setting prisoners free: important ancient and modern prayers

Persons with power can make persons prisoners.  Prisoners are confined against their will.  They are confined behind locked doors and sometimes bound with shackles or chains.

Within this sense of prisoners, prisoners can be set free in essentially two ways.  Prisoners can be set free by authoritative words:

proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners

Prisoners can also be set free by violent action:

he brought them {prisoners} out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.

Prisoners, narrowly understood, can be set free by no ways other than authoritative words or violence.

In the ancient world, being a prisoner was not narrowly understood.  Consider this line of ancient biblical song:

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

In this literary form, the two half-lines are units that have a particular relation such as repetition, contrast, etc.  The relation between prisoners and the blind is not obvious today.  But another line of ancient song helps to elucidate the relation:

I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.[1]

In these two lines, their half-lines relate through emphasis and repetition.  Moreover, these two lines together associate freeing prisoners and opening the eyes of the blind with bringing light.  Light in the ancient world had very broad associations with life and an important god.

A general form of cursing in the ancient world was a “binding spell.”  Such a spell physically constrained a person, but did not kill.  Binding was thus imprisonment generalized.

Ritual services in Roman Egypt included a generally applicable release from bonds.  For example, one such service involved saying:

Let every bond be loosed, every force fail, let all iron be broken, every rope or every strap, let every knot, every chain be opened, and let no one compel me, for I am — {say the name}.[2]

“Say the name” assimilates the user to the god invoked, thus blurring the authority of binding and releasing.  Similarly, the statement is a passive construction (“let…be”) that blurs violence (“all iron be broken”) with an ordered release (“every chain be opened”). These verbal techniques helped to make the release from bonds generally applicable.

Early Christians also had a general understanding of binding persons and setting prisoners free.  A late-fourth-century Christian homily from Mesopotamia or Asia Minor declared:

the Lord descends into the souls of those who seek him.  He goes into the depths of the hellish heart and there he commands death, saying: “Release those captive souls that seek after me, those that you hold by force in bondage.”  He breaks through the heavy stones that cover the soul.  He opens the tombs.  He truly raises to life the dead person and leads that captive soul forth out of the dark prison.

This account presents setting prisoners free within a universal narrative of human life, conflicting desires, death, and redemption.  The phrase “leads that captive soul forth” alludes to the Exodus account of God leading the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt.  Immediately following this description is a highly particular example:

Take the example of a man bound with chains, hand and foot, and someone comes to remove his shackles and set him free so he may walk unencumbered.

Did the “someone” who removed the shackles have the key and do the initial shackling, or did that person forcibly break the shackles as an opposing authority?  The answer doesn’t seem to matter.  This specific example immediately expands to universality:

In a similar way the Lord removes the chains of death strangling the soul and releases it and sets the mind free so that it may amble without disturbance, but in tranquility before God.[3]

An early Christian Coptic Marian prayer similarly describes release of prisoners:

I am Mary.  Let the {stone} break, let the darkness break before me.  {Let} the earth break.  Let the iron dissolve.  Let the demons retreat before me. … They fear {his holy name, which } is Yao Sabaoth Adonai Elo {Eloi}, who, by his power, releases every one who is a prisoner.  You must destroy every spirit and power of the devil.[4]

Sin, demons, and the devil could imprison anyone.  Setting a prisoner free was a figure of common understanding and popular concern in the ancient world.

Jesus releasing prisoners of Hell

*  *  *  *  *


[1] The quotations are from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 61:1, Psalm 107:14-16, Psalm 146:7-8, Isaiah 42:6-7 (RSV trans.).

[2] PGM XIII.294-296, trans. Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. 1992. The Greek magical papyri in translation: including the Demotic spells Vol. 1, [Texts].  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  In the Acts of the Apostles, prison doors open and chains become unfastened similarly without a direct specification of means.  See Acts 5:19, 12:17, 16:25.

[3] Previous three quotes from Pseudo-Macarius, Homily 11, trans. Maloney, George A. 1992. The fifty spiritual homilies and the Great letter. New York: Paulist Press. The homily describes what came to be called the harrowing of Hell.

[4] A prayer made by Mary, London Oriental Manuscript 6796, trans. ll. 23-25, 37-41, from p. 283 in Meyer, Marvin W., and Richard Smith. 1994. Ancient Christian magic: coptic texts of ritual power. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.  For more information about such Marian prayers, see Marvin Meyer, “The Prayer of Mary Who Dissolves Chains in Coptic Magic and Religion,” in Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, eds., Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Religions in the Graeco- Roman World, 141 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002), 407–15.

[image] Icon of Christ’s descent into Hell to release its prisoners. Made in Pskov, Russia, in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Was in the Trinity Cathedral in Ostrov, Pskov Oblast, Russia. Now preserved as inventory # DRZH-2120 {ДРЖ-2120} in the Russian State Museum {Государственный Русский Mузей}, St. Petersburg, Russia. Image thanks to Icon Art and Wikimedia Commons.

33 thoughts on “setting prisoners free: important ancient and modern prayers”

  1. Hi how are you my dear my husband he in jail already 5 years i won’t he cam to release can you help me please

  2. The Gospel of Luke 4:16-21 records that Jesus went into a synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah:
    “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,
    He has sent me to proclaim release to captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
    After Jesus read those words, he declared, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

    Christians understand Jesus’s meaning to be that he can set prisoners free. I’m not Jesus. I can’t set prisoners free. I’m sorry about that. I would like to see the number of prisoners greatly reduced. I hope your men are given back to you soon.

  3. thank you for this encouraging information nay you be blessed for the help you freely give others

    1. Hi iam contacted u because my boyfriend has been locked up 19 years now his lawyer say 15000 will get him a release date can u please help me his name is Nicholas Williams

      1. You and your boyfriend surely suffered greatly across 19 years of incarceration. May he, like all of us, repent any wrongs committed and go and live rightly.

        I can’t offer you any specific help beyond my sympathy and prayers. I’m worried that your boyfriend’s lawyer may be trying to extort $15000 from you. I don’t think you should have to pay such a sum of money to get a release date for your boyfriend after 19 years of incarceration. I suggest you contact a local legal aid society or public defender’s office and ask for advice and help.

        1. I need help and prayers from you to get my sister released from prison and a young man who took charges to save my daughter and my stepson who went to jail because a girl lied and said he had her prostituting her body and he just gave her a place to stay.

          1. All I can offer you are my prayers. I will look upon the image I’ve added above and pray: God, you proclaim release to prisoners, in your ways far above our ways, find a way for Callie’s sister, the young man, her daughter, and her stepson to be set free. Lord of justice and of mercy, please Lord, in your mercy, set free these prisoners and restore them to those who love them. Please, Lord, soon.

  4. Hi the reason why I’m contacting you because Javonta Brown and my baby. Vince powe what was arrested by riding with some people the people got stop they found contraband and other stuff in the car we went to jail but I bonded out my baby Vince powe is still in jail Tattnall County the city Reidsville Georgia we was just ridding with them we didn’t know what was going on or what they was doing so can you help us get these charges off. Us and get them dropped before I go to court before he go to court I don’t know what else to do so I Turn to You seeking for help and guidance

    1. Be sure your man gets the best lawyer possible. Every person is entitled to a lawyer, and if you can’t pay you’ll be given a lawyer. It’s important to listen carefully to the lawyer and make sure your man understandings what the lawyer says.

      You might try praying some of the prayers above. May God help you!

  5. Hello I need a help that my son in law I got lock up for no reason he was working at the time and now my daughter is hurting because they have a new born and he hasn’t done nothing wrong he was doing everything good please help me find a way to release him from jail so desperate dont know what else to do

    1. Your son-in-law needs to get a good, honest lawyer with experience with his type of criminal case. May God help him in this way and every way to be set free.

    1. Lord, break the chains that hold Frank S. Winston in the Hampton City Jail. Bring him forth from the jail and restore him to his family. Please Lord, soon!

  6. My son goes to court in two weeks along with another 2 friends. The two got into a fight at the local fair and two of them were picked up and the third hasn’t been yet. They are facing measure 11 assaults, which here in Oregon is 5 years 10 mo.
    I don’t want this to be and he does not either I am going to do a spell for my first time for this I guess I am just putting it out there for more power towards his release along with prayers to go
    d to please let him come home and start his life as he just turned

  7. Please help me My nephew has been set up for illegal drugs in car. They also added charges to his case and is incarcerated for life. His mother has since passed on. His father recently passed on, and he wasn’t allowed to attend their funeral. He has only two sisters left. I hope and pray he be released sooner than 2109.

  8. My love has been incarcerated for 5 years. I don’t think they would let him out before 10 years due to the crime.
    Can you please help me?
    He was sentenced to 25- life with parole.
    Please help me

  9. Hello, I am new to this forum I think that I was lead here. I’ve read all of the posts and I also prayed with the friends and the families. I normally do not write, but I feel called to do so. I am praying the prayers listed and I am most grateful to have stumbled (no been blessed) to be here. My prayer request is for my future husband (Willie) to be released, he has a life without parole just because he knew about a situation and didn’t report it. He has been locked up since he was 22/23 now he is 44, he is so mature and is thirsty for a relationship with God, I was lead to speak the words to him. However, please pray that some miracle happens and that he be released healthy, saved, and anointed really soon. All praises to God, someone please pray with me. We are praying Psalms 71 for a release in this situation. Thank you for reading. Amen!

    1. For Willie, beloved of K. Harris, for his liberation in the Lord, hear my prayer, O Lord, let my cry come to you! Let this be recorded for generations to come, so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord. He looked down from his holy height, from Heaven the Lord looked down at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die. Psalm 102 I chant for you. May Willie rise in an Easter that the Lord creates for you!

  10. My wife is in jail pregnant and it’s because of me I call the police because I was being attacked and just wanted to get her help not sent to jail. Please please help me. I beg of u

    1. You are a child of God and your life is precious in God’s sight. Your wife must stop attacking you and repent of her wrong. You should say so to her and ask her to beg to God for forgiveness for attacking you. Until she sincerely repents and sins in that way no more, I fear that you and your wife will be walking in the valley of the shadow of death. Please, Lord, breathe a spirit of true repentance into the heart of Chace’s wife. Teach her how to love Chace as Jesus loves all of us!

  11. My son father is in an inmate Milpitas ca elmwood inmate lavonce Eugene Block Jr we is hoping for a release sometime now his next court date is 06/06/2021 please give him prayer he is a good men brought no harm to no one to be lock up for so long please pray for him

    1. The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him. He hears their cry and saves them. Lord, hear the cry of Lavonce Eugene Block jr. Pour your mercy into the heart of the judge he will come before on 06/06/2021. You be his judge with your mercy and loving-kindness. How long, O Lord, must we wait for your mercy? See Lavonce’s repentance and set him free. Please Lord, we pray!

  12. My boyfriend Robert Reedy been in Prison for 41/2 yrs. They keep denying his parole he been through alot. I just want him home.

  13. My son had court today Courtney Gainor, He had 10 years on Probation today his child’s mom told the police 5 months ago he kidnapped the baby . This is not true now he is sentenced to 10 years and after inditement is possibly face 25 years . This cause he violated probation with trying to protect his child. The judge, the attorney for his ex and the DA and his probation officer were not trying to here his side. Please tell me how can I get my son free from this evil curse that was on him

    1. I’m sorry for the evil curse of criminal injustice that you say your son is facing. I suggest that you try to get your son a good lawyer. If you don’t have money for a lawyer, try contacting a legal-aid society or the public defender in your court system. Without his lawyer present, your son should say nothing to any court official. He should insist that he at least be provided a lawyer. May God hear the cry of Courtney Gainor and give him true justice!

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