Seek advice from every wise person and do not despise any useful counsel.Tobit 4:18
When I finished reading the Bible last year a week early, my son (half jokingly, I am sure!) suggested that I start reading the Apocrypha. I thought, why not? And I am glad that I did! These books (called the Deuterocanonical books in the Roman Catholic Church and in many Orthodox Churches) are not considered Scripture by Lutherans and most Protestants, but they are included in many of our Study Bibles. They were also included in Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible (even though he did not consider them to be equal to the Bible). In his introduction to these books, Martin Luther said that they are “books which are not held equal to the sacred Scriptures, but nevertheless are useful and good to read.” And that is exactly what I discovered for myself.
I did not get through all of the books of the Apocrypha, but my reading of books like Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees was both interesting and well worthwhile. I discovered the truth of Luther’s insight that these books are both “useful” and “good to read.” So, in this little post, I want to explain why I found that to be the case.
First, why are these books useful? Because they help to bridge the gap between the Old and New Testaments. There is a gap of roughly 400 years between the completion of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ, and a lot can happen in 400 years! These are years when God was clearly active, and when God’s people were growing in their faith and understanding. In the book of Tobit, for example (the first book in the Apocrypha), we find the very first example in Jewish literature of someone being possessed by a demon. This obviously becomes important in the Gospels. 1 and 2 Maccabees are books that are particularly helpful in bridging the gap between these Testaments. They are historical in nature, each telling the story of the Maccabean Revolt, which is remembered annually with the celebration of Hanukkah. Reading these particular books gave me a better understanding of the rise of Rome, Greco-Roman culture, and the politicization (corruption?) of the high priesthood. It was also helpful to see in these books a growing understanding of heaven as a destination that awaits those who are faithful to God. So reading the Apocrypha was clearly “useful” to me in order to better understand the New Testament.
But I also found the Apocrypha “good to read.” Tobit, for example, is simply a wonderful story. I think it is one of the best short stories that I read all year. Tobit tells the story of an angel, Rafael, sent by God in answer to prayer to help two families in need. Reading it during the Christmas season, I couldn’t help but think of Christmas movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Bishop’s Wife.” It is a lovely story that I would encourage everyone to read.
Judith, too, was a joy to read, offering the story of a wise, beautiful widow whose courage and faith rival that of anyone in Scripture. And then there are short, little books like “Susanna,” “Bel and the Dragon,” which add to our stories about Daniel. Or “The Prayer of Manasseh,” which offers a very moving prayer of repentance that would be worth pondering regardless of its authorship or whether or not it is part of what we consider to be Scripture.
So, thanks to my son for his suggestion to read some of the Apocrypha. And if you have a little extra time on your hands, I would encourage you to spend a little of it with these books. To help you get started, I will close this little post with the complete “Prayer of Manasseh”:
O Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and of their righteous offspring; you who made heaven and earth with all their order; who shackled the sea by your word of command, who confined the deep and sealed it with your terrible and glorious name; at whom all things shudder, and tremble before your power, for your glorious splendor cannot be borne, and the wrath of your threat to sinners is unendurable; yet immeasurable and unsearchable is your promised mercy, for you are the Lord Most High, of great compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful, and you relent at human suffering.
O Lord, according to your great goodness you have promised repentance and forgiveness to those who have sinned against you, and in the multitude of your mercies you have appointed repentance for sinners, so that they may be saved. Therefore you, O Lord, God of the righteous, have not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against you, but you have appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner. For the sins I have committed are more in number than the sand of the sea; my transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied! I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven because of the multitude of my iniquities. I am weighted down with many an iron fetter, so that I am rejected because of my sins, and I have no relief; for I have provoked your wrath and have done what is evil in your sight, setting up abominations and multiplying offenses.
And now I bend the knee of my heart, imploring you for your kindness. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge my transgressions. I earnestly implore you, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me! Do not destroy me with my transgressions! Do not be angry with me forever or store up evil for me; do not condemn me to the depths of the earth. For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, and in me you will manifest your goodness; for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy, and I will praise you continually all the days of my life. For all the host of heaven sings your praise, and yours is the glory for ever. Amen.