We distinguish between these holy books
and the apocryphal ones. . . .
The church may certainly read these books
and learn from them
as far as they agree with the canonical books.
—Belgic Confession, Article 6
Looking to the Apocrypha for liturgical resources may strike some evangelical and Reformed Christians as strange, possibly bordering on heretical. Even in today’s more ecumenically open climate, we may steer clear of the Apocrypha. But if we do, we are missing out on rich sources of stimulation for piety and faithfulness.
The books of the Apocrypha are found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles. But the Apocrypha is not Roman Catholic or Orthodox literature; it is Jewish literature written by faithful Jews in the period after the exile. The authors of these books wanted to help their people learn from that horrible experience and find their way to greater faithfulness toward God.
The writers of the Apocrypha tried to address the different circumstances in which the Jewish people found themselves—some back in Palestine, some in the Diaspora, but all under the domination of Gentile powers—a situation utterly different than what Jews had known before the exile. They called the Jews to humility and faithfulness before God, to repentance, awe, and piety.
The works eventually collected in the Apocrypha resonated so deeply with the Jewish people of the inter-testamental period that they were included in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Jewish holy books). In this way the apocryphal books became known to and were widely used among Christians, who relied on the Septuagint as their version of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Some time late in the first or early second century, when the Jewish people finally delimited the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures, these apocryphal books were omitted. And although the church ended up acquiescing in the Jewish decision regarding the Old Testament canon, Christians continued to read and use the books of the Apocrypha. Eventually, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church accepted them as canon.
Many Protestants mistakenly assume that the sixteenth-century reformers repudiated the Apocrypha. The reformers did not treat it as canonical, but neither did they reject it or warn their followers against it. While they advised that Christians should not base doctrine on the Apocrypha since it was not canonical Scripture, they argued that Christians could and even should read the books of the Apocrypha as literature that could enhance their lives before God.
In his German version of the Bible, Martin Luther placed the books of the Apocrypha in a section between the Old and New Testaments prefaced with this note: “Apocrypha—that is, books which are not held equal to the Holy Scriptures, and yet are profitable and good to read.” Our contemporary suspicion of the Apocrypha is clearly not rooted in the reformers.
Over the years, I have followed Luther’s advice and have read through the Apocrypha—once each in the King James, Revised Standard, and New Revised Standard versions. Each time, I was profoundly moved by the depth of insight, wisdom, and piety offered in these godly writings. From time to time I used passages from the Apocrypha in worship services and in sermons. Many times these passages struck deep chords with members of the congregation.
Following are some rich liturgical resources from the Apocrypha. I have structured these by using common elements of a worship service as subject headings, as well as suggestions for Advent or Epiphany, Good Friday, and a wedding prayer. All are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha.
Call to Worship
- “Let all your creatures serve you, for you spoke, and they were made. You sent forth your spirit, and it formed them; there is none that can resist your voice.” (Judith 16:14)
- “You love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?” (Wisdom of Solomon 11:24-25)
- “Glorify the Lord and exalt him as much as you can, for he surpasses even that. When you exalt him, summon all your strength, and do not grow weary, for you cannot praise him enough.” (Sirach 43:30)
- “And now bless the God of all, who everywhere works great wonders, who fosters our growth from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy.” (Sirach 50:22)
- “Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors, and worthy of praise; and glorious is your name forever! For you are just in all you have done; all your works are true and your ways right, and all your judgments are true.” (The Prayer of Azariah 1:3-4)
- “O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-25)
- “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (Judith 8:14)
- “You are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope.” (Judith 9:11)
- “We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labor; but who has traced out what is in the heavens?” (Wisdom of Solomon 9:16)
- “In everything, O Lord, you have exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places.” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:22)
- “Neither seek what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your power. Reflect upon what you have been commanded, for what is hidden is not your concern. Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you, for more than you can understand has been shown you.” (Sirach 3:21-23)
- “To none has he given power to proclaim his works; and who can search out his mighty deeds? Who can measure his majestic power? And who can fully recount his mercies? It is not possible to diminish or increase them, nor is it possible to fathom the wonders of the Lord. When human beings have finished, they are just beginning, and when they stop, they are still perplexed.” (Sirach 18:4-7)
- “You cannot understand the things with which you have grown up; how then can your mind comprehend the way of the Most High? And how can one who is already worn out by the corrupt world understand incorruption?” (2 Esdras 4:10-11)
Call to Confession
- “God created us for incorruption and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24)
- “We journeyed through trackless deserts, but the way of the Lord we have not known.” (Wisdom of Solomon 5:7)
- “Equally hateful to God are the ungodly and their ungodliness; for what was done will be punished together with the one who did it.” (Wisdom of Solomon 14:9-10)
- “Do not say, ‘I sinned, yet what has happened to me?’ for the Lord is slow to anger. Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add sin to sin. Do not say, ‘His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins,’ for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger will rest on sinners.” (Sirach 5:4-6)
- “Who among the living is there that has not sinned, or who is there among mortals that has not transgressed your covenant?” (2 Esdras 7:46)
- “An evil heart has grown up in us, which has alienated us from God, and has brought us into corruption and the ways of death.” (2 Esdras 7:48)
- “All who have been born are entangled in iniquities, and are full of sins and burdened with transgressions.” (2 Esdras 7:68)
- “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants.” (2 Esdras 7:118) [cf. “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” (Sirach 25:24)]
- “It is no light thing to show irreverence to the divine laws.” (2 Maccabees 4:17)
- “To transgress the law in matters either small or great is of equal seriousness, for in either case the law is equally despised.” (4 Maccabees 5:20-21)
Prayer of Confession (see also Prayer of Manasseh)
- “You are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent.” (Wisdom of Solomon 11:23)
- “Wipe away our sins and disperse our errors, and reveal your mercy at this hour. Speedily let your mercies overtake us, and put praises in the mouth of those who are downcast and broken in spirit, and give us peace.” (3 Maccabees 2:19-20)
Assurance of Pardon
- “If you turn to him with all your heart and with all your soul, to do what is true before him, then he will turn to you and will no longer hide his face from you. So now see what he has done for you; acknowledge him at the top of your voice. Bless the Lord of righteousness, and exalt the King of the ages.” (Tobit 13:6)
- “You have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:19)
- “The Lord is compassionate and merciful; he forgives sins and saves in time of distress.” (Sirach 2:11)
- “Equal to his majesty is his mercy.” (Sirach 2:17)
Guide to New Life/God’s Will for Our Lives
- “What you hate, do not do to anyone.” (Tobit 4:15)
- “At all times bless the Lord God, and ask him that your ways may be made straight and that all your paths and plans may prosper.” (Tobit 4:19)
- “A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing.” (Tobit 12:8)
- “In spite of everything let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” (Judith 8:25)
- “Wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin.” (Wisdom of Solomon 1:4)
- “Those who fear the Lord will have a happy end; on the day of their death they will be blessed.”(Sirach 1:16)
- “If you desire wisdom, keep the commandments, and the Lord will lavish her upon you. For the fear of the Lord is wisdom and discipline, fidelity and humility are his delight.” (Sirach 1:26-27)
- “Do not let your hand be stretched out to receive and closed when it is time to give.” (Sirach 4:31)
- “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.” (Sirach 7:36)
- “Human success is in the hand of the Lord.” (Sirach 10:5)
- “How can dust and ashes be proud? Even in life the human body decays.” (Sirach 10:9)
- “The prince and the judge and the ruler are honored, but none of them is greater than the one who fears the Lord.” (Sirach 10:24)
- “Better are those who hide their folly than those who hide their wisdom.” (Sirach 41:15)
- “Both we and our words are in his hand, as are all understanding and skill in crafts.” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:16)
- “For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power; but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours.” (Wisdom of Solomon 15:2)
Prayer for Illumination
- “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.” (Wisdom of Solomon 3:9)
- “If you love to listen you will gain knowledge, and if you pay attention you will become wise.” (Sirach 6:33)
- “O Lord, Father and God of my life, do not give me haughty eyes, and remove evil desire from me.” (Sirach 23:4-5)
- “May God do good to you. . . . May he give you all a heart to worship him and to do his will with a strong heart and a willing spirit. May he open your heart to his law and his commandments, and may he bring peace. May he hear your prayers and be reconciled to you, and may he not forsake you in time of evil.” (2 Maccabees 1:2-5)
Advent or Epiphany
- “Who has seen him and can describe him? Or who can extol him as he is?” (Sirach 43:31)
- “For in truth there is no one among those who have been born who has not acted wickedly; among those who have existed there is no one who has not done wrong.” (2 Esdras 8:35)
- “The world lies in darkness, and its inhabitants are without light.” (2 Esdras 14:20)
- “Blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes.” (Wisdom of Solomon 14:7, written about the ark built by Noah)
“Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors, and blessed is your name in all generations forever. Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever. You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve as a helper and support. From the two of them the human race has sprung. You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.’ I now am taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together.” (Tobit 8:5-7)
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 offences.
“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 transgression. 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 forever. Amen.” (The Prayer of Manasseh 1-15).
For Further Study
- Invitation to the Apocrypha by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. (Eerdmans, 1999)
- Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance by David A. deSilva (Baker Academic, 2002)
- An Introduction to the Apocrypha by Bruce M. Metzger (Oxford University Press, 1957)