“Vain Repetitions”

Brant Gardner

The first instruction on prayer dealt with place. This verse now deals with the prayer’s content. Jesus first tells his listeners what not to do. They are not to “use vain repetitions, as the heathen.” As modern readers, we typically focus on “vain repetitions” as counsel to avoid rote prayer. But the comparison to “vain repetitions” occurs just once in the New Testament, and rarely in other literature. It has been related to stuttering, or to babbling. Andrew C. Skinner notes: “He [Jesus] prefers brevity, sincerity, and intensity in prayer, unlike the ‘heathen’ (Greek, ethnikoi, literally ‘Gentiles’) who use ‘vain repetitions’ (Greek, battalogesete, literally ‘babble’ or ‘speaking without thinking’ and ‘think that they shall be heard for their much speaking’ (Matt. 6:7).”

Jesus’s explanation that “they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” is a denunciation of “heathen” prayer. Jesus is reminding his listeners that, no matter what the heathen say or how often they say it, they cannot be heard, because they are praying to the wrong god(s).

People of Jesus’s day strongly believed in what modern people would consider magic. One of those beliefs was that words themselves were inherently powerful. For example, a modern remnant of that belief is the proverb, “speak of the devil and he shall appear,” usually shortened to “speak of the devil,” by which we salute the arrival of someone of whom we have just been speaking. The root of this proverb is the belief that the devil (or various other personages, both good and evil) could be conjured up by speaking their name in association with other rites. Similarly, the concept underlying spells was that certain verbal formulae, correctly pronounced, could create the desired change. Speaking the formula incorrectly would invalidate the spell.

Heathen prayers could never be effective because they were not directed to the true God, but they still believed in their prayers’ efficacy and insisted on repeating them, believing that repetition would increase the force of the formula. The example pits the form of the prayer against the meaning of the prayer. Of course, it is possible to righteously pray in public (as in church meetings). Jesus’s point is that prayer’s true power is its internal meaning, not the exact words. Prayer is not a magic formula, but a heartfelt petition to the Lord.

This teaching should be clarified against prayers or other repeated words that appear in a ritual setting. As a part of the ritual setting, repeated prayers and texts have a different function. The very definition of ritual activities requires repetition. In such cases, the setting and the utterances become part of timeless time. Because they are repeated without variation, they are not tied to a calendar or a clock. They participate in the sacralization of time marked by that ritual occasion. For this reason, sacrament prayers and temple texts do not fall under the intent of this counsel.

Comparison: There are no changes from the Matthean text.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5