Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:5c “. . .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.”
Hypocrites do not love to pray. They love to pray being watched, seeking publicity to show off their piety. Note the incongruity, praying to God to “be seen of men.” They want to be alone with God, surrounded by admiring spectators.
The hypocrites sought to pray in the synagogues, where large numbers of people gathered, and on street corners, where they could be seen from four directions. Their desire was to be conspicuous. “When they seemed to soar upwards in prayer, yet even then their eye was downwards upon this as their prey” (Henry).
People’s applause, being their prey and desire, was all the reward they got. People respond to a hypocrite’s prayer, but God doesn’t. He sits still and silent, knowing full well what is meant for people’s ears and what is meant for His.
Since prayerfulness is a virtue we prize, we all want to be known as people of prayer. This is good and normal, but Satan can twist this desire to his advantage. He seems able to tempt us, without our even realizing it, to increase our eloquence in public prayer in order to sound more spiritual. Praying to the congregation rather than God, we begin trying to use proper clichés, appropriate words, Zionese, well-pitched fervency, all in an effort to win people’s approval. Let us beware the trap of praying words supposedly addressed to God, but actually uttered to be heard of men.
Matt. 6:6a “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet,. . .”
“Closet” referred originally to a storage room, and eventually to any place of private seclusion and retirement. Jesus did not forbid public praying. He Himself prayed before a crowd at His baptism (LK 3:21), at the grave of Lazarus (JN 11:41-42), at the last supper (JN 17), and on the cross (MT 27:46). The conflict is not private prayer versus public prayer, but private prayer versus hypocritical public prayer. The issue is our motive in public prayer, not public praying itself.
Nothing is wrong with public prayer when done properly. We are to testify of our faith openly, as when we thank God before eating in a public place. We are to show constant, unwavering devotion, as did Daniel, who disregarded the king’s edict and thrice daily while praying opened his windows for all to see. In corporate worship, we pray publicly, hoping to excite others to prayer by our example.
There is most definitely a time and place for public praying. This having been said, we hasten to verbalize two cautions. First, public prayer can not take the place of private prayer. In fact, “social praying will be a reality only in proportion as it proceeds from a gathering of men accustomed to private prayer” (Nicoll).
Second, we should pray in public as if praying in private. Even when praying publicly in corporate worship, each soul must approach God individually, praying as though alone, one on one, with God. True prayer always carries with it a loneliness of personality, a deep seclusion of one’s innermost being before God.
“Enter into thy closet” does not mean every time we pray we literally have to find a secret room or a particular private place. We can all find from time to time our own inner spiritual “closet” in the midst of a huge, bustling crowd. In the noise and din of life, we can sometimes shut out the world even when in the midst of the world, and withdraw into ourselves, into the seclusion of private meditation.
However, by Biblical example and by personal experience, we know public “closet” prayer can happen effectively and regularly only as long as we are faithful in private “closet” prayer. Effective Christian living hinges on prayer, and the secret of success in prayer is success in secret. Trees owe their beauty to the work of secret, unseen roots. Similarly, for Christians to do well, they must strike deep into the soil of secret, private “closet” praying. Secret prayer deepens the secret life, and thus serves as our best safeguard against public failure. No Christian can ever be safe in their walk apart from regular, often, and earnest private prayer time.
“Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (GN 24:63). Jacob was alone when he wrestled with God (GN 32:24). Joshua was alone when he met the captain of the armies of the Lord (JS 5:14). Elijah’s greatest encounter with God was not among the crowd on Mt. Carmel but when alone in a cave (1 K 19:13). Paul spent three years alone in Arabia, seeking after God (GL 1:17-18). “Peter went up upon the housetop to pray” (AC 10:9). Our precious Master often found a secluded “closet” for prayer. Before daybreak, He once “departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (MK 1:35). On another occasion, He “departed into a mountain to pray” (MK 6:46). In Jerusalem, Gethsemane Garden was His private spot to pray.
Matthew Henry states three advantages to praying in a secret place. First, in a private place, we are unheard, thus avoiding inhibitions. Privacy grants us greater freedom to be honest and transparent, to descend more deeply into our own hearts. We all have secret sins and secret temptations which need to be dealt with in secret prayer. In a private place we can speak more freely. No one is there to reproach us or to gossip about us later. We can be our truest selves before God.
Second, in a private place, we are undisturbed, thus avoiding distraction. Only a wicked life hinders prayer more than distractions do. Our minds tend to stray, to be easily distracted. We have trouble keeping our thoughts from wandering, even when in prayer. Thus, we often have to find a place where we can shut out the world, and the noise and glare of society. As long as we are distracted by the visible, we will be unable to focus on the Invisible One. To focus intently on the Unseen One, we must go where sights and sounds neither disturb nor distract.
Third, in a private place, we are unobserved, thus avoiding ostentation. In a synagogue or on street corners, people compliment us, but in a closet, only God is the audience. This is one reason private prayer is often so hard. No one pats us on the back for doing it. This difficulty, though, is more than compensated for by the fact isolation removes hypocrisy as a possible liability to us. In private, we can’t be trying to win men’s applause, and are thus set free from fear of trying to do so.