The Prayer of Manasseh: a little gem of devotion

By Derek Olsen

Candlemass has passed us now, devotions to Our Lady have shifted from the Alma Redemptoris Mater to the Ave Regina Caelorum, and—for those who keep them and for those who don’t but remember—the ‘gesimas are upon us. The signs of the seasons begin to turn our eyes toward Lent.

I’m ready for it. Lent is one of the seasons I look forward to each year. It’s a time of preparation and introspection that sets time aside for us to take stock of who and what we are. When we look closely, honestly, we find that—among other things—we are mortal, fallible, and frail. Our liturgies are part of this process of discovery and assessment, leading us to contemplate these truths more deeply. Elements appear that have been dormant in the other seasons of the year that help us focus our attention inward.

One of the best additions into the 1979 prayer book is a canticle hitherto unprayed in the Episcopal experience—one specifically intended for use in Lent: the Kyrie Pantokrator taken from the Prayer of Manasseh (canticle 14 in Morning Prayer, Rite II).

The prayer of who? From –what? Is that in the Bible?

Funny you should ask…and a little setup is required to answer this properly.

From the days of Paul at least, and likely earlier, the “Bible” of the first Christians was the Septuagint, the Pre-Christian translation of the Old Testament into Greek. As Christianity spread, and as the Western half of the Roman Empire became more parochial and lost its facility with Greek, a translation into Latin had to be made. St Jerome edited the version that would become official but made a strange choice—he decided to break with Church Tradition and to go back to the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Old Testament. This meant facing an issue of which the Church was aware but with which it hadn’t had to struggle: there were a set of books in the Old Testament that were composed in Greek and which did not appear in the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Scriptures.

What to do with these?

Jerome made a call that has been so decisive and influential that we find it quoted within our Anglican 39 Articles. After listing the Books of the Old Testament the article states: “And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…” In that list is “The Prayer of Manasses”. So—yes, in a proper Anglican Bible you find a section labeled “Apocrypha” and within that section you will find the Prayer of Manasseh. It’s short—just 15 verses—but a little gem of devotion.

Manasseh—who was he? If you took a wild guess and said the first-born son of Joseph who, with Ephraim, had a tribal section carved out for himself in the land of Israel you’d be right—sort of… That’s a Manasseh, but not the right one. This Manasseh was a king of Judah, reigning from (roughly) 687-642 BC. And, as far as 2 Kings 21 was concerned, he wins the Worst King of Judah EVER award. The shortlist is idolatry, sacrificing his own children, and widespread murder… The version that 2 Chronicles 33 tells has a twist, though; here he’s carried off to Babylon where he prays a great prayer of repentance, God forgives him, and he returns to try to reverse the evil he has done.

Neither 2 Chronicles nor history has seen fit to give us that prayer, but later tradition couldn’t let a great opening like that go.

Thus, we have our apocryphal book written probably in the 2nd century BC, most likely composed in Greek (though we don’t know for sure) that tries to present the kind of prayer that Manasseh must have prayed. And though it probably isn’t the original prayer, and though it probably wasn’t written by a king, it was most undoubtedly written by sinner, a person, and a poet who has given us words in which to find ourselves.

The language of the prayer is, to my ears at least, a bit hyperbolic and over the top, and yet opens for us a door into the psychology of repentance that is thoroughly steeped in biblical theology and transmitted through the vivid imagery so common to the songs and poems of this so-called Inter-testamental period. Our canticle is only a selection and, in the interest of space, leaves out some of the lovely imagery early in the prayer. (I’d encourage you to go back and read the whole thing—all fifteen verses of it; you can fit that into your schedule, right?)

The prayer begins with the poet’s eyes on God, recollecting the mighty acts of creation. The power and majesty of God are recounted by describing the vast energies of creation, and wonder at the God who can harness them. It then turns to the character of God. This almighty Creator nonetheless has care and concern for the sinner and the transgressor. There’s a turn at verse 8, at the middle of our canticle; the eyes of the poet shift from the external view of God to introspection. Suddenly “I” language appears. The poet confronts the reality of sin. Then, in a beautiful mixed metaphor, the poet “bends the knee of my heart,” not in excuses or self-justification, but in pure supplication. In these words there is absolute conviction of two things: first, the poet’s sinfulness; second, the character of God—that our God is the God who forgives. A final doxology rounds things out.

I’d encourage you to spend some time with this canticle this coming Lent. Whether you pray Morning Prayer regularly or not, I urge you to make this canticle part of your devotions as you contemplate what it is to be us: mortal, fallible, frail, yet truly the creation of One who loves us without end.

Dr. Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Past Posts