The Old Testament Background for the Sixth Petition

The Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer is, in the minds of many people, the most challenging of the seven petitions to understand.

The wording in Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 is the same (καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν). The first key term is the Greek verb εἰσφέρω (whose second person singular aorist subjunctive is negated: μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς). This verb has a strong active sense and means “bring in(to), carry in, lead in(to).”

The other crucial Greek word in the petition is the noun πειρασμός, which can, in certain contexts, mean “test” or “trial.” However, the dominant sense of the noun is “temptation,” that is, “enticement to sin.” The verb from which it is derived, πειράζω, is found, for example, in James 1:13, which says: “No one, being tempted [πειραζόμενος], should say that ‘I am tempted [πειράζομαι] by God.’ For God cannot be tempted [the adjective ἀπείραστος] to evil, and he tempts [πειράζει] no one.” Here the meaning is unambiguous—this is temptation to sin.

Because of what James asserts about God, some translate πειρασμός in the Sixth Petition as “trial” or “a test,” since, they argue, God cannot bring anyone into temptation. However, this translation, while trying to avoid a conflict with one portion of Scripture, ends up not squaring exactly with another portion.

What is the meaning of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?

Yet the question then arises whether the Sixth Petition is necessary, since God tempts no one to sin. In response, some have advocated understanding “bring us not into temptation” as “God, do not permit us to be tempted”—that is, by Satan. Such an understanding certainly is orthodox. God is the almighty Ruler over the whole creation; he has total control over everything. The book of Job and other passages of Scripture teach that Satan and/or the devils can operate only as, and as far as, God allows them. Satan could not move one millimeter without being permitted to do so by the Lord.

However, this understanding of the Sixth Petition, while orthodox, is not really dealing with, or doing full justice to, the exact wording given by Christ. Jesus said not, “Permit us not to be tempted” (“by Satan,” understood as the agent of that hypothetical passive verb), but rather, “Father, lead us not into temptation.” Is there a way to retain God as the subject of the petition and the strong sense of the active verb—“to bring into” or “to lead into”—and the concept of “temptation” without understanding God to be the one doing the tempting?

There is another issue regarding the understanding “permit us not to be tempted.” How does this relate to the reality that Satan does indeed tempt us every day? What is the full meaning of the Sixth Petition?

There is Old Testament background for the Sixth Petition which answers the questions which have been raised. These passages from the Old Testament were known well enough by the contemporaries of Jesus that no further explanation was necessary for this portion of the Lord’s Prayer.

The Example of King Ahab

The first to be considered is 1 Kings 22:19–24. King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom had decided to go up to Ramoth-gilead, southeast of the Sea of Galilee, and deploy military force to take back that location from the king of Aram. Ahab asked Jehoshaphat, the king of the Southern Kingdom, to go and fight with him. Jehoshaphat agreed to accompany Ahab but requested that Ahab first seek the counsel of Yahweh (1 Kings 22:5). Ahab brought together about four hundred so-called “prophets,” who proclaimed that Yahweh would give Ramoth-gilead into Ahab’s hand (22:6). Jehoshaphat, though, was rightly suspicious of these prophets and asked that a true, genuine prophet of God speak to them (22:7). So Ahab ordered that Micaiah be brought in (22:9). Micaiah at first repeated the words of the four hundred prophets (22:15), but indicated in some way that he was not sincere in his speech. At the prodding of Ahab, Micaiah went on to speak truthfully, foretelling that Ahab would die and revealing why this would take place (22:19–24).

Then he [Micaiah] said, “Therefore hear the word of Yahweh: I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven was standing by him on his right and on his left. Yahweh said, ‘Who will deceive Ahab, so that he will go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Now one talked in this way, and another was talking in that way. Then a certain spirit came forward and stood before Yahweh and said, ‘I will deceive him.’ Yahweh said to him, ‘How?’ He said, ‘I will go forth and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ He [Yahweh] said, ‘You will deceive and also prevail. Go forth and do so.’ And now, behold, Yahweh has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets. So Yahweh has spoken concerning you bad things.”

Then Zedekiah the son of Kenaanah drew near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, “Where, then, did the spirit from Yahweh pass from me to speak with you?”

The definite article “the” on the Hebrew noun “spirit” indicates that this spirit stood out from the rest and thus was vivid in Micaiah’s mind. This spirit stood out because he was, to use the phrase of Cogan, “the one who volunteered,” and he was the one sent by Yahweh. More than that, this spirit was an evil spirit, probably Satan himself. This spirit communicated a lie (or deception) and inspired the proclamation of falsehood. He would “deceive” and so is called “a deceiving spirit.”

The spirit who appears before the judgment seat of God and who will bring about falsehood in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets (22:23) can be considered to be Satan. God wants to punish Ahab for his abominable life and reign and to fulfill the words of Elijah’s prophecy about the end of Ahab (21:19; 22:34–35, 38). God wills that Ahab, who deliberately rejected the truth which was presented to him in powerful, dramatic fashion and instead held to falsehood, now, in poetic justice, continue to believe falsehood and be lured to his death at Ramoth-gilead.

The Lord, who knows everything in advance, asks the question, “Who will deceive Ahab, so that he will go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” (22:20) in order to draw Satan out and enlist him, ironically, as a willing volunteer. The terrible truth presented by 1 Kings 22 and other passages of Scripture is that the holy God at times uses the evil one to bring his righteous judgment on wicked, impenitent sinners. Satan, always bent on evil, becomes the unwitting tool of Yahweh, so that Yahweh’s purpose, his plan, is accomplished. Job 12:16 states that “both the deceived and the deceiver are his,” namely, God’s.

The four hundred prophets spoke as they did because they wanted to win favor with Ahab; whether or not they actually believed Ahab would be victorious at Ramoth-gilead is uncertain and does not really make any difference. They uttered falsehood, what would deceive Ahab, because Satan moved them to do so. Since Yahweh’s control is absolute and total, it is appropriate to speak here of his permissive will, what he allowed Satan to carry out. The language of this text, though, justifies describing God’s role in a more active sense. Yahweh orders Satan, “Go forth and do so” (22:22), and as Micaiah explained to Ahab, “Yahweh has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets” (22:23). One could say that Yahweh brought the four hundred into the condition of being exclaimers of what was not true, and yet he was not the one who caused them to be false prophets. He was not the author of this evil; Satan was.

The Example of King Saul

A series of verses in 1 Samuel 16, 18, and 19 is also pertinent to this discussion. 1 Samuel 16:14–16 and 1 Samuel 16:23 read:

And the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and a spirit of evil [/an evil spirit] from Yahweh terrified him. The servants of Saul said to him, “Look now, the spirit from God, an evil one, is terrifying you. Let our lord now address your servants (who are) before you that they may seek a man knowing how to play on the lyre, and it will be when the spirit from God, an evil one, is on you, he will play with his hand, and it will be well for you. …

And it was when the spirit from God came to Saul that David took the lyre and played with his hand, and there was relief for Saul, and it was well for him, and the spirit of evil departed from him.

When the Holy Spirit departed from Saul because of the king’s willful rejection of the rule and Word of God, an evil spirit terrified or haunted or troubled him. This was a form of judgment from the Lord. Some understand the “evil spirit” language here as the ancient Hebrew way of speaking about melancholy or depression and do not believe that an angelic being, namely a devil, was involved. However, the contrast in 1 Samuel 16:14 between “the Spirit of Yahweh” (that is, the Holy Spirit) and “a spirit of evil [/an evil spirit] from Yahweh” leads naturally to the conclusion that the text is referring to another spirit. It seems, based on 1 Samuel 18 and 19, that this demon, or a demon, was not always technically “on” Saul, but never far from him.

God permitted a devil to terrify Saul, yes, but the language of the Hebrew text, specifically how this spirit is designated, allows for a stronger assertion than that. This was a demon from Yahweh (1 Samuel 16:14); that is, God sent this devil. As such, it could be called, according to the wording of Saul’s servants (literally), “the spirit of God, an evil one” (1 Samuel 16:15, 16). In the boldest language yet, this devil could simply be referred to as (literally) “the spirit of God” (1 Samuel 16:23). God sent and used this spirit in his bringing judgment on Saul.

As we know from the rest of Scripture, only the Word of God drives away Satan or a devil. Reading between the lines, David, who would become known as “the delightful song writer of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1), and who would be the human author of more than half the poetic pieces in the Psalter, played the lyre and sang spiritual songs, or psalms, to Saul. That is, through music he presented the Word of God to the king. Saul listened to these songs, without believing the biblical truths contained in them or being reconverted. Nevertheless, that little bit of taking in the Word of God or simply David’s proclamation of the truth was enough to have the evil spirit depart from Saul. God, as John Saleska has suggested, was showing Saul where relief was to be found—in his Word, Scripture.

1 Samuel 18:10–11 and 19:9–10 relate incidents when Saul was not listening to the Word sung by David, or he acted before the singing had the effect of causing the demon to leave. The evil spirit from Yahweh first tempted Saul to murderous thoughts, and, having yielded to that, Saul then succumbed to the temptation to hurl his spear at David. Since Yahweh controls everything, and specifically, since he sent the evil spirit to Saul, it can be said that Yahweh brought Saul into temptation. Yet Yahweh did not tempt Saul to evil, nor was he the author of Saul’s sin.

The Example of King David

There is an Old Testament text, though, which seemingly goes beyond the careful distinction just drawn. It is the climactic verse of this discussion, using the strongest language yet with regard to the active role of God in the matter of temptation. The passage apparently gives justification to understanding the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer as implying that God does tempt people. The verse is 2 Samuel 24:1:

And the anger of Yahweh again burned against Israel, and he incited/enticed David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”

A parallel to this is found in 1 Chronicles 21:1:

And Satan stood against Israel and incited/enticed David to number Israel.

The same verb, in exactly the same form, is used in both verses, with Yahweh as the subject in 2 Samuel 24:1 and with Satan as the subject in 1 Chronicles 21:1. In 2 Samuel 24, the verb has a definite negative meaning, for the text says that Yahweh moved David to take a census, which was wrong. 2 Samuel 24:10 reports that David was conscience stricken (literally, “the heart of David smote him”) after he had taken the census, and he confessed to Yahweh, “I have greatly sinned in what I have done. And now, Yahweh, remove, I beg you, the guilt of your servant, because I have acted very foolishly.”

For 2 Samuel 24, the best translation for that verb, then, is either “incite” or “entice.” In this context, the meaning “incite” would involve temptation; David was stirred up to do what was wrong. The translation “entice,” if anything, brings out the idea of temptation in an even clearer fashion.

God, in a manner of speaking, “tempted” David to do what was wrong in order to bring his just judgment on Israel in general and David in particular. Whatever the reason, judgment on Israel was necessary, and David’s sin in taking the census provided the occasion for this. The carrying out of a census was, in itself, not wrong, and there had been several in the history of Israel.

The root of David’s sin

David’s transgression began in his heart, and the majority in Israel may have joined David in the same inner sin. That possibly is the, or another, reason why Yahweh was angry with the nation. David manifested his inner evil thoughts and attitude by having the census taken.

His initial, internal sin may have been that he built up a feeling of sinful pride over what he had accomplished and the extent of his kingdom and in large measure was forgetting that Yahweh had given him his victories, rulership, and prosperity. The point of the census was that he could take pride in the number of fighting men from Israel who were at his disposal.

Or David’s inner sin may have been an overreliance on human power and might, on human instrumentality. Perhaps David was reckoning his strength not so much according to what Yahweh could do, but rather according to how many men he could muster for his army. Soldiers, shields, swords, and spears were more in the foreground, while Yahweh was being relegated more to the background.

Either one of these inner sins—pride or trusting in human might—could have built up in David without his even being aware of this tragic reality. Both might have been present in the king when he ordered the numbering. The census was wrong because it came from wrong motives. It was the visible, outer manifestation of David’s internal, invisible sin. The evil within produced the evil without.

The role God played in David’s temptation to sin

The author of Samuel used very bold, striking language with regard to God’s role in David’s taking of the census when he wrote that God “incited” or “enticed” David to do what was wrong and what would call forth his judgment (2 Samuel 24:1). This language was, to put it provocatively, too much for the Chronicler, who wrote after the author of Samuel. The Chronicler felt the need to present the additional, complementary truth that Satan “incited” or “enticed” David to take the census (1 Chronicles 21:1). Thus the Chronicler’s account serves as a balance to and, one might say, a toning down of the report in Samuel.

These two texts, 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21, are another example of God and Satan both being involved in the same incident. God allowed Satan to operate further on David, who already was inclined to sin. But 2 Samuel 24 forces us to say more. All that happens ultimately can be traced back to God because of his absolute, complete control. The Samuel verse, in essence, is saying, “Yahweh [[through Satan]] incited David.” 

So, does God lead into temptation?

From the perspective discussed above, we could say that God led Eve and Adam into temptation in that he allowed Satan to operate in the garden of Eden while the first people were still in a state of holiness. After Christ’s Baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus—the sinless God-man—into the wilderness to be tempted (πειράζω) by the devil (Matthew 4:1).

However, there is a different situation in the passages reviewed in this study, which present a key thought behind the Sixth Petition. In these verses from Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, God’s leading into temptation was judgment for transgression. This has the particular nuance of God punishing the unbelievers and chastening, or disciplining, the believer.

God, then, at times disciplines believers by “leading them into temptation”—by permitting Satan to tempt them. The fact that the believer now has to deal with this kind of an assault from Satan is discipline enough.

Scripture teaches that God will not let a believer experience temptation above what he is able to bear. If the believer makes use of the way of escape and does not fall deeper into sin, well and good. The believer has been driven to the Word; in God’s Law, he perceives his present inner transgression, and by God’s Gospel, he is empowered to resist Satan and purge himself of the trespass. If the believer does not make use of the way of escape, succumbs to the temptation of Satan, and falls deeper into sin by evil activity, he will suffer the bitter consequences of his wickedness.

The meaning of the Sixth Petition

Going back to one of the questions posed at the beginning—about the full meaning of the Sixth Petition—an additional aspect, then, of this petition is that we are asking God to keep us living in a godly manner. The true, complete meaning of the petition is that we are praying to the Lord to help us live according to his will, so that he will not lead us into temptation, so that we can avoid this as much as possible. Temptations come to us for various reasons; may it not be, we are praying, that temptation comes to us because of our sin, as chastening from the Lord. Our fervent request is that God would keep us in the way of obedience.

The question arises as to why the Sixth Petition was put in the negative and not in the positive, as the other petitions. Why was it not expressed as, for example, “Father, help us to follow your commands”? There are three responses:

  1. The positive aspect has already been uttered in the Lord’s Prayer: “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Third Petition, Matthew 6:10). The Sixth Petition, in highlighting a consequence of not doing the will of God, serves as a complement to the Third by presenting the other side of the coin. The Sixth is teaching and emphasizing in another way that righteous behavior is of utmost importance.
  2. The OT at times states something in the negative, but the positive is also assumed and included. God, in giving his people ten commandments for moral conduct (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5), began eight of them with “you shall not.” However, the Fifth Commandment (“you shall not murder,” Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), for example, has more associated with it than simply not committing murder. As Luther has pointed out, this commandment is also about helping and befriending our neighbor in every bodily need.
  3. The Fifth Petition (“and forgive us our trespasses,” Matthew 6:12), at least in part, is dealing with sins already committed. In the next petition, we are saying, in essence, “Father, we do not want to be led into temptation by you as a result of our transgressing. So, as much as possible, may we not sin in the future.”

The Lord’s Prayer is the perfect prayer, and if the Sixth Petition is more of a challenge for us, that is for our good. It causes us to wrestle with certain spiritual realities and imparts to us true wisdom. The Sixth Petition urges us to remain in God’s Word and Sacrament, through which he keeps us strong in the faith and living in a godly manner. We so live in union with Jesus, who was led by the Spirit into being tempted by Satan, not because of any sin Christ committed, but because of our transgression, and who overcame every temptation of the devil for our salvation.


Blog post is adapted from Walter A. Maier III, 1 Kings 12–22, Concordia Commentary, pages 1611–29 © 2019 Concordia Publishing House.

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