom all men fear, and tremble before thy power; for the majesty of thy glory cannot be borne, and thine angry threatening toward sinners is importable: but thy merciful promise is unmeasurable and unsearchable; for thou art the most high Lord, of great compassion, longsuffering, very merciful, and repentest of the evils of men. Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquites. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

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