Old Testament Jews desired to pray because they believed God wanted them to approach Him. They didn’t fear God the way pagans did their gods. In fact, the rabbis said that the Holy One yearns for the prayers of the righteous.
They undoubtedly got that truth from Psalm 145:18, which says, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him” (cf. Ps. 91:15). No true Jew with a right spirit ever doubted God’s priority for prayer. The rabbis rightly believed prayer was not only communication with God but also a mighty weapon that released His power.
The Essence of Their Understanding
The Word of God makes clear that God wanted to hear the prayers of the people. Psalm 65:2 says, “O Thou who dost hear prayer, to Thee all men come.” The Midrash, a Jewish commentary on portions of the Old Testament, says this about Psalm 65:2: “A mortal man cannot grasp the conversation of two people speaking at the same time, but with God it is not so. All pray before Him, and He understands and receives all their prayers” (Rabbah 21.4). Men may become tired of listening to people, but God’s ears are never satiated—He is never wearied by men’s prayers.
The Jewish teachers went even further, teaching the people to pray constantly and avoid the habit of praying only when they were desperate. The Talmud, the codification of rabbinic traditions, says, “Honour the physician before you have need of him. . . . The Holy One says, Just as it is my office to cause the rain and the dew to fall, and make the plants to grow to sustain man, so art thou bounden to pray before me, and to praise me in accordance with my works; thou shalt not say, I am in prosperity, wherefore shall I pray? But when misfortune befalls me then will I come and supplicate” (Sanhedrin 44b). That is the right perspective. Prayer was not to be used just for emergency appeals; it was to be an unbroken conversation built around a living, loving fellowship with God.
The Elements of Their Prayers
The Jews believed their prayers should incorporate the following elements:
- Loving Praise – The psalmist said, “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Ps. 34:1). Psalm 51:15 says, “O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Thy praise.”
- Gratitude and Thanksgiving – Jonah said, “I will sacrifice to Thee with the voice of thanksgiving” (Jonah 2:9). In a relationship with the God of heavenly resources, there will always be something to thank Him for
- Reverence – The Old Testament saints didn’t flippantly rush into God’s presence, treating Him as if He were a man. They came before Him with reverence, recognizing that when they prayed they were coming face-to-face with Almighty God. The Prophet Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision “sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple” (6:1). His response was, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (v. 5).
Old Testament Jews believed it was wrong to pray if their hearts were not right. Psalm 119 affirms that throughout its 176 verses. A true Jew had no reservations—he approached God with a spirit of obedience, desiring to please Him.
Godly Old Testament Jews knew they were unclean, and that when they came before God in prayer, they had to purge themselves of sin. That was David’s perspective when he said, “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:3–4). Only those who have dealt with their sin have the right to enter God’s presence.
The Jews had a sense of solidarity that we don’t understand. They were national—a theocracy ruled by God. That Israel still exists as a nation shows how vitally they have clung to the preservation of that national identity. As a result, their prayers encompassed the good of the community and were not isolated to the individual. For example, the rabbis asked God not to listen to the prayer of a traveler. That’s because he might pray for an easy journey with good weather and accommodating skies when the people in that vicinity actually needed rain for their crops.
Many of us come to God with personal pronouns in our prayers: I, me, and my. We tell the Lord about our needs and problems without thinking of others in the body of Christ. But we need to be willing to sacrifice what seems best for ourselves because God has a greater plan for the whole.
A true Jew went before the Lord in prayer to submit himself to the will of God. The greatest illustration of that came from the heart of the truest Jew who ever lived: Jesus. In His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said to the Father, “Not My will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). When we pray, instead of asking the Lord to do our will, we should conform ourselves to His will. We are to ask Him to work His will through us and give us the grace to enjoy it.
True believing Old Testament Jews taught that prayer was to be persistent. After the Children of Israel had worshiped the golden calf, Moses prayed forty days in a row that God would forgive them (Deut. 9:25–26). He persevered in prayer.
THE RABBINIC PERVERSION OF PRAYER
In spite of such a great heritage of prayer, several faults subtly crept into Israel’s prayer life (identified by William Barclay in his helpful discussion in The Gospel of Matthew [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958], 1:191–98).
Prayer Became Ritualized
The wording and forms of prayer were set, and they were then simply read or repeated from memory. Prayers easily became a routine, semiconscious religious exercise, able to be recited without any mental or passionate involvement by the individual.
The most common formalized prayers were the Shema (a composite of selected phrases from Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21; and Num. 15:37–41) and the Shemonēh ˒esray (“The Eighteen”), which incorporated eighteen prayers for various occasions. Both prayers were to be offered every day, regardless of where the people were or what they were doing. Faithful Jews even prayed all eighteen prayers of the Shemonēh ˒esray each morning, afternoon, and evening.
Three basic attitudes characterized the people who offered formalized prayers. Those Jews who had sincere hearts used the time of prayer to worship and glorify God. Some approached it indifferently, perfunctorily mumbling their way through the words as quickly as possible. Others, like the scribes and Pharisees, recited the prayers meticulously, making sure to enunciate every word and syllable perfectly.
The Jews developed prayers for every object and occasion, including light, darkness, fire, rain, the new moon, travel, good news, and bad news. I’m sure their original intent was to bring every aspect of their lives into God’s presence, but they undermined that noble goal by compartmentalizing the prayers.
By limiting prayer to specific times and occasions, the Jews turned prayer into a habit that focused on a prescribed topic or situation, not on genuine desire or need. In spite of that, some faithful Jews like Daniel (Dan. 6:10) used those times as reminders to approach God in sincerity with a pure heart.
The religious leaders esteemed long prayers, believing that a prayer’s sanctity and effectiveness were in direct proportion to its length. Jesus warned of the scribes who, “for appearance’s sake offer long prayers” (Mark 12:40). While a long prayer is not necessarily insincere, it does lend itself to dangerous tendencies like pretense, repetition, and rote. We are subject to the same temptations today, all too often confusing verbosity with meaning and length with sincerity.
One of the Jews’ worst faults was adopting the pagan religions’ practice of meaningless repetition, just as the prophets of Baal in their contest with Elijah “called on the name of Baal from morning until noon,” even raving “until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice” (1 Kings 18:26, 29). Hour after hour they repeated the same phrase, trying by the quantity of their words and the intensity with which they were spoken to make their god hear and respond.
To Be Seen and Heard by Men
While the other faults are not necessarily wrong in themselves, having simply been carried to extremes and used in meaningless ways, the desire to use prayer as an opportunity to parade one’s spirituality before men is intrinsically evil because it both originates in and is intended to satisfy pride. As we noted earlier in this chapter, the motive of sinful self-glory is the ultimate perversion of prayer. It robs prayer of its primary purpose—to glorify God (John 14:13).
THE CONDEMNATION BY CHRIST
In Matthew 6:5–8, in the midst of His discussion of the contrast between true and false righteousness, Jesus condemns the Pharisees’ current practice of prayer in two specific areas: self-centered prayer and prayer that had no meaning. Each area manifests one or more of the faults that had so corrupted true prayer in the life of the nation.
Since pride was at its root, our Lord first dealt with those who prayed to exhibit their supposed spirituality before men. “When you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Matt. 6:5). Prayer that focuses on self is always hypocritical because every true prayer focuses on God.
The term hypocrite originally referred to Greek actors who wore masks that portrayed in an exaggerated way the roles they were dramatizing. Thus hypocrites are pretenders—persons who are playing a role. The only thing you truly know about them is the false image that disguises their real beliefs and feelings.
The False Audience: Men
The hypocritical scribes and Pharisees prayed for the same reason they did everything else—to attract attention and bring honor to themselves. That was the essence of their righteousness, which Jesus said had no part in His kingdom (5:20).
On the surface, Jesus’ condemnation of their practice of prayer seems unwarranted. Certainly there was nothing wrong with standing and praying in the synagogues. Standing was the most common position for prayer in New Testament times, and the synagogues were the most appropriate and logical places for public prayers to be offered. As long as the prayer was sincere, it was suitable. Even the practice of praying at the “street corners” was not wrong in itself—that was actually a normal place for prayer. At the appointed hour for prayer, devout Jews would stop wherever they were, even if they were walking along the street.
The real evil of these hypocritical worshipers, however, was not the location of their prayers, but their desire to display themselves “in order to be seen by men.” The Greek word for “street” refers to a wide, major street and street corner. The scribes and Pharisees made a point of praying where a crowd was most likely to gather. Whatever place might afford the largest audience, that’s where you would find these hypocrites.
In their desire to exalt themselves before their fellow Jews, the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of pride. They were like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who “stood and was praying thus to himself” (Luke 18:11). God had no part in their pious activity. As a result, they had “their reward in full.” Since they were only concerned about the reward men could give, that’s all they received.
It’s imperative we take to heart Jesus’ warning in Matthew 6:5. To develop in
timacy with anyone requires openness and sincerity, and that certainly applies to our relationship with God. If you ever want to experience power and passion in your communication with the Lord, you must begin by making sure your motives are like those of the publican in Luke 18:13-14, who approached God with a humble and penitent attitude.
The True Audience: God
In contrast to the hypocritical practice of the day, Jesus instructed His followers: “When you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt. 6:6). Notice that the Lord gives no prescribed time or occasion for prayer. All He says is, “When you pray,” thus giving us great latitude to pray at all times.
To make as great a contrast as possible between God’s pattern for prayer and that practiced by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says that when you pray, “go into your inner room.” That could refer to any small room or chamber, even a storage closet. Such rooms were often secret and used to store and protect valuables. But a location for prayer was not Jesus’ point here, it was attitude. If the true worshiper found it necessary, he should find the most secluded, private place available to avoid the temptation to show off. When he got there, he should “shut the door” to close out all distractions so he could concentrate on God and pray to Him and Him alone.
I will never forget one day when my oldest son Matthew was only five years old. I was walking down the hall of our home when I heard his voice coming from our bedroom. I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, so I moved to a spot just outside the room. No one was in the room with him. He was lying on our bed praying. He had something on his heart that he wanted to say to God, so he went to a room all alone and prayed. It didn’t matter to him that no one could see him because he wasn’t talking to an audience, he was talking honestly with God.
Much of our prayer life should take place literally in secret. Jesus regularly left His disciples so He could find a place to be alone as He prayed. Our family and friends may be aware of times when we are praying, but what we say is meant for God, not them. Certainly there are occasions when public prayer also edifies those who hear because it represents their feelings and needs. But even those prayers convey a certain intimacy because God is the focus of the requests. When a person’s heart is right and concentrated on God, public prayer will in a profound way shut one up alone in the presence of God, making it no different in motive than a prayer offered in the most private of places.
When we pray with the right attitude, “[our] Father who sees in secret will repay [us]” (v. 6). The most important secret He sees is not the words we say in the privacy of our room, but the thoughts we have in the privacy of our heart. Those are the secrets He is the most concerned about. And when He sees that He is the true focus of our prayers, we will receive the reward only He can give. Jesus doesn’t tell us what that reward will be, but we do know that God will faithfully and unfailingly bless those who come to Him in sincerity and humility.
The hypocritical prayers of the scribes and Pharisees were offered not only in the wrong spirit, but also with meaningless words. They had no substance, no significant content. To be acceptable to God, prayers must be genuine expressions of worship and of heartfelt requests and petitions.
False Content: Meaningless Repetition
The practice of using meaningless repetition in one’s prayers was common in many pagan religions in Jesus’ day, as it is in many religions today. Thus His warning was clear: “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). The phrase “use meaningless repetition” is the translation from the Greek text of one word that refers to idle, thoughtless chatter.
The Jews had picked up this practice from the Gentiles, who believed that the value of prayer was largely a matter of quantity, supposing “they will be heard for their many words.” They believed their deities first had to be aroused, then cajoled, intimidated, and finally badgered into listening and answering.
Prayer was simply a matter of religious ceremony to the Gentiles, and it became that way for the Jews as well. Since no effort is required in those types of prayer, those who followed that practice could be totally indifferent to the prayer’s content. But worse than that, they were indifferent to real communion with God.
Each of us would do well to heed our Lord’s warning here. We have all been guilty of repeating the same prayers meal after meal and meeting after meeting—with little or no thought of God or what we are saying. Prayer that is thoughtless and detached is offensive to God and should be offensive to us.
Let me add one qualification, however. Jesus is not forbidding the repetition of genuine requests. In the first chapter we looked at those verses that declare the value of persistent prayer. Honest, properly motivated repetition of needs or praise is not wrong. But the mindless, indifferent recital of spiritual-sounding incantations or magical formulas is.
True Content: Sincere Requests
In contrast to those who use meaningless repetition, Jesus says, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). God’s purpose in prayer is not for us to inform or persuade Him to respond to our needs, but to open sincere and continual lines of communication with Him. Prayer, more than anything else, is sharing the needs, burdens, and hungers of our hearts with a God who cares. He wants to hear us and commune with us more than we could ever want to commune with Him because His love for us is so much greater than our love for Him.
How should you respond to these important words from our Lord? If you are ever to know power and passion in your prayer life, you need to pray with a devout heart—with a pure motive seeking only the glory of God. You also need to pray with a humble heart seeking only the attention of God, not men. Finally, you need to pray with a confident heart knowing full well that God already knows what you need. If you go to God on those terms, He will reward you in ways you could never imagine, and you’ll learn the value of being alone with God.
Excerpt from Alone With God: Rediscovering the Power & Passion of Prayer