Here is a statement that should give no one a flicker of pause: Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus never knew a Christian or knew anyone that became a Christian until after His crucifixion. He was Jewish and all of His companions were Jewish. All of those He taught were Jewish except a very few scattered Gentile tourists, some in Syrophoenicia and here and there a Roman soldier. The prayer that we call The Lord’s Prayer is thoroughly Jewish, taught by a Jewish rabbi to a Jewish audience in Israel. Therefore, it is no surprise that the prayer is quite consistent with the main stream of Jewish prayer.
More surprising by far is that Psalm 23, written by King David a thousand years before Jesus was born, is more similar to Christian prayers, at least in one important way. Most Jewish prayers are corporate in nature; that is, they are usually plural in their language. The Lord’s Prayer is a perfect example. “Our Father . . .” “Give us . . .” “Forgive us . . .” This is characteristic of most Jewish prayers, especially liturgical prayers, which are commonly about the Jewish people, the land, the nation, or the family.
It was David, a Jewish king a millennium before anyone ever heard the word Christian, who said, “The Lord is my shepherd,” “He anoints my head.” and “He prepares a table before me.” Famously, David employs a not uncommon biblical metaphor, that of the interaction between a shepherd and his sheep. In doing so, however, he uses the metaphor in a unique way. Psalm 100 and Psalm 95 both use the same image, but in a plural manner. “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm100:3). “We are his people and the sheep of his hand” (Psalm 95:7). David’s poetic use of the first-person possessive in Psalm 23 is more akin to the language of personal piety common in Christian prayers.
This exclusively individualistic language in Psalm 23 has been suggested as the reason the poem is seldom if ever used in the formal liturgies of certain (particularly Ashkenazi) Jewish circles. It is used instead at the third meal on Shabbat and, as in the Christian community, at funerals.
Jesus’ prayer, the Lord’s Prayer or The Our Father, is not a poem. The rich imagery of a Davidic Psalm is missing. Jesus is into the prayer fast, goes directly to the point, or points, and exits stage left just as quickly. The language of the Lord’s Prayer is lean, even sparse, and totally plural. It is also a straight shot from the first word of the prayer to the last. There is no subtle shift in direction, no misty-eyed imagery and no nuanced language. Even the issues raised are clear and direct: authority, food, sin, forgiveness, temptation, and evil.
David’s Psalm 23, on the other hand, is a restless sea of image-rich language. Metaphors shift, the point of view reverses field right in the middle of the poem, and David bounces back and forth between relishing God’s comfort and cataloging some of life’s harshest realities. David begins the poem talking about God. He ends speaking directly to God. He begins by describing God as a shepherd. He ends by making Him sound more like a wealthy Middle Eastern home owner entertaining an honored guest. He first sees himself in a pasture drinking from a calm pool. He ends by seeing himself royally entertained, eating from a table, and drinking from a cup. He starts the poem with an existential view of life in one of its most basic forms, a sheep farm. David begins by talking about today, right now, eating and drinking and staying alive in the face of danger. David ends by talking about spending eternity in a house, evidently a prosperous one whose inhabitants eat and drink well. Jesus ends His famous prayer by talking about God’s kingdom. This is very Jewish. David ends by talking about being with God forever, heaven, and a mansion. This sounds very much like the language heard in Christian churches.
What a sublime irony. King David’s poem explores the secret places of personal, highly subjective devotional thought. Without a doubt Psalm 23 is the favorite psalm in the Christian world. It may very well be one of the most beloved Bible passages in all of Christendom. Yet it was written by a Jewish king a thousand years before Christianity even appeared. Likewise, the Lord’s Prayer, given by Jesus, cherished by Christians worldwide, is in the very center of the stream of traditional Jewish prayers.
The ancient and the contemporary, Jewish and Gentile, poem and prayer flowing together richly, become a river of healing power for individuals and the body corporate. The next chapter will explore the histories of these two men. If you think you’re already familiar with them, try to see them again with new eyes.
Jesus and David speak for me.
They also speak for us.
This was an excerpt from Dr. Rutland's new book, 21 Seconds to Change Your World. Get your copy today at 21secondsbook.com
21 Seconds to Change Your World
by Dr. Mark Rutland