A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian’s Prayer: Not mechanical but thoughtful.
Hypocrisy is not the only sin to avoid in prayer; ‘vain repetition’ or meaningless, mechanical utterance is another. The former is the folly of the Pharisee, the latter of the Gentile or Pagan (7). Hypocrisy is the misuse of the *purpose* of prayer (diverting it from the glory of God to the glory of self); verbosity is a misuse of the very *nature* of prayer (degrading it from a real and personal approach to God into a mere recitation of words).
We see again that the method of Jesus is to paint a vivid contrast between two alternatives, in order to indicate his way the more plainly. Regarding the practice of piety in general, he has contrasted the pharisaic way (ostentatious and selfish) with the Christian way (secret and godly). Now regarding the practice of prayer in particular, he contrasts the pagan way of meaningless loquacity with the Christian way of meaningful communion with God. Thus Jesus is always calling his followers to something higher than the attainments of those around them, whether religious people or secular people. He emphasises that Christian righteousness is greater (because inward), Christian love broader (because inclusive of enemies) and Christian prayer deeper (because sincere and thoughtful) than anything to be found in the non-Christian community.
1. The pagan way of prayer.
*Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do*, he says (7). The Greek verb *battalogeo* is unique not only in biblical literature but elsewhere as well; no other use of he word is known beyond quotations of this verse. So nobody knows for certain either its derivation or meaning. Some (like Erasmus) ‘suppose the word to be derived from Battus, a king of Cyrene, who is said to have stuttered (so Herodotus); others from Battus, an author of tedious and wordy poems’. But this is a bit far-fetched. Most regard it as an onomatopoeic expression, the sound of the word indication its meaning. Thus *battarizo* meant to stammer; and any foreigner whose speech sounded to Greek ears like the interminable repetition of the syllable ‘bar’ was called *barbaros*, a barbarian. ‘Battalogeo’ is perhaps similar. William Tyndale was the first translator to choose ‘babble’ as an equivalent English onomatopoeia, and NEB has taken it up: ‘Do not go babbling on like the heathen’.
The familiar AV rendering, ‘Use not vain repetitions,’ is therefore misleading, unless it is clear that the emphasis is on ‘vain’ rather than on ‘repetitions’. Jesus cannot be prohibiting all repetition, for he repeated himself in prayer, notably in Gethsemane when ‘he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words’. (Mt.26:44). Perseverance and even importunity in prayer are commended by him also; rather is he condemning verbosity, especially in those who ‘speak without thinking’. (AG). So RSV’s ‘heap up empty phrases’ is helpful. The word describes any and every prayer which is all words and no meaning, all lips and no mind or heart. ‘Battalogia’ is explained in the same verse (7) as *polulogia*, ‘much speaking’, that is, a torrent of mechanical and mindless words.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian’s Prayer: Not mechanical but thoughtful (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.