Matthew 6:7


Dr. Paul Ferguson Calvary Tengah Bible Presbyterian Church Shalom Chapel, 345 Old Choa Chu Kang Road, Singapore 689485 July 2010

The disciples of Christ clearly saw a connection between the power of the outward ministry of Christ and His secret prayer life when they cried in Luke 11:1, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ gave another sublime revelation on what prayer really is. Prayer is the cornerstone of all spiritual disciplines. Doubtless as we read this teaching, we are convicted of the shallowness of our praying; and even that we truly have not experienced what true prayer is. We echo the sentiments of the hymnist Albert S. Reitz who penned, Teach me to pray, Lord. Teach me to pray. This is my heart cry, day unto day. I long to know Thy will and Thy way. Teach me to pray, Lord. Teach me to pray. ERROR (2) - PRAYING AS THE HEATHEN DO In verse 7, the Lord gave a second error that easily intrudes into our prayer life, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” The first danger He highlighted in verse 6 in praying is that we can pray as the hypocrites do seeking attention for ourselves by our praying. Christ established the absolute principle that one cannot seek God’s approval and at the same time that of man. People who do the latter may claim to commune with God, but in reality, they are merely performing for the people around them. That is ostentatious praying. The second danger is that we can pray in a repetitive formal manner or with verbosity as the heathen do. In one sense, these are the two extremes of failure. The first one is the sin of being too concerned how you are perceived when you pray and the other is being totally indifferent to your prayers. Prayer is not some formal ritual with little or no meaning or significance, but spiritual communion with the living God. Christ makes clear that true prayer here is


thoughtful with the whole of the mind, will, and heart fully engaged. PRAYING WITHOUT THINKING The word “vain repetitions” in this verse has the idea in Greek of “babbling in prayer.” Greek scholar A. T. Robertson explains, “The Pagans thought that by endless repetitions and many words they would inform their gods as to their needs and weary them (‘fatigare deos’) into granting their requests.” A classic example of this in Scripture was the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. We are told that from morning until noon, they called on the name of Baal, “O Baal, hear us.” Another illustration of this was the worshippers of the goddess Diana in Acts 19:34 who for two hours chanted in a frenzy, “great is Diana of the Ephesians.” Pagan religions commonly used artifacts such as prayer wheels, beads, candles etc in order to facilitate senseless repetitions. The Jews also, especially the Pharisees, placed great importance in lengthy and repetitious praying. However, like their alms giving it was tainted by hypocrisy and ritualism. It was said of some of the Jews that they would compete to put as many adjectives before the name of God. This is not just an ancient problem. Believers today are not to be mindlessly going through a routine of praying indifferent to what they are saying. They are to “pray with the understanding” (1 Cor. 14:15), as bypassing the mind is unbiblical (Mark 12:30; John 4:23; 1Cor. 14:10). The charismatic movement is particularly culpable of this in their tongues babbling which they claim bypasses the mind in a state of ecstasy. Such an existential leap will only surrender ones faculties to dangerous and evil influences. Charismatics think they are pleasing God because of an “experience” which makes them feel good or manifests in an external sign. However, God is not manipulated by a petitioner’s ecstatic babbling or by a petitioner’s mindless recitation of stock phrases. God does not delight in mere words


or sounds, but the intelligent approach of the mind of man in communion with Him. That does not mean that prayer cannot produce subjective feelings but simply that these are not the test of true prayer and, if present, are merely the byproduct of thoughtful prevailing prayer that is pleasing to God. All of us are in constant danger of ritualizing our prayers by simply going through the motions of prayer with our minds engaged elsewhere. A good example is our praying before meals. Ironically, the Lord’s Prayer is often said in thoughtless repetition. As we mature in our faith, believers can learn or memorize multiple forms of “stylish” prayer and although we feel obligated to pray we often forget we are obligated to think about it also. Spurgeon put it well, To repeat a form of prayer a very large number of times has always seemed to the ignorantly religious to be a praiseworthy thing; but assuredly it is not so. It is a mere exercise of memory, and of the organs of noisemaking: and it is absurd to imagine that such a parrot exercise can be pleasing to the living God. Now our Lord is not teaching that we cannot use repetition in prayer - the Apostle Paul three times besought the Lord for the removal of his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:8) and even our Lord in the garden repeatedly asked for the removal of the cup (Matt. 26:44). Christ is condemning vain repetition rather than sincere repetition from a deeply burdened heart. PRAYING WITH VERBOSITY Just as it is easy to confuse eloquence with piety in our praying so it is a danger to equate verbosity with holiness. Our Lord tells us in this verse 7 that the heathen believed “they shall be heard for their much speaking.” The pagans commonly believed that their gods could be worn down to submit to their demands by their lengthy prayers. Jesus also reminded of this error of the scribes in Mark 12:40 that they, “for a pretence make long prayers.” This error can so easily creep into the Church. Dr. W. D. Maxwell once observed of Scottish religious life in the eighteenth


century that, “The efficacy of prayer was measured by its ardour and its fluency, and not least by its fervid lengthiness.” This does not necessarily mean that praying at length is necessarily in error as we have examples of lengthy prayers in Scripture (e.g., 2 Chron. 6:14-42, Neh. 9, Daniel 9, etc). Samuel we are told “cried unto the LORD all night“ (1 Sam. 15:11). Indeed, Christ Himself often prayed through the night (Luke 6:12) and encouraged perseverance in prayer (Luke 11:5-10). However, as William Hendriksen demonstrated, brevity is a feature of much of the praying in the Bible, Many of the most striking and fervent prayers recorded in Scripture are brief and pithy; such as that of: Moses (Ex 32:31, 32), Solomon (for an understanding heart, 1Kings 3:6-9), Elijah (I Kings 18:36, 37), Hezekiah (2Kings 19:14-19), Jabez (1Chr 4:10), Agur (Pr 30:7-9), the publican (Luke 18:13), the dying thief (Luke 23:42), Stephen (Acts 7:60), and Paul (for the Ephesians, Eph 3:14-19). To this class belong also the many sentence prayers or ejaculations of Nehemiah (Neh. 4:4, 5; 5:19; 6:9; 13:14, 29, 31). Christ’s high priestly or intercessory prayer, too, can hardly be called lengthy (John 17), and the Lord’s Prayer, which he taught his disciples to pray, is certainly marked by brevity (Mt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). CONCLUSION Effective prevailing prayer is not some performance based around about posture, or location, or intensity of emotion, or verbosity, or eloquence. It is supposed to be intentional, thoughtful, and meaningful words directed toward God from a sincere heart. The true God does not need to be intimidated into submission or placated by our use of mindless repetitions or longwinded prayers. We all need to be ever vigilant in our prayers of the dangers of falling into the subtle traps of ostentatious praying or heartless ritualism.