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Prayer of repentance

30 November, 1999

Wilfrid Harrington OP examines the role of lamentation and repentance in the prayer of the people of Israel and how it can contribute to our understanding of a God of compassion and love. For the people of Israel, lament was a powerful way of prayer (see Spirituality, May/June 1997, p.169). It was a firm part […]

Wilfrid Harrington OP examines the role of lamentation and repentance in the prayer of the people of Israel and how it can contribute to our understanding of a God of compassion and love.

For the people of Israel, lament was a powerful way of prayer (see Spirituality, May/June 1997, p.169). It was a firm part of their tradition and, because of the prominence of lament in the Psalter, it was an abiding feature of their worship. There is, however, another, a different manner of talking to God. It is one thing to challenge him from the ground of striving to do his will. But when one is conscious of having failed, and failed dismally, what does one do? In this situation we find that post-exilic prayers (prayers in the aftermath of the traumatic experience of the sixth century Babylonian Exile) are encouragement and comfort. They are straightforward: we have sinned, we deserve all that has come upon us. Axe we depressed? No! We acknowledge our sin, our shameful ingratitude and we turn to God. we have sinned, we have failed – but you are you. It is, in some sort, an anticipation of ‘I shall arise and go to my Father’ (Lk 15:18).

Trauma of exile
The Lord said to Abraham: ‘I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you’ (Genesis 17:6-7). ‘The Lord said to David: ‘I will raise your son after you… and I will establish his kingdom. . .’ (11 Samuel 7:12, 16)

What was an Israelite to think when God’s solemn promise to Abraham and his word of assurance to David had come to nothing? There was no questioning the harsh reality of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest: temple, city and nation were gone. On the strength ofYahweh’s word it ought not to have been so; but it had happened. For the thoughtful Yahwist the disaster was a mirror held up to the nation, a mirror that showed a visage of gross failure and sin. Some at least, had learned from the bitter experience of the Babylonian Exile: the faith answer to the disaster was repentance and hope. The people had failed – of that there could be no doubt. But Yahweh was steadfast as ever. There was a way of restoration, a way of redemption. It was the way of candid confession of sin and of total trust in God’s boundless mercy. The many moving post-exilic prayers to be found in Lamentations and Baruch, Ezra and Nehemiah, Tobit and Sirach, Esther and Judith and the Book of Daniel firmly follow this way.

While post-exilic prayers tend to be lengthy, there is about them a refreshing candour and an inspiring faith. They are the prayers of a chastened people, a people that in adversity had found its soul. Those who pray confess their sin openly. They do not grovel but maintain a quiet dignity. Most instructive is a recurring phrase that characterises God as ‘the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments’ – followed always by the confession, ‘We have sinned.’ These later Israelites had come to understand that the ‘awesome God’ is such only to those who have never known him. Those who pray these prayers have discovered the way of restoration, the way of redemption.

Hopeful confession
Though traditionally attached to the book of Jeremiah (not, however, in the Hebrew Bible) Lamentation is not the work of the prophet. These five poems are laments for a fallen Jerusalem and a destroyed temple, composed by some who had been left in Judah after the disaster, and designed for a simple liturgical service in the ruins of the temple. Through them runs a sentiment of unshaken trust in God and an air of deep repentance. They prepare for the message of Jesus that repentance is joy, a coming home to a Father. They are in place in our Christian liturgy of Holy Week.

Characteristic of these, as of all post-exilic prayers, is confession of sin. But if there is the admission that ‘Jerusalem sinned grievously’ (Lam 1:8) with the inevitable result that ‘the Lord has become like an enemy, he had destroyed Israel’ (2:5), there is also the serene assurance, ‘For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone’ (Lam 3=31-33).

Even in such distress, the heartening note of complaint still sounds: ‘Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, 0 Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure’ (5:20-22).

‘Have you utterly rejected us?’ is not just a rhetorical question. It carries overtones of exasperation worthy of Moses and Jeremiah. Here is a people bloodied but unbowed – not in defiance of God bUt in robust confidence in his loving kindness.

Another appendix to Jeremiah is Baruch – a writing much later than the age of Jeremiah’s disciple-secretary. Its writer is very conscious of the contrast between the holy God and his sinful people: ‘The Lord our God is in the right, but there is open shame on us and our ancestors this very day’ (Bar 2:6; see 1:15). The introduction to this prayer (1:26-2:10) is a candid confession of sin: ‘We have not entreated the favour of the Lord by turning away, each of us, from the thoughts of our wicked hearts… We have not obeyed his voice, to walk in the statutes of the Lord which he set before us’ (Bar 2:8, 10). The prayer itself (2:11-3:8) recalls the great Exodus event. That is the basis of the exiled people’s confidence, not necessarily that they be restored to their homeland, but that in exile they may meet their God. ‘O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, the soul in anguish and the wearied spirit cry out to you. Hear O Lord and have mercy, for we have sinned before you… Do not remember the iniquities of our ancestors, but in this crisis remember your power and your name. For you are the Lord our God, and it is you, O Lord, whom we will praise. For you have put the fear of you in our hearts so that we wbuld call upon your name; and we will praise you in our exile, for we have put away from our hearts all the iniquity of our ancestors who sinned against you (P-2, 5-7).

The Book of Daniel
The purpose of the Book of Daniel was to bolster the faith that was in danger of being stamped out by the aggression of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-163 BC) the Seleucid ruler. The author wanted to hearten his people and urge them to unyielding loyalty. He wholeheartedly supported the Maccabean revolt (167-164 BC). He based his summons to courageous faith on the conviction that God ruled the course of history. Yet the prayers in the book acknowledge without excuse the failures of Israel and appeal solely to the graciousness of Yahweh. Such is the prayer of Azariah (Dan 3:2645): ‘For you are just in all you have done… for we have sinned and broken your law in turning away from you; in all matters we have sinned grievously’ (3:27-29). Confession of sin is but a prelude to confident hope: ‘Yet with a contrite heat and a humble spirit may we be accepted, as though it were with burnt offerings of rams and bulls, or with tens of thousands of fat lamb… And now with all our heart we follow you, we fear you and seek your presence. Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in your patience and in your abundant mercy’ (3:39-42).

The epitome of these post-exilic prayers is Daniel 9:4-19. This prayer is not only typical, it is the most moving of all these prayers of the chastened. But we would instance another prayer – the apocryphal Prayer of Manasseh. In 11 Kings 21, Manasseh (687-642 BC) is presented as the most wicked of the Kings of Judah. The is repeated in 11 Chronicles 33. The Chronicler, however, tells of Manasseh’s conversion and makes reference to his prayer of repentance (11 Chron 33=10-19). A later write supplied an appropriate prayer, a worthy example of post exilic piety, a prayer of repentance more moving than the Miserere (Ps 51). Some excerpts will make the point: ‘Immeasurable and unsearchable is your promised mercy, for your are the Lord Most High, of great compassion, long suffering, and very merciful.. You have appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner. .. And now I bend the knee of my heart, beseeching you for your kindness. I have sinned, 0 Lord, I have sinned, and I know my transgressions. I earnestly beseech you, forgive me, 0 Lord, forgive me! … For unworthy as I am, you will save me in your great mercy, and I will praise you continually all the days of my life.’ If even Manasseh (who gets such a bad press in Kings and Chronicles), after turning back to the Lord could feel so confident of salvation, there is hope for any and every sinner!

The Creator grieves over sin
Lament and repentance – there is no conflict. I can know that I am a sinner. It may well be that my sufferings are due to my frailty. I must be sure that they are not sanctions imposed by a judgmental God. This, of course, runs counter to the current view in Israel, illustrated in these prayers, that personal and national disaster was divine punishment. There has ever been the human tendency to picture God as offended, angered even, by human sin. The truth is sin, whatever form it takes, is an affront to God’s plan for his creation. And God the Creator grieves over sin. There is grief and sadness, and suffering, in the heart of God. There is no wrath, no anger. With infinite patience he bears with us, not infringing on the freedom with which he has endowed us but respecting our dignity. He is grieved at the sheer burden of sin that weighs upon us. He is constantly calling out to us, ‘Here am I, here am I’ (Is. 65=1). He waits for your response, waits not only in patience but with divine compassion. I come before my God as sinner. And, sinner though I am, I can cry out at the unfairness of suffering.

We are children of God – sinful children. We have not responded fittingly to his goodness; we have taken advantage of his love. We are sorry for our failures. But our God does not want us to feel guilt. He is a God of compassion who is with us in our sorrow. He is a God of forgiveness, and his forgiveness is prompt and total. We, then, should have the decency – the humility – to acknowledge our failure: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’


This article first appeared in Spirituality (July-August 1997), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.