“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5–6, ESV)
After instructing His listeners not to give for the public recognition they would receive, Jesus next tells them not to pray in the same way. He pointed to the hypocrites who stood in the synagogues and on the street corners and loudly prayed so that all might see and hear them and think how wonderful and righteous they must be. For all of the show they would give, Jesus said that the human recognition, praise, or even sense of self-gratification was going to be all they got. This human pat on the back would be their reward, and there was to be no more.
Rather, He again emphasized that what we do is to be done wholly to God and not for the recognition of men. This does not mean that we don’t come together to pray, for the Bible instructs us to do that. What it does mean is that our private prayers are to be just that. When we pray in this way we are to get away and pray to our Father in secret.
As I read this I thought about a couple of people who were examples to us from the Bible. One of them was Daniel. Daniel had grown in favor with the kings under whom he was captive, and others grew jealous to the point of wanting Daniel removed from the favor of King Darius. In fact, they wanted him dead. So, they devised a plot which they laid before the king concerning prohibiting anyone from petitioning any god for thirty days under penalty of the lions’ den. King Darius, who was soon to put Daniel over the whole kingdom, fell for their plot and signed the irrevocable decree (Daniel 6:1-9).
What the officials, who set the trap, knew was that Daniel was going to do exactly as he had been doing, which was to slip away to his own room three times a day where he would open his windows toward Jerusalem and kneel in prayer. Scripture records that he did exactly that (Daniel 6:10-13), and they brought the news to the king that someone had violated his decree and reminded the king that his decree was irrevocable. Then they told King Darius that the man was Daniel. “Then the king, when he heard these words, was much distressed and set his mind to deliver Daniel. And he labored till the sun went down to rescue him.” (Daniel 6:14, ESV) Knowing that he could not violate his own decree the king was bound to order Daniel thrown to the lions, and so he was. But God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was found safe there in the morning when the king ran to check on his fate. The king was both overjoyed and upset. He was overjoyed at Daniel’s salvation and upset with his officials. He promoted Daniel and he did to the officials what they had plotted to have done to Daniel.
Daniel did not respond to the decree by openly declaring that he was going to violate it, bowing down in loud prayer right before them. No, he did as he had been accustomed to doing which was to go away quietly to his room where he knelt before God in prayer. And in the most dramatic way we see how God heard and honored his faithfulness and even provided for his immediate protection and deliverance. The impact of Daniel’s salvation on King Darius affected his whole kingdom.
“Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: “Peace be multiplied to you. I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. He delivers and rescues; he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.” So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” (Daniel 6:25–28, ESV)
The other person I thought of was our Lord Himself. I thought of His regular practice of slipping away from the masses and even His disciples in order to pray to His Father, and I thought of the specific time of prayer on the night He was arrested. On that night He had finished supper with His disciples, after Judas left to betray Him. He and His disciples walked to Gethsemane. Upon arriving He told most of His disciples to remain there while He went to pray, and He took Peter, James, and John with Him. After moving a little further He told them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” (Matthew 26:38, ESV) Verse 39 then continues, “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matthew 26:39, ESV) Scripture continues to record that Jesus went in to pray three times, coming back periodically to find His disciples asleep. He confronted them with His request that they keep watch each time and returned for prayer.
The account recorded by Matthew continues, “And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”” (Matthew 26:40–46, ESV; See also Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46)
Luke records for us the intensity of Jesus’ prayer with these words, “saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:42–44, ESV) Jesus, being fully God, knew from the beginning why He had come. Jesus being fully man prayed to His Father, totally submitted to His will, that there might be another way. Luke records that the agony of His prayer was so intense that His sweat became like big drops of blood. He also records that the Father sent an angel to strengthen Jesus during this very difficult time.
In the case of Daniel we saw that it was God’s will to deliver Him from the lions and to promote Him to a position of honor and power. In the case of Jesus, God’s deliverance also was soon to come. Daniel had to endure the accusations of his enemies and be sentenced to death, enduring the night of the lions and by God’s hand, coming out in the morning without a scratch. Jesus was going to have to endure the accusations of His enemies and also be sentenced to death. But in Jesus’ case He was not to be delivered without a scratch. He was despised, beaten, and crucified with His hands, feet, and side pierced for us. Daniel was delivered alive the next morning. Jesus would be placed in a grave. But then, on the third day Jesus rose from the dead and proved the power of God over more than just lions. He conquered death itself. And after some time appearing to His disciples and many others, Jesus ascended to heaven where He regained His seat at the right hand of the Father as our Lord of lords and King of kings forever.
Daniel and Jesus knew without a doubt that prayer was not merely a public show of religiosity, but it was communion with their Father who is in heaven. They knew that God was going to listen to their prayers and that He was going to answer them. And they both trusted Him to answer them in the best way possible—according to His good and perfect will.
Jesus said, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He knew what He was talking about, and Scripture tells us that He even sits at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf (Romans 8:34) and that the Father has sent to each believer His Holy Spirit to indwell us where among the many things the Spirit accomplishes we read, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26–27, ESV)