May 13 – Meaningless Repetition: False Prayer Content

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.—Matt. 6:7

If we’re honest, all of us have been guilty of repetitive prayers—before meals, at prayer meetings, before bed—with little or no thought to what we are saying or how God feels when He hears us do that. But such prayers are offensive to God and should be to us as well.

We should understand, however, that Jesus here is not forbidding the repetition of genuine requests. In His parable of the midnight visit, Jesus pointed to the persistent man as a model of the believer’s persistent prayer to God. In another parable, the Lord praised the godly widow’s persistence before the ungodly judge: “Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7). Paul asked God three times to remove his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7–8).

Jesus Himself could be persistent in prayer. In the garden of Gethsemane, He pleaded, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). Christ prayed this prayer a second time, and again He “prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more” (v. 44).

Sincere, honest repetition of needs and praises before God is not wrong or ineffective. It is the mindless, indifferent repeating of tired, cliché-filled “prayers” that is not pleasing to Him. God wants our hearts and our minds properly engaged when approaching His throne.

What would enliven your set times of prayer, transforming them into fresh, expressive, genuine moments with God? Even if the same words and requests are made, what could you do to make them real and in-the-moment?[1]

False Content: Meaningless Repetition

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. (6:7)

The particular fault Jesus singles out here is that of meaningless repetition, which has already been discussed. This practice was common in many pagan religions of that day, as it is in many religions today, including some branches of Christendom.

Use meaningless repetition is one word (from battalogeō) in the Greek and refers to idle, thoughtless chatter. It was probably onomatopoetic, mimicking the sounds of meaningless jabber.

Those who used repetitious prayers were not necessarily hypocrites, at least not of the ostentatious type. The scribes and Pharisees used a great deal of repetition in their public displays of piety; but many other Jews used it even in private prayers. Some may have used repetition because their leaders had taught them to use it. Others, however, resorted to repetition because it was easy and demanded little concentration. To such people, prayer was simply a matter of required religious ceremony, and they could be entirely indifferent to its content. As long as it was officially approved, one pattern was as good as another.

Although this problem did not always involve hypocrisy, it always involved a wrong attitude, a wrong heart. The proud hypocrites tried to use God to glorify themselves, whereas those who used meaningless repetition were simply indifferent to real communion with God.

The Jews had picked up the practice from the Gentiles, who believed that the value of prayer was largely a matter of quantity. The longer the better. They suppose they will be heard for their many words, Jesus explained. Those who prayed to pagan gods thought their deities first had to be aroused, then cajoled, intimidated, and badgered into listening and answering-just as the prophets of Baal did on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:26–29). In the New Testament we see a similar practice. Aroused against Paul and his companions by Demetrius and other silversmiths of Ephesus, a great crowd began chanting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” and continued incessantly for two hours (Acts 19:24–34).

Many Buddhists spin wheels containing written prayers, believing that each turn of the wheel sends that prayer to their god. Roman Catholics light prayer candles in the belief that their requests will continue to ascend repetitiously to God as long as the candle is lit. Rosaries are used to count off repeated prayers of Hail Mary and Our Father, the rosary itself coming to Catholicism from Buddhism by way of the Spanish Muslims during the Middle Ages. Certain charismatic groups in our own day repeat the same words or phrases over and over until the speaking degenerates to unintelligible confusion (John A. Broadus, Matthew [Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1886], p. 130).

All of us, of course, have been guilty of repeating the same prayers meal after meal and prayer meeting after prayer meeting-with little or no thought of what we are saying or of the One to whom we are supposedly speaking. Prayer that is thoughtless and indifferent is offensive to God, and should also be offensive to us.

Again we must not jump to wrong conclusions. Jesus did not forbid the repetition of genuine requests. In the parable about the midnight visit to his neighbor, the persistent man was praised by Jesus as a model of our persistence before God. In His parable of the importunate widow, Jesus praised her persistence before the ungodly judge, saying, “Now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” (Luke 18:2–7). Paul “entreated the Lord three times” that the thorn in his flesh might be removed (2 Cor. 12:7–8). In the Garden of Gethsemane, as He faced the agony of the cross,Jesus cried out, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” After rebuking the disciples for their sleep, He prayed the prayer again, and then, after a short while, He “prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more” (Matt. 26:39–44).

It is not honest, properly motivated repetition of needs or praise before God that is wrong, but the mindless, indifferent recital of spiritual-sounding incantations or magical formulas over and over. Not only must our hearts be right before God will hear our prayer, but also our minds. Thoughtless prayer is almost as offensive to God as heartless prayer. In most instances they go together.[2]

  1. Moreover, in praying, do not babble on and on like pagans, for they imagine that they will be heard because of their flow of words. Is it possible that, in saying this, Jesus was also thinking of the scribes, who “for a pretense make long prayers” (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47)? However that may be, the Lord condemns this practice as being pagan in character. Not as if a lengthy prayer is always wrong. Such a position would immediately condemn the prayers found in 2 Chron. 6:14–42; Neh. 9; and Ps. 18, 89, and 119. The motive must be kept in mind. Pagans pray on and on because they imagine that the longer and the louder they pray, the greater also will be their chance of success in receiving what they desire. The prayer of the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:25–29) offers a striking example: “They called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon.” Another example is the prayer-wheel of the Tibetan Buddhists, a cylinder revolving on an axis, and inscribed with written prayers. Is not the rosary, used for example to keep count of five decades of Ave Marias, each preceded by a paternoster and concluded with a Glory Be, another illustration? As if the acceptability of our prayers depends, at least in part, upon the number of words we use or the number of prayers we rattle off!

Many of the most striking and fervent prayers recorded in Scripture are brief and pithy; such as that of: Moses (Exod. 32:31, 32), Solomon (for an understanding heart, 1 Kings 3:6–9), Elijah (1 Kings 18:36, 37), Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:14–19), Jabez (1 Chron. 4:10), Agur (Prov. 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 highpriestly 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 (Matt. 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4). Continued:[3]

6:7 Prayer should not consist of vain repetitions, i.e., stock sentences or empty phrases. Unsaved people pray like that, but God is not impressed by the mere multiplication of many words. He wants to hear the sincere expressions of the heart.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 142). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 368–369). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 323–324). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1224). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.


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