The Prayer of Manasseh

During the course of Lent the apocryphal book comprising the fifteen verses of the “Prayer of Manasseh” is read at Morning Prayer - at least a selection of parts of most of the verses are woven into a canticle.  The origin of this prayer is not clear.  There was a King Manasseh of Judah, and by the account of the 2nd Book of Chronicles, he was a bad lot.  He was a child king, coming to the throne at the age of twelve, but then reigned for fifty-five years and according to Chronicles was guilty of many acts of apostasy, but the parallel record in 2nd Kings is even worse.  Anyway, it was believed that he was held captive and eventually released and composed a penitential prayer.

It is possible that the prayer we have is the actual one from the heart and soul of Manasseh, but much more likely the original disappeared and sometime later a devout Jew drew up the prayer that we have, which was then connected to the name of Manasseh.  It could be that it was felt that a prayer of penitence, linked to sorrow for idolatry would be a useful prayer to have, giving support to the idea that King Manasseh was grieving over his foolhardy worship of other gods and seeking forgiveness.  At the same time it could be used by others who were hoping to return to the true faith in Yahweh, after a period of the worship of idols.

As it is in its edited form in the Common Worship order of service for Morning Prayer in Lent, it forms the basis of an extended plea of penitence.  As with many of the psalms, if we are able to take the Prayer of Manasseh from its context of ancient Israel and translate it for our own use, it is a powerful reflection of God’s love and goodness and our own tendency to sin - very Lent; very suitable for these weeks in which it is an appointed text.

John Mann