July 30, 2014

Battalogeo and a Heavenly Prayer Language

by Eric Davis

prayingI remember the first few times hearing about a heavenly prayer language. Some called it praying, or speaking, in tongues. Not long after coming to faith in Christ, a group of friends took me to a few meetings where this would be happening. We gathered in homes, the forest, and a local church to experience these supposed, Holy-Spirit-induced prayers. What I witnessed was fairly similar: various individuals caught in a trance-like state, speaking, or praying (I wasn’t sure), out loud using non-language noises in somewhat of a repeated fashion. The prayers/noises sounded something like, “Hasha-batta, kala-hasha, nashta-kala, hasha-batta..”

Subsequent to that, others reported that they were having similar experiences during private prayer to God. They said that the Holy Spirit gave them an ability to pray in non-language sounds as a means of infusing their prayers, and encouraged me to seek this out. About one year later, I observed some of the same, a supposed Holy-Spirit-infused prayer language, while attending one of the largest, and most well-known charismatic churches in the nation. These were some of my first experiences with this prayer language phenomena. I soon discovered that it is a widely practiced phenomena (in various forms) both inside and outside Christendom.

I, like many, began to ask: Is this prayer phenomena in Scripture? And, if so, what does Scripture say about it?

Today’s post will not attempt to exhaustively answer those questions. Nate Busenitz has thoroughly demonstrated, for example, that the gift of “tongues” was the miraculous ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language during the foundation, apostolic days of the church. Additionally, it’s been shown that Scripture does not support the idea of an angelic language or multiple different kinds of spiritual gifts called tongues.

Instead, this post will briefly look at the idea of praying in a supposed Spirit-induced, heavenly and/or angelic prayer language as it pertains to prayer. To do so, we will look at one verse: “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt 6:7).

not prayerThe word translated “meaningless repetition,” is from the Greek verb, battalogeo. Similar to the TDNT (1:597), A.T. Robertson comments that the word carries the idea of “stammerers who repeat the words,” “babbling or chattering,” “empty repetition” (Matt 6:6). John Nolland says it’s the idea of the repetition of either intelligible or unintelligible sounds in order to multiply effectiveness (Quoted by Osborne, Matthew, 226). Many commentators agree that the prefix, “batta,” is onomatopoetic. In other words, the prefix sounds similar to the thing it describes: prayers sounding something like, “batta, batta.” Being onomatopoetic does not mean that the word exhaustively covers everything which it describes, but the general idea.

Christ prohibits praying in such a way for two reasons. First, because it is characteristic of Gentiles (Matt 6:7). Praying in a way that piles up language, or non-language, unintelligible, or babbling sounds is prayer characteristic of those who do not know God. Second, because our heavenly Father already knows what we need before we think to pray about it (Matt 6:8).

What are some examples of babbling prayer, characteristic of the Gentiles?

don't do itWe could talk about Buddhist prayer wheels, the Roman Catholic practice of prayer candles, Ave Maria’s and Pater Noster’s, and prayers of the Rosary, for example. We could also discuss the Greek culture in which similar things were observed (and what the Apostle Paul corrects in 1 Corinthians 12-14). At various points in Phaedrus, for example, Socrates is praising the idea of ecstatic mania. A form of non-language, ecstatic prayer was reported to have been practiced through out-of-their-mind, ecstatic oracalers at Delphi and Dodona. (http://sparks.eserver.org/books/plato-phaedrus.pdf, 7). Many more examples could be cited of ancient and contemporary pagan practice.

But more to the point: When Christ forbids such prayer, we would have to include the popular idea of speaking in tongues as a private or heavenly prayer language. As it pertains to the idea of a Spirit-given prayer language, whether heavenly, angelic, or something else, Christ’s command is clarifying: God’s people are not to pray in such a way that resembles babbling repetition of sounds, whether they are supposed to be intelligible or not. He forbids the act of praying in a way, for example, that would resemble a prayer in the form of, “Batta, batta.” Instead, biblical prayer is to have normal, human intelligibility.

In prayer, we need not seek anything beyond simple language expression. Thus, we need not feel the need to rev up our spiritual engine in order to perform at some higher level. We need not seek supposed higher blessings or baptisms of the Spirit to attain elevated spiritual experience so that God takes notice or we perceive ourselves on a higher plane. Christian prayer is simply a natural, genuine, intelligible communication to God.

As such, prayer is something available to every single one of God’s people: those eloquent in speech, those not; those who have much to say, those who do not; those with many degrees, those with none; the young, the old, and of every language and articulateness.

Eight brief, closing remarks are needed.

First, the biblical spiritual gift often associated with a tongues-type prayer language is better called “languages.” The biblical gift of languages was the miraculous ability to speak an unlearned language that is known by others for the purpose of exalting Christ and building up others during the foundational, apostolic era of the church. This gift ceased with the apostolic era in the first century as the church foundation was established in Christ’s progressive building of the church (Matt 16:18).

Second, there are various arguments against this position. For example, on one occasion I was faced with an argument along these lines: “I’ve seen/experienced the speaking in tongues as a prayer language. You cannot say it did not happen. It did happen, therefore, it’s something we should pursue. If I experience it, you cannot deny it. I see a giraffe out my window, for example, you cannot tell me it’s not a giraffe.”

hmmmBut the argument fails on the grounds that experience is superior to Scripture. The unspoken reasoning is: “I saw/experienced/heard X, therefore, X is true and should be pursued as a practice of our faith.” But the biblical reasoning must go: “Though I saw/experienced/heard X, I must rigorously test it up against a hermeneutically sound interpretation of Scripture. If X conflicts, it is X that is abandoned as a practice of our faith, not Scripture. Scripture alone is the authority.” Put another way for the sake of argument: “I think I saw a giraffe. Scripture says that giraffes do not exist. Therefore, I saw something, but it was not a giraffe.”

Though we may experience interesting spiritual phenomena, if it is not supported by a sound interpretation of Scripture, then it is not to be pursued as something of the Christian faith.

Third, many who practice this do not suppose they’re engaging in a Gentile/pagan practice (Matt 6:7). Instead, they presume to feel close to God. However, regardless of feeling, Scripture, not feelings, determines true spirituality and what closeness to God means. But we can go to Scripture to learn how to express closeness to God. In portions of the Psalms, for example, we can observe some of the most profound, genuine experiences of closeness to God. As such, they are expressed and inspired in normal, intelligible, human language.

Fourth, some have said, “But the practice of a private, heavenly, or angelic, prayer language is spoken of in 1 Corinthians 14.” But in that passage, the Apostle is correcting non-language, unintelligible utterance and the abuse of the language gift.

Fifth, an additional argument goes: “This private tongues prayer language is not hurting anyone. It’s between me and God, therefore, what’s the problem?” But, we are not to justify an act on whether or not we perceive benefit or injury. An action is right or wrong on the basis of God’s word. If God’s word forbids something, then we are to follow in step, for his glory and his honor, regardless of how we perceive it may or may not hurt others, or how it may or may not make us feel.

worshipSixth, some suppose that the Holy Spirit is giving them profound words; words of heaven which are too spiritually superior for known human language. But there are no more profound words given by the Holy Spirit than what he has already given us in God-given, sacred Scripture in normal, human intelligibility. If someone desires to pray and speak lofty, spiritual words to God, we have the Psalms, for example, which contain many model prayers expressing profound love for God. On top of that, every single word in the 150 Psalms was inspired in an intelligible language by the Holy Spirit (normal intelligibility, with noun-verb-object, structure). Furthermore, when we observe the prayers of Scripture (i.e. 1 Kings 8, John 17), in every instance, whether Christ or others, individuals are praying in normal, human intelligibility.

Similarly, there is no instance of a heavenly-type prayer language in Scripture. If such a thing were to exist, we would expect to observe it in various charged moments of redemptive history, such as Jesus in his emotional high priestly prayer of John 17 or his distraught prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane or David upon hearing the Davidic Covenant or Psalm 119 or Lamentations, to name a few examples. But we do not. And we can rest confident that the most profound expressions of worship to God are to be done in God-given, human languages with normal intelligibility.

Seventh, being created in the image of God is telling. From the dawn of creation, we notice that one of humanity’s image-bearing attributes is rational, intelligible language. The first humans interact with God in their pre-Fall state using that God-given gift. We can expect, as observed all the way to Christ’s incarnation and into heaven, that intelligible language will be the way to interact with God.

Eighth, the question often goes: “If this is not from God, then from where does this phenomena originate?” Perhaps the power of the flesh showing itself in an individual wanting a memorable spiritual experience. Or, perhaps, an individual wanting to be close to God, but mistaking what that looks like. And in some cases, we must not rule out Satan (2 Cor 11:14-15).

So, though we might practice speaking in tongues as a private, heavenly language, such a thing is not from God since Scripture does not support it. Thus, it is not to be pursued by believers. In fact, the ideas of things like non-language prayer, heavenly language prayer, or prayer sounding something like, “Batta, batta,” is what Christ forbids, in part, because it characterizes the pagans who do not know God.

As Charles Quarles writes: “Although many modern Christians address God in an ecstatic ‘prayer language,’ the practice has no root in the teaching or example of Jesus. Jesus seems to have viewed such practices in paganism as inappropriate for his disciples” (Sermon on the Mount, 184).

prayerFinally, think of it this way. Picture yourself standing in front of Christ seated on his throne in heaven. What would you say? We would be on our knees, humbled, in awe, in worship, saying, if we could say anything at all, something like, “Oh Lord! Thank you! Thank you for dying on the cross! I love you!”

We would not begin speaking to him in a non-language babble. Let’s remember that prayer is the great privilege of speaking to His Majesty; the risen Christ who is seated on his throne in heaven, reigning as our Sovereign Lord. We are not physically there. But we get to speak to him nonetheless. This is to be an action of humbled, human intelligibility.

So let’s enjoy communing with our good God in prayer. We can simply, and reverently, speak to him with simple language. Doing so ascends to the highest form of spirituality.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
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  • Brad

    Once again I am torn. So much in this article makes sense! But I must say, over and over again in ministry I have been speechless, mumbling and groaning in prayer. Those times have actually been encouraging and edifying! Perhaps that is because I am on mission, serving people in some pretty crazy situations – situations that are beyond my skill and ability!

    • Eric Davis

      Brad-thanks for commenting and good to hear from you. I’m not sure if, by groaning and mumbling, you mean praying in a non-language utterance or that you are simply struggling to find words, sorrowful, and simply at a loss sometimes, for example. If the latter, I, too, find myself sometimes greatly struggling in prayer. If the former, I would encourage you towards others in redemptive history who were at a loss sometimes – b/c of great struggles, suffering, on mission, not knowing what to do, etc, etc – but who prayed in simple, intelligible, human language. For example, some of Job’s prayers/words to God, or David’s in the psalms, or Jeremiah’s in Lamentations 3. Regardless of how much we are on mission or suffering or at a loss for words, we can use natural, human intelligible language to pray to our great God. Thanks Brad

      • brad

        Thanks Eric!

        My experience is more of the latter – simply struggling to find words, but with some kind of freedom and unintelligible joy. I guess I have associated it with Romans 8:26, which seems to be something other than human language.


  • Matt Mumma

    Great article brother. Very clear and to the point. Scripture is clear on the issue and we ought to be so as well.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Matt.

  • Robert Eardley

    Hi Eric – Excellent post!
    I agree with all you say except that I think you may have stepped off from 100% firm biblical ground in saying that the gift of speaking an unlearned language “ceased with the apostolic era in the first century as the church foundation was established…” I agree that cessation is very likely true from reasoning, due to the primary purpose of the gift in the early church, due to the lack of it seen over the centuries, and due to the early church fathers’ testimony that the gift of unlearned languages ceased – but I don’t think the Bible clearly and unequivocally states that no one will ever be given the gift of unlearned languages in the church era does it??

    • Eric Davis

      Hi Robert-Yep, there is not a verse which says, “the gift of unlearned languages will never happen again.” However, the idea that the miraculous gifts (such as miracles, healing, prophecy, and the gift of languages) ceased with the foundation-laying of the church in the first century is well implied in Scripture. If you are unfamiliar with how, this is a great place to start studying that: http://thecripplegate.com/are-there-still-apostles-today/
      Thanks Robert

      • robert eardley

        Thanks! I’ll check out the link. Press on.

    • Peter

      Hi Robert, one other comment. Until recently, the near-universal view of the church was that tongues had ceased. All mainstream theologians believed this. There are very few instances of tongue-speaking recorded, virtually all associated with heretical sects. What changed? Pentecostalism of course. And that was originally seen as a heretical sect as well. This only changed because of their numerical growth, and as their teachings took off in the mainstream denominations though the charismatic movement (which the pentecostals planned). But if you study the history of how tongues began, it comes across as totally fake (John MacArthur has done a great job of researching this). The view that the gift of tongues is still available was created by religious con-men. So I have to ask why people are so willing to believe it. It’s like trusting an investment textbook written by Bernie Madoff!

      • robert eardley

        I agree with your assessment Peter. I don’t believe the Biblical gift of tongues has been given since the age of the early church. I’ve closely read MacArthur’s Strange Fire – a wonderful book and one of his crowning works I believe (I was at Shepherd’s conf this year and am signed up for next year already and attend a Grace Church “spinoff” in FL) – and I believe cessation is extremely probably true – and certainly what has been seen in past 110 years that is call “tongues” is not Biblical tongues. However, unless the Bible is really clear that a gift of true tongues will never be given to anyone during the church age, then I guess the conclusion has to be that God could potentially give a person the gift should he so choose, right?? Hence, I can hold to cessationism (as a do) due to a mountain of evidence and logic and Scriptural principles for such gifts – but I cannot assert (can I?) that the Bible definitely 100% teaches that this particular gift will never be given to anyone ever for the balance of the church age – not sure how to describe my position really.??

        • Peter

          Robert, I think we have the same view. God, in his sovereignty, could give people miraculous gifts (tongues, prophecy, healing) today or in the future, assuming that our understanding that the Bible doesn’t teach cessationism is correct. However, based on the testimony of history (including the developments of the past 110 years), the case for cessationism (that the miraculous gifts were given to validate the ministry of the apostles and then ceased around the time of the completion of the NT canon) has far more validity than continuationism. There is no credible evidence that the “gifts” today are anything miraculous and so (as also demonstrated by Strange Fire, which I agree is a masterpiece) they are not the same as the Biblical ones.

          I don’t know how popular it is in the Reformed world, but I find the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach to doctrine very helpful – scripture, tradition, experience, reason. This is a case where the scripture is unclear, tradition says cessationism, our experience of charismatics is that their gifts are fake and associated with heresy, and reason therefore suggests that the gifts ceased.

          I think this position is called soft cessationism, but I could be wrong. I take the view that our doctrines must be supported by both the Bible and (where relevant) the real world. Continuationism demands that there are gifts today – I have yet to see any…

          • robert eardley

            Very helpful Peter – particularly the comments on quadrilateral approach and “soft” cessationism. And like you, neither have I seen a single possibly real charismatic gift in operation in my lifetime. Ultimately, the whole stream of scriptural patterns, tradition/history, experience, the church fathers, and reason point strongly against continuationism – so I’d say we agree that continuationism as it is taught simply is not a viable position – and thanks for all your comments in this thread to help me solidify good thinking on this – much appreciated! Robert

  • tovlogos

    Solid piece Eric,
    “Praying in a way that piles up language, or non-language, unintelligible, or babbling sounds is prayer characteristic of those who do not know God.” This is a fact — The mantra itself becomes the objects stealing the believer’s attention.

    “However, regardless of feeling, Scripture, not feelings, determines true spirituality and what closeness to God means.”

    1Corinthians 2:10-16, gives us the benefit of engaging the Spirit, who, “searches all things even the depths of God.”
    However, that “spirituality” (1Corinthians 2:15) that we must possess is elusive if believers are not born from above. Cognitive dissonance takes over.

    • Eric Davis

      Hi Mark-Amen. The new birth is the starting point of true biblical spirituality. One cannot be spiritual in the true sense – as in, of the Spirit – apart from his regenerating work.

      • tovlogos

        Thanks for the feedback, Brother. Amen.

  • M

    Informative and concise explanation. I always say that many important biblical issues shouldn’t require a whole book to gain a proper understanding! I share this quick story to highlight a question I have:

    My wife’s grandfather Enrique spoke only Spanish. Back in the 70’s he attended a large evangelism conference in (West) Germany. After the conference one evening, he went out to walk and pray, and soon found himself lost. He began asking the Lord to help him find his way back. A man walks up to him and asks if he needs help. Enrique explains that he is in fact lost and needs directions back to the hotel and convention center. The man gives him directions, and Enrique shares the gospel with the man. As their short conversation wraps up, the man asks Enrique where he learned such good German. Enrique laughs and says he was about to ask the man how he learned such good Spanish. They both deny knowing the other’s language. Puzzled, they say good-bye and part ways.

    I wouldn’t call this a gift, as my wife’s grandfather never again had an experience like it. But maybe there’s a difference between saying the gift has ceased and saying that the thing never happens at all?

    Of course I don’t expect anyone to be swayed by my personal, unverifiable story! I just share it because it’s true and highlights the question I have – “Can a gift-type event still happen, probably very rarely, without it being a gift and therefore being consistent with Scripture as Eric explains?”

    • M

      P.S. – sorry, I realize this question is a little off-track from the main point of the post

    • Eric Davis

      M- Good question. Here is how I would respond: Yes, a miraculous event can certainly happen though the miraculous spiritual gifts ceased with the foundation of the church having been laid. Such an event would be considered the Providence of God. Providence can certainly be miraculous, right? For more on that, check out Phil Johnson’s excellent sermon on the topic: http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/TM13-15/providence-iisi-remarkable-phil-johnson

  • ceecee

    I have had friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, who spoke what they called a heavenly language. Whenever I was with them in ministry, and we would be praying together, they would do this language. It was not understandable. This made me very uncomfortable and because I did not speak like that in prayer, I felt very beneath these, doubting my salvation. While I continue to love them in Christ until this day, one having gone on to be with the Lord, I still disagree with babble and cannot agree that it is edifying to anyone but the one doing it. This article was a tremendous blessing to me!

  • I lead a Moms in Prayer group and several of the ladies belong to churches that require speaking in tongues for membership. We pray scripture and so sometimes a new lady might pray in tongues while someone else is praying, but then later, as they continue praying with the group, they stick to scripture and drop the tongues. I have attended worship services at churches where they speak in tongues. I have attended worship services at churches where you cannot join the church if you drink wine. Also I have attended churches where you cannot join they church if you have been baptized as an infant and not as a believer, and many other requirements for membership for which I do not qualify. But then Luther was kicked out of the Catholic church not from his own choice. The Wesleys had to go preach out in the country because they were not allowed to preach in the church they belonged to, etc. The important thing is that we have been born again and strive to obey and love God and others!

  • Neill H.

    It’s so helpful to think about not just heavenly things in general, but heaven itself. Thank you for bringing that up.

    There’s so much talk in Pentecostal/charismatic/continuationist circles about experiencing the presence of God through physical manifestations such as uttering ecstatic speech-like syllables in prayer. As you mentioned, it’s often explained that mere words are not enough for a soul to express verbal worship to God.

    But that’s what makes it so humbling to read your sixth concluding point.

    Throughout biblical history, humans have needed nothing more than human faculties to verbally communicate things, even lofty spiritual things. Experiences of manifestations of God’s presence have always evoked intelligible verbal interaction: Solomon’s Temple, the designated dwelling place of God, is dedicated and the glory of the Lord fills it, and the king gives an intelligible speech followed by an eloquent prayer. The people see fire fall from heaven to consume the burnt offering, and they worship and give thanks saying, “For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” The God Man literally walks around Palestine with His disciples carrying on many deep spiritual conversations that all involve understandable language. Then God’s presence is sent to His people in the Holy Spirit, and the result is the immediately understandable, worship-filled and worship-inducing proclamation of the excellencies of God in the gospel. And now, what a miraculous thing it is for the Church to experience the presence of God through the indwelling of the Spirit so that we may be constantly sanctified by the Spirit-filled intelligible words of God written and preserved for our comprehension.

    But if there is one place where we would expect to see a non-human heavenly prayer language in the presence of God in Scripture, wouldn’t it be in His actual heavenly presence, in His very throne room? In the early chapters of Revelation, the Apostle John describes that very situation as he says he was in the Spirit and shown a scene of heaven itself. What an amazing spiritual experience! Surely it would be too awesome to use mere normal words to worship Almighty God in His very presence.

    Nope. There’s a lot of verbal worshipful prayer going on: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come…. Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…. Worthy are you to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!… To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!… Amen.” Not one syllable of this sounds like, “batabatabata….” Even those who are literally experiencing God’s own glorious presence in His throne room are using intelligible words as they worship in spirit and in truth!

    Though not everyone who claims to speak in a heavenly prayer language is consciously trying to be arrogant, it’s alarming that many of these people are seeking to experience something more heavenly than the Bible’s description of heaven itself. It’s as if we could experience the presence of God in some better way than actually being in His heavenly throne room, as if the image of God communicated with humanity through the use of comprehensible language is not image-of-God-ly enough, as if these exalted prayer languages were more exalted than the Exalted One!

    I think humility is needed here.

    As humans, it’s not in our job description to be praying non-human things as if we were the Holy Spirit himself who “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Though He indwells me, not everything the Spirit is and does is manifested in me, nor should it be that way. That’s not any Christian’s calling. Our calling is to grow into the image of Christ who never uttered one syllable of batalogeo.

    And if the root of batalogeo is not Christ but paganism, and the root of paganism is the original sinful and satanic attitude of “I will be like God,” then we ought to be sobered when we see these non-human languages being used by the bride of Christ. But praise be to God that He will stoop to save sinners and dwell in them and build His church by using their human faculties for the worship of Him whose ways are unsearchable!

    Again, I doubt that many those using what they suppose to be a heavenly prayer language want to exalt themselves above God. But we all do some things that are not rooted in the Spirit and the Truth. Let’s use the humble human language that God has given us to ask Him to root out those things in each of us that misrepresent His glory to the world.