Prayer of Manasseh




‘The Prayer of Manasses, King of Judah, when he was holden captive in Babylon,’ is the title of a short penitential Psalm. It is written in Greek, and contains thirty-seven στίχοι. In Fritzsche’s Libri Apocryphi Vet. Test. Graece it is divided into fifteen verses; and this division has been very generally adopted.

The Psalm consists of (a) an invocation of the Deity (vv. 1–7), (b) a confession of sin (vv. 8–10), (c) an entreaty for forgiveness (vv. 11–15).


Its literary origin is obscure. There seems, however, to be little reason to doubt that the author was a Jew, i.e. not a Christian. While, in the case of so short a fragment, it is difficult to decide with absolute certainty, it seems most probable that the Prayer was originally written in Greek; and that the existing Greek text is not, as has sometimes been maintained, a translation from the Hebrew or Aramaic.1 If this view be correct, ‘The Prayer of Manasses’ should be classed with such writings as ‘The Song of the Three Children’, and be regarded as, in all probability, the composition of a Hellenistic Jew, who in the interests of his people’s faith wrote the penitential Prayer to suit the special circumstances under which the prayer, ascribed to Manasseh, King of Judah, in 2 Chron. 33:18, 19, was supposed to have been uttered.

It will be convenient to quote the Whole passage in which this mention of the king’s prayer occurs, 2 Chron. 33:11–13, 18, 19:

(11) ‘Wherefore the Lord brought upon them the captains of the host of the king of Assyria, which took Manasseh in chains (Or, with hooks), and bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon. (12) And when he was in distress, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. (13) And he prayed unto him; and he was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord he was God.… (18) Now the rest of the acts of Manasseh, and his prayer unto his God, and the words of the seers that spake to him in the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, behold, they are written among the acts of the kings of Israel. (19) His prayer also, and how God was intreated of him, and all his sin and his trespass, and the places wherein he built high places, and set up the Asherim and the graven images, before he humbled himself: behold, they are written in the history of Hozai (Or, the seers).’

According to this account, a Prayer of Manasseh2 was reputed, in the Chronicler’s time, (a) to have been preserved among ‘the acts of the kings of Israel’, and (b) to be contained in the records of Hozai (or, the seers). Whether the Chronicler himself was acquainted with any such Hebrew prayer, or whether he is simply repeating a popular tradition, we have no means of determining. No such writing was ever contained in the Hebrew Scriptures; nor, if it ever existed, has it survived in any Hebrew or Aramaic form.

It is easy to understand that the Chronicler’s story of Manasseh’s repentance and prayer and deliverance from captivity must have produced upon the minds of devout Jews a profound impression. The record of his idolatry and of his persecution of the servants of Jehovah had stamped his name with infamy in the annals of Judah. But side by side with his wickedness were commemorated the unusual length of the king’s reign and the quiet peacefulness of his end. The Chronicler’s story of the repentance and conversion of Manasseh provided the explanation of a seemingly unintelligible anomaly. Henceforth his name was associated by Jewish tradition not only with the grossest acts of idolatry ever perpetrated by a king of Judah, but also with the most famous instance of Divine forgiveness towards a repentant sinner. What more remarkable example could be found of the long-suffering compassion of the Almighty and of His readiness to hear and to answer the supplication of a contrite penitent?

Nothing would be more natural than for a devout Jew to endeavour to frame in fitting terms the kind of penitential prayer, which, according to the tradition, Manasseh had poured forth when he was in captivity in Babylon. The sentiments embodied in such a form of petition might conceivably be appropriate to those of his countrymen who had fallen into idolatry, and who might yet be reclaimed from the error of their way.

According to this hypothesis, the Psalm was composed for a practical devotional purpose.


‘The Prayer of Manasses’ makes its first appearance in extant literature, so far as is known at present, in the so-called Didascalia. This was an early Christian writing, composed probably in the second or third century, and incorporated into the Apostolical Constitutions, a work of the fourth or fifth century, of which the first six books consist of the Didascalia.

The author of the Didascalia was probably a member of the Christian Church in Syria, and wrote in Greek. In a long extract, apparently derived from some other writing, he records at length the narrative of Manasseh’s idolatry and punishment, of his repentance and prayer, of his miraculous deliverance from captivity and restoration to Jerusalem. The object which the author of the Didascalia has in view is to illustrate God’s mercy towards a repentant sinner. After briefly mentioning the classical instances of David’s repentance at the rebuke of Nathan, of Jonah’s repentance and the answer to his prayer uttered in the whale’s belly, of Hezekiah’s supplication and the pardon of his sin of pride, he continues, ‘But hearken, ye bishops, to an excellent and apposite example; for thus is it written in the Fourth Book of the Kingdoms (i.e. 2 Kings) and in the Second Book of Chronicles.’ Then follow extracts from the LXX of 2 Kings 21:1–18 and 2 Chron. 33:1 ff., which are welded together and expanded by four Additions, to which there is nothing corresponding in the Hebrew text. The order in which these extracts follow one another is as follows:

1. 2 Kings 21:1–4.

2. 2 Chron. 33:5–8.

3. 2 Kings 21:9–16.

4. 2 Chron. 33:11.

5. Addition A.

6. 2 Chron. 33:12–13a (προσηύξατο).

7. Addition B. λέγων, followed by ‘The Prayer of Manasses’.

8. Addition C.

9. 2 Chron. 33:13b.

10. Addition D.

11. 2 Chron. 33:15, 16.

The Additions are as follows:

(A) An insertion between 2 Chron. 33:11 and 12: καὶ ἦν δεδεμένος καὶ κατασεσιδηρωμένος ὅλος ἐν οἴκῳ φυλακῆς, καὶ ἐδίδοτο αὐτῷ ἐκ πιτύρων ἄρτος ἐν σταθμῷ βραχύς, καὶ ὕδωρ σὺν ὄξει ὀλίγον ἐν μέτρῳ, ὥστε ζῇν αὐτόν, καὶ ἦν συνεχόμενος καὶ ὀδυνώμενος σφόδρα.1

(B) After 2 Chron. 33:13 καὶ προσηύξατο πρὸς κύριον (LXX αὐτόν ) is added λέγων· κύριε παντοκράτωρ … εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας. Ἀμήν.

(C) Instead of 2 Chron. 33:13 καὶ ἐπήκουσεν αὐτοῦ· καὶ ἐπήκουσεν τῆς βοῆς αὐτοῦ, is substituted καὶ ἐπήκουσε τῆς φωνῆς αὐτοῦ κύριος, καὶ ᾠκτείρησεν αὐτόν· καὶ ἐγένετο περὶ αὐτὸν φλὸξ πυρός, καὶ ἐτάκησαν παντὰ τὰ περὶ αὐτὸν σίδηρα· καὶ ἰάσατο κύριος Μανασσῆν ἐκ τῆς ολίψεως αὐτοῦ.

(D) Instead of 2 Chron. 33:14 is substituted καὶ ἐλάτρευσε μόνῳ κυρίῳ τῷ θεῷ ἐν ὅλῃ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ αὐτοῦ πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας τῆς ζωῆς αὐτοῦ· καὶ ἐλογίσθη δίκαιος.


The preservation of this short disconnected Psalm may thus, with good reason, be ascribed to the accident of its occurrence in the Didascalia and the Apostolical Constitutions. There is no evidence to show that it was ever included in the Septuagint, the Judaeo-Greek Canon of Holy Scripture. But, very possibly, in consequence of the popularity of the Apostolical Constitutions, ‘The Prayer of Manasses’ became well known in the Eastern Church; and it was a natural step to take, to detach the Prayer from its context and to insert it among the Canticles (ᾠδαί, Cantica) used and sung for liturgical purposes, and to be found appended to the Psalter ‘in certain uncial MSS. and a large proportion of the cursives’ (Swete, Introd. to the O. T. in Greek, p. 253).

In the Codex Alexandrinus (A) there are fourteen Canticles appended to the Psalter in the following order: (1) Exod. 15:1–19 (ᾠδὴ Μωυσέως ἐν τῇ Ἐξόδῳ): (2) Deut. 32:1–43 (ᾠδὴ Μωυσέως ἐν τῷ Δευτερονομίῳ): (3) 1 Sam. 2:1–10 (προσευχὴ Ἄννας μητρὸς Σαμουήλ): (4) Isa. 26:9–20 (προσευχὴ Ἑζεκίου): (5) Jonah 2:3–10 (προσευχὴ Ἰωνᾶ): (6) Hab. 3:1–19 (προσευχὴ Ἀμβακούμ): (7) Isa. 38:10–22 (προσευχὴ Ἑζεκίου): (8) ‘The Prayer of Manasses’ (προσευχὴ Μανασσή): (9) Dan. 3:23 (προσευχὴ Ἀζαρίου): (10) ὕμνος τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν: (11) Magnificat (προσευχὴ Μαρίας τῆς θεοτόκου): (12) Nunc Dimittis (προσευχὴ Συμεών): (13) Benedictus (προσευχὴ Ζαχαρίου): (14) The Morning Hymn (ὕμνος ἑωθινός). Similarly, in the Codex Turicensis (T), the liturgical Canticles are appended to the Psalter; and ‘The Prayer of Manasses’ appears ninth in the list. But the evidence of Codex Alexandrinus would alone suffice to show that in the Eastern Church the Prayer was in use for liturgical psalmody in the fifth century a.d.


To the Psalm is prefixed the title ‘The Prayer of Manasses’ (προσευχὴ Μανασσή) in Codex Alexandrinus (A); ‘The Prayer of Manasses the son of Hezekiah’ (προσευχὴ Μανασσὴ τοῦ υἱοῦ Ἑζεκίου) in Codex Turicensis (T); and in the editions of the Vulgate ‘The Prayer of Manasses, King of Judah, when he was holden captive in Babylon’ (Oratio Manassae regis Iuda cure captus teneretur in Babylone).

There is no sufficient reason to call in question the correctness of the title. (1) The title is derived from the narrative in the Didascalia in which the Prayer has been incorporated. (2) There is no evidence to show that the Prayer had existed before its inclusion in this Manasseh tradition. (3) Though it is noteworthy that the Prayer contains no mention of any proper name of personage or place, by which the legitimacy of the title might be confirmed, there are nevertheless to be found in it allusions which are most naturally interpreted on the assumption that the Prayer is put into the mouth of Manasseh, King of Judah. Thus, (a) the speaker…

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