The Stimulus to Prayer
The vision of ch8 is long past, the Babylonian Empire has been overthrown and a new ruler, Darius, is over the captive Israelites. They’re still in exile but now in Persia.
Daniel has been reading the words of Jeremiah in his daily Bible study, and he comes across Jeremiah’s prophecy that Babylon will rule for just 70 years, then God will bring them back to Jerusalem. (Jer 29:10) And he thinks to himself, “That’s about now”.
But he also knows that the state of his people hasn’t improved much. Nothing seems to have changed with the change of ruler, apart from geography. In fact they’re even further from home now than they used to be. But the fact that God’s word tells him that the time is near for their return stimulates him to hope; and to pray that God would indeed do what he’s promised.
Do you sometimes find you’re reading the Bible and you come across a promise of God’s future hope and pray that God would fulfil his promise? [Think of the prophecy in Micah 4 that you looked at last year: “3…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; 4but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:3-4) Does that make you long for God to act? Does that provoke you to pray that wars would cease? That the atrocities we see being carried out by ISIL in Iraq or by Boko Haram in Africa would be stopped? That the persecution experienced by God’s people around the world in so many places would come to an end?] Well that’s how reading Jeremiah affects Daniel. He’s driven to prayer.
But notice that it isn’t the sort of shopping list prayer that we so often find ourselves praying. He doesn’t launch straight into what he wants. Listen to how he begins.
The Adoration in Prayer
“Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments.” He begins with an acknowledgement of who God is. It’s almost psalm-like. It’s as though he realises that he’s about to ask God to do something that he has no right to ask.
I wonder do you ever stop before you pray to consider who it is you’re addressing. This isn’t your mate that you’re ringing up to ask a favour of? “Hey mate, do you mind if I borrow your trailer?” “Hey mate do you think you could give me a hand with the painting?” “Could I borrow a cup of sugar?” No this is the great and awesome God. Awesome, not in the devalued sense we use it now. “That was an awesome cup of coffee!” No, awesome in the sense of you being overpowered with fear. God is so great that if we appeared before him we’d fall on the ground with our head covered, our eyes closed and probably unable to breathe.
And yet we can come to him in prayer because he’s also a covenant making God, who condescends to meet us where we are; to speak to us; to form a relationship with us, a covenant relationship that he remains faithful to even when we don’t. The reason that he does that is that he loves us with a steadfast love. That’s the God we encounter whenever we pray.
Yet there’s also a proviso in his address to God, notice. God keeps steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments. Here’s the sad content of Daniel’s prayer.
The Sad Content of Prayer
Daniel realises that the reason they’re in this predicament of exile is entirely because of their own failure, a failure that’s continued for generation after generation.
You may have noticed that what follows is very like the prayer of Nehemiah in similar circumstances, though Nehemiah’s prayer was a bit shorter.
He begins by acknowledging their great guilt and wickedness, but then he narrows it down to its particulars. He says
- they’ve rebelled
- they’ve turned away from God’s commandments
- they’ve refused to listen when God has sent his prophets to warn them.
- they’ve been treacherous in the way they’ve acted towards God.
He contrasts God’s righteousness with their shame. God has been faithful in treating them with love and mercy but they’ve betrayed God’s faithfulness by failing to obey him as he deserved [and as they’d promised]. And notice it’s an open shame. That is, it’s visible to everyone around about. The nations, who used to look at Israel and think how blessed they were, are now laughing at them because God has abandoned them.
There’s no sense of Daniel excusing their mistakes, or questioning God’s judgement. In fact the opposite: he says they’ve got exactly what God promised they’d get if they forgot him. “11All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. So the curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against you.”
What were the curse and the oath? They were the warnings that God gave them before they entered the promised land (Deut 28:15ff). God promised that if they remained faithful to him they’d live in the land under his blessing forever. But he also warned them in no uncertain terms of the terrible things that would happen if the people of Israel failed to keep the covenant that God had made with them.
Daniel’s point is that God has been faithful to his promise even in punishing them. He hasn’t abandoned his covenant people; he’s simply done with them what he promised he’d do.
Notice, by the way, that Daniel’s confession is all made in the first person. He isn’t saying “they did this.” No, it’s always “We did this.”
But notice, too, that he seems to be concerned that there’s still no recognition of their failure. Look at v13: “13…We did not entreat the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his fidelity.” It’s sad, isn’t it, that here they are in exile and yet they haven’t stopped to acknowledge the cause, to think with shame about their idolatry, to express repentance and ask for forgiveness.
Of course that’s just normal human behaviour isn’t it? None of us like to admit that we’re wrong. We certainly don’t like to acknowledge our sin and guilt. Yet that’s where Daniel begins.
The Primary Concern of Prayer
But then he goes on to his primary concern. He prays: “16O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain.” He’s already said “9To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness.” He’s not praying this into a vacuum. He knows that God is a God of steadfast love and a God of mercy and forgiveness. And so he can pray with great boldness, asking God to overlook his anger. He says: “We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.”
You don’t pray “God, I’ve been really good this week so I hope you’ll forgive me for the things I did wrong last week!” that’d be silly wouldn’t it? Even if you’ve been perfect this week! No, we always ask forgiveness only on the ground of God’s great mercies.
But notice, too, that when Daniel prays there’s also a degree of supporting argument in what he says. It’s a bit like the way Moses pleaded for the people in Ex 32 after they’d made the golden calf. See how Daniel points out how much God’s glory is connected with his people Israel: “15O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and made your name renowned even to this day.” v16: “your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain; … Jerusalem and your people have become a disgrace among all our neighbours.” v17: “for your own sake, Lord, let your face shine upon your desolated sanctuary.” v18: “Open your eyes and look at our desolation and the city that bears your name.” v19: “do not delay! For your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people bear your name!” God’s plan to make Israel a light to attract the Gentiles has failed completely because of their rebellion but it’s not too late. God can act again to show that he’s sovereign by again rescuing his people from slavery. The surrounding nations are laughing not just at the nation of Israel but at their God, as though he’s just one of the little gods of the nations that have been taken over by the much more powerful gods of the Medes and Persians. So Daniel’s appeal is to God’s reputation as well as to his mercy and compassion.
I wonder when you pray, how much of your motivation is the glory and reputation of God. Sadly I think we’re often more interested in our own glory or our own reputation or our own comfort when we pray. But Daniel challenges us here to pray because we care about how the world regards God; about how his glory in the world’s eye is affected by the things that happen around us.
One of the things that we thought we might do in preparation for our 2nd anniversary celebration weekend coming up in a month’s time was to write a St Thomas’ congregational prayer and we’d like your help with that. Here’s what we’d like you to do. We’d like you to think about the way Daniel prays this prayer and adapt it for us here at St Thomas’. Of course our prayer will be different. We’re not in exile because of our rebellion, so some of Daniel’s prayer will be less relevant. But the basic outline of his prayer is a helpful place to start. When you’ve finished writing a prayer you could send it to me [or Ivy or Kian Gee] and we’ll then take the various contributions and put them together into a single prayer for St Thomas’.
The Answer to Prayer
Before we finish though, I thought we should quickly look at the answer to Daniel’s prayer.
The first thing to notice is the rapid response. While he’s still speaking, he says, the angel Gabriel comes to give him an answer. But it isn’t just an answer that he’s given. First notice that Gabriel is sent out as soon as Daniel begins to speak. In Matt 6 Jesus says not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; … 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8)
And so it is here. The word goes out as he begins to speak. But the second thing we discover here is the reassurance that he’s greatly beloved. The word has the connotation of precious, highly desired. What a great affirmation! How would you feel if whenever you sat down to pray an angel came to you to tell you that you were greatly beloved, precious? It’d be good, wouldn’t it? Well let me tell you, that’s the message of the gospel. You are greatly beloved! So precious in fact that Jesus gave his life so you could live!
Well let me quickly look at the last few verses where the prayer is answered in typical apocalyptic and cryptic form.
The first thing to note is the tone of hope in the visions that Daniel is given. Even if you can’t understand what the details mean you can work out that the punishment will end, sin will be done away with, atoned for, an everlasting righteousness ushered in and a new holy of holies created.
But then there’s a note of caution. Daniel has been reading about the 70 year timespan that God had allotted for their exile. But Gabriel now tells him there are 70 weeks decreed for his people. Most commentators read this as meaning 70 X 7 years. That is, a long time! It’s a warning not to get carried away by the thought of an immediate salvation. Everyone wants a quick fix, but in God’s economy things sometimes take time. And so it is here.
The seventy weeks are broken up into three time periods:
- 7 weeks, which I take it to mean is the seventy years from Jeremiah’s prophecy to King Cyrus who begins to send some of the exiles back to Jerusalem;
- 62 weeks – an extended period of rebuilding but also distress, at the end of which an anointed one – i.e. a Messiah will be cut off. I take this to refer to the time up until the death of Jesus after which the city of Jerusalem is destroyed once more. This will be followed by floods and wars and desolations – just as Jesus predicted.
- 1 week when things come to a crisis. This prince will force believers to abandon true worship and replace it with idolatrous worship and this will continue until God finally stops him. This last section could refer to a number of possibilities. It could be the desecration of the temple in the Maccabean period, though that doesn’t fit with the death of the Messiah; it could refer to the Romans at various times trying to stop Christianity spreading, it could even refer to the attempts by religious groups around the world today trying to force Christians to convert to Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.
The important point is this: we’re called to a long obedience in the face of great opposition. God will sustain us during this time and in the long run Satan has God to contend with. God has decreed the date of his demise and when that day comes the battle will be over in a decisive fashion. So hang in there and keep praying that God would fulfill his promise to bring Jesus back soon.