George Buttrick once said about the Lord’s Prayer, “About five hundred million people say the prayer. If they really prayed it, they could change the world.” The Lord’s Prayer, along with Psalm 23 and John 3:16, is one of the few passages of scripture that most people in Western society can at least recognize. Unfortunately, just because you’ve heard it recited or even read it doesn’t mean that you’ve allowed it to become your prayer. Jesus did not bestow this prayer of prayers on his disciples so that they could utter it, without thought, as if it was some sort of incantation or occult invocation. Jesus warned against meaningless repetitions (Matthew 6:7). No, Jesus gave this prayer to the disciples so that they could get a better understanding of the purpose of prayer as well as the kind of prayer that pleases God and gains His ear.
For too many Christians, the Lord’s Prayer has merely been a crutch to use in place of real spiritual development. Saying the ‘Our Father’ becomes a ritual that is without meaning and, honestly, without purpose. I think that it’s important at times, to step back and take a fresh look at some of those familiar passages that we’ve heard so often. This is a great opportunity to do so with the Lord’s Prayer.
There are many books out there on the Lord’s Prayer, most of which deal with the subject from a devotional standpoint. So Charles Laymon’s ‘The Lord’s Prayer in its Biblical Setting’ stands apart from the crowd as a study on this passage from a mostly historical/grammatical/scholarly perspective. It’s not to say that there isn’t anything in the book that could deepen one’s spirituality, it’s just not the work’s primary purpose.
Laymon sets the stage for the rest of the book by spending the first three chapters discussing prayer and how it was used/discussed in the Old Testament, the first century Jewish synagogue, and by Jesus himself. He quickly establishes the fact that prayer was an integral part of these early followers of God. The Old Testament chapter is essentially a recounting of the major players therein, proving that they were also faithful prayers. As he discusses the Old Testament prayers, he often muses on how they might’ve influenced Jesus: Jesus wept over Jerusalem like Jeremiah, he prayed Psalm 22 from the cross, etc. He reminds the reader that for Jesus, the Old Testament was the totality of the scripture. It’s a needed reminder for so many who want to sweep it under the rug yet hold on tightly to the New Testament as if they’re only loosely connected. There is a continuity in many areas, prayer being one, between the testaments.
Laymon then discusses the synagogue during Jesus’ time and brings out the practices and liturgical prayers that were most likely used by Jesus himself. It’s interesting to see how important prayer was to the first century Jew. Laymon notes, “Prayer was offered in the synagogue three times daily, a custom perhaps grown out of a reference to Daniel who ‘got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God.'” Jesus grew up in the kind of culture that valued prayer so much that they joined in corporate prayer multiple times every day. Too many Christians today get tired if the minister prays for more than a minute or two once a week. We’ve lost the confidence that we should have in the God of our prayers. Our faith has dwindled to less than the size of a mustard seed. We need a revival of faith in our hearts!
The latter half of the book is taken up with a chapter on each request within the Lord’s prayer. He finds five divisions in the prayer, grouping ‘thy will be done’ with ‘thy kingdom come’ and ‘but deliver us from evil’ with ‘lead us not into temptation.’ As he looks at each phrase in turn, he often turns to the original languages and brings out the bearing that may have on what Jesus meant. For example, he discusses the phrase, ‘deliver us from evil’ and how the Greek’s construction could actually be translated in that way or as ‘deliver us from the evil one.’ Then, he looks at what theological differences may arise. In this case, he examines the apocalyptic nature of praying for deliverance from ‘the evil one.’ As I said at the beginning, this is a book that mines theological/historical/grammatical gems. His concern is not so much a spiritual application of the prayer as much as it is a practical understanding of what the prayer means.
Fortunately, just because this book is focused more on the mind than the heart, doesn’t mean that it has no spiritual use. There a number of truths that the author brings out which have a direct impact on how we are to use it in our spiritual development. One of the best examples of this is the discussion that takes place concerning the phrase “Hallowed be thy name.” Laymon correctly notes that “Jesus was not a ceremonialist,” and yet, he begins his prayer with this recognition of the holiness of God. Prayer must, therefore, always begin by being “conscious of his holiness.” What an important concept to remember as we pray! Do we take the kind of time that we ought to truly honor God and recognize him for who he is before we rush into prayer? Do we enter with an attitude of praise and reverence or a laundry-list of things we need him to do for us? These sorts of things that Laymon brings out can have a profound impact on our spiritual lives if we’ll only allow the understanding to trickle down from our heads onto our hearts.
This may not be the best book on the Lord’s Prayer that I’ve ever read; however, it is one that makes this most famous of prayers come alive in a new way. If you’re interested in getting a better understanding of the ‘Our Father’, it is short enough to read in a weekend but it’s not lacking in intellectual meat on which to chew all week.