5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. 7 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. 8 “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.
This passage is part of Jesus’s well-known Sermon on the Mount. Along with all the teachings that are presented in this sermon, Jesus is about to instruct the people on how they should pray. The overarching theme of Chapter 6 is doing good to please God, and not man. During this time, there was a lot of hypocrisy among the scribes and Pharisees, who appeared to live righteous lives because of their vast knowledge of the law, but in reality, they were deceiving and taking advantage of the people. They were religious, but not righteous. They put on a show to impress man with their outward appearance and were not concerned about pleasing God. All their actions were in vain because their hearts weren’t in the right place. Therefore, in Chapter 6, Jesus is instructing the multitude on the type of attitude they should have when they do charitable deeds, pray, and fast. The focus here will be verses 5-8 because, although at that time Jesus was condemning a hypocritical attitude among the scribes and Pharisees, in modern day, many use the passage to condemn and restrict how we worship. Thus, I will discuss the message that is intended in this passage, which is that you must have the right attitude when you worship God. Once we understand this message, we can begin to let go of the restrictions that have been placed on the church when it comes to praying and singing during our worship services.
Vainglory and Vain repetition
There are two issues in verses 5-8 that Jesus focuses on when He instructs the multitude on how to pray: vainglory and vain repetition. In verse 5, Jesus makes reference to hypocrites, namely the Pharisees, who had the custom of displaying their acts of prayer while standing in the synagogues and on street corners to appear pious. This is known as vainglory or self-glorification, which is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “excessive or ostentatious pride especially in one’s achievements”. Other words related to vainglory are vanity and vaunting, both derived from the word vain. There is reference to vaunting, which is expressed as pride, in 1 John 2:16:
16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the PRIDE of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for purposefully praying in those places that were highly frequented in order that others could see them, bringing glory to themselves and not to God. Note in the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 that the Pharisee was boastful, claiming that he was not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers… he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of all that he possessed. However, the tax collector was so humble that he would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, and he beat his chest, saying “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” In verse 14, Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In verses 7-8, He also condemned vain or meaningless repetition in prayer. Vain repetition is translated from βαττολογέω (battologeó), which means to stammer, to babble, to chatter, to utter empty words, to be long-winded, to repeat (nonsensically), or to use many and idle words (Strong’s Concordance; Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). This word is actually used only once in the Bible (Matthew 6:7). Praying with “battologeó” was practiced among scribes and Pharisees as a show or a spectacle. They did this to appear righteous so they could take advantage of people (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40). The deception was in the way they dressed, where they sat in the synagogues and at banquets, and in their lengthy prayers. Despite these external performances of holiness, they were evil in their hearts and had pretentious attitudes (Matthew 23:25-28):
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Jesus did not care where they sat or how long their prayers were. He was concerned with them being clean on the inside. He did not accept them because their hearts weren’t pure, and they weren’t humble. 1 Samuel 16:7 shows that what truly matters to God is our heart:
“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”
God wants us to be humble, and He is not interested in our actions if they are not from the heart. If we are only concerned about what we achieve as a result of our actions, God has no interest in us because we are not doing it for Him, but rather for ourselves. It is meaningless. It is truly vainglory. We know this to be true because the only reason why we have the opportunity to be righteous in the first place is because God made it to be so when He sacrificed His son as a propitiation for our sins. There was nothing that we could do for ourselves to escape the wrath of God. This was a gift that we did not deserve. Therefore, we must approach God humbly, bowing down to Him in our hearts. In verse 6, Jesus says,
“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
This verse is not telling us that we cannot pray in public because we certainly do this anytime we gather to worship the Lord. What’s important is that we do not seek the approval of man, but rather the approval of God. Additionally, we are not expected to be humble only when we pray, but also when we participate in acts of worship, such as singing, or when we do good deeds for others (verses 1-4):
1 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
The story of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 teaches us that when our worship is directed to the true God with the right attitude, He will accept it and reward us accordingly. Although the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal performed prescribed extravagant and repetitious acts, their god did not manifest himself. However, when Elijah the prophet set up an altar in the name of the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and prayed that He would show the people of Israel His power so that they would turn their hearts back to Him, the Lord responded.
It is interesting to see the stark difference between the two acts: hundreds of men performing extravagant acts for a false god versus one man performing a simple act for the one true God. We can see the power of God in just a simple action, without having to resort to long extravagant acts of praise and worship as if it were the only way God could hear us. We do not have to prescribe a formula in order to get God’s attention. We see this in modern day in the Catholic Church, where they prescribe formulas of “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Fathers” in order to receive a desired outcome from God. In Islam, Muslims are required to pray five times a day, bowing repeatedly, in the direction of Mecca. These acts are certainly examples of vainglory and vain repetition in worship that are not necessary, and surely God does not accept them (Matthew 23:25-28).
The message is clear and simple when we read Matthew 6:5-8 for what it is. We must be mindful of our motives when we pray, sing, teach, preach, participate in offering, and take the Lord’s Supper. We should approach God with a humble attitude, being careful that we are not putting on a show to please man. If we seek to please man, we cannot be bondservants of Christ (Galatians 1:10). God is the only one that is worthy to be glorified. However, with that being said, it does not mean that we should not (and cannot) have long prayers or be emotional or spend time praising God in songs. It does not mean that we should not (and cannot) repeat words and phrases when we pray and sing. I believe that those who use Matthew 6:5-8 to restrict how we pray and sing are taking the passage out of context, which brings us to the concept of meaningful.
In Matthew 6, Jesus is condemning vanity and hypocrisy. He is not condemning repetition. Not all repetition is bad. Matthew 6:7 is referring specifically to “vain” repetition. That means there can be repetition that is not vain, but rather, meaningful. The Bible shows us instances of meaningful repetition. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He knew His death was approaching (Matthew 26:36-44). He even warned the disciples in verse 41 to “watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Jesus prayed so fervently that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). He prayed on His knees (Luke 22:41) and even fell to His face (Matthew 26:39). He didn’t pray like this because He thought God couldn’t hear Him or wouldn’t answer His prayer otherwise. He prayed like this because He was truly in anguish and was sorrowful. This shows the humanity in Jesus and His emotions. If Jesus could be so emotional in prayer even to the point of sweating blood, why can’t we show emotion in our praise to the Almighty God? If it comes genuinely from the heart, then we should not find fault in it. James 5:16 says “the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man avails much”. Fervent means to have or to show intense spirit or feeling, to be passionate or enthusiastic. God accepts fervor when it comes from a righteous heart, and when it is meaningful. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says “pray without ceasing.” Romans 12:12 says “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer…” Ephesians 6:18 says “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints…” We are expected to pray continuously so that we can overcome temptation and sin. Sometimes this involves lengthy prayers with meaningful repetition, which is acceptable so long as it is not an empty formula. Notice how Daniel prays fervently for the people of Israel, repeating “Oh Lord!”:
18 O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by Your name; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies. 19 O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for Your own sake, my God, for Your city and Your people are called by Your name” (Daniel 9:18).
It is important to note that in Matthew 6:5-8 Jesus is talking about prayer, not singing. But even if we were to extend this to other acts of worship, we still cannot condemn meaningful repetition. Are we not commanded to give on the first day of the week? Are we not expected to commemorate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus by regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper? We are expected to carry out these acts regularly, but in a meaningful way and with the right attitude as in shown in 2 Corinthians 9:7 and 1 Corinthians 11:28:
“so let each on give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”
“28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner[e] eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
We even see meaningful repetition throughout Psalm 136.
1 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!
For His mercy endures forever.
3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!
For His mercy endures forever:
4 To Him who alone does great wonders,
For His mercy endures forever;
5 To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,
For His mercy endures forever;
It is true that Christ condemns vainglory and vain repetition because the motives, which are either evil or misguided, serve as an outward appearance to please man, and not God. We have to be careful because we do not want God to reject our praise to Him. It’s important that we do not put on a performance for others to see how righteous we are, and that we do not let our words become empty phrases through meaningless repetition because they do not exalt God nor edify others. However, we have to be careful not to use God’s word to restrict our worship so long as it is within the boundaries of what He has prescribed.