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Deliver us from Evil …. or the Evil One?

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Apart from the style of English used in reciting the Lord’s Prayer (old English: “who art…Thy Name” or modern English: “who is…Your Name”), the most common variation saying the Lord’s Prayer concerns the fifth petition (“forgive us”) and the choice of “debts” or “trespasses” (as discussed in this post). A less common, but real difference appears in the last petition: “deliver us from…” While the most common form of the Lord’s Prayer will say “deliver us from evil,” people sometimes will advocate for saying “deliver us from the evil one.” Why this difference? And what difference (if any) does it make? 

The Reason for the Difference
As with the discussion about debts or trespasses, it is wise to go back to Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4  where Jesus teaches this prayer to his disciples. “Deliver us from…” is not included in Luke 11:1-4 as it ends with “lead us not into temptation.” Therefore, the existence of two versions of this prayer does not explain or help us understand this difference. That said, I do believe the omission of the words in Luke may have an impact in how we understand the relationship between the phrases “lead us not into temptation” and “but deliver us from evil” in Matthew 6:13, and thus how we understand the overall meaning of these words. Rather than seeing them as two separate petitions (as Martin Luther does), I think the omission points to seeing the phrases as two ways of asking for the same thing – to be protected from the attacks of Satan). This is not the only reason that I (and the Reformed tradition as seen in the explanations of the Lord’s Prayer in the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism) see these as connected. Even more important is the use of the conjunction “but” instead of “and” to link these phrases, as this contrasting conjunction shows what the alternative to being led into temptation looks like. 

When we examine different English translations of the prayer in Matthew. 6:13, we see cause for the dispute. For example, the English Standard Version (ESV) says, “but deliver us from evil” while the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) renders the phrase “but deliver us from the evil one,” with both translations putting the other reading in their footnotes as an alternative. You may wonder why the English translations differ. Are there different readings in the Greek manuscripts we have of the New Testament? No, there is not, as there is no real dispute about the wording of the original. The issue is that this Greek phrase (tou ponerou if you are wondering; literally “the evil”) reflects two different expressions. We see the same phenomenon at times in English (words we call homograph), such as “putting” (did you think of placing something somewhere….or about playing golf?). In this case, it is tied to the Greek’s language having grammatical gender of words (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and different endings on words according to their function in a sentence (subject, direct object, etc.). Before I lose any reader in this grammatical digression, let me get back to the issue; the Greek phrase itself could either be “evil one” (masculine – referring here to a person, the Devil) or “evil”  (neuter – referring more to a concept, evil itself). Hence, the difference in translation and the footnotes giving alternatives – and the reason that some want to say “evil one” in the Lord’s Prayer. 

The Meaning of the Different Options
A fair question is if there is (and if so, how big) a difference in the meaning of these two options. Some, such as John Calvin, think the difference is fairly small, but I believe that one’s choice has a fairly significant impact on the nature of the request. If someone views it as “evil,” then they could view themselves as requesting to be delivered from evil in all of its forms in this world. This would include the internal propensity to sin, but also the external manifestations of sin in this world as we experience “evil” things because of the fallen world (sickness, disaster, death, etc.). In one sense, this is what we are praying when we say “your kingdom come” – as we long for the day for it to come in its fullness. Therefore, some would say that this request (and all of them) is really for the end of time to come. However, most people do not have that perspective on the Lord’s Prayer and thus could seem to be praying for God to deliver from all sufferings and challenges of this world; that God would make this life peaches and cream for us.  

On the other hand, if the word is “evil one,” then the request would be that God give us victory in our battles with Satan. (While “evil one” can refer to an evil person, it is very commonly used for the devil.) In saying this, we are reminded that there is an enemy out there who opposes God and seeks to destroy us. Therefore, not only are we asking that God not leave us on our own in these battles, but for Him to bring us through them victoriously. This sort of request would echo Jesus’s prayer about protecting us from the evil one (John 17:15) and other statements in the Bible about overcoming the attacks of the evil one (1 John 2:13, 14; 5:18). 

Deciding Between the Different Options
So, which translation is better, “evil” or “evil one”? For a number of reasons, I think “evil one” is to be preferred. While Greek can use “the” to refer to evil in the abstract (Romans 12:19) and (unlike in English) does not need to use the article to refer to a person, the article is more commonly used in contexts referring to a person. If the desire was to refer to “evil” as opposed to “evil one,” I do not think the article would be used. In addition, we see many references to the devil as the “evil one,” especially in Matthew 5:37; 13:19, 38, so this title for the devil is not unusual. The context of Matthew also points to it being a reference to the devil as we read about Jesus being tempted (and overcoming) the devil in Matthew 4 and now read about temptation and deliverance. Thus, this request acknowledges the reality of the devil, our need for God’s guidance as we get assaulted by him, and our belief that God can and will rescue us from his hands when we look to Christ. May we be reminded of those truths regardless of whether we say “evil” or “evil one.”

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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