Matthew 6:7-8,  vain repetition in prayer

6:7 In praying, don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking.
6:8 Therefore don’t be like them, for your Father knows what things you need, before you ask him.”

(Matt 6:5-8 WEB)

As Matt 6:2-4 deals with merciful deeds, Matt 6:5-6 deals with prayer, and Matt 6:16-18 deals with fasting, each does so using the same format, a format which, in the case of Matt 6:5-6 does not extend into verse seven. From this it is clear that Matt 6:7-8 represent an introduction to the Lord's prayer. Yet, there appears to be a paradox inherent in that, for, whilst these verses seem to discourage repetitious prayer, the Lord's prayer seems to be designed for repeated use!

Commentators often note that Jesus does not start this comment with 'if you pray,' but rather he assumes that his disciples will pray. But many seem to have struggled with the apparent contradiction between this verse and teaching on prayer elsewhere in the scriptures. For example, the early theologian Augustine suggested that, whilst prayer should be fervent and heartfelt, for the most part it should take the form of wordless groans. Cassian took a different approach, suggesting that prayers should be frequent, but kept short. Both would seem to satisfy the letter of the law, but miss its spirit.

The word used here for prayer is the same as that used in Matt 6:5-6, where its close relationship to life-threatening situations, at least in its earlier uses, has already been noted. It is worth noting, however, that in more general usage the root word described all manner of prayer and was even used of vows, such as one taken by the Apostle Paul. This potential ambiguity has made the precise meaning of word that comes next even more elusive, for the verb battologeo is only found here and in a few other texts that derive from this. Translators have turned to exploring its likely derivation, but even then they cannot be certain. Does it embody the name of an ancient stuttering king, is it an onomatopoeic word, or maybe a hybrid of the Aramaic for empty and the Greek for words? Different translators have their favourite theories, hence we have various suggestions such as “keep on babbling” (NIV84), “babble repetitiously” (NET), “heap up empty phrases” (ESV), and “vain repetitions” (AV).

Thankfully, between them, Jesus and Matthew have included sufficient linguistic signposts to make sense of what is meant, and from following these it is clear that the ESV's “heap up empty phrases” is pretty close to what was intended. The key to resolving this lies in verse seven’s reference to many words. In Greek this is polulogia, a word the Septuagint uses in a single place, and there to translate a word that the Hebrew Bible uses only twice. In Prov 10:19 it tells us “In the multitude of words there is no lack of disobedience, but he who restrains his lips does wisely” (WEB). It begs the question 'what sort of prayers can lead to disobedience?' Thankfully, the context of the second passage, Eccl 5:3, makes it clear. Let me summarise and paraphrase its message - guard your way, suggests the writer, don't utter things hastily before God and keep your words few. Any ambition brings its problems, but only a fool tries to resolve them with many words, for it is better not to vow than to make a vow and then not honour it. It is no use later protesting that you did not mean it. Why should God have cause to consider you disobedient and act against you.

A vow might take the form of promising to make some gift to God, of either possessions or service, in return for some tangible blessing, like a business success or rain before the end of the week. The Bible records various instances where people made vows, not least of which the vow that their founding father Israel took. But it is a short step from offering to express your gratitude in a particular manner should God do what you desire, to seeing a vow as a means to bribe God in your favour. From Jesus words, it appears that the non-Jewish community were fond of trying to twist their gods' arms in this manner. That certainly seems to be the case from temple records that have been unearthed. The trouble is, the more vows you make the harder it is to keep track of them all and the more likely they are to conflict with one another.

From Matt 5:8 it is clear that Jesus’ concern was the uttering of too many promises, driven by the perception that only by doing so will our needs be met. Nor was it only a problem for his day, it still goes on today, with songs that lead worshippers to make ever more extravagant promises, in the hope that God will reciprocate. To undermine that perspective he assures us that God knows what we need to have. As he does so we are reminded once again of the account of the three young men in Daniel (a passage alluded to in Matt 6:5), for as Nebuchadnezzar asked who would deliver them from the furnace, they responded that they had no need to answer, for their God was able. Of the few places in which the Septuagint mentions the Sermon’s word for need, it here translates a word that is unique to the Daniel verse, and so, assuming Jesus used it, would have helped clarify the context of his comment.

To sum up, Jesus is not here being critical of praying the same prayer numerous times, but rather of being too liberal with our promises to God, making them without thinking through the consequences, and then not following through on them. Nor is their any necessity to feel driven by extremity to deploy such tactics, for God knows that his servants need saving and is more than able to do so, should He so choose.