“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7–8, ESV)
Yesterday we looked as verses in which Jesus spoke to the hypocrisy of the Jews who stood in the temples and in the streets and publicly prayed for the recognition they would receive, not in heaven but here on earth. Today, in the next verses, He spoke also of the emptiness of the prayers of many Gentiles. Jesus pointed specifically to them piling empty phrase upon empty phrase. The words “heap up empty phrases” (English Standard Version) are elsewhere translated “meaningless-” or “vain repetition”, and the Greek word (battologeo) translated these various ways is a compound word comprised of a prefix which is thought by some to have come from Battus, a king of Cyrene who is said to have stuttered. Others point to another Battus, an author of wordy and tedious poems (source: MacArthur Study Bible). In either case the point was slow in coming. The second half of the word is the common Greek word for ‘word’ or ‘saying.’ Put together we get the picture of repetitive speech which is empty. And it is this empty speech that Jesus attributed to the prayer of the Gentiles (non-Jews) who prayed to their many gods, hoping against hope that the abundance of their words would bring a favorable response.
In Psalm 96 we read, “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols…” (see also 1 Chronicles 16:26). The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Their land has also been filled with idols; they worship the work of their hands, that which their fingers have made.” (Isaiah 2:8, NASB95) And the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4–6, ESV)
Imagine throwing out words to something you or someone else made and expecting results. Sure, there is much deception, and there is hope in that deception that someone or something might hear your pleas and come to your aid. But the reality is that there is no god but God, and Jesus told His hearers that it is futile to speak empty words in order to please God and move Him to action. This is how the Gentiles approach their idols, but the God of all creation is real—He is very real and He hears.
Jesus said, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
My favorite psalm is Psalm 139 where we read, “O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O Lord, You know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.” (Psalm 139:1–6, NASB95)
Our God knows all about us. He is intimately aware of every detail of our lives. He knows our deepest desires and our greatest needs. And He knows them before the words are ever formed on our tongues. This is truly, as the psalmist said, “too wonderful for me.” It is amazing to know that my God knows me this well and that He expects me to come to Him in prayer. And beyond that He expects me to come to Him in prayer expecting that He will answer.
In James we read, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (KJV) or “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (ESV) Elsewhere we read, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6–7, ESV) and then, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2, ESV)
Today is the 63rd National Day of Prayer in the United States, and there are many individuals offering up prayers today. Among those prayers I imagine that there are some offered in each of the categories listed by Jesus. But, as followers of Christ and those trusting in the living God we can have great confidence that He hears our prayers and He will answer them. He hears our prayers for our nation and He hears our prayers for our churches, our pastors, our co-workers, and our families. He hears our prayers for our provision and our physical health. He hears our praises and He hears our pleas. Our God hears our prayers and He will answer according to His great and infinite wisdom according to His unlimited power. We can come before Him with this level of confidence, not because of who we are and any clout in this world we may have achieved, but humbly because of who He is and His love for us. This is an amazing comfort and a great assurance that He indeed does have us fully enclosed in His powerful hands and He will act.
In Philippians 4:5 we read, “…The Lord is at hand;” (Philippians 4:5b ESV)