“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matt. 6:7, KJV).
The phrase “vain repetitions” comes from the translation of Matthew 6:7 in the King James version. It is a translation of the Greek word battalogeo. This is the only time this word is found in the entire New Testament. It is related to the Greek word battalos which means stutterer. The ESV translates this word as “empty phrases” and the NIV translates it as “babbling.” Jesus used it to describe the prayers of Gentiles. These pagan prayers contained “many words” and it sounded like “babbling.”
Jesus is arguing for simplicity in prayer. Immediately following this warning he gives what we know as the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). He instructs us to “Pray then in this way…” (Matt. 6:9). In the Gospel of Luke, he gives the same prayer again and says, “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:2). We are commanded not just to use his prayer as an example, but also to pray the very words he prayed. This means that “vain repetitions” does not refer to using prayers that have been handed down over the years. The Jewish people prayed the Psalms, and even Jesus prayed them from the cross (Matt. 27:46). They prayed the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) multiple times each day. Jesus never condemned this practice. In fact, he speaks favorably of the Shema and calls it the greatest command (Luke 10:25-28). Jesus condemned the Jewish people for praying just to be heard (Matt. 6:5), but he never says anything about them using the same prayers over and over again. Praying the prayers we find in Scripture is not “vain repetition.”
What is condemned in Matt. 6:7 is “vain repetition” and not simply repetition. There is nothing wrong with repeating something. In fact, this could be a beneficial practice. In Psalm 136 the phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” is repeated 26 times. The word of God is not “vain repetition.” Psalm 136 is not “vain repetition.” The repetition of certain phrases within God’s word can help mold and shape us. It can help to remind us of God’s faithfulness and enduring love. When we sing a song on Sunday morning, we often sing the chorus multiple times. We are repeating the same words over and over again, but this is not “vain repetition.” Repetition is not condemned in the Bible. What is condemned is “vain repetition.”
When Jesus used this phrase in Matt. 6:7, it referred to something specific. It referred to pagan prayers that sounded like babbling and were full of many words that had no meaning. Our prayers are to be simple prayers from the heart. The idea of something being vain refers to the condition of our heart. We can sincerely say the Lord’s prayer and mean every word, or we can mumble through the words and not mean any of them. We can stand before the congregation and pray a prayer from the bottom of our heart, or we can get up and just say what pops in our head and maybe throw in some phrases we have picked up over the years (e.g. guide, guard, and direct). We can stand and read Psalm 136 together focusing on the steadfast love of the Lord, or we can think about how silly it is to read together and never contemplate on the deep love of God. We can make anything vain. The choice is up to us. Are we truly worshipping God on Sunday mornings, or are we just going through the motions? One is vain worship and the other is not.