Praying the Shema as a Christian

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Growing up, we did not recite prayers by memory. Though my Catholic friends regularly used well-loved and oft-repeated prayers, they were a foreign concept to me. I believed that prayers must always rise spontaneously from the heart, otherwise I risked becoming trite in my devotion to God.

I'll be honest here, that stance seems a little silly now. I have a whole library of hymns and devotional songs stored in my memory. I have no problem singing the same song in worship over and over. Though I am not very good at it, I value the ability to memorize and recite scriptures. Why can I repeat songs or memory verses, but not prayers?

Why memorize prayers?

I've been giving a lot of thought to prayer over the past year, and one of my recent goals has been to pray when I first wake up. It is incredibly difficult for me to form a coherent prayer with a groggy mind (I am not a morning person!) and it wasn't long until I started reciting the Lord's Prayer a few times through instead, focusing on different aspects that resonated with me. I memorized that prayer as a child in school. I'm sure you know it in one of its many forms and translations, but here it is the NASB rendition:

The Lord's Prayer

“Our Father who is in heaven,

Hallowed by your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

As we have also forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.”

Reciting prayers was part of the culture of Jesus

Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples because they asked him to teach them how to pray. Prayer was a regular part of Jewish life, including memorized prayers. In my novel, Dividing Sword, I often mention the characters praying the Shema. “Shema or Sh'ma” means “hear” in Hebrew, and the title is taken from the first line of the prayer, “Hear O Israel.”

This prayer was a confession of God's kingship. It was recited morning and evening and when a person was close to death. It was (and still is) included in services at the synagogue. It is almost certain that Jesus recited this prayer thousands of times in his life.

I didn't include the entire Shema in my novel, but I want to share it here with you now, in the NASB translation.

The Shema

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.

You shall teach them diligently to your sons and talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.

You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.

You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil.

He will give grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them. Or the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you.

You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.

You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your sons may be multiplied on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens remain above the earth.

The Lord also spoke to Moses, saying,

“Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot, so that you may remember to do all My commandments and be holy to your God.

I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.

This comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41

A whole Bible study could be built on these verses, but here are a few things that jump out at me from the Shema:

This doesn't sound like a prayer, at least not a modern one. It is more of a reminder and a warning. When the people recited it as a family or a group, they were exhorting each other to keep God at the center of their lives. The Jewish people were called to be holy (set apart for God's use) and the Shema was a reminder of the importance of remaining holy.

It begins with the acknowledgment of God's sovereignty. Like the first of the ten commandments, this scripture begins with declaring that there is only one God, Yahweh. Throughout the Shema, whenever you see the word “Lord”, it is the name of God, commonly translated as Yahweh or Jehovah.

Jesus quotes the second verse from the Shema as being the most important commandment. (Matthew 22:37)

Theses verses reminded the people daily of the importance of remembering the commandments and teaching them to their children—not just once a week, but throughout the day.