Vain Repetitions

Yeshua told His disciples not to pray meaningless repetitions. Did He have the daily repetitions of Jewish liturgical prayer in mind?

Tibetan prayer wheels inscribed with mantras. (Image: © Bigstock)

Yeshua warned His disciples not to pray babbling like pagans: “Do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

Today’s Gospel readers often understand the warnings against “meaningless repetitions” as an indictment against the liturgical prayers of the synagogue and Temple. Liturgical prayer, by definition, contains patterns of repetition in which the same prayers recur. Critics of the synagogue often think of Jewish prayers as the very vain repetitions that Yeshua warned His disciples to avoid.

On the contrary, the Master did not speak against the Jewish mode of prayer. He said, “Do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do,” i.e., the idolaters. The Gentile idolaters of His day did not participate in the liturgical prayers of the synagogue or Temple, but Yeshua and His disciples did. They attended the synagogue every Sabbath, and they joined the worshippers in the Temple every time they were in Jerusalem. Jewish liturgy was a regular part of their worship experience. When Yeshua warned his disciples not to pray using “meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do,” he was not referring to the repetition of public prayers in a liturgical service. Jewish liturgy and public prayer was not in view. Yeshua was speaking about an individual in prayer using meaningless repetitions to achieve a spiritual result.

The Master warned His disciples against the pagan customs of chanting mantras or repeating a particular liturgical refrain or chorus over and over to achieve a spiritual effect. Greco-pagan worship systems of the first century incorporated ecstatic utterances and nonsensical babbling along with the repetition of key prayer formulas. The Greek word (battalogeo, βατταλογέω), which the New American Standard Bible translates as “meaningless repetitions,” is derived from the related noun meaning “stammer” or “stutter.” The word in Matthew 6:7 refers not to a speech impediment but to the repetition of meaningless syllables. New Testament scholars believe that Yeshua was referring to the formulaic repetition of either intelligible or unintelligible names of gods, magic words, ecstatic utterances, and petition formulas common in the pagan Roman world—a style of prayer that some early Jewish mystics employed to achieve apocalyptic visions.

The Master told His disciples that they do not need to rely on gimmicks like that to get God’s attention. Yeshua told His disciples that “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). We can pray with complete confidence that our simplest prayers are heard and received by God.

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