Aleinu: The Prayer for God’s Kingdom

by Lois Tverberg

The main theme of Jesus’ ministry was to preach about the coming of the Kingdom of God, but it is a source of confusion and misunderstanding to many Christians. Is it in heaven after we die? Isn’t God king already?

One thing widely misunderstood is how Jesus spoke about the coming of God’s kingdom in order to proclaim himself as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king. The primary task of the Messiah, after all, was to establish God’s reign on earth. Dozens of articles are available on this page about Jesus’ Jewish Messianic claims.1

What would the coming of this kingdom look like? An ancient Jewish prayer named Aleinu Ah-LAY-nu) can shed light on this question. Scholarly sources believe that this beautiful prayer predates Jesus, so that he himself would have prayed it. The name, Aleinu, means, literally, “it is upon us,” which means “we must” or “it is our duty to.”

Even today this prayer is recited at the conclusion of every synagogue service. It is especially prominent on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when it is traditional to focus on God’s kingship over the world.

Through the prayer the worshiper exalts God as his or her king, and prays that all the world will repent and do the same. (Note that in the third section, the word for “rule,” malchut, is the same word for kingdom.)

 

Aleinu

It is our duty to praise the Lord of all.
To acclaim the greatness of the God of creation,
Who has not made us as the nations of the world,
Nor set us up as other peoples of the earth,
Not making our portions as theirs,
Nor our destiny as that of their multitudes.2

3For we kneel and bow low before the supreme King of Kings,
The Holy One, blessed be He,
Acknowledging that He has stretched forth the heavens
And laid the foundations of the earth.
His glorious abode is in the heavens above,
The domain of His might in exalted heights.
He is our God, there is no other,
In truth our King, there is none else.
Even thus is it written in His Torah:
“This day know and lay it to your heart,
That the Lord is God in the heavens above and on the earth below.
There is none else.”

We therefore hope in Thee, Lord our God,
Soon to behold the glory of Thy might
When the world shall be established under the rule of the Almighty,
And all mankind shall invoke Thy glorious name.
May they all accept the rule of Thy dominion,
And speedily do Thou rule over them forever more.4

Here is an excerpt of the last section from another translation that is older and more literal, that talks about the “Yoke of God’s Kingdom.”

“Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee. Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor. So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and aye.’ And it is also said: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'”

 

Christians should be fascinated by how this prayer describes the Kingdom of God being established on the earth, and how it desires that all the nations repent and worship the true God of heaven. It seems to be very much related to Jesus’ words about “the coming of the kingdom of God” and Paul’s sermon in Philippians:

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)

~~~~

 

1 See also, “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!” and “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy

2 In some versions there is a line that says, “for they prostrate themselves before vanity and folly, and pray to a god who can not help.” Ironically, Christians protested since they saw it as said against them, and persecuted Jews for praying this prayer. In many prayer books it has been removed.

3 It is customary to stand for the prayer, and bow while saying this line.

4 From the Siddur, The Traditional Prayerbook for Sabbath and Festivals
Behrman House, 1960

For more information about this prayer see the following:

Alenu,” a Jewish Enclyclopedia article
This site devoted to the Aleinu

The Mystery of Prayer

by Lois Tverberg & Bruce Okkema

Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die. Genesis 20:7

The story above occurs while Abraham was living in Gerar, the land of King Abimelech. When the king’s eyes fell upon Sarah, he desired her and took her to be one of his wives. But before they had become intimate, God spoke to Abimelech in a dream and said that he was in great danger of Gods’ judgment because he had taken another man’s wife. Abimelech protested, claiming his innocence in that he had not known that she was a married woman. God told him because this was true, he was warning the king so he wouldn’t suffer for his offense.

One fascinating aspect of the story is that God told Abimelech that when Abraham would pray for the king, he would live. The implication is that God would wait to spare Abimelech until after Abraham had interceded. It seems like very odd logic that God himself would not release the king until Abraham prayed! We have a similar story at the end of book of Job. God was angry with Job’s counselors and said to them,

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has… My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. (Job 42:7-8)

Does it strike you as strange that God would bind himself to waiting on a person’s prayers? He even tells us to pray for someone else so that he can take action. The sins in these situations have been committed against both God and man, yet could it be that God desires forgiveness between his people so much, that he asks for evidence of their forgiveness before he shows his own?

It is a mystery to us that God in some way constrains himself to working in response to prayer. Why the creator would wait for mankind to ask, when he knows the outcome and certainly does not need our advice, is beyond our understanding. Yet, he wants us to pray, and we can conclude that he is waiting for us to pray in order to accomplish his purposes.

Let us continue to pray faithfully, and let us never cease to wonder at his mystery.

Praying with Intention

by Lois Tverberg

“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart. ” Psalm 24:3

The prayers that Jesus and Paul prayed were a combination of spontaneous petitions and traditional prayers that were prayed at certain times of day. One of them that is still prayed today is called the “Amidah” or “Eighteen Benedictions.” (1) It is quite lengthy, and consists of prayers for all the various concerns of the Jewish people. For thousands years since Jesus lived, these petitions have stayed nearly the same.

In contemporary Protestant culture, we tend to disdain rote prayer, preferring the intimacy of spontaneous prayer and feeling that a repeated prayer is empty and hollow. We wonder how a person could avoid just “going through the motions.” The answer is a concept that the rabbis developed known as “Kavanah.” The word means “direction,” “intention,” or “devotion,” and the idea behind praying with kavanah is that you set the direction of your thinking toward God, and toward praying the memorized prayer “with all your heart.”

A person who has kavanah focuses his entire being on prayer, and is undistracted by the chaos around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is sunk so deeply into the words that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from them today that he has never experienced before.

In synagogues, above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, there is often a plaque that says, “Know before whom you stand.” That is just what it means to have kavanah in prayer – to have a sense of standing in the presence of God, to know that you are addressing the sovereign Lord of the universe.

When I used to pray after crawling in bed, I would often fall asleep before finishing my prayer. After thinking about the lack of reverence this has for God, I now make myself kneel or stay awake in some way, or pray at a time of day when I’m more awake. He deserves our best, not our least efforts in prayer.

Kavanah can go beyond prayer as well – our lives should also show it too. We should live each hour and day with devotion and intention, being aware of God’s presence all around us. When we do this, our lives will truly be the reflection of Christ, whose every desire was to please and honor God in every way.


1The Amidah: A New Translation, by David Bivin, is available here.

Giving of His Wisdom

by Lois Tverberg

For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. Proverbs 2:6

The week I became aunt to a new niece, our family was praising God for her, but her birth was not routine. It was still about a month before my sister-in-law’s due date when she woke up bleeding. She was rushed by ambulance to the hospital for an emergency C-section, which saved the baby’s life and perhaps her own.

As we discussed it, we realized that if our family had lived 100 years ago, my brother would have lost his daughter and maybe his wife that day. Thinking back, we realized that many in our family would have died of serious illnesses for which only recently has there been medical care.

This reminded me of a traditional prayer that Jewish people use to praise God when they hear of a great advance in knowledge in medicine or other areas:

Blessed art Thou, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe,
who gives of His wisdom to flesh and blood.

They also have a prayer to praise God when they hear particularly inspired preaching of the scriptures. Then they say,

Blessed art Thou, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe,
who gives of His wisdom to those who revere Your Name.

There is a lot of wisdom in these prayers. Christians have an easier time understanding the second, that it is God who inspires us about the scriptures. But the other prayer shows another even more surprising truth – that God is also sovereign over “secular” knowledge too.

We can sometimes be tempted to believe that God is threatened by human knowledge, and that scientific advances are a challenge to his power. For instance, some feel it is unspiritual to seek medical help, and that only prayer for healing is God’s will. If man healed us, then God was not involved. In Judaism, however, a prayer is said before taking medicine which praises God for this gift and asks Him to use it to heal them. They see God’s presence in what we would say was our own accomplishment.

There is great wisdom in realizing that even the greatest human discoveries are gifts from God, and that God is sovereign over what mankind achieves too. No matter where exploration and discovery lead us, God, in his infinite wisdom, is far beyond even that.

Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire

by Laura Tverberg

“Lord, teach us how to pray.” Luke 11:1

This was one of my favorite hymns as I was growing up, and still is today. It is a wonderful description of prayer in all its forms. I haven’t heard it in churches in years, but I wish this meaningful hymn would be sung again.
— Mrs. Laura Tverberg (Lois’ mother)

Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of the eye
When none but God is near.

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try
Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath
The Christian’s native air;
His watchword at the gates of death;
He enters heaven with prayer.

Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice
Returning from his ways
While angels in their songs rejoice,
And cry, “Behold he prays!”

Oh Thou, by whom we come to God,
The life, the truth, the way!
The path of prayer Thyself has trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray.

James Montgomery, 1818


This text comes from the 1912 Lutheran Hymnal. It is from a copy given to my mother, Gertrude Ritland on April 29, 1929.

Have Faith in God

by Lois Tverberg

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – Mark 11:22-24

This statement is a real struggle for many of us. Some people tell those who are in crisis that it is only when they have enough belief that a miracle will happen that God will perform it for them. So many hurting hearts have been crushed by a statement that their faith is too weak for God to answer their prayers. How can it be that by sheer force of our imagination that we can force God’s hand in one direction?

I had an answer a few years ago in a relatively minor crisis. A little cat of mine who was very shy got loose one day when I was out of town. When I returned home, Raisin had been lost for several days, starving, unable to come back because of her skittishness around people. I remember begging the Lord to bring her home.

As I was praying for her, I started wondering if I was supposed to have perfect faith in the idea that I’d get my cat back in order for God to answer my prayer. Then it hit me that the faith that we are supposed to have is not in the outcome, but in God himself. God wants us to be absolutely convinced of his love for us and in his power and desire to take care of us.

So my prayer changed. I said, “Lord, I know that you are good and that you have heard my prayer, and I can trust your answer to my prayer, whether or not you bring Raisin back.” The emphasis shifted from the cat to the fact that God was good, and that I could always trust that.

It was a true surprise when Raisin was rescued a few days later in a seemingly miraculous way, when my neighbor found her curled up in the engine compartment of her car, dirty, gaunt, and with a paralyzed paw. I know that my prayers did not “earn” her return, and that it was out of sheer grace that God answered in this way.

I’m almost embarrassed to share this story when others struggle with greater needs. But it did teach me that God didn’t really need me to fervently imagine a certain outcome before he would answer a prayer. He is good, powerful and loving, and whatever answer he gave, I could still be assured of this most important fact of all.

The Prayers of Children

by Laura Tverberg (Lois’ mother)

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:15-17

A very old hymn has these words:

Prayer is the simplest form of speech that infant lips can try;
Pray’r sublimest strains that reach the Majesty on high. – James Montgomery, 1818

Even though children now don’t see Jesus in person, they can visualize Him in their mind’s eye as they’ve seen Him in any of the many paintings depicting Jesus with children. They are naturally able to trust, because they are entirely dependent on others. It makes it possible to receive God’s kingdom, as Jesus said, with the trust that everyone needs. Children learn by imitating, and by sitting quietly with folded hands at prayer time at home, they will learn simple petitions. Their hymns of praise are surely pleasing to our Lord Jesus. Thinking of Jesus as a close friend is helped by remembering the words of the familiar hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus . . . what a privilege to carry everything to the Lord in prayer.

Many people whose learning ability is limited are also able to offer prayers with confidence that they are heard by a loving Lord. A Christian friend said that when she is asked to pray for others, she has her disabled adolescent daughter also offer intercessory prayer. That was a surprise to me, but how good to know that such persons, childlike, in a way, offer prayers which are pleasing to the Lord and receive His blessing.

Time to Pray

by Bruce Okkema

But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.” Luke 5:15-16

“It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.” Luke 6:12

When I examine my life as to whether I am spending enough time in prayer, I have yet to be able to say that I am. Even when I devote a lot of time to this, it seems I can always do more. Is this true for you as well?

Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer everyday as we read in many accounts throughout the gospels. As a faithful Jewish man, he would have prayed the full Shema1 twice every day, as well as the “Amidah” or “18 Benedictions”2 at the very least. If you try this yourself, you might be surprised at how long it takes, but you will begin to realize why this was done.

Perhaps you do want to pray more, but you just can’t think of any new ways to make your prayer life deeper. You are not alone, there are many people who feel this way and as long as you make a commitment to do something about it, you can be encouraged that there are many places to turn for help.

The best place to start, is to pray specifically for God’s help in improving your prayer life. It is almost certain you will get a positive answer; can you imagine that the Lord would not help you in this? You can also begin using scripture as a guide for your prayers. Study some of the great prayers of Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter … praying them for yourself. Also, look at any Christian bookstore and you will find many books on prayer with good ideas about where to start and suggestions on methods to use.

Of course the difference is not made by the quantity of time you spend in prayer or about a particular method you use, but rather your sincerity in doing it. Try to follow Jesus’ example of praying often and praying long. You will find that that more time you spend in prayer, the more time you will want to spend in prayer.


(1) See the English Translation of the text of the full Shema
(2) ”The Amidah Prayer: A New Translation” by David Bivin

Humility in Prayer

by Bruce Okkema

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. `I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ ” Luke 18:9-12

It would be surprising if any of us reading this article would admire a prayer such as this. Yet one does not have to go far, perhaps only inside our own hearts, to find someone trying to justify himself through comparison to others. To do so, is to forget that the God to whom we pray already knows all about our accomplishments —and all our sins.

Picture an example in which a boy has stolen some candy from a store. The proprietor has reported the theft to the parents, but has left the discipline up to them. Then the child goes to confess his sin unaware that his parents already know exactly what he did. How forgiving will the parents be if their son makes excuses, or blames someone else, or lies about what was taken? Will anything less than a complete, truthful confession do any good? Likely not.

Some of you will remember that in our Water From the Rock article entitled “Da’at Elohim – Knowledge of God,” Lois wrote that the Hebrew word used for knowledge is “yadah” which means to know intimately.1 Several places in the Hebrew scriptures, in different contexts, this same word is used for “confession.” So one gets the sense that this is an intimate, personal knowledge of one’s own sin, perhaps a private act known only to ourselves in some cases. How can we rightfully petition Our Lord and expect Him to act justly if we are not honest with Him?

We can learn from the practice of observant Jews who recite the Sh’ma in the morning upon rising, and in the evening before retiring to affirm their commitment to God. Prior to the evening recitation, they will also say the following:

Blessed are You, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me – whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought or notion … May no man be punished because of me. May it be Your will, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in your abundant mercies …. May the expressions of my mouth and thoughts of my heart find favor before You, my Rock and My Redeemer. (Ps 19:4)2

So in the words of James,” … confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (5:16). Finally, listen carefully to our Lord’s opinion of these prayers and apply it:

But the tax collector, standing some distance away, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven, but rather was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’

I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 18:13-14


(1) See Da’at Elohim, by Lois Tverberg
(2) The Book of Jewish Values by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Day 270, quoting a prayer from the ArtScroll Prayer Book pg 288-89.

Praying in the Face of Persecution

by Bruce Okkema

Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously. The conspirators came and found Daniel praying and seeking mercy before his God. – Daniel 6:10-11

Would you be willing to pray even if it were to cost you your life? This may seem to be a strange question to hear for those of us who live in the western world. It is also difficult for us to believe that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. Yet, in China, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Egypt, Nigeria, Laos, and many other countries, Christians are being tortured and killed in great numbers because of their commitment to Christ. These executions are even being carried out by beheading and crucifixion in some cases.

Most of the time, the Lord chooses not to miraculously rescue those on the path of martyrdom, but rather He allows their painful journey to be completed as a testimony to those of us who follow. Stephen for one, left us with a powerful example of this in his last moments:

Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.” … When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him … They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7:52-60

Sometimes God does step into the situation however, and we just want to cheer! Listen to the way secular King Darius was moved after witnessing Daniel’s faithfulness and resolve:

Issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. “For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end.” Daniel 6:26

Please pray for those who are enduring persecution, pray for mercy on their behalf, for their strength, and for their encouragement. And pray that the Lord will prepare each of us for that day when we may have to stand in the face of adversity.

So, will you be willing to pray even if it costs you your life? I hope we can all say, “yes, with God’s help.” We can all certainly be encouraged by this promise from Philippians 2:10 that one day “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”