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

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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).


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.


[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. 876Endmark

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