Sometimes we can go for years thinking that we understand a passage in the Bible and then discover that we were mistaken. For me, one of those verses was the opening of the well-known Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.
I knew that I had questions about some sections of this prayer, but one part that seemed obvious to me was “hallowed be Thy name.” Christians recite this prayer together often, sometimes weekly, and I would bet that many of us share the same mistaken idea that I had, namely, that the meaning of “hallowed be Thy name” was so obvious it needed no explanation. In this article we will explore this deceptively simple phrase to understand better what we have been reciting all this time.
The First Request
To show you where I went wrong, let me ask a question: Where is the first place we actually ask for something in the Lord’s Prayer? What is the first request, the first thing we pray for? Our quick first answer might be “give us this day our daily bread,” but a little reflection shows that will not work; several requests come before that one. But perhaps we might be tempted to answer the way I used to: our first request is “Thy kingdom come.”
I used think that the structure of the prayer was like this:
Opening statement: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
First request: (May) Thy kingdom come.
Second request: (May) Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I never gave much thought to “hallowed be Thy name,” anyway. It sounded like a fancy way of saying “your name is holy.” That seemed like a good way to start a prayer: address God and say “Father, your name is holy,” and then get on to the requests. But I was wrong; the first request in the Lord’s Prayer is not “Thy kingdom come.” The first request is “Hallowed be Thy name.”
Part of the reason we might miss this is our rustiness with King James English. Let us translate the first part of the Lord’s prayer in a way that shows the structure more literally and clearly:
Our Father who is in heaven:
May your name be sanctified.
May your kingdom come.
May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The structure of the first three requests in the prayer is actually very tight. They are three parallel third-person imperatives: may your ‘X’ do ‘Y’!
May Your… name be sanctified.
May Your… kingdom come.
May Your… will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
That structure is very deliberate on Jesus’ part because each request is very closely connected to the other two. In a way, each request is asking for the same thing. In order to understand this better, we need to look for a moment at the Old Testament concept of the kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God
Who rules this world? It seems obvious when we look around. Rich and powerful people rule this world. Kings and presidents rule this world. Russian mobsters, Colombian drug cartels, and television networks rule this world. In a nutshell, fallible selfish people rule this world. And do we rule this world well? No, under our rule injustice still thrives as it has throughout the entirety of human history. Under our rule human sin continues unabated, bringing death and suffering on every life it touches. Our world has been this way for many centuries, and it seems as if it will go on this way forever.
The prophets of Israel, however, knew that this was only a temporary condition. The day was coming when God, the rightful ruler of all creation, would assert His rule. He would throw down all the rulers of this world. He would rule over the world through His own appointed King, the Messiah. That King would rule in righteousness and justice. Under that rule the world would no longer be a place of rebellion and evil; the King would conquer every trace of rebellion; every square inch of creation would be under the rule of God, reflecting His goodness and love. This is what the prophets meant by “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of Heaven”—God’s rule, through His Messiah, over all the earth, bringing in eternal righteousness.
Sanctifying God’s Name
Now what does this have to do with “hallowed be Thy name” (or more literally, “May Your name be sanctified?”)? To see the connection, let us look at the words of one of those prophets in Ezekiel 36, starting with verse 16:
Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, when the house of Israel was living in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds; their way before Me was like the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity. Therefore, I poured out My wrath on them for the blood which they had shed on the land, because they had defiled it with their idols. Also I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed throughout the lands. According to their ways and their deeds I judged them. When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord; yet they have come out of His land.’ But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations where they went.”
God’s punishing Israel by sending them into exile and captivity had a bad effect on His reputation. God is holy—that is, He is not common and ordinary like you and me; He is awe-inspiringly unique in His goodness and power. That is what “holy” means: set apart, awesome, uniquely wonderful. But if God is so holy, why were the Jews defeated by the other nations? In the eyes of the world, God must be a pretty puny, insignificant god if He could not protect His people against the Assyrians and Babylonians. God’s name was profaned; that is, instead of seeing God as holy, the world saw Him as ordinary, a failure—just one of a long line of gods, and not even a very good one, since He couldn’t save His people. God’s name, God’s reputation, was in the mud. What would He do?
Therefore, say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. And I will sanctify My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I sanctify Myself among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. And you will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.’”
This is a description of the coming of the kingdom of God. In chapter 37 of Ezekiel what God is going to do becomes clear: He is going to send the Messiah to rule over Israel, to rule over the whole world. He is going to forgive Israel for their sins. He is going to gather them together under the rule of the Messiah. He is going to cleanse their hearts from all sin, and put new hearts within them. In doing all this, God says He is going to “sanctify My great name.” No longer will the nations dismiss the name of God as trivial and forgettable; in that day everyone will know that God is indeed the Holy One.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus speaks of the same concept that Ezekiel does, the sanctification of the name of God. What God says He is going to do in Ezekiel is what we are praying will happen when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. God has made many promises to His people, but the world around us feels quite safe in either ignoring or ridiculing Him. Until He comes and keeps all those promises, establishing His rule over all creation, the nations laugh at His name: “God is no big deal. Look around. He doesn’t protect His people. The world goes on the same day after day.” Well, a day is coming when no one will be able to ignore God anymore. God is going to step into history and destroy all the kingdoms of this world and rule over His people and bless them. When He does that, He will “sanctify His name.” God is already holy, but in this world His name, his reputation, is seen as ordinary and insignificant. When Jesus returns to rule over all, God’s name, God’s reputation, will be restored to its rightful place.
Perhaps the best expression of how God’s name will be sanctified is in Zechariah’s famous statement about the coming of the Messianic kingdom. In chapter 14, Zechariah describes God coming to the defense of Israel against all the nations of the earth. God will prevail, and living waters will flow from Jerusalem to the east and to the west. Then Zechariah makes a beautiful statement in verse 9:
And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one, and His name the only one.
One day God will be King over all the earth: all other rulers will be taken away, and God will rule over all through Christ. One day all rebellion against God will be eliminated. When God’s kingdom comes, His will shall prevail; the world will be good and pure and righteous, just the way He wants it to be. One day God’s name will be the only one; instead of many rulers all competing for power and glory, everyone will know that God’s name is above all. He alone is worthy of praise. In other words, His name will be “sanctified.” This is the day that Jesus is asking us to pray for in the Lord’s prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer
We can see, then, that the first three requests in the Lord’s Prayer are not only structurally united but thematically united as well:
May Your name be sanctified.
May Your kingdom come.
May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
To put it in a different order, we are saying this:
God, I want that day to come when you will rule over all the earth. (May Your kingdom come.)
God, I want that day to come when all rebellion is destroyed and your perfect will prevails over all the earth. (May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.)
God, I want that day to come when your reputation is vindicated, when all the world will see that You are the One God, whose name is holy above all. (May Your name be sanctified.)
What does this mean for us? Why does Jesus tell us to pray like this? In Jesus’ teaching it becomes clear that what we pray for reflects what is in our hearts. In the first half of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus is showing us what ought to be on the hearts of God’s people. We ought to know that nothing in this world can truly satisfy us, can truly solve our problem. What do we long for? What do we really need? What are we going to cry out to God for? If we are wise, we will cry out for His kingdom to come because that is what we truly need. Our hearts should be growing in our desire that God will come and establish His rule over the world—that His desires will prevail, that His name will finally be recognized throughout all the world.
We can see, then, that this kind of prayer has nothing to do with “moving the hand of God.” God’s kingdom is going to come whether I pray for it or not. It was His idea in the first place, not mine, and He certainly does not need me to convince Him to bring that kingdom about. The importance of the prayer is in what it expresses about my heart. What is the focus of my life? Am I preoccupied with the worries of this life? Are my prayers filled only with requests for worldly happiness and success? Or have I heard the promises of God and believed them? That is what Jesus is teaching us in the first part of the Lord’s prayer. God has promised that He will come and rule over the world through Jesus. God has promised that His perfect will shall win out over all rebellion. And God has promised that one day His name, His reputation, will be vindicated throughout all the earth. All will know that God is unique, righteous, powerful, special, awesome, wonderful. Jesus is telling us to let our hearts be filled with hope from those promises, and so then let our prayer be an expression of that hope and longing. One day all the world will know that God is holy, and that will be the best day the world has ever known. If we believe this and long for this, then that desire will be at the heart of our prayers, and we can pray “hallowed by Thy name” and mean it.