Matthew 6:5-6,  prayer in the inner room

6:5 “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:6 But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
(Matt 6:5-6 WEB)

Pray in the inner room

In Matt 6:2-4 the Sermon presents its audience with the first of three carefully structured comparisons, of which Matt 6:5-6 is the second. Whilst retaining the same basic format, and even repeating certain phrases, the spotlight now turns to prayer. But not just any old prayer, for the word used describes the sort of prayer that was a matter of life and death. It was the sort of prayer one prayed for an individual who was terminally ill, or for a nation that stood condemned before God.

As in Matt 6:2-4, Jesus asks his audience to first consider how the hypocrites undertook this activity (for more on what sort of person Jesus’ thought a hypocrite was, see the comments on Matt 6:2-4).  They loved, he said, to stand and pray. On the face of it there seems nothing unusual about this statement, for within Judaism, standing was a quite normal posture adopted for prayer. In cultures where it is normal to stop what you are doing and pray at certain times, it would be easy to organise your day so that you were in a public place at those times. Do that, and attend all the prayer meetings and you would soon gain a reputation for piety, is that really all that Jesus is saying here?

The practice of standing for prayer was so common-place that the scriptures seldom mention it and nowhere in the Hebrew Bible are the words, for standing and praying, brought into quite such close proximity. Jesus and his disciples would, never-the-less, have been aware of one significant precedent for standing and praying. The Septuagint version of the book of Daniel contained a small amount of extra material describing the response of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) when king Nebuchadnezzar had them thrown into a blazing furnace. It recounts how, faced with this trial, they stood and prayed, and survived amidst the flames. But it is how the Hebrew Bible chooses to present their survival which really ties this passage into the words of the Sermon, for Nebuchadnezzar declares that he sees them, in other words, as a result of standing and praying, they are seen.

The three youths were right before God and as they stood praying amidst the blaze, God came to their aid, allowing men to see that they enjoyed God's favour. The hypocrites, presumably convinced of their own right-standing before God, seem to have assumed that they could do likewise. But, as with the leaders criticised by the prophet Micah, they “lean on the LORD, and say, “Isn’t the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster will come on us” (Mic 3:11 WEB). They were zealously applying the scriptures, but in the way that best flattered their ego, and without ever considering that they might be in the wrong.

So, now that we better understand how the hypocrites were going astray, can the place where they were doing it add to that picture. As in Matt 6:2, the Synagogue is again mentioned, but, whereas Matt 6:2 then speaks of rhyme, i.e. narrow streets, those here are plateia, i.e.  broad ones. Moreover, it is not in the street itself, but at its corners where the hypocrites stood. Mention of such street corners is not a prominent feature of the Hebrew Bible. In various places we read of corners being used to set up pagan altars, but it is in Proverbs we are introduced to a street corner that seems to tie in particularly well with the Sermon's themes, and to which the linguistic evidence would seem to link it.

Just as this section of the Sermon is concerned with sons learning from their father, so too is Proverbs 7, for the writer encourages his son to listen to his fatherly advice and to avoid the street corners. It is there, the father suggests, may be found the woman who has departed from the way and who, having fulfilled her vow and dressed herself for prostitution, is now intent on leading the foolish into adultery. Thus, both the narrow street of Matt 6:2 and the street corner of Matt 6:5 seem to have shared a reputation for being places of poor repute, so the apparently-ironic use of rhyme to describe a civic meeting place in Matt 6:2 may be seen as a means to improve the poetic symmetry between that verse and the current one.

The emphatic statement that the hypocrites work has been rewarded is the same one found in Matt 6:2 and has already been discussed in the comments on Matt 6:2-4. This is also the case for the assurance of the Father's reward, with which this section closes. Between these promises we find Jesus instructions on how his disciples should be praying. The instructions are instantly recognisable as the same ones given by the prophet Isaiah when he called the faithful within Judah to urgent life-or-death prayer for their nation.

The link with Isaiah, in Isa 26:20, provides a clear context for Jesus advice, for when Isaiah called his nation to prayer, it was because his irretrievably sin-riddled nation was dying. Under such circumstances, the prophetic books suggest, a nation's hope lay in the birthing of a new and innocent successor to itself, a new movement to whom people could then turn in repentance. It was a process of being born again, in which, as she lay dying in her labour, the mother nation was birthing the seed of her replacement. It is clear from the prophecy that such a re-birth was already under way when Isaiah spoke, but that it had stalled, with the real danger that the re-birth would never happen. The similarities in context to the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry are striking, for, at that time, a flourishing repentance movement had faltered following the arrest of John the Baptist and Jesus was speaking to the nations' leaders about the need to be born again. Another image used by the prophets for such a time was that of the refiners fire, the furnace that burnt away the dross but in which the silver remained. Which rather neatly brings us back to Daniel's image of the three youths stood amidst the furnace.

When Isaiah advocates retreat to the inner room, it is so that the wrath might pass over and leave those praying inside untouched. But Isaiah, and Jesus after him, are doing no more than following a string of earlier precedents, such as: Noah, sealed in the ark whilst all creation is judged around him; the Israelites in Egypt, confined to their homes whilst the angel of death passed over; Elijah, hiding in the wilderness whilst the judgement of drought fell on his nation; or David , hiding in the cave of Adullam whilst Israel laboured under apostate Saul. The same sort of hiding was also at the heart of a plot to discredit the re-opened temple in Nehemiah's day. By threatening Nehamiah's life and then suggesting that he hide in the temple and shut the door, they were trying to trick the leader into acting in a way that suggested that the new temple had not successfully restored cleanliness to Judah, thereby leaving the country exposed to the wrath of God.

The hypocrites, firmly believing in the efficacy of their religious practices, stood and prayed in the face of God's impending wrath. They did so in the very places that would feel it most, amongst those responsible for providing leadership and amongst those encouraging spiritual adultery. But such hypocrites were dangerously mistaken, suggests Jesus, for the true state of things was very different. The system had become irretrievably corrupted, who therefore advises his disciples to prepare to weather the impending storm in the same way that Godly men had done for centuries.