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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

VAIN. —1. ‘In vain’:  Mark 7:7 (||  Matthew 15:9) μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων. This is the only place in NT where the adverb μάτην is found (orig. accus. from μάτη, ‘a folly’). The Vulgate has in vanum in Mk., sine causa (= ‘without reason,’ Cic.) in Mt. Both senses are perhaps included: their worship was ‘meaningless’ and ‘to no purpose’ (cf.  James 1:26 μάταιος θρησκεία, with Mayor’s [ Com. on James , 71] apt quotation from Isocrates, ad Nicoclen 18 E, ἡγοῦ θῦμα τοῦτο κάλλιστον εἶναι καὶ θεραπείαν μεγίστην ἐὰν ὡς βέλτιστον καὶ δικαιότατον σαυτὸν παρέχῃς).—Our Lord quotes here from  Isaiah 29:13, where LXX Septuagint reads μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με διδάσκοντες ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων καὶ διδασκαλίας. The clause in the Heb. text may be literally rendered, ‘And their fearing me is become (וֵחְּחִי) a statute of men which they have learned.’ How to account for μάτην in the Gr. text is a question still unsolved. Grotius ( Opera , ed. Amsterdam, 1679, ii. 155) thought it evident that the LXX Septuagint read? וְחהוּ (= μάτην, cf.  Isaiah 49:4) and not וֵחְּהִי in the Heb. text, so that the clause would then have meant, ‘And their fearing me is vain —a statute of men which they have learned!’ This brilliant emendation of the text is adopted by Turpie ( OT in the New (1868), 196) and Nestle ( Expos. Times , xi. 330). It is quite possible that our Lord ‘read וְחהוּ in His Hebrew scroll of Isaiah,’ and that this was the received reading at the time that the Gospels were written. Such a solution of the difficulty would indeed be completely satisfying, but we must remember that the proposed reading is merely a conjectural one, and that no external evidence in its favour has been found. Other suggested explanations of the μάτην in the Gospels are, that our Lord used the LXX Septuagint and quoted from it, or that in reporting His answer to the Pharisees the writer or writers quoted memoriter from the LXX Septuagint (it will be observed that the order of the last words is not the same in the LXX Septuagint and in the Gospels). The latter explanation is the one generally preferred by expositors, some of whom assign reasons still more unsatisfying for the presence of μάτην. But seeing that it cannot be proved that our Lord did not use an Aramaic word corresponding to μάτην in quoting the passage from Isaiah, we feel it best to accept the μάτην as stamped with His authority.—Our Lord by this citation authenticates and carries forward the teaching of the prophets of the OT as to the vanity of that worship which merely conformed to human traditions, and by which it was thought possible to gain the favour of God without moral obedience (cf. W. R. Smith, OTJC [Note: TJC The Old Test, in the Jewish Church] 293–295; Driver, Is . 57; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus , i. 282).

2. ‘To use vain repetitions’:  Matthew 6:7 προσευχόμενοι δὲ μὴ βαττολογήσητε ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί. Mrs. A. S. Lewis ( Expos. Times , xii. 60) approves of the derivation of βαττολογέω from the Arabic b’tal , ‘vain,’ ‘useless,’ recently suggested by Blass. ‘It is one of those hybrid compounds which come into existence in countries where two or more languages are spoken.’ But it is more probable that the word is onomatopoetic (like βατταρίζω, see Stephanus, Thesaurus, s.v .), and is derived from the sound made by the repetition of the same syllable in stammering or stuttering. Our Lord gives the interpretation of the word in the clause following, ‘For they think that they shall be heard for their πολυλογία.’ (cf. Meyer, Holtzmann, in loc ). What He here condemns is the heathenish idea that a reluctant and ungracious Deity is to be worked upon by our saying the same thing over and over again (cf.  1 Kings 18:26), or by repeating His honours and titles (cf.  Acts 19:34). In the words ὤσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί He calls up a picture of those whom His hearers have no desire to resemble ( Expositor , 1900 (i.), 239). ‘Pestering the gods with entreaties,’ ‘dinning into the ears of the gods,’ were Roman phrases: thus Tacitus speaks of Galba ‘wearying with entreaties the gods of an empire no longer his’ ( Hist. i. 29); cf. Statius, Thebais , 2. 224, ‘Superos in vota fatigant Inachidae’; Ter. Heaut . v. 1. 6, ‘Desiste, inquam, deos obtundere.’ Such expressions set forth the contrast between Jesus’ teaching of the Divine Fatherhood and the low conceptions about God on which the prayers of the heathen were founded, and give point to the precept, ‘Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him’ ( Matthew 6:8).

That our Lord’s prohibition of βαττολογία is not meant to exclude such prolonged and repeated prayers as are genuine utterances of love and desire, the impassioned pressing-in of the devout spirit into communion with God, is evident from His enjoining increasing earnestness ( Matthew 7:7-11,  Luke 11:9-13) and persevering importunity ( Luke 11:5 ff;  Luke 18:1 ff.) in prayer, as well as from His own example, when He sought relief from the weight and pressure of His work and ‘continued all night in prayer to God’ ( Luke 6:12), or when He ‘offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death’ ( Hebrews 5:7), satisfying the fervour of His feeling of Sonship with the cry, ‘Abba, Father,’ and returning to His oratory in the depth of the Garden to offer the same prayer as before ( Mark 14:39 ( Matthew 26:44) τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον εἰπών, ‘the same petition,’ rather than ‘the same words’; cf. Swete, 327). Our Lord’s prayers were the beginning of His ever-continuing intercession ( Romans 8:34,  Hebrews 7:25), and in the one instance reported of a prayer of considerable length which He offered as His disciples stood around Him (John 17) there is a repetition of the same expressions. With respect to the perfect form of words which He taught us in the Lord’s Prayer (wh. see), it is by our repeating it often that we come to understand its real depth, and how all our requests are to be brought under one or other of its petitions; and when we have not said it well, we should try to say it better a second or a third time. The true sense of our Lord’s saying is set forth in one of Bp. Wilson’s ‘Maxims of Piety’: ‘The eloquence of prayer consists in our proposing our wants to God in a plain manner’ ( Maxims , 132), and still better by Hooker in the words, ‘The thing which God doth regard is how virtuous our minds are, and not how copious our tongues in prayer; how well we think, and not how long we talk, when we come to present our supplications before Him’ ( Eccles. Pol . v. 32. 1); cf. Augustine’s letter to Proba, quoted by Trench ( Ser. on the Mount , 255).

Literature.—Grotius, Com, on the Gospels; Expos. Times , xi, xii, ut sup .; Hatch and Redpath, Concordance to the LXX Septuagint .

James Donald.

King James Dictionary [2]

VAIN, a. L. vanus Eng. wan, wane, want.

1. Empty worthless having no substance, value or importance.  1 Peter 1 .

To your vain answer will you have recourse.

Every man walketh in a vain show.  Psalms 39 .

Why do the people imagine a vain thing?  Psalms 2 .

2. Fruitless ineffectual. All attempts, all efforts were vain.

Vain is the force of man.

3. Proud of petty things, or of trifling attainments elated with a high opinion of one's own accomplishments, or with things more showy than valuable conceited.

The minstrels play'd on every side, vain of their art -

4. Empty unreal as a vain chimers. 5. Showy ostentatious.

Load some vain church with old theatric state.

6. Light inconstant worthless.  Proverbs 12 . 7. Empty unsatisfying. The pleasures of life are vain. 8. False deceitful not genuine spurious.  James 1 . 9. Not effectual having no efficacy

Bring no more vain oblations.  Isaiah 1 .

In vain, to no purpose without effect ineffectual.

In vain they do worship me.  Matthew 15 .

To take the name of God in vain, to use the name of God with levity or profaneness.

Webster's Dictionary [3]

(1): ( superl.) Destitute of forge or efficacy; effecting no purpose; fruitless; ineffectual; as, vain toil; a vain attempt.

(2): ( superl.) Showy; ostentatious.

(3): ( n.) Vanity; emptiness; - now used only in the phrase in vain.

(4): ( superl.) Having no real substance, value, or importance; empty; void; worthless; unsatisfying.

(5): ( superl.) Proud of petty things, or of trifling attainments; having a high opinion of one's own accomplishments with slight reason; conceited; puffed up; inflated.

Holman Bible Dictionary [4]

 Psalm 2:1 Acts 4:25 Psalm 127:1 Exodus 20:1 7 Deuteronomy 5:11 Deuteronomy 7:6-7 Isaiah 1:13 Isaiah 29:13 James 1:26

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [5]

vān  : The adjective of "vanity," and representing the same Hebrew and Greek words as does the latter, with a few additions (chiefly κενός , kenós , "empty," and its compounds in the New Testament). And "vain" can always be replaced by its synonym "empty," often with advantage in modern English (  Job 15:2;  1 Corinthians 15:14 , etc.). The exception is the phrase "in vain," and even there the interchange can be made if some (understood) noun such as "ways" be added. So "to take God's name in vain" ( Exodus 20:7;  Deuteronomy 5:11 ) means simply to take it for an "empty" ("not good") purpose.