"Vain Repetitions" in Prayer? Exegesis on Matthew 6:7

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

A Christian missionary wrote that:

Jesus said: “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matt 6:7)

Prove to me that you do NOT use vain repetitions and many words in your RITUAL of prayer (exactly what Jesus warned about).

Response

Unfortunately, the claims of the missionary simply does not hold water. The claim of the missionary is that according to Jesus(P) in Matthew 6:7, Christians should not ask God Almighty more than once about the same thing, because only the heathens practise that. But let us look at what Jesus(P) himself practised when he started to pray to God:

    Matthew 16:36-44:

    36. Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
    37. He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
    38. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
    39. Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
    40. Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter.
    41. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
    42. He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
    43. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy.
    44. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

How many times did Jesus(P) repeated the prayer in such a small period of time? 3 times! Since we are discussing about “vain repetitions”, Jesus(P) is apparently making some “vain repetitions”, according to the missionary “logic” in interpreting Matthew 6:7!

But let us rescue this missionary from his predicament. Henry’s Concise Commentary states the following about the interpretation of Matthew 6:5-8.

[5-8] It is taken for granted that all who are disciples of Christ pray. You may as soon find a living man that does not breathe, as a living Christian that does not pray. If prayerless, then graceless. The Scribes and Pharisees were guilty of two great faults in prayer, vain-glory and vain repetitions. “Verily they have their reward;” if in so great a matter as is between us and God, when we are at prayer, we can look to so poor a thing as the praise of men, it is just that it should be all our reward. Yet there is not a secret, sudden breathing after God, but he observes it. It is called a reward, but it is of grace, not of debt; what merit can there be in begging? If he does not give his people what they ask, it is because he knows they do not need it, and that it is not for their good. So far is God from being wrought upon by the length or words of our prayers, that the most powerful intercessions are those which are made with groanings that cannot be uttered. Let us well study what is shown of the frame of mind in which our prayers should be offered, and learn daily from Christ how to pray.[1]

We also read the following in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary:

Vain repetitions (i.e., babbling speech) are characteristic of pagan (heathen or Gentile) praying, as ostentation is of hypocrites. Such action regards prayer as an effort to overcome God’s unwillingness to respond by wearying him with words. Yet it is not mere length nor repetition that Christ condemns (Jesus prayed all night, Luke 6:12, and repeated his petitions, Matt 26:44), but the unworthy motive that prompts such religious acts.[2]

The following appears in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary:

Jesus affirms that God does reward those who practice piety “in secret” . . . The theme of heavenly reward is present elsewhere in Matthew . . . and is more prominent in this Gospel than in the others. Three instances of piety are mentioned: almsgiving (6:2-4), prayer (6:7-15), and fasting (6:16-18). The assumption is that Jesus’ followers will do all these things. Almsgiving referred to charitable contributions above and beyond the stipulated tithes and offerings everyone was expected to make. Prayer included the practice of reciting certain memorized or liturgical prayers at key times of the day (the Shema was to be said twice; the Eighteen Benedictions, three times). The section on praying is interrupted by a presentation of the Lord’s Prayer. Fasting meant going without food entirely or, sometimes, adopting a restricted diet in penitence for one’s sin, in observance of a national day, as an expression of mourning, or simply as a way of strengthening one’s communion with God….[3]

In other words, Jesus (P) was not criticising “repetitions” of prayer, but rather, the excessive, repetitive noise of groanings that the Scribes and Pharisees during Jesus’ (P) time were fond of doing in prayer. A study of the historical context within what Jesus(P) said should be examined before the missionary make these accusations of “vain repetitions” towards the Muslims!

And only God knows best.

References

[1] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1991 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

[2] The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press.

[3] HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Revised Edition. General Editor James L. Mays, 2000 pp. 876

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *