ŇBut 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.Ó Matthew 6:7,8
Our Saviour Christ, having dealt against hypocrisy in prayer, doth here come to the second vice which He intends to reform therein, namely babbling, consisting in the outward form of prayer. The words contain two parts, a commandment and a reason thereof.
1. The commandment.
When ye pray use no vain repetitions, as the heathen do; where first we must know that Christ reproves not repetition in prayer simply, but needless repetitions only; for in Psalm 51, David doth sundry times repeat his requests for the pardon of sin and for sanctification. Also, Moses, Elijah and our Saviour Christ prayed forty days together, and in this long prayer (no doubt) used many repetitions; much less can we pray one day together without many repetitions. Here then by vain repetitions, is meant babbling; that is, a desire and affectation to use and speak many words in prayer. And under this one vice, are condemned all sins of the same kind, that is, all superfluous multiplication of words in prayer. As the heathen, that is, such as were not the people of God, but aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenant of promise (Eph. 2:12).
In this commandment are condemned many abuse in the manner of prayer:
(1) Mere babbling, when words are used for prayer, which contain neither requests unto God, nor giving of thanks. Such are many popish prayers, and such is the use of the Ave Maria, among our common people, for it is the salutation of the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary, calling her by commission from God to be the mother of Christ; which words, none since that day had warrant to use to the virgin Mary, only they are to be read as a part of that history. Yea, the rehearsal of the Ten Commandments, and of the Creed for prayers, is but mere babbling.
(2) Prayers made in ignorance are here condemned. Thus the popish sort offend, who use to pray unto God in an unknown tongue; and thus many sin, that use the LordŐs prayer without understanding of the words.
(3) Cold and dull praying is here condemned, when the lips draw near unto God, but the heart is no whit affected therewith. This is a common vice, and some taint hereof may every man find in his own heart.
(4) Superstitious prayers, when as GodŐs worship is measured out by set numbers. This is the popish practice answerable to their doctrine that the rehearsing of so many Paternosters, Aves, Dirges, Masses, and such like, are effectual with God to procure such and such things. This opinion takes place with our common people, for they think God is served by the work done. If the words be said, all is well.
(5) Rash praying, without due preparation, is here condemned, when men pray only on the sudden, by the motion of the Spirit, as they use to speak. Too many are of this mind, allowing no set form of prayer to any sort; but howsoever conceived prayer be most comfortable, yet without due preparation of the heart, it is most subject to vain repetitions.
(6) Rash vows, especially of things not lawful, or above our power.
(7) Rash wishes, of good or evil, being framed according to our carnal affections, and not by the Word of God.
And in a word, all vain and superfluous speech in any manner of invocation, wherein the heart is not affected according to the will of God; all which must be remembered, for they shew plainly that our common prayers are far short of that which the Lord requireth.
Here some will say, If so many things be disallowed in prayer, how shall we speak aright in prayer? Answer: As the apostle Paul said of singing, so say I of prayer; it must be with grace in our hearts (Col. 3:16), and all our words, both for measure and number, must be tempered thereto, and no more ought to be used in prayer than may serve to express and further in ourselves, or others, some inward grace of God; as faith, repentance, zeal of GodŐs glory etc. (Eccl. 5:2) Be not rash with thy mouth, nor let thine heart be hasty to utter a thing before God; for God is in heaven, and thou art on earth, therefore let thy words be few; where we have express command, not only to prepare our hearts, but our words also, when we come before God in prayer, that they be such as may express some grace of our hearts.
As the heathen.
In this instance, we may note that the heathen had some insight into matters of religion; for first, they knew there was a God, and that the same God may be worshipped. Secondly, they practised many excellent virtues of the second table; as justice both in word and deed, liberality, continence, fidelity, and such like; yea, they cared to do some duties of the first table, as here we see they prayed unto God; and some of them performed this duty in such sort as they obtained hereby some temporal blessings. The heathen mariners (Jon. 1:14) that carried Jonah towards Tarshish, prayed to God, and obtained safety; and Ahab (1 Kin. 21:27) humbled himself unto God in prayer and fasting, and obtained a temporal freedom from a fearful judgment. Now the consideration of this point serves to check many among us who think that God will hold them excused because they mean well, and do no man harm; they plead that they are no adulterers, thieves, nor outrageous offenders; but all this the heathen man can do, and yet he is but in a damnable case; for though these be good things, yet they will not bring any man to salvation. We must therefore get faith in Christ, and from thence practise all Christian virtues.
2. For they think to be heard by their much babbling.
These words are a reason of the former commandment, wherein we may note three opinions of the heathen concerning God: (1) They thought God was like an earthly man, who might be instructed and persuaded by words. (2) They denied GodŐs providence, and were not persuaded that God saw them or regarded their estate; and therefore they use many words to acquaint Him therewith. (3) They thought by the force of words to prevail with God.
Hence we may learn these instructions:
(1) That though the heathen knew there was a God, yet they turned Him into an idol when they worshipped Him; and therefore Paul saith (Eph. 2:12), they were without God in the world; for they made Him like unto man, without any providence, and persuadable also by manŐs reason, and by many words.
(2) By these opinions of the heathen touching GodŐs, we may gather that there was not always in the Old Testament, an universal grace given to all, whereby they might be saved if they would; for if they had had any such grace, they would never have thought so grossly of God as they did. One spark of true knowledge of the Messiah would have expelled all these carnal conceits of God out of menŐs hearts. And therefore howsoever the heathen had so much knowledge of God, as made them without excuse, yet we are to hold that before ChristŐs coming, they were left to themselves, and forsaken of God in His just judgment, in regard of His special grace and favour.
(3) By these heathen we may see what be out natural conceits of God, for our nature is the same with theirs; and therefore of ourselves we think God to be like some old man, sitting in heaven, without any regard of us at all. And when we have all things needful we will trust in God, but when means fail, we forsake Him straight. And this we shew by using unlawful means to help ourselves in the time of distress, as by seeking to witches etc. Lastly, naturally we think we can prevail with God by our words. The papists teach that the saying of five words, Nam hoc est corpus meum, will turn the bread and wine in the sacrament into the body and blood of Christ. And it is the common opinion of our ignorant people that the saying of words pleaseth God. They think the words of Scripture written or spoken, have virtue in them to do strange things, and this is one main ground of all the practices of sorcery which be so common among us. But we are to know that there is no such virtue in any words, it is only faith in the heart that makes GodŐs Word effectual for our good. Words of themselves can do no more but signify, and that they do not of themselves, but by the pleasure of men; and therefore we are to renounce the use of all spells and charms; for be the words never so good, they are but the devilŐs watchword, and the ceremonies used therewithal are his sacraments to cause him to work wonders. We therefore must learn by the Word of God, to conceive better of God than nature can teach us, as of an heavenly and invisible God, governing all creatures by His providence; and not persuaded by manŐs reason, but working all things according to the counsel of His own will.
ŇBe not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.Ó (v.8)
In this verse our Saviour Christ repeateth the former commandment touching prayer, made after the manner of the heathen; and withal annexeth a second reason to enforce the same. The commandment is repeated from the former reason in these words: Be ye not like them therefore; as if He should say, considering that the heathen in their prayers look to be heard for the multitude of their words, therefore ye must not pray in that manner which they do. This repetition of the commandment serves to imprint the same more deeply in the hearts of His hearers, to cause them, and so us in them, to be more careful to avoid needless repetitions in prayer.
Now having handled this commandment in the former verse, I will here only observe this point of doctrine touching the distinction of people before the death of Christ; for here Christ saith unto the Jews, Be ye not like them; that is, like the Gentiles; where He putteth a plain difference between the Jews and all the nations of the world besides. And therefore when He first sent His disciples to preach, He forbade them (Matt. 10:5,6) the way of the Gentiles, and the cities of Samaria; commanding them to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And this distinction was not only in ChristŐs time, but had been from the beginning, for the space of 4,000 years. In the first age of the world there were (Gen. 6:2) the sons of God and the daughters of men; after the flood (Gal. 4:29), the children of the flesh and the children of the promise. And under the law (Hos. 2:23), a people of God and no people. This distinction stood in two things:
(1) In regard of the grace of adoption, and of the especial favour of God: for in this text Christ saith, the Jews had God for their Father, which the Gentiles had not, for they were strangers from the covenant of promise.
(2) In regard of GodŐs true worship: for concerning prayer, a special part thereof, Christ here saith to the Jews, Ye shall not be like the Gentiles. If any shall here think that this preferment of the Jews before the Gentiles, in regard of GodŐs special mercy came from this, that God foresaw something in them which was not in the Gentiles, let them hear what Moses saith to the Jews (Deut. 7:7,8), The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you for your multitude, but because the Lord loved you, and would keep the oath which He sware to your fathers.
From this ground of doctrine touching the distinction of people, in regard of GodŐs special mercy, follow three weighty points to be known and believed: First, that the promise of remission of sins, and life everlasting in the Messiah, is not universal to all, but indefinite to many sorts, kinds and estates; for if the promise pertained to all, then there could be no distinction of man and man, of people and people, in regard of mercy; and therefore the opinion of universal grace is false and erroneous. Secondly, that though Christ died for all (for so Scripture saith) yet he died not alike effectually for all; for if redemption by Christ had been universal, then had mercy belonged alike to all, which is against the text, and therefore the opinion of universal redemption is also a forgery of manŐs brain. Thirdly, that God calls not all men effectually to salvation by Christ, for then should everyone have God to be his Father in Christ; and the Jew had no privilege before the Gentile in regard of mercy and the grace of adoption; but here we see that God for many hundreds of years, was the Father of the Jew, and not of the Gentile, in regard of grace and adoption. And by this doctrine, we may clear that place of the apostle St Paul (1 Tim. 2:4), where he saith, God would have all men to be saved; for he meaneth not all men in all times, but in this last age of the world, after the ascension of Christ, when as the partition wall was broken down, and the distinction between Jew and Gentile taken away, in regard of mercy and adoption.
For your Father knoweth whereof ye have need, before ye ask of Him.
These words are a second reason against the heathenish manner of prayer, to this effect: It is needless for you to use vain repetitions in your prayers, because God knows your wants before you pray; and therefore few words well ordered are sufficient.
Your Father knoweth.
This knowledge of God is not a bare notice taken of our wants, but such a knowledge as doth withal include a special care to make supply unto them; for this is a rule in the expounding of Scripture, that words of knowledge are oftentimes put for words of affection; as (Psa. 1:6), The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish; where the opposition of knowledge to destruction sheweth plainly that by knowledge there is meant the LordŐs due regard and respect unto the ways of the godly; which is a point full of all comfort to the children of God; and for the clearing of it, three questions are to be scanned, which may well be moved out of this text:
Question 1: If God knows our wants before we pray, why then should we pray at all? Answer: We pray, not to inform God of the things we want, as though He knew them not; but for other causes: as (1) to stir up our hearts to seek unto GodŐs presence and favour; (2) to exercise our faith in the meditation of GodŐs promises; (3) to ease our woeful hearts, by pouring them out to the Lord; (4) to testify our obedience unto GodŐs commandments, and our trust in His providence, for the receiving of every good thing we desire.
Question 2: If God knows our wants, and have care to make supply thereof, why then doth God oftentimes delay to grant the prayers of His servants? Answer: God deferreth to grant the request of His children for many respects, tending to their great good, as: (1) thereby to kindle their faith, and to stir up their zeal in prayer, that they may more earnestly beg the things they want. For this end our Saviour Christ reasoned with the woman of Canaan, before He would cure her daughter; (2) to keep them in humility, and to prevent spiritual pride; thus He denied to remove from the apostle Paul the buffeting of Satan, though he prayed for it, lest he should be puffed up through multitude of revelations (2 Cor. 12:7-9); (3) to make them esteem more highly of the blessings of God, and to stir them up to more thankfulness for the same; for it is commonly true that things lightly gotten, are lightly set by.
Question 3: How falleth it out that God doth never grant some men their requests? Answer: (1) Because they make their prayers, but not according to GodŐs will, either failing all the time, as did the foolish virgins, who cried, Lord, Lord, open to us, when the doors were shut (Matt. 25:11,12); or in the things they ask, and so the sons of Zebedee (Matt. 20:20-22) had not their request, because they asked they knew not what; (2) Because they doubt and waver in prayer, for such shall not receive anything from the Lord (Jam. 1:6,7); (3) Because they pray for wrong ends; Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that you might consume it on your lusts (Jam. 4:3).
1. First, this provident eye of God over all our wants, teacheth us what to do when we are assaulted by an enemy, either of body or soul. We must first of all make God our refuge and tower of defence, by getting assurance of our adoption; for if we be GodŐs children, He is our Father, knowing and weighing our wants, and He is most careful to make supply thereto before we pray. (Gen. 25:22), when the two twins strove together in RebeccaŐs womb, she sent to ask the Lord thereof, no doubt by Isaac her husband, who before had prayed for her (v.21). So when Jehosaphat was beset with many enemies, he cried unto the Lord for help, and was delivered (2 Chr. 18:31; 20:12). And it was the prophet DavidŐs practice to have recourse to God in all his troubles, for which cause he calls the Lord his rock, his resting and hiding place.
2. Secondly, hereby we are taught to have a moderate care for the things of this life; for we have a Father in heaven who careth for us, knowing all our wants, and ready to make supply thereof before we pray. In these days, most men set their hearts upon the world, and trust to outward means more than to God Himself, which comes from this: because they want a true persuasion of their adoption in Christ; for if they knew that God were their Father, then surely this persuasion would take place in their hearts. God knows my wants, and is careful for the supply thereof, and therefore I will trust in Him, and obey Him.
3. Thirdly, this teacheth us, in any necessity or affliction, to subject ourselves to the will of God, labouring to be thankful for that estate, as well as for prosperity, and studying to please and honour God therein; for He is a Father who seeth all our wants before we complain, and is careful for our good, knowing that affliction is better for us than prosperity, or else He would send us deliverance; for it is all one with Him, and He delights not in the affliction of His people.
4. Fourthly, this serves to arm us against all carnal and slavish fear whereby menŐs hearts are oppressed, either in regard of death, or of the day of judgment; for though the devil rage against us, yet when death cometh, God is our Father who knoweth our wants, and the way to comfort us, and is both willing and able to save us. In a word, this meditation serveth to stir us up to all dutiful obedience in the whole course of our lives; for who can be but thankful to such a Father as knows all his wants, and as He is able, so also He is willing and ready to make supply thereto. This therefore should enlarge our hearts to bless God, that is such a Father unto us in Christ.