The Sermon On The Mount
"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But 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."
As we pointed out in the opening paragraphs of our last chapter, we are now in the fourth division of our Lord's Sermon, a division which includes the first eighteen verses of Matthew 6, the general subject of which is the performing of good works so as to secure the approbation of God. In order to do this His disciples must shun not only the false doctrines but also the evil practices of the scribes and Pharisees. The keynote is struck in the opening verse, "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men to be seen of them" (R.V.). The general principle which is expressed in this warning is enlarged upon in verses 2-18, being applied to three specific cases: in "alms" manward, in "prayer" Godward, and in "fasting" selfward. Having already dwelt upon the first, we now turn unto what Christ here had to say upon the second. By keeping in mind the connection we shall the better perceive His scope and design, and be preserved from an erroneous interpretation of the clauses which are to be before us.
"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites" (v. 5). The opening words make it quite clear that Christ takes it for granted His disciples will pray, and in what follows He reveals the need there is for them to be diligent to perform this duty in a way acceptable to God. When the Lord assured Ananias of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus He said, "Behold, he prayeth" (Acts 9:11). As a "Pharisee of the Pharisees" he had made many long prayers, but not until the miracle of grace had been wrought within him could it be said that he prayed. Saying prayers and pouring out the heart before God are totally different things: a self-righteous Pharisee may be diligent in the former, only one who has been born again will do the latter. As another has said, "The moment a spiritual babe is born into the new creation it sends up a cry of helpless dependence toward the source of its birth."
That which is now to engage our attention consists of the first recorded utterance of Christ on the subject of prayer, and it is most searching and solemn to note that it opens with a warning against hypocrisy in the discharge of this duty. That particular species of hypocrisy which is here reprehended is ostentatiousness in our devotions, the public parading of our piety, the seeking to attract the notice of others and win for ourselves the reputation of great spirituality. Prayer is the expression of creature need and dependency and therefore it is utterly inconsistent with thoughts of pride and self-complacency. But alas, such is fallen man that he can unite these opposites, and therefore our need of this caution: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites." A "hypocrite" is one who assumes a character which does not belong to him. The "hypocrites" which Christ had immediately in view were the Pharisees (Matthew 23:13), for their "leaven" was hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).
"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward" (v. 5). We need hardly say that Christ is not here condemning this posture of standing in prayer (for He Himself employed it-John 11:41), nor is He forbidding His disciples to pray in public: Paul gave thanks unto God in the presence of a whole ship's company (Acts 27:35), and in his epistles gave order that "men pray everywhere" (1 Tim. 2:8). No, rather was it the motive and manner of prayer which our Lord here had in view. It is a caution against vainglory, the seeking to commend ourselves unto our fellows. And what sort of creatures are we that need this caution? Think of it-praying to God, in order that we may be seen of men! In how many ways does the evil of our hearts lead us away from godly simplicity and sincerity.
Sin defiles our very devotions, and unless we are very much on our guard it will not only render them nugatory but an offence unto God. Particularly does the minister need to place a strict watch upon himself in his public praying, lest he be guilty of praying to the congregation rather than unto God. Alas, does not a spirit of hypocrisy often creep into the pulpit prayers of those who could not justly be called "hypocrites?" It is but natural that the minister should desire to be regarded as a highly spiritual man, as one who enjoys very close communion with God, whose aspirations of soul are of a most exalted order. It is no easy matter not to be mindful that there are many critical ears which are listening to our petitions and to be affected accordingly both in the matter and manner of our supplications. Would not our public prayers often be simpler and shorter if we were alone with God?
What need there is, then, that those who are accustomed to lead in public prayer should diligently examine their hearts and cry earnestly unto God for the mortifying of their pride. What is the good opinion of fellow sinners worth if we have not the Lord's "Well done"? Let us be more careful in seeing to it that our affections prompt each petition, than in giving thought to the expressing of them in words which will charm the ears of men. Truth and sincerity in the heart are vastly more important than choice language or a correct demeanor. Let us seek grace to heed that exhortation, "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God . . . Be not rash with thy mouth and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth, therefore let thy words be few" (Eccl. 5:1, 2). If the Divine perfections duly impress our souls, then we shall be saved from much folly.
"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father" (v. 6). Having condemned the vice of hypocrisy in the former verse our Lord now commends the virtue of sincerity, and instructs us in the right manner of praying to God. It seems strange that some have quite missed Christ's meaning here, a few extremists supposing that He forbade all praying in the congregation. That which our Lord was reprehending in the previous verse was not public prayer, but personal praying in public, which was done with the object of calling attention to ourselves. The Lord Jesus encouraged social praying in His memorable declaration, "where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst" (Matthew 18:20), which was specifically a promise to praying souls, having no reference at all to the Lord's supper. That united prayer was practiced by the early Christians is clear from many passages in the Acts (see 1:14; 2:42; 6:4; 12:5; 16:13).
"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." In our exposition of Matthew 5 we have shown repeatedly that much of our Lord's language in this Sermon cannot be understood literally, and if this principle be borne in mind we shall be preserved from unwarrantably restricting His scope and meaning in this verse. Viewed in the light of its immediate context, we regard this verse as, first, giving most necessary directions to the one who leads in public prayer. So far from engaging therein in order to win human esteem, we must discharge the duty in precisely the same spirit of humility and sincerity as though we were alone, engaged in private prayer. Entering the closet and closing the door was a figurative way of saying, Shut out from thy mind all thoughts of the creature and have respect unto God alone; be not occupied with those present, but with Him who is invisible.
While we are satisfied that the first reference in verse 6 is to public prayer, yet (as the greater includes the less) there is also important teaching here concerning private prayer. Three things in it are to be noted: the place of prayer, the privacy, and privilege thereof. "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet!" By the "closet" we are to understand a place of seclusion and retirement. Our omniscient Saviour knew the tendency of our minds to stray, how easily our thoughts wander away from God, and therefore He exhorts us to get away from everything which disturbs and distracts, to some quiet spot where our communion with God may not be hindered. Private prayer is to be as secret as possible, and this calls for a secluded spot, a place free from the observations and interruptions of our fellows. When Christ engaged in private prayer He withdrew from the crowd and retired to the solitude of the mountain.
Ere passing on it should be pointed out that we must be careful not to run to an unwarrantable extreme at this point, otherwise we should make this verse clash with other passages. If on the one hand we must be careful to avoid ostentation and seeking the praise of men, yet on the other we must be on our guard against intimidation and being unfaithful through the fear of men. Daniel closed not the windows of his room when praying, even though he knew that he was thereby endangering his life (6:10). Even when in a public place we should not allow the sneers of others to hinder us from bowing our heads and returning thanks to God at meal times, or kneeling by our bedside at night if someone else be sharing the room.
"Enter into thy closet": these words suggest not only a silent and secluded place, but also a stated place-whether it be in the fields, the woods, or our own dwelling. When David received tidings of the death of Absalom, we are told that he "went up to the chamber over the gate" and wept (2 Sam. 18:33), as though that was the spot where he was accustomed to pour out his griefs unto the Lord. When the widow of Zarephath acquainted Elijah with the death of her son, the prophet "carried him up into a loft where he abode, and laid him upon his own bed," and then and there "he cried unto the Lord" (1 Kings 17:19, 20). The same practice was evidently followed by our Saviour, for we read that He "went [for the specific purpose of making supplication to God] as He was wont [accustomed] to the mount of Olives" (Luke 12:39).
It is interesting to note that the Greek word for "closet" occurs but four times in the original New Testament-in Matthew 24:26, it is translated "secret chambers." Our Lord's language was most probably adopted from Isaiah 26:20: "Come, My people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee." Now what would these words "enter into thy closet" suggest to a Jew? The "closet" is simply a closed place, shut in for privacy, shut out from. obtrusion. What would such a term naturally suggest to Christ's hearers? There was one place in their midst which was preeminently a secret chamber, namely the innermost section of the temple, where Jehovah had His special dwelling in the holy of holies. It was peculiarly a "closet," from which the people were excluded. It was a place marked by silence and secrecy, seclusion and separation.
The holy of holies in the tabernacle and temple was of unique design. It had neither door nor window, and unlike the inner courts of Orientals which are opened to the sky, this one was roofed in and had no skylight. None of the Levites were permitted to enter, save only the high priest, who went there as the representative of the nation to meet with God. Significantly enough there was in it but a single piece of furniture, namely the sacred ark covered by the mercy-seat. How unspeakably blessed: Aaron drew nigh to converse with God at a blood-sprinkled mercy-seat. There was one notable exception to what we have just pointed out: "and when Moses was gone into the tabernacle of the congregation to speak with Him, then he heard the voice of One speaking unto him from off the mercy seat that was upon the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubims: and he spake unto him" (Num. 7:89). Thus the Holy "closet" was where man spoke to God and God to him.
There are two expressions in our verse which emphasize the note of privacy in our individual devotions: "when thou hast shut thy door" and "pray to thy Father who is in secret." The former suggests the need for seclusion and silence, the getting away from all sights and sounds which would disturb and distract. The latter means get alone with God, enter the secret place of the Most High, converse and commune with Him in the holy of holies. Let the reader carefully note the special stress which is here laid upon the singular number of the second personal pronoun: "but thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet," etc. Here is something which is unique in all the Word of God: no less than eight times in this one verse is the second person used in the singular number. Nothing could bring out more strikingly the imperative need of aloneness with God: for this the world must be entirely shut out.
"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret." How clear it is that both the spirit and the letter of this verse rebuke those misguided souls who clamor for churches and chapels to be kept perpetually open so that any member of the public may repair thither for private devotions either day or night, as if buildings set apart for religious exercises were any nearer to the throne of grace than our own dwellings or the open fields. The Lord of heaven and earth "dwelleth not in temples made with hands." He is "not far from every one of us" (Acts 17:24, 27). The localization of worship was abolished when Christ declared, "The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father. . . . God is a spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:21, 24). The argument that church buildings should be kept open for the benefit of those away from home can have no weight in the face of Matthew 6:5, 6. Such an innovation is certain to be abused.
"Pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly" (verse 6). Here is set forth the holy and unspeakable privilege of prayer. Here we are invited to open our minds and hearts freely unto Him who cares for us, acquainting Him with our needs and cares, making known our requests with thanksgiving. "Pray to thy Father which is in secret": He is invisible to carnal sight, imperceptible to our bodily senses, but a living reality unto faith. We must therefore labour to come into His conscious presence, seek to acquaint ourselves with Him, and make Him real to our souls, for He is "a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him." In order to this, after entering our closet and before offering up any petition, we need to meditate upon God's wondrous perfections; ponder His blessed attributes; dwell upon His ineffable holiness, His almighty power, His unchanging faithfulness, His infinite mercy; above all rejoice in the fact that He is our Father.
"Pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." This is set over against "they have their reward" of verse 5. Their "reward" is not the approbation of God, but merely the worthless admiration of their silly dupes who are imposed upon by an outward show of piety. They "have their reward," for there is nothing but the gall of bitterness awaiting them in the future: "men of the world have their portion in this life" (Ps. 17:14). Different far is it with the Christian. His prayers do not and cannot merit anything from God, yet if they are offered from right principles and unto right ends they are pleasing unto Him, and are rewarded even now by tokens of His favour, and in the Day to come they shall be openly approved by Him.
"But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (v. 7). That which our Lord here condemned is not our asking again and again for the same thing, but the reducing of the duty and privilege of prayer to a mere lip labour. In Psalm 119 we find David praying "teach me Thy statutes" no less than seven times. Our Saviour in the garden repeatedly asked for the removal of the cup, and Paul thrice besought the Lord for the departure of his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:8). It is vain repetitions that are prohibited, such as those used by the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:26), the worshippers of Diana (Acts 19:34), and the papists' "Paternosters" and "Ave Marias," which they are taught to use without meaning or devotion and which they number by counting strings of beads. Cold and formal extempore prayers are equally forbidden, for they are mere babblings.
"Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him" (v. 8). Here Christ presents as an inducement to praying souls the very reason which infidels use as an argument against prayer: if God be omniscient what need is there for us to inform Him of our requirements? We do not present our requests to God in order to acquaint Him with our wants, but to render obedience unto His commandment which requireth this duty from us. We pray unto God for the purpose of honoring Him, acknowledging Him to be the Knower of our hearts and the Giver of all mercies. Moreover, prayer is a means for us rightly to receive and improve the gifts of heaven, being an indispensable preparation of our souls thereto. It should be understood that this knowledge of our Father's is far more than a bare cognition of our wants: it is such a solicitation for our welfare that ensures the supply of every needed thing.