Lord's Prayer: Answered.
"When ye pray, use no vain repetitions as the Heathen: for they think to be heard for their much babbling. Be ye not like them therefore: for your Father knoweth whereof ye have need, before ye ask of him. After this manner therefore pray ye, Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done even in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors." Matthew 6:7-12
The Lord's Prayer is the most well known and repeated Scripture text in the world. But for the modern English speaker it is poorly understood because of difficulties in translating Greek verbs which are in the aorist tense, imperative mood, and middle voice. I'll get to the details, but first let's look at some grammar.
In both Greek and English, we have the imperative mood. When a verb is in the second person; the imperative a simple command or a wish for some action in the future; ("[you] go away!" or "[you] have a nice trip"). In the 1st and 3rd person imperative, English requires the helper verb "to let" as in "Let us pray", "Let me say", or "Let it be known". One needs to be cautious in English because of misunderstanding because the verb "to let" also means to "to permit" or "allow." "Let him be executed" could be an imperative or not, and the consequence of not understanding the author's intent is significant. So if we are describing a future (uncompleted) action, then "to let" is suitable way to express the imperative in the 3rd person... if we are careful.
But what if we are trying to describe an imperative action that is completed?
In Greek, completed actions can use a past tense or an aorist tense. The aorist is not simply a past tense. It describes a completed action but it can be in the present or even in the future. When Scripture describes the events of Easter morning, it quotes the disciples saying "He has risen" or "He was raised" using a past tense to indicate that He was no longer there. Eventually Christians came to say "He is risen" (aorist tense) to indicate that the resurrection was completed in the past, is completed now, and will always be completed. So that is how the Greek aorist gets translated into English when the mood is indicative; it uses a past participle of the verb "to rise" combined with the present tense of the verb "to be."
Note also that the above aorist construction is in the passive voice. As such, the form "is risen" is sometimes known as a "divine passive" because it is reflexive. There is theological significance here because using the passive voice indicates is that Jesus was not the maker of his own resurrection; his duty was subject to predestination under God's eternal plan.
The Lord's Prayer
We still have not answered the question; what if we are trying to describe an imperative action that is completed? That is precisely the challenge in Lord's Prayer. We have a long series of Greek verbs that are in the aorist imperative. In English, we don't have an aorist imperative, so we must use alternative verb forms to show action that is imperative, passive (reflexive), and completed. We'll look at the Lord's Prayer into two sections:
Here we have four instances of the aorist imperative. In each case the verb is "to be" in the 3rd person. We must treat them consistently.
- Our Father ["to be"] in heaven
- Thy thy name ["to be"] hallowed
- Thy kingdom ["to be"] come
- Thy will ["to be"] done on earth as in heaven
In the era of early modern English (1500-1800) we find that all Bible translators rendered the text with an archaic form of the verb "to be". In the first instance it became "art" and in the latter three instances it became "be". It was a good way of expressing the aorist imperative at that time; a completed action that took place by imperative will of God. The problem is that "art" and "be", which were common speech in the 16th century are not well understood in modern English. In fact they are typically understood as being present tense indicative, and we don't want to leave that misunderstanding.
In modern English (after 1800), Bible translators, (if they dared tinker with tradition) did just that unfortunately. They translated the first line as a simple present tense, "Our Father who is in heaven", making no effort to express either the aorist or the imperative. When they came to the next three lines, they used the imperative but they left the tense in the present. The result was "Let (or may) thy name be hallowed", "Let (or may) thy kingdom come", "Let (or may) thy will be done". There are two problems with this solution. First, it doesn't indicate God's completed action but rather that God is yet to act. Second and worse, it may be interpreted that "let/may" means that God acts in this world by permission rather than by the force of His own will. So while the archaic English text was a good translation at that time, the English text of the Lord's Prayer found in modern Bibles is not.
What should the modern translators have done? What alternatives exist in modern English? They might have said "Our Father, being in heaven, thy name being holy, thy kingdom being come, thy will being done in earth as in heaven..." It sounds more like modern English, but it also alters the meaning significantly. An adverbial participle clause with "being" is a formal or literary style, like the original. It indicates an established fact, as in, "Being slim I squeezed through the gate." Therefore, with respect to the Lord's Prayer, an adverbial participle clause paired with "being" passes the test of translating the aorist tense, the imperative mood, and the passive voice. It is the same construction as the original, but now this section of the prayer is a series of subordinate clauses rather than independent sentences. Is this satisfactory? No.
Here we have four different verbs, each in the aorist imperative, but this time they are in the 2nd person rather than the third person. As such they suggest an emphatic imperative, but with the same tense and voice as before. Both traditional and modern English texts are rendered the same way, and on the surface there is nothing wrong with them. They say
Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses as we do them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil.
What is missing in these translations is the sense of the Greek aorist; that from God's eternal perspective, His giving, forgiving, leading, and delivering are completed actions. Because they are in the 2nd person there is unfortunately no choice but to render the text as the present imperative rather than the aorist imperative.
This is why it is so important that the aorist/imperative/passive context should be established in section 1. Otherwise the opportunity for misunderstanding section 2 is large.
Despite all the inconveniences, the Lord's Prayer must use the traditional translation as found in the 1611 King James Bible and the 1599 Geneva Bible. If one tries to upgrade the Lord's Prayer to more modern English, bad choices abound and good choices are none. Notwithstanding that early modern English is uncomfortable to the modern ear, there really is no alternative.
When we pray the Lord's Prayer, the Lord Jesus is telling us because He is in heaven, because He is holy, because He is coming again and because our future is as secure as His, that our prayers are already answered by God, and they are even uttered by our lips according to His eternal plan, from which there is no possible deviation.
Our Father, who art in heaven. Thy name be holy. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil.
It is hard to use a form of English that is 500 years old, but in this case at any rate it is necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Lord's Prayer
- Does the Lord's Prayer have a section 3? Yes, in Matthew 6, it continues with "Thine is the kingdom, power and glory for ever and ever." This ending does not appear in Luke 11. While Matthew's words are surely authentic to what Jesus actually said, I believe Luke does not record them because the verbs are in the present indicative rather than the aorist imperative. This last section is not meant to be understood in the same way as the first two sections.
- Can saying the Lord's Prayer every day become a vain repetition? No. It is impossible for the prayer to be vain precisely because it is written entirely in the aorist imperative, where the actions are completed, where God is the only actor, and where man has no power to override the imperative of God's will. That being said, it most certainly is a vanity when men change the prayer to imply that God is who He is and does what He does as a result of our praying. Most emphatically the Lord's Prayer teaches the opposite. In fact, when Matthew introduces the Lord's Prayer, he says as much, "When ye pray, use no vain repetitions as the Heathen: for they think to be heard for their much babbling. Be ye not like them therefore: for your Father knoweth whereof ye have need, before ye ask of him." Jesus is telling us to pay attention to the aorist imperative, that our prayers are already answered by God when we pray them, and this is according to His eternal plan from which there is no possible deviation.
- Must we pray "forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors" instead of using "trespasses" and "trespass" instead? No. It is perfectly acceptable to use the word "trespasses." Matthew in fact is quick to explain that this is precisely how we should understand Jesus when he said "debts"; "For if ye do forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye do not forgive men their trespasses, no more will your father forgive you your trespasses."
- Must we use the early modern English words "thou", "thee", "thine", "your" and "ye" instead of the fully modern "you", "you", "your", "your" and "you." No. However, when we talk of modernizing the traditional idiom of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bibles of that era, we're NOT talking about going back two generations but rather only one generation; to the "golden age of English literature" and the dawning of modern civilization. This is the age of Shakespeare and so many others of whom our civilization cannot afford to lose the perspective. The English words thou, thee, thy, thine and ye are translated from emphatic Greek and Hebrew personal pronouns in order to distinguish the plural from the singular identity when just one person is being addressed (the 2nd person singular). In modern English, there is no easy way to express this singularity except by making it even more formalized. For example, in modern English, can a person expressing love for another by say "I love you alone"? Is this more understandable than "I love thee"? I think it's not. Is it silly to even discuss this? Well, if the intent is to communicate love for one to the exclusion of all others, then it's not. When we are translating from one language into another, should we not use the most accurate words available if our only reason to do otherwise is that they are anachronistic? Modern Christians, faced with endless attacks on the integrity of the Bible must be sure to guard every "jot and tittle" of God's word, and these personal pronouns are just that, jots and tittles. So even if it is possible maintain good doctrine with a poor translation, the Church is not permitted to choose colloquial speech over accurate speech when such an either/or choice presents itself. If not here, then where is the Church required to separate itself from the world? It's especially true when addressing God. Our form of speech toward the Lord must be distinguishable from the prayers of the heathen when they call out to their multiple gods. The 1st and 2nd Commandments are regulative with respect to how we address the God who says "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods before me...Thou shalt not bow down to them, neither serve them: for I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God" (Exodus 20:2-5) More information