Yesterday, we set out a brief first century Jewish background to the Lord’s Prayer. Today, we begin with the prayer itself. Of course, it begins with an address to Yahweh, who hears the prayer. (The translation below is my own.)
“Our father, the one in the heavens…” (Mt 6:9b)
This is far more than a simple address. It is that. But it’s also more. It is also far more than just distinguishing which father Jesus is addressing, as if Jesus had to make clear that it was the father in heaven to whom he was praying rather than the father in the sea or the father in the moon or some such. To suggest that the Lord resided in heaven would have been pre-school material to a first century Jew.
Rather, with this brief phrase, Jesus is summoning a massive cultural expectation.
If an American politician makes a speech, say, on the virtues of a certain set of “self-evident truths,” every American who hears the phrase knows exactly what those truths are and will then interpret the remainder of the speech in light of the concepts that “all men are created equal,” that all have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “Self-evident truth” is a key phrase that triggers a much larger cultural background.
Jesus does the same sort of thing with “Our father, the one in the heavens.” He is calling to mind for those around him Psalm 2.
1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in heaven laughs; the Lord has them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling 12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him. (NRSV, italics added)
Broadly, the entire psalm pits pagan rulers, across the earth, against Yahweh, the Creator, and His anointed representative king. Psalm 2 is at the heart of all Jewish messianic expectation, that at some stage, one person, elected and anointed by God, would rise up and govern Israel (and the rest of the world) with righteousness and justice and so forth. So that ought, first, to trigger some thoughts in terms of the first century Jewish mindset as it related to their Roman overlords (see yesterday’s post).
More specifically, there are two parallels between Psalm 2 and Matthew 6:9, which the italicized parts above rather helpfully highlight.
First, though the pagan kings scorn the Lord’s efforts to govern through his anointed, God sits in heaven laughing right back at them. When Jesus said “the one in the heavens,” I believe most of those around him would have thought of this psalm and the thought would have triggered: I get it; this is a prayer about the coming Messiah and the overthrow of our enemies. They would have thought about the Roman centurions that roamed the streets and all the other symbols that reminded them on a daily basis just who was in charge. And they would have thought about Rome’s days perhaps being numbered.
Second, in verse 7, is where the “our father” bit comes from, though its a little obscure in the NRSV. There the Lord says, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” For the Israelites, the king was the adopted son of God himself (see 2 Sam 7:14). This is fatherly language.
“Our father, the one in the heavens…”
The point of the matter is this. By opening his prayer in this way, Jesus elicits a powerful emotion among his hearers. Immediately, the Jews gathered around Jesus would understand that what they’re about to pray is for the fulfillment of Psalm 2. What they’re about to pray has something to do, finally, with the ultimate vindication of Israel, overthrowing the pagan nations, and instituting the glorious reign of God on the earth through His representative people Israel.
When I read it, I picture a crowd of Jews surrounding Jesus beginning to nod their heads in agreement at this point. They’re saying to themselves and perhaps to one another, “Yeah, this is what we want. We want the Lord to finally come through on these promises and begin laughing at these pagan oppressors. And, by the way, we’ve been hoping for this for hundreds of years.”
On to the next phrase…