And when you are praying, do not fluff up your requests like the Gentiles, for they think that they will be heard [and receive a favorable response] because of their many words. But do not be like them, for your Father knows what you have need of before you ask him. (Matt 6:7–8, my translation)
The exact meaning of this passage has been obscure and difficult, primarily because of the extremely rare Greek word I have translated here as “fluff up your requests,” with its origin and exact meaning still debated among scholars. Without going into detail about all that here, suffice it to say that the best understanding of the word in this literary and historical context is a reference to excessive coherent speaking as conveyed in the Latin Vulgate with the translation to multum loqui, which means “speak much.” Though the origin of the Greek word is probably related to the idea of stammering, it stresses here the excessive words rather than focusing on the fact that those words are repetitive ones. Thus, the Greek word does not refer to repetitive words as we find in some translations. The lexical idea is that these excessive words are just as unnecessary as those extra partial repetitive words of one who stutters.
Literary and Historical Context
For Jesus to just bring up a practice of how the Gentiles pray in relation to Jewish prayer at first seems quite odd, especially when we consider the fact that Gentiles generally pray to various other gods, and not to the true God. So, this remark from Jesus only makes sense if this Gentile practice was in fact already taking place in some relevant context among the Jews who do pray to the real God.
Our passage here flows from the text that precedes it where Jesus makes reference to how the hypocrites pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen of men (Matt 6:5–6). He has remarked elsewhere about the scribes who “love salutations in the marketplaces and chief seats in the synagogues,” and who also “for a pretence make long prayers” (Luke 20:46–47 ASV; also see Mark 12:38–40). Furthermore, he accuses the scribes of being hypocrites (Matt 23:13–15, 23, 25, 27, 29). The logical deduction here is that these hypocrites praying in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen of men would have offered long prayers there as well. It seems likely that the thought here now transitions to the idea that the hypocrites being discussed offer up “long prayers” not only to be seen of men, but because they also think that doing so will solicit a favorable response from God. In other words, by offering long prayers in the synagogues, the street corners of the marketplace, and elsewhere, they seek both the honor from men and the favor of God.
Therefore, Jesus is most likely bringing up the Gentile practice of prayer because it is relevant to the way that the Jewish hypocrites were also praying, using long prayers in the hope of gaining a favorable response from God. This interpretation is supported by a similar position conveyed in some early church documents such as a variable of “hypocrites” instead of “Gentiles” in the Greek Codex Vaticanus and the Syriac Curetonian Gospels. This correlation is also probably implied in the Didache, which reads, “Neither pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, thus pray, Our Father, who is in heaven . . .” (Did. 8:2, my translation). So though Jesus tells his audience not to be like the Gentiles by praying this way, he is even more so saying to his audience don’t be like those hypocrites that are acting like the Gentiles.
A Prayer of Petition
Another important point about this passage is that it is not referring to praise or thanksgiving. It also does not refer to talking with God as we might a friend of a father. He enjoys talking and fellowshipping with us. It refers only to that type of prayer in which we make a request of God in the sense of asking him for something in the form of a petition or request. In other words, we should not make the mistake of thinking that God does not want to talk to us at length whenever we are willing. Jesus prayed to the Father constantly, setting forth an example for us, and Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17).
Like the Gentiles
The inference here is that the Gentiles speak verbosely or excessively in prayer to the gods when making requests. The Gentiles felt they needed to approach their gods and deal with them like one might a king who has the power to provide them with what they want. R. M. Ogilvie has pointed out the following in regards to Roman prayer:
The first task was to secure the ear of the god [through invoking the right name(s) and the right place(s)]: The next was to convince the god that the request was a reasonable one and within his competence to fulfill. . . . Prayer does not presume a favorable result; it recognizes that divine goodwill is the first requirement and that this goodwill will not always be forthcoming. (Ogilvie, The Romans, 29–30).
Gentiles believed that the gods could be influenced and persuaded by the proper petition if they used the right words to present and make their case. As Gordon Laing remarks, “It is clear that the Romans bargained with their gods, flattered them, reasoned with them, made claims upon them, and on occasion even attempted to force them.” (Laing, “Roman Prayer,” 184). Generally, the Gentiles felt that they needed at times to add explanatory content, persuasive rhetoric, promises and offers, and/or flattery in order to receive a favorable response from their gods. In addition, Ogilvie notes:
the prayer itself had to be worded to cover every possibility. . . . Roman prayers were phrased like legal documents, with repetitions, accumulated synonyms and detailed particularizations . . . to make sure that no loophole should be left. (Ogilvie, The Romans, 34).
Because of all these Roman ideas about their relationship with the gods, many such pagan prayers of petition ended up being quite wordy in an effort to solicit a favorable response. Though there are some extant records of prayers that were short and precise, there are also many records of these longer types of prayers. The prayer below is from the poet Virgil’s (70–19 BC) epic poem, the Aeneid, placed in the mouth of a mythological king named Evander, who is asking for his son’s safe return from warfare as he bids him farewell:
But you, powers above, and you, Jupiter, mighty ruler of the gods, take pity I beg you on this Arcadian king, and hear a father’s prayer. If your will, and fate, keep my Pallas safe, if I live to see him and be together with him, I ask for life: I have the patience to endure any hardship. But if you threaten any unbearable disaster, Fortune, now, oh now, let me break the thread of cruel existence, while fear hangs in doubt, while hope’s uncertain of the future while you, beloved boy, my late and only joy, are held in my embrace, and let no evil news wound my ears. (Verg. Aen. 8.572–82)
Virgil also provides us with another prayer for someone’s safety:
Nymphs, Laurentine Nymphs, from whom is the generation of rivers, and thou, O father Tiber, with thine holy flood, receive Aeneas and deign to save him out of danger. What pool soever holds thy source, who pitiest our discomforts, from whatsoever soil thou dost spring excellent in beauty, ever shall my worship, ever my gifts frequent thee, the hornèd river lord of Hesperian waters. Ah, be thou only by me, and graciously confirm thy will. (Verg. Aen. 8.71–78)
Here is an example of a Gentile prayer from the Roman historian Livy (59 BC–AD 17) that has Scipio asking Jupiter for success in warfare:
O Jupiter, commanded by thy birds, I here laid the first foundation of the city on the Palatine hill. The Sabines are in possession of the citadel, purchased by fraud. From thence they are now advancing hither, sword in hand, having already passed the middle of the valley. But do thou, father of gods and men, keep back the enemy at least from hence, dispel the terror of the Romans, and stop their shameful flight. Here I solemnly vow to build a temple to thee as Jupiter Stator, as a monument to posterity, that this city was saved by thy immediate aid. (Livy 1.12.4–6)
Below is a prayer for blessing recorded by the Roman historian Cato (234–149 BC) that was offered during a purification rite:
Father Mars, I pray and beseech You, to be willing and propitious to me, to our household and to our family, for which I have ordered this [offering of a pig, sheep, and bull] to be driven around my grain fields, my land, and my estate, in order that You may prevent, repel, and avert, seen and unseen <decay and> disease, deprivation, desolation, calamities, and intemperate weather; I pray You allow the fruits, the grain, the vines, and the bushes, to grow strong and well and be brought to the storage pit. May You also keep the shepherds and their flocks safe, and give good health and vigor to me, to the household, and to our family. To this end it is, as I have said – namely, for the purification and lustration of my estate, my land, and my grain fields, cultivated and uncultivated – that I pray You may be honored and strengthened by this [offering of a pig, sheep, and bull], these suckling sacrificial victims. O Father Mars, to this same end I pray that You bless these sucklings in sacrifice. (Cato Agr. 141)
There are many more such long, wordy Gentile prayers in the extant records, but the above should suffice as sufficient for an understanding on what Jesus is talking about.
A Proper Interpretation
There is a lot more going on in this passage than what we see on the surface. Though the primary focus is on the proper way to pray, there are some critical underlying insights. There is a contrast being stressed between the true God and the gods of the pagans, as well as the relationship between God and his people in distinction to the relationship of the Gentiles with their gods. The true God is omniscient and already knows what one needs, what one is going to request, and all the specifics about it. He also loves his people and stands ready to give one anything and everything that they need as long as it is according to his will. All one needs to do is ask in simplicity with this understanding.
Jesus is not telling us to avoid asking for anything specific, but rather telling us that we do not need to fluff up our prayers like the Gentiles do. There is no need to make requests of God with a lot of unnecessary verbiage like we might when pleading with a human being for something or entering into a legal agreement with another. Such manner of praying will not make our prayer more effective. No explanation, detailed particularization, persuasion, offer, promise, or flattery is necessary. In other words, the point of the passage is that our God already knows us, knows what we are going to ask for, cares about us, and responds favorably to us.
The interpretation of some that this passage means that we are only supposed to pray one time for something is incorrect. Such a teaching would contradict other passages in the Bible and so this idea has been refuted even from earliest times by church fathers such as Augustine and Chrysostom. In fact, the Lord’s prayer that follows this passage under review here is a repetitive prayer in the sense that it was a model for daily prayer. Also Elijah, Jesus, and Paul all prayed the same or a similar prayer more than once: Jesus prayed three times to avoid the cross (Matt 26:44), Paul prayed three times to remove the thorn in his side (2 Cor 12:7), and Elijah prayed seven times for the return of rain (1 Kgs 18:42–43); also the biblical text may be inferring that Elijah prayed three times for a boy to be raised back to life (1 Kgs 17:21). Also see Luke 11:8–10 and Luke 18:7.
What does this passage teach us? It tells us that we do not need to pray like the Gentiles because our God and our relationship with our God are quite different than the pagan gods of the Gentiles and their relationship with their gods. Our God is omniscient and he wants to give us what we need, but we only need to ask. For this reason, we are to approach God during our requests with straight-forward simplicity. There is no need for explanatory content, detailed particularizations, persuasive rhetoric, promises and offers, and flattery in order to receive a favorable response. Our prayer can include praise and conversation to God as our friend and Father, but it should be sincere without ulterior motive, not as a means in which we think that doing so will incur more good will from God. God is our Father and our friend who already knows us, loves and cares about us, knows what we need, and wants to grant our request if it is according to his will.
Laing, Gordon J. “Roman Prayer and Its Relation to Ethics.” Classical Philology 6, no. 2 (1911): 180–96.
Ogilvie, R. M. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus. New York: W.W. Norton. 1969.
© Robert Alan King at BibleCommentator.com