This simple request in the middle of the Lord's Prayer may be one of the most time-and tear-tested portions of prayer itself. About seven years ago, as our economy began to tumble and financial insecurities threatened many families, praying for the simple provisions of our lives became a reinvigorated practice. As a pastor, I have to admit that though the church felt the economic effects of that struggle in various ways, it was not all bad.
For many people, it became a moment in which they had to stop and assess what their priorities in life really were. It became a time of husbands and wives holding hands in prayer, and even praying this portion of the Lord's Prayer together through tears. Children watched as their parents had to cut their excess spending and were humbled in the process. Family worship was renewed, and in the center of it, requesting God's provision for simple things became a healthfully renewed practice.
It is a pastoral irony to me that so often it proves to be the case that the more we struggle materially, the more we seem to grow spiritually. God frequently helps us grow the most when we have the least, or at least when our focus is less on the things of this world and more on God Himself. If we find this a little perplexing, we can take heart; it is nothing new (1 Cor. 10:13).
This petition in the Lord's Prayer has raised a number of questions throughout the centuries of its interpretation, largely due to the fact that the word daily occurs only in the Lord's Prayer in the New Testament. In his commentary on Matthew, James Montgomery Boice noted that the word here for daily was found on a woman's shopping list from the biblical period, referring to items needed for the next day. He thus takes the petition as asking God to "give us the necessities of life for this day (or the day immediately ahead)."
Such language, as other commentators also point out, takes us back to Israel's pilgrimage through the wilderness. There, day after day, God provided the manna or "daily bread" that was needed for their physical lives. Proof that God would provide for their future was found in the faithful manner in which he provided for their present. We note with interest what God did the day before the Sabbath. On that day only, the Israelites were allowed to gather twice as much bread, enough for that day and also for the Sabbath day. By granting this provision, God enabled Israel to keep the Sabbath (by not working to gather bread on the Sabbath day). Even more importantly, it showed that God was already granting to them the blessings of the Sabbath even though it had not yet actually come. Through God's provision of physical bread, He demonstrated His desire to give them even greater things that were yet to come—things such as Sabbath rest.
Reformers such as John Calvin rightly pushed back against allegorical readings of this petition in the Lord's Prayer, and we appreciate their caution. Yet it would have been hard for a first-century Jew to hear this request for "daily bread" and not think of Israel in the wilderness, including the fact that on the day before the Sabbath, God gave them not only the bread of that day, but tomorrow's bread as well. That God did this for Israel year after year while they were in the wilderness was meant to serve a catechetical function: they were to learn week after week that God would provide for them, even though they could not yet see how He would do so.
Is not our covenant-keeping God continuing to teach us this same lesson? He teaches us to trust Him not only for our daily bread, but also for the eternal things of His heavenly kingdom. He faithfully gives us the things we need day by day for our material lives, and He also gives us the blessings of heaven through Jesus Christ, who is the bread of life that God has granted us for the salvation of our souls. In Christ, we have already received the blessings of the eternal Sabbath.
God teaches us to prayerfully depend upon Him for all our needs, trusting Him not only when we can see how these things will come to us, but even more when we have to look up with the eyes of faith to behold the glory of the Lord, even in the simplest things of this life—like daily bread. As we pray this petition in the Lord's Prayer, God continues to return us to the school of first things because too often we love and trust in the blessings of God more than the God of those blessings. Whether God has providentially placed us in an economic wilderness or bountifully blessed us with the milk and honey of prosperity, may we daily humble ourselves before Him in prayerful devotion, and praise our God from whom all blessings flow.