In prayer we have more immediately to do with God than in giving alms, and therefore are yet more concerned to be sincere, which is what we are here directed to. When thou prayest (Matt. 6:5). It is taken for granted that all the disciples of Christ pray. As soon as ever Paul was converted, behold he prayeth. You may as soon find a living man that does not breathe, as a living Christian that does not pray. For this shall every one that is godly pray. If prayerless, then graceless. “Now, when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, nor do as they do,” Matt. 6:2. Note, Those who would not do as the hypocrites do in their ways and actions must not be as the hypocrites are in their frame and temper. He names nobody, but it appears by Matt. 23:13; that by the hypocrites here he means especially the scribes and Pharisees.
I. We must not be proud and vain-glorious in prayer, nor aim at the praise of men. And here observe,
1. What was the way and practice of the hypocrites. In all their exercises of devotion, it was plain, the chief thing they aimed at was to be commended by their neighbours, and thereby to make an interest for themselves. When they seemed to soar upwards in prayer (and if it be right, it is the soul’s ascent toward God), yet even then their eye was downwards upon this as their prey. Observe,
(1.) What the places were which they chose for their devotions; they prayed in the synagogues, which were indeed proper places for public prayer, but not for personal. They pretended hereby to do honour to the place of their assemblies, but intended to do honour to themselves. They prayed in the corners of the streets, the broad streets (so the word signifies), which were most frequented. They withdrew thither, as if they were under a pious impulse which would not admit delay, but really it was to cause themselves to be taken notice of. There, where two streets met, they were not only within view of both, but every passenger turning close upon them would observe them, and hear what they said.
(2.) The posture they used in prayer; they prayed standing; this is a lawful and proper posture for prayer (Mark 11:25; When ye stand praying), but kneeling being the more humble and reverent gesture, Luke 22:41; Acts 7:60; Eph. 3:14; their standing seemed to savour of pride and confidence in themselves (Luke 18:11), The Pharisee stood and prayed.
(3.) Their pride in choosing these public places, which is expressed in two things: [1.] They love to pray there. They did not love prayer for its own sake, but they loved it when it gave them an opportunity of making themselves noticed. Circumstances may be such, that our good deeds must needs be done openly, so as to fall under the observation of others, and be commended by them; but the sin and danger is when we love it, and are pleased with it, because it feeds the proud humour. [2.] It is that they may be seen of men; not that God might accept them, but that men might admire and applaud them; and that they might easily get the estates of widows and orphans into their hands (who would not trust such devout, praying men?) and that, when they had them, they might devour them without being suspected (Matt. 23:14); and effectually carry on their public designs to enslave the people.
(4.) The product of all this, they have their reward; they have all the recompence they must ever expect from God for their service, and a poor recompence it is. What will it avail us to have the good word of our fellow-servants, if our Master do not say, Well done? But if in so great a transaction as is between us and God, when we are at prayer, we can take in so poor a consideration as the praise of men is, it is just that that should be all our reward. They did it to be seen of men, and they are so; and much good may it do them. Note, Those that would approve themselves to God by their integrity in their religion, must have to regard to the praise of men; it is not to men that we pray, nor from them that we expect an answer; they are not to be our judges, they are dust and ashes like ourselves, and therefore we must not have our eye to them: what passes between God and our own souls must be out of sight. In our synagogue-worship, we must avoid every thing that tends to make our personal devotion remarkable, as they that caused their voice to be heard on high, Isa. 58:4. Public places are not proper for private solemn prayer.
2. What is the will of Jesus Christ in opposition to this. Humility and sincerity are the two great lessons that Christ teaches us; Thou, when thou prayest, do so and so (Matt. 6:6); thou in particular by thyself, and for thyself. Personal prayer is here supposed to be the duty and practice of all Christ’s disciples.
Observe, (1.) The directions here given about it.
[1.] Instead of praying in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, enter into thy closet, into some place of privacy and retirement. Isaac went into the field (Gen. 24:63), Christ to a mountain, Peter to a housetop. No place amiss in point of ceremony, if it do but answer the end. Note, Secret prayer is to be performed in retirement, that we may be unobserved, and so may avoid ostentation; undisturbed, and so may avoid distraction; unheard, and so may use greater freedom; yet if the circumstances be such that we cannot possibly avoid being taken notice of, we must not therefore neglect the duty, lest the omission be a greater scandal than the observation of it.
[2.] Instead of doing it to be seen of men, pray to thy Father who is in secret; to me, even to me, Zech. 7:5, 6. The Pharisees prayed rather to men than to God; whatever was the form of their prayer, the scope of it was to beg the applause of men, and court their favours. “Well, do thou pray to God, and let that be enough for thee. Pray to him as a Father, as thy Father, ready to hear and answer, graciously inclined to pity, help, and succour thee. Pray to thy Father who is in secret.” Note, In secret prayer we must have an eye to God, as present in all places; he is there in thy closet when no one else is there; there especially nigh to thee in what thou callest upon him for. By secret prayer we give God the glory of his universal presence (Acts 17:24), and may take to ourselves the comfort of it.
(2.) The encouragements here given us to it.
[1.] Thy Father seeth in secret; his eye is upon thee to accept thee, when the eye of no man is upon thee to applaud thee; under the fig-tree, I saw thee, said Christ to Nathaniel, John 1:48. He saw Paul at prayer in such a street, at such a house, Acts 9:11. There is not a secret, sudden breathing after God, but he observes it.
[2.] He will reward thee openly; they have their reward that do it openly, and thou shalt not lose thine for thy doing it in secret. It is called a reward, but it is of grace, not of debt; what merit can there be in begging? The reward will be open; they shall not only have it, but have it honourably: the open reward is that which hypocrites are fond of, but they have not patience to stay for it; it is that which the sincere are dead to, and they shall have it over and above. Sometimes secret prayers are rewarded openly in this world by signal answers to them, which manifests God’s praying people in the consciences of their adversaries; however, at the great day there will be an open reward, when all praying people shall appear in glory with the great Intercessor. The Pharisees ha their reward before all the town, and it was a mere flash and shadow; true Christians shall have theirs before all the world, angels and men, and it shall be a weight of glory.
II. We must not use vain repetitions in prayer, Matt. 6:7, 8. Though the life of prayer lies in lifting up the soul and pouring out the heart, yet there is some interest which words have in prayer, especially in joint prayer; for in that, words are necessary, and it should seem that our Saviour speaks here especially of that; for before he said, when thou prayest, he here, when ye pray; and the Lord’s prayer which follows is a joint prayer, and in that, he that is the mouth of others is most tempted to an ostentation of language and expression, against which we are here warned; use not vain repetitions, either alone or with others: the Pharisees affected this, they made long prayers (Matt. 23:14), all their care was to make them long. Now observe,
1. What the fault is that is here reproved and condemned; it is making a mere lip-labour of the duty of prayer, the service of the tongue, when it is not the service of the soul. This is expressed here by two words, Battologia, Polylogia. (1.) Vain repetitions—tautology, battology, idle babbling over the same words again and again to no purpose, like Battus, Sub illis montibus erant, erant sub montibus illis; like that imitation of the wordiness of a fool, Eccl. 10:14; A man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him who can tell? which is indecent and nauseous in any discourse, much more in speaking to God. It is not all repetition in prayer that is here condemned, but vain repetitions. Christ himself prayed, saying the same words (Matt. 26:44), out of more than ordinary fervour and zeal, Luke 22:44. So Daniel, Dan. 9:18, 19. And there is a very elegant repetition of the same words, Ps. 136:1-26. It may be of use both to express our own affections, and to excite the affections of others. But the superstitious rehearsing of a tale of words, without regard to the sense of them, as the papists saying by their beads so many Ave-Marys and Paternosters; or the barren and dry going over of the same things again and again, merely to drill out the prayer to such a length, and to make a show of affection when really there is none; these are the vain repetitions here condemned. When we would fain say much, but cannot say much to the purpose; this is displeasing to God and all wise men. (2.) Much speaking, an affectation of prolixity in prayer, either out of pride or superstition, or an opinion that God needs either to be informed or argued with by us, or out of mere folly and impertinence, because men love to hear themselves talk. Not that all long prayers are forbidden; Christ prayed all night, Luke 6:12. Solomon’s was a long prayer. There is sometimes need of long prayers when our errands and our affections are extraordinary; but merely to prolong the prayer, as if it would make it more pleasing or more prevailing with God, is that which is here condemned; it is not much praying that is condemned; no, we are bid to pray always, but much speaking; the danger of this error is when we only say our prayers, and not when we pray them. This caution is explained by that of Solomon (Eccl. 5:2), Let thy words be few, considerate and well weighed; take with you words (Hos. 14:2), choose out words (Job 9:14), and do not say every thing that comes uppermost.
2. What reasons are given against this.
(1.) This is the way of the heathen, as the heathen do; and it ill becomes Christians to worship their God as the Gentiles worship theirs. The heathen were taught by the light of nature to worship God; but becoming vain in their imaginations concerning the object of their worship, no wonder they became so concerning the manner of it, and particularly in this instance; thinking God altogether such a one as themselves, they thought he needed many words to make him understand what was said to him, or to bring him to comply with their requests; as if he were weak and ignorant, and hard to be entreated. Thus Baal’s priests were hard at it from morning till almost night with their vain repetitions; O Baal, hear us; O Baal, hear us; and vain petitions they were; but Elijah, in a grave, composed frame, with a very concise prayer, prevailed for fire from heaven first, and then water, 1 Kgs. 18:26, 36. Lip-labour in prayer, though ever so well laboured, if that be all, is but lost labour.
(2.) “It need not be your way, for your Father in heaven knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him, and therefore there is no occasion for such abundance of words. It does not follow that therefore ye need not pray; for God requires you by prayer to own your need of him and dependence on him, and to please his promises; but therefore you are to open your case, and pour out your hearts before him, and then leave it with him.” Consider, [1.] The God we pray to is our Father by creation, by covenant; and therefore our addresses to him should be easy, natural, and unaffected; children do not use to make long speeches to their parents when they want any thing; it is enough to say, my head, my head. Let us come to him with the disposition of children, with love, reverence, and dependence; and then they need not say many words, that are taught by the Spirit of adoption to say that one aright, Abba, Father. [2.] He is a Father that knows our case and knows our wants better than we do ourselves. He knows what things we have need of; his eyes run to and fro through the earth, to observe the necessities of his people (2 Chron. 16:9), and he often gives before we call (Isa. 65:24), and more than we ask for (Eph. 3:20), and if he do not give his people what they ask, it is because he knows they do not need it, and that it is not for their good; and of that he is fitter to judge for us than we for ourselves. We need not be long, nor use many words in representing our case; God knows it better than we can tell him, only he will know it from us (what will ye that I should do unto you?); and when we have told him what it is, we must refer ourselves to him, Lord, all my desire is before thee, Ps. 38:9. So far is God from being wrought upon by the length or language of our prayers, that the most powerful intercessions are those which are made with groanings that cannot be uttered, Rom. 8:26. We are not to prescribe, but subscribe to God.