The LORD called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I. And he ran unto Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou calledst me. And he said, I called not; lie down again. And he went and lay down. And the LORD called yet again, Samuel. And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me. And he answered, I called not, my son; lie down again. Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him. And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me. And Eli perceived that the LORD had called the child. Therefore Eli said unto Samuel, Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he call thee, that thou shalt say, Speak, LORD; for thy servant heareth. (1 Sam 3:5-9)
In this event, God had to call Samuel three times because he kept responding to the wrong person. But have you ever played a game, perhaps with a sibling or a coworker, where you call their name, but ignore them when they answer; and then repeat the process two or three more times, until they get angry? Perhaps you were on the receiving end of that game, kind of like Samuel was. Then you can imagine how angry God gets when people call out his name (saying, “Oh, God,” or “My God,” or even “God damn”) and then they don’t go any farther in talking to him.
This is a form of empty prayer. To most people it is what is meant by the third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.” (Ex 20:7) Although that command probably entailed much more, it does refer to such uses of God’s name as being in vain, or “empty.” This is not, however, the only way to utter an empty prayer.
The Jews, like many “high church” Christians, have a number of set prayers that they use on different occasions. Like saying the rosary, it would be easy to make the saying of these prayers so routine as to be automatic. A person can read out loud, sing a familiar song, or recite/hear a prayer while thinking about many other things. Because it would be so easy, the rabbis warn against such empty prayers. At a minimum, a person should be aware in his mind that he is talking to God. Even better would be to think about what is being said, which is sometimes hard when praying in Hebrew (or Latin, or even King James English) when you don’t know the language. Best would be to say the prayer as if you had never prayed it before. Such established prayers are not wrong, in themselves, but become empty when repeated without understanding. “But when ye pray, use not vain [empty] repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (Matt 6:7) It is not the words God wants to hear so much as the heart.
Another form of empty prayer would be the one said without any expectation of action or answer from God. One example, mentioned earlier, might be the common phrase, “God damn.” Most people either say it about an inanimate object which cannot be condemned, or don’t believe in God or in his ability to condemn. If they understood the horror of God’s condemnation, they might not be so quick to pray it. But other people also pray without expectation of it being fulfilled. “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Matt 21:22) Jesus did not promise a result if you pray an empty prayer.
Yet another way we pray empty prayers is mentioned by James. “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” (Jas 4:3) This is a problem with the so-called “prosperity gospel.” We should ask God that we have enough to survive, and maybe some to give to others.
Prayer is a necessary part of the life of a follower of God. Empty prayer is not.