“The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs praising or exhorting God” – (Psalms, another essay in this collection). This essay, however, will suggest that there may be at least one more Psalm in Judeo-Christian scripture. We’ll call it ‘Psalm 151’…but you’ll recognize it as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.
Even though Jesus gave us this prayer half a millennium after the majority of the Psalms were composed and complied, the Lord’s Prayer has all the defining elements of a Psalm. It praises God, it petitions God and it celebrates God’s action in the world.
The Old Testament Psalms praise God for being God and, what amounts to the same thing, exhort God to be God. Prayers of thanksgiving meet prayers of petition! When we read the Psalms, we seek nothing less than to uncover the mind of God (his values) and discover his will. When we pray the Psalms, we seek to conform our values to God’s values and so our actions to his will.
The Lord’s Prayer occurs twice in the New Testament, once in ‘Matthew”, once in ‘Luke’. While the two versions have much in common, there are differences. Furthermore, the form of the prayer most of us recite today is not a literal translation of either scriptural version.
But none of that matters! Psalms are meant to be liturgical. The version of the Lord’s Prayer that we recite as part of our various Christian liturgies is the version that concerns us here:
Who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us,
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God, our Father…Yahweh. We praise God for his transcendent role (“who art in heaven”) and for his immanent role (“hallowed be thy name”). Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality) points out that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is not God’s postal address; it’s who God is, transcendentally, i.e. outside space-time, outside history.
Likewise, the ‘name’ of God is not just something he’s called; it is who God is, immanently, i.e. inside space-time, inside history. The ‘name of God’ is the role God plays in the world. This is why, when Moses asks God his name (Exodus), God responds, “I AM”. First and foremost, that is how we know God…as Being itself.
The Lord’s Prayer begins by praising God for who he is, transcendentally and immanently. From praise, the prayer turns to petition. In fact, the Lord’s Prayer includes three distinct types of petition, all found throughout the Book of Psalms. The first petition is eschatological, the second is social (concerning justice and peace) and the third concerns our own personal salvation.
The petitioner is certainly not bashful. Why ask for anything less than everything?
The first petition is delivered on behalf of the entire universe: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
In the language of Whitehead, the Kingdom of God will ‘come’ when all entities conform their ‘subjective forms’ to God’s Primordial Nature (values) and their ‘subjective aims’ to God’s Consequent Nature (will). When our values conform to God’s values and our actions conform to God’s will, then has the Kingdom of Heaven ‘come’, then is God’s will ‘done’. At that moment Earth and Heaven become one (I Cor. 15: 24 – 28).
The second petition concerns justice and peace, two major themes in Psalms. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Here we are not praying for some private or transitory advantage (“O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” – Janice Joplin). Rather we are praying for ‘bread’, the precondition of all life, not just for ourselves but for all of ‘us’ and not just for today but for every day.
Implicit in this petition, but unstated, is our commitment to do nothing to prevent the universal distribution of this ‘bread’ that we have prayed for and that God has given. By implication, we agree as part of this petition not to engage in any activity that might deprive another of the ‘bread’ that God provides. We have conformed our values to God’s values, so we will conform our wills to God’s will.
God’s advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, his obsession with justice, permeates the Book of Psalms. The Lord’s Prayer echoes this insistence that everyone’s basic human needs be satisfied. A society that follows God’s titular commandments but does not provide adequately for the legitimate needs of all its citizens will find itself very far indeed from God.
In fact, nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer is there even a mention of obeying God’s commandments. Psalms generally celebrate God’s law but they invariably go further: they strive to discover his will. And his will, what God wants for the world, is only hinted at in the law.
In the Gospels, much of Jesus’ criticism of his fellow Pharisees is based on this distinction between God’s law and God’s will. This baffles many of his hearers: how can you separate the two? Psalms show us the way: begin by uncovering God’s values, then cultivate an appreciation for his law, but finally discover his will.
The physical petition concerned with justice but it is paired with a spiritual petition concerned with peace: “And forgive us our trespasses.” Our physical survival is dependent on ‘bread’; our spiritual survival is dependent on ‘mercy’ or forgiveness. If ‘bread’ is a pre-condition of justice, ‘forgiveness’ is a pre-condition of peace; and justice and peace are both pre-conditions for the full realization of God’s Kingdom on Earth.
“Feed us and forgive us!” Isn’t this the baseline prayer that children everywhere direct toward their biological fathers? Why then not all creatures toward their ontological Father? Theology just doesn’t get any more concrete than this!
With forgiveness, the social compact, implicit in the matter of bread, becomes explicit. We specifically add to our petition, “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Passively avoiding unlawful action may be enough to foster justice but it is not enough to foster peace. Here we must actively project God’s will into the world; we must be God’s ‘change agents’.
When we pray Psalms we first and foremost seek to discover and interiorize the mind of God; secondarily, we seek to learn God’s will and project that will into the world through our actions. If compassion is a value in the mind of God, if mercy is an act of God that we praise, then it is imperative that we also practice mercy. We must forgive those who trespass against us in the same way God forgives us who trespass against him.
We prayed first for the coming of God’s Kingdom, the union of Heaven and Earth. Then we prayed for the twin Judeo-Christian values of Justice and Peace. Everything is going so well. We are praising the God of Heaven and Earth. We are conforming our minds to his mind, our hearts to his heart. We have agreed to treat no man unjustly and to forgive all trespasses. What could possibly go wrong?
Temptation! It is temptation that throws us off our game. We see an opportunity for some private power or profit or pleasure that we can only realize at the expense of another. Perhaps we just don’t care; but more likely, we find a way to rationalize our actions. In either case, we undermine the foundations of justice and peace we just laid down.
“And lead us not into temptation.” Our penultimate petition is for God to shield us from such temptations, knowing that we are weak and normally can’t fend them off for ourselves. Note that this petition, and the next, are more personal. We acknowledge our weakness and plead with God as individuals.
Now the climax! “Deliver us from evil.” At the end of the day, all evil comes down to one thing: ‘privation of being’. Lying, stealing, injuring encroach on the being of others; and the ultimate deprivation of being is death itself, mortality! The Old Testament Psalmist is obsessed with mortality, whether it be the risk of personal death in battle or the existential realization that “everyman is but a breath (Ps. 39)…his days are like a passing shadow (Ps. 144)”.
It does no good for God to feed us and forgive us…or for God to share with us his values or teach us his will…if we’re all destined for the ontological scrapheap. The last thing we ask of God, the one thing we MUST ask of God, is not to allow our existence to be erased. Our final plea can be nothing other than “Deliver us from evil!” It sums up all the others. “Does dust give you thanks?” (Psalm 30)
The final “Amen”, not found in either scriptural version of the prayer, completes the cycle. We began with “Our Father”. The Father is the ground of all Being, the source of all potentiality, “I AM”. It is from the Father (through the Son and by the Holy Spirit) that everything that is comes to be. When we say, “Our Father”, we celebrate the potentiality of the world.
When we close with “Amen”, we celebrate the actuality of world…the world, not just as pure potential, but as a completely realized matter of fact. God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Justice (‘bread’) and mercy (‘forgiveness’) do suffuse the entire world, and our futile, temporal lives are transformed and incorporated into God’s eternal life.
Psalm 151 is not just one Psalm among others, it is the prototypical Psalm. It summarizes the 150 Psalms that went before it into one, single, simple theological statement, one universal prayer. That is why the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most important collection of words ever written.