I answered a question on Christianity.SE which focused on Christian prayer in light of Matthew 6:7:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. (KJV)

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (NIV)

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. (NABRE)

As I began answering the question, I was struck by the fact that the NABRE doesn't use "vain" (or its near-synonym "empty") in the translation—in fact it doesn't have a direct object to the verb at all. What is the Greek original of the passage, and what sorts of translation approaches (I'm aware that there may be doctrinal reasons for selecting a particular translation) lie behind the different translations?

  • @MattGutting I may answer this later. In the meantime, there's useless/vain repetition "prayer" like a machine might give; there's also very good repetitive prayer per concentration, sincerity, etc. Jesus apparently chose the latter...(e.g. biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+14%3A39&version=NASB) Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 11:38

3 Answers 3


YE-SHOULD-BE-STUTTER-sayING ye-should-be-using-useless-repetitions, the meaning of the Greek word βατταλογεω (inflected here as 2nd plural aorist subjunctive βαττολοησητε "battologesete") from Thayer and Smith's Lexicon means,

to stammer to repeat the same things over and over, to use many idle words, to babble, prate. Some suppose the word derived from Battus, a king of Cyrene, who is said to have stuttered; others from Battus, an author of tedious and wordy poems


onomatopoetic word; to speak in a way that images the kind of speech pattern of one who stammers, use the same words again and again, speak without thinking

The key understanding here is found in the next verse(8),

Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him

Our Father is actually listening to us, therefore, it is unnecessary to make a lot of noise to get His attention. Since the 'heathen' vanities are not 'real God', they make endless chatter to try to draw attention to themselves; the Christian doesn't need this.

It should be noted that the context is petition; we are to give thanks always(1 Thess. 1:2), to engage in prayer always(1 Thess. 5:17), and that the gift of tongues, described as "stammering lips"(Isa. 28:11) is a sign of God's presence. The admonition is to try to make up in being vocal what one lacks in faith, God assures us He is listening, and if we follow the prescriptions He gives in Matt. 6, we will receive our answers.

  • Thanks! I'm not sure exactly what your first sentence is getting at. Could you edit the question to post the Greek, please, and then the more literal translation? I'm most interested in why some translations use "vain"/"empty" - are you saying that there is no word in the original that means that specifically? Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 15:33
  • Also: I'm not particularly interested in the doctrinal part of this; that's something that's already being discussed at Christianity.SE and I think that's the appropriate site for it. Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 20:29
  • @MattGutting I appologize-I don't know how to get the 'Greek' text to appear in my answer. I'm not a Greek scholar, hence I'm not certain of the etymology of the word. It's almost certain the Lord didn't speak it in classic Koine Greek, therefore, whatever word was translated represented the word best describing the original intent of the Lord. It appears that all of your sources use the same definition; the discussion appears to be about modern translators finding 'relevancy' with their audience vs it's most accurate rendition.
    – Tau
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 21:08
  • @Matt Gutting - I suggested an edit to add the Greek text. To your question in the first comment - note that the translators of KJV, NIV are adding an object as part of their translation of the verb, which is intransitive in the Greek but perhaps doesn't have a perfect English equivalent. I also added the BDAG definition which points out that it's onomatopoetic. Hence, I like the NABRE which preserves that and the intransitive-ness: "babble."
    – Susan
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 11:23

"Vain repetition" refers to spells and prayers used in pagan religious practice. I will not re-hash the greek here as others have done an excellent job, but I will attempt to provide some context and background.

Repeating a divine name was thought to cause a god to better hear you and for the one offering up the incantation to better bend the ear of the subject of his prayer - typically in order to cause the spell or incantation to have more effect.

This principle is best illustrated in the form of a legend about the Egyptian god and goddess Ra and Isis. In this legend, Ra becomes injured, and Isis uses this fact as leverage to learn the divine name of Ra. Isis tells Ra that she could only heal him if she knew his secret name. Isis immediately cured Ra, but he could not take back the power that he had granted her by telling her his true name and from that point on Isis was equal even to the sun god in power.

It was believed in most mesopotamian cultures in antiquity that a god's true divine name contained power and that by learning that divine name an individual could control a god and gain power over that god. Therefore, most ancient spells spells and incantations involved some wording along the lines of "By the name of [divine name] I command [action]" - because it was believed that this lent the spell power. For example, on page 124 of Jewish Aramaic Curse texts from Late-Antique Mesopotamia by Dan Levene we see a spell in which the canter is instructed to use the name of Hadriel and Shakniel to silence "evil and violent people who stand gainst Berik-Yeheba son of Mama"

In the name of Hadriel, Shakniel, the well, the stone, and the pit, I adjure, I adjure you, in the name of he who is great and frightful, that you may silence from Berik-Yehaba son of Mama the mouth of all the people who write books, who sit in forts, who sit in market places and in streets, and who go out on the roads.

Another on page 46 seems to utilize as many names as possible as a power-enhancement tactic for the spell

I have adjured you by the holy angels, and by the name of Metatron the pure angel, Nidrel and Nuriel and Huriel and Sasgabiel and Hapkiel and Mehapkiel, shose seven angels that are going adn overturning the heavens and the earth and the stars and the zodiac signs and the moon and Plaedes. May you go and overturn evil sorceries and powerful magical acts...

This is also why Jews do not speak or write the name Yahweh to this day - it is a sign of respect, but few realize that this is the reason why. It would be disrespectful to speak this divine name in any attempt to control the one true God.

This then allows us to better understand why God does not use the actual Tetragramaton when responding to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Moses clearly knows whom he is speaking to, but is fishing for God's divine name. Instead of giving it, God answers with a name similar to his actual name in much the same way Ra answers Isis with his lesser names (notice God's answer is only one letter of difference from the spelling of Yahweh). Instead of giving his name, God responds by saying (as Dick Harfield noted in his answer) "I am who I am and I will be what I will be." With this one pithy response, God has both answered Moses and signaled to him that he will not be controlled by any mere mortal and that no use of his Divine Name will control him.

Jesus actually tells a parable about something similar to vain repetition in Luke 18:1-8:

Then Jesus told them a parable to show them they should always pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. There was also a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but later on he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor have regard for people, yet because this widow keeps on bothering me, I will give her justice, or in the end she will wear me out by her unending pleas.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says! Won’t God give justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This parable is distinct from vain repetition however in that it is making the point that God is one who hears. When we pray to God, our prayer is never in vain. God is real true God, unlike other gods who do not hear the prayers of the supplicant. This also means that there is no need for repetitive supplication and therefore discourages it - because God is a God who hears his people.

In this way, God is distinguishing himself from other gods as both a God who hears his people and a God who shall not be controlled..

  • God does not use the actual Tetragramaton when responding to Moses in Exodus 3:14 --- Right, he waits until 3:15.... ;-)
    – Susan
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 7:53
  • It's not about when he does use the Tetragramaton, it's about why God doesn't provide a direct answer as to what his name is. Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 4:12

Προσευχόμενοι δὲ μὴ βαττολογήσητε, ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί δοκοῦσιν γὰρ ὅτι ἐν τῇ πολυλογίᾳ αὐτῶν εἰσακουσθήσονται (Matthew 6:7 Stephanus Textus Receptus 1550)

What does βατταλογήσητε mean? 945 battologéō – properly, to blubber nonsensical repetitions; to chatter (be "long-winded"), using empty (vain) words (Souter). (Source).

What does Προσευχόμενοι mean? 4336 proseúxomai (from 4314 /prós, "towards, exchange" and 2172/euxomai, "to wish, pray") – properly, to exchange wishes; pray – literally, to interact with the Lord by switching human wishes (ideas) for His wishes as He imparts faith ("divine persuasion"). Accordingly, praying (4336/proseuxomai) is closely inter-connected with 4102 /pístis ("faith") in the NT. See: Ac 6:5,6,14:22,23; Eph 6:16-18; Col 1:3,4; 2 Thes 3:1,2; Js 5:13-15; Jude 20. (Source).

Translation Attempt

Exchange communication but do not blubber nonsensical repetitions like the pagans...


“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:5-6 NKJV)

Exchange communication but do not blubber nonsensical repetitions like the pagans...

For they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. (Matthew 6:7b-8 NKJV)

Choices by Other Translators

  • (KJV) vain repetitions - using empty (vain) words (Souter) | blubber nonsensical repetitions
  • (NIV) empty phrases - using empty (vain) words (Souter) | to chatter (be "long-winded")
  • (NABRE) babble - blubber nonsensical repetitions

All are appropriate translations for the Greek word (βατταλογήσητε).

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