But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him (AV).
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 (ESV).
Acceptable prayer only comes from some people praying in a certain way—in short, from Christian believers praying biblically, according to God’s revealed will. Obviously the prayerless are spiritually lost, but it is startling to consider that God rejects many if not most religious people throughout the world, along with their unscriptural prayers.
Jesus saves us from useless praying by turning our hearts toward the true and living God, and then by instructing us in the right way to pray. We must think about God in the right way, and then this will improve how we address Him in prayer.
Everybody Prays, Sort of
I speak generally, admitting exceptions. Praying in one form or another is not exclusive to Christianity. It is also found in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for example. Complete prayerlessness is more prevalent in the modern, secular West.
Jesus assumes His disciples pray: “when ye pray.” A “prayerless Christian” is an oxymoron. J. C. Ryle states it bluntly: “To be prayerless is to be without God, without Christ, without grace, without hope, and without heaven. It is to be on the road to hell” (A Call to Prayer).
Jesus also recognizes that the “heathen” or “Gentiles” do something that is at least comparable to prayer. He warns His disciples not to pray like them.
Christians Tend to Pray Like Unbelievers
We should be deeply humbled by the realization that we do not just intuitively know how to pray as we ought (Rom 8.26). That is why the disciples properly pled with Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11.1). Our sinful hearts breed sinful habits of sinful speech in our prayers. The Lord knows that we desperately need spiritual renovation and biblical reformation to pray acceptably. His instruction here implies as much. In essence, He counsels us, “Don’t pray like this,” and then He describes the unacceptable prayers most people offer. Even as true Christians, we are prone to imitate their bad example.
According to Jesus, what about their praying was so objectionable? Two things: the form and the purpose.
The form is condemned using a rare Greek word, translated “vain repetitions” (AV) and “empty phrases” (ESV).
The verb battalogeō (“keep on babbling”) is very rare, apart from writings dependent on the NT (BAGD, p. 137b). It may derive from the Aramaic baṭṭal (“idle,” “useless”) or some other Semitic word; or it may be onomatopoetic: if so, “babble” is a fine English equivalent. Jesus is not condemning prayer any more than he is condemning almsgiving (v. 2) or fasting (v. 16). Nor is he forbidding all long prayers or all repetition. He himself prayed at length (Luke 6:12), repeated himself in prayer (Matt 26:44), and told a parable to show his disciples that “they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). His point is that his disciples should avoid meaningless, repetitive prayers.
Jesus also condemns the purpose behind such heathen praying. “They think they shall be heard for their much speaking” (or, “many words”). Tibetan prayer wheels in the Buddhist tradition are believed to have the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers. Roman Catholic priests assign a specific number of “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Father’s” for penance after auricular confession, which is no better. But even Evangelicals may imagine that prayer’s efficacy increases with length, and that God must be “softened up” to give us what we ask in prayer. The very notion is heathen and clearly denounced by Jesus in this passage.
Remedy: We Must Always Remember that God Is Our Caring Father
Jesus sees our spiritual problem as rooted in a wrong idea about the nature of God, especially as He relates to Christians. The word “for” (v. 8) connects two ideas: “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” You don’t need to babble incessantly in prayer. This is insulting to God, because it implies He is so hard-hearted that you must pester Him like a disrespectful five-year-old trying to get attention, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” until Daddy finally erupts, “WHAT!?”
As a Christian, you already have God’s attention and His devoted love. Your Father already knows absolutely everything and He is infinitely wise. He is committed to give you everything you need for your ultimate salvation. He already gave up His only begotten Son on the cross for you. Your prayers do not inform Him of anything, but it pleases Him that you should ask in faith, for in this way you glorify Him as your God and Father in heaven.
Keeping that always in mind will help us pray like children beloved of our heavenly Father—thoughtfully, thankfully, trustingly. Amen.
D. Scott Meadows, Pastor
Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed)
Exeter, New Hampshire USA
 Gaebelein, F. E., Carson, D. A., Wessel, W. W., & Liefeld, W. L. (1984). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.