The Lord’s Prayer: Parallel Petitions

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-e4bb-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rI’ve never considered myself to be especially strong as a poet.  I love to write, but I’m far more prosy than otherwise.  But I can appreciate poetry, and the Bible is certainly full of loads of it.  The Psalms take a poetic form, obviously, but so too do the wisdom books, huge swaths of the prophets, and many of the teachings of Jesus.  There is even poetic structure to the Lord’s Prayer.

When most people think of poetry in a western, English-speaking context, they think primarily in terms of rhyme.  In particular, they think in terms of rhyme at the end of parallel couplets.  But rhyme is only one element of poetry.  Equally important is meter.  And the prevalence of metaphoric language.  You can see all this in song lyrics – rhyme, meter, metaphorical imagery.  For instance, as I type Pandora is playing the Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go:

It’s always tease tease tease
You’re happy when I’m on my knees
One day is fine and next is black
So if you want me off your back
Well come on an’ let me know

Should I stay or should I go?
Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
An’ if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know

The rhyme is obvious, but so too is the meter (and metaphors also abound).   Plus…it’s a great song.

In Hebrew poetry, rhyme as we think of it doesn’t seem to have been all that important (though often poetic lines would begin with the same sound).  Meter is important, as is metaphorical imagery.

What is most important to Hebrew poetry, though, is what is known as parallelism.  Hebrew poets loved to structure their poems using two or three lines of parallel text that function as a team.  Sometimes two lines say sort of the opposite of each other.  This is often called antithetical parallelism and is very common in the Proverbs:

He who obeys instructions guards his life,
but he who is contemptuous of his ways will die.”  Proverbs 19:16  

But Jesus does this too:

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.   Luke 16:10   

Sometimes poetic lines will say similar things, or say slightly different things about the same thing.  This is often called synonymous parallelism.  Here is one of these in a proverb:

Laziness brings on deep sleep,
and the shiftless man goes hungry.”  Proverbs 19:15

But Jesus does this too:

“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks receives;
he who seeks finds;
and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Matthew 7:7-8   

Each line of poetry is pretty much saying the same thing.

How does all this relate to the Lord’s Prayer?  Well, consider the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer:

Hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done”   Matthew 6:9-10  

Or translated in keeping with the nature of a request:

Let your name be made holy,
Let your kingdom come,
Let your will be done”

These three requests should be recognized as parallel statements following the Hebrew poetic structure of synonymous parallelism.  In other words, each of these three petitions is asking for the same thing.  They are parallel petitions that serve to mutually interpret one another.

What does it mean for God to hallow his name?  It means for his kingdom to come.  And what does it mean for God’s kingdom to come?  It means for the will of God to be done on earth even as it is done in heaven.

Perhaps the notion of “hallowing God’s name” seems vague at times.  Perhaps the advance of the kingdom even seems a bit abstract.  If so, perhaps then we should focus on doing God’s will.  We obey God’s commands; we submit to his Word.  In so doing we advance his kingdom and hallow his name.

This is helpful stuff to enable us to practically apply puzzling abstract biblical truth.  It also helps us to recognize that many things we do every day (doing our jobs with integrity, being patient with our children, encouraging a friend) are not mundane matters at all.  They are profoundly spiritual acts which serve to advance the kingdom of God and thus sanctify his name.