Gospel Words: Vain Repetitions in Prayer

 •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 10
Having laid on the individual secrecy in prayer to the Father, the Lord widens here His injunction, and warns His disciples against a habit unworthy of Him, and of them too in so blessed a relationship, though it had to be still more deepened and elevated on His resurrection day, and in view of His ascension to heaven. It might be, as it was, a natural feeling which thus wrought even in heathen. The Lord looks for and inculcates what is supernatural.
" But when praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles; for they think that they shall be heard by their much speaking. Be not therefore likened to them; for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye beg of him." It is not a warning against a hypocritical spirit. Of this He spoke first, as they were Jews, a people responsible to observe God's law, but faithless for the most part, and the orthodox among them prone to high pretensions, moral as well as ceremonial, with a heart far from Him. Therefore He inculcated the value and duty of prayer to the Father in secret, as the contrast with the hollowness of prayer to be seen of men.
Notwithstanding His words, the evil grew till in the fifth century it reached its height of folly in Simeon a Syrian who at the last erected a pillar on which he might stand, elevated at first six cubits and at last forty. On the top was a space three feet in diameter, surrounded with a balustrade, and here he stood day and night in all weathers. During the night and till 9 a.m. he was supposed to be constantly in prayer, after stretching out his hands, and bowing so low as to touch his toes with his forehead. Someone who attempted to reckon these prostrations counted up no less than 1244. At nine he began to address the superstitious crowd below; for, strange to say, this religious mountebank not only heard and answered to such as were present, and wrote to the absent, but took on him the care of the churches and corresponded with the highest dignities in both church and state. As evening approached, he dropped these activities and resumed his repeated prayers as before. It is recorded that he partook of food but once a week, and never slept, thus spending with a coat and cap of sheepskin some seven and thirty years, and dying in the attitude of prayer in his sixty-ninth year. His scholar and chronicler Antony tells us that he went up after three days and that his dead body gave forth a sweet odor. So naturally allied is deceit to these quasi-spiritual shows.
But here our Lord reprehends a far more prevalent snare. " When praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles." The words occur no where else in the New Testament, nor did the Seventy employ them in the Greek version of the O.T. Nor is par. found in any writing independently of ver. 7 till 500 years after Christ. There is therefore divergence of views as to its precise meaning. This is not the occasion for such a discussion; and though it has been sought to derive what is peculiar from the Hebrew for " unadvisedly " or " rashly babbling," the context tends to support the Authorized Version.
It is quite unworthy of the Father, and even of His children thus to trifle in prayer. There are no doubt occasions for long persistence, as well as earnest repetition, in prayer. Our Lord Himself is the example of thus spending the night through, and of praying over and over again the same words. Neither of these special supplications could be reprehended in others where they are seasonable and requisite. But there is scarce any habit more common, even among believers, than lengthy utterances which are not prayers at all. For they express the individual's views sometimes of the discourse preceding, his own or some other's, sometimes of all he can muster of the varied circumstances of the church, or at least his own party, and of all the world outside. Occasionally if not often the one in the attitude and form of prayer forgets that he is speaking to his Father, and slips unwittingly into what sounds like teaching Him the doctrines which delight himself.
These things ought surely not to be. What reverence becomes one by grace entitled to say, Abba, Father I What deep sense of His majesty and holiness who has shown infinite mercy to such as deserved everlasting judgment! How often do we not fail, however favored we may be, in judging self and grieving the Holy Spirit! The royal preacher could say of old, " Be not rash with thy mouth, and set not thy heart to utter anything before God; for God is in the heavens, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. For a dream cometh through a multitude of business, and a fool's voice through a multitude of words." How much deeper should be our humility whom, notwithstanding a far fuller sense of our evil and of His grace, He calls His children 1 How sad the inconsistency, if kept from Pharisaic hypocrisy, to drop into the inconsiderate foolish verbiage of Gentiles!
We are brought to God at an infinite cost. We are taught our utter vileness as well as our shameful sins. When we draw near to pray, ought we not to have the hallowing solemnizing effect in weighing our words, whatever the love that invites us into His presence? Then we may be without anxiety as to anything, but in everything make our requests known to Him by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. He loves that we should confide in dependence on Him. Let us never forget that " our Father knoweth what things we have need of, before we beg of Him." To think that we shall gain a hearing by our much speaking is a dishonor to Him and even to us.