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.

Socrates Ridiculed in the Clouds

The Clouds, first performed in 423 BC at the Dionysia, is Aristophanes’s masterpiece despite receiving a mere third place at the Dionysia festival. Aristophanes’s earlier plays had all been a string of successes. There is a rumor that, in anger at his loss over the Clouds, Aristophanes edited the original manuscript. This is referenced in the play’s first parabasis. We cannot know how much of our inherited play has been revised. Nevertheless, his comedy remains a hilarious satire of Socrates, and of the decadent Athenian enlightenment in ancient Athens. The Clouds is one of a very few contemporaneous artistic portrayals of Socrates in Western literature.

In the play, Aristophanes presents Socrates as saying and doing many laughable things. Socrates becomes a laughingstock, not unlike the story of Thales as presented in Plato’s Theaetetus –a story about the philosopher Thales being so practically inept and so focused on the ethereal questions that he trips and falls straight down a well. Similarly, Socrates runs a useless school primarily for young men to learn irrelevant facts about fleas and clouds and so on. He openly preaches atheism, replacing the gods with the clouds. His teachings, mirroring the sophists, praise injustice over justice – illicit private profiteering over civic virtue.

However, Socrates is merely a symptom of a broader Athenian decay. The cause of the action in the play is Strepsiades’s indebtedness. Why is he in debt? Because his long-haired son, Pheidippides, has a passion for expensive horse racing. The new generation in Athens lives a kind of hedonistic lifestyle, while the old generation of merchants supports it. This whole scene is taking place within the context of the Peloponnesian War, a foreign war that appears largely irrelevant to the main characters in the play. Within this context, Socrates appears silly, unproductive, and perhaps even counterproductive. Aristophanes, the comic poet, represents the voice of the demos, in its blame of Socrates for the ills that have befallen Athens, a charge which Socrates notes in Plato’s Apologia.

In typical Aristophanes fashion, the Clouds celebrates the pain-loving antiquarianism embraced by many conservatives, then and now. Aristophanes looks to a time-gone-by, a golden age of noble Marathon fighters, to judge his present-day woes. He is in love with a painting of the past, in which things seemed to be simpler and easier, superior. He is blinded by his ideological allegiances, and unlike Socrates, he is dependent on the applause of the crowd. As we see in Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes is also a contemporary and, to some degree, a student of Socrates, though he has trouble keeping up with Socrates’s claims regarding comic and tragic poets (recall the concluding lines of the Symposium). Perhaps, as Leo Strauss inquires, Aristophanes is capable only of embracing certain teachings from Socrates. The issues facing Athens – indebtedness, mounting war losses, extravagance, the public pursuit of injustice – come from a certain disharmony in the city, Socrates merely becomes the scapegoat of the city’s troubles.

The Clouds tells the story of Strepsiades (a reference to the Greek words for “tossing and turning), an old member of the Athenian gentry whose son, Pheidippides (a harmony of the Greek words for “thrifty” and “horse”) has become indebted and listless, as a result of his passion for horse-racing. He is long-haired and ignorant of practical matters. Horse-racing was one of the novelties promised to Socrates by the men in the Piraeus during the festival of Bendis, as detailed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.

Regarding the issue of indebtedness, recall in Plato’s Republic the importance placed on ‘paying one’s debts’ and also Socrates’s final words to pay his debt to Asclepius. The unjust person lacks a certain degree of balance, or harmony in the soul. Indebtedness is a tangible, numerical way to account for a man’s imbalance.

Interestingly, Socrates’s Thinkery and sophism are not the cause of the old generation’s woes. Instead it is the new generation who is causing debt, and this causes the older generation to look for a superior argument, regardless of justice, to escape debt. Thus sophism is a symptom not a cause of Athenian amorality.

Strepsiades tries to convince his son to go to the Thinkery (Phrontisterion) to learn of an argument – either the Better or the Worse argument – to help him talk his way out of debt as a result of the son’s expensive habits. Pheidipides declines and flees to go to his rich uncle, so Strepsiades goes to the Thinkery himself and he is exposed to their absurd mystery-cult. The pupils are busy deep in thought regarding the question of how many of its own feet a flea can jump (135), among other absurd and vulgar activities. He discovers Socrates in a wicker basket ‘treading the air and contemplating the sun,’ praising the clouds as gods. Strepsiades attempts to learn Socrates’s apparently nonsensical teachings and he lives with the cult at the Thinkery in a bed filled with bedbugs. He returns to his son and convinces him to go to the Thinkery, as well.

Then the Better and the Worse arguments debate one another – the Better argument states that justice exists among the gods, and the Worse argument claims that justice does not exist. Pheidipides emerges as the pale intellectual from the Thinkery promising to argue his way out of his father’s debts, however shortly thereafter he beats his father, Strepsiades, who laments the cold intellectual that Socrates has formed. His education has turned son against father. Strepsiades takes his slaves with torches to burn down the Thinkery as Socrates and his pupils flee.

For this reading I used the Focus Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

Notes on 1 and 2 Esdras

The Books of First and Second Esdras (or “Ezra” meaning something like “help” in Hebrew) are apocryphal and somewhat apocalyptic texts in the Hebrew biblical tradition, particularly the second book of Esdras. They are non canonical Biblical books, however they do appear in certain Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, and Lutheran Bibles. At the Council of Trent in 1540s-1560s, the books of First and Second Esdras were recognized, however they were in reference to the division of the Book of Ezra (as found in the Bible), which is commonly referred to today as “Ezra-Nehemiah”. The apocryphal books of First and Second Esdras appear in the Vulate however only under the name for the Book of Ezra (with 2 Esdras excluded) and they appear in the Septuagint, as extensions of the book of Ezra. This overlap has caused considerable consternation and confusion for biblical compilers.

First Esdras is nine chapters in length. It tells of Israel’s skirmishes with the Egyptians, and its failed kings who become subjugated by Babylon until the reign of Cyrus comes and returns balance to the region. The book tells an amusing story of three Persian guardsmen who attempt to claim what is most powerful to the Persian emperor, Darius  – three of his guards write a praise of what is strongest – wine, the king, and women and truth – and they each place their account under Darius’s pillow. In the end, the praise of truth wins riches for that guardsmen. In closing, the text recounts the celebration of Darius’s rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. It ends with an account of Ezra – a kind of summary of the Ezra story.

Second Esdras is 17 chapters in length. The first few chapters of 2 Esdras are believed to be latter interpolations by Christian scholars. Chapters 3-14 detail a Hebrew apocalyptic vision, ascribed to Ezra in his “thirtieth year” after the desolation of Babylon. The early visions contain the archangel Uriel -a mother mourning her son, and an eagle containing three heads who is attacked by a lion, and so on. Uriel serves as Ezra’s guide, a la Virgil to Dante, and many of the images mirror the apocalyptic visions in the book of Daniel. Chapters 16-17 conclude the book with a prophesy of a future Israel and a rebuke of Israel’s sinful nature -though it has been suggested that these last chapters are also latter Christian interpolations.

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

Notes on Nahum

Nahum is an elusive figure. Some suggest he lived during the fall of Nineveh to the Babylonians or the Persians, or perhaps just prior to the downfall of Assyria. The intent of the text is to show the “vision” of Nahum, as identified at the outset. Ironically, Nahum means something like “comforter” in Hebrew, though there is very little that is comforting about his text.

What is the vision? Nahum begins by outlining the furious wrath of the Lord, and the many ways that He will bring suffering upon the land (Chapter 1). After Chapter 1 ends, the text focuses on the impending doom of Nineveh. Woe is brought upon Nineveh, a city “full of lies and robbery” (3:1), and as a result God will lay waste to the city, and to the rest of the Assyrians. They will receive a wound from which they cannot heal (3:19). There are only three chapters in Nahum but they all share a common tone of vengeance toward the Assyrians occupiers. Unlike other writings from the prophets, the book of Nahum does not end on a high, with promises of hope and redemption. It is a short text prophesying, and perhaps praising, the downfall of Assyria.

What is Assyria? Prior to the rise of Babylon, and the Persian (Mede) empire, the great imperial power of the Mesopotamian region was Assyria. The empire was at its height under Ashurbanipal who built his great library at Nineveh, from which we have recovered ancient classics like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, an account of cosmic origins. Nineveh was the zenith of the ancient world. Apparently, the city was destroyed by a fire around 625 BC. We imagine Nahum living within this milieu, in a quiet region of Israel, where he was free to preach against Assyria.

As the Biblical texts have progressed, we observe a shift away from the early establishment of Mosaic law and the hope for a future land or city to call home for the Jewish people. In the latter texts (particularly the “minor prophets”) there is great skepticism towards cities, and the spiritual is toward God as a merciful and just God. Metropolitan areas of all kinds are not to be trusted for they are compared to “harlots” – even Jerusalem -as cities bring immorality to the people. Great cities like Babylon and Nineveh are particular targets of the prophets and their politically-inspired visions of destruction. The “minor prophets” are focused more on tearing things down, rather than establishing things (like cities or laws), and their focus has turned to a more ethereal God as his earthly dwelling place (the temple in Jerusalem) is either under constant threat of destruction.

For this reading I used the King James Version.