The Prayer of Daniel
An address given at the Banner of Truth Borders Conference in Carlisle, Cumbria on November 7, 2014. The conference theme was ‘Teach us to pray’.
Darius the Mede, like hundreds of other people mentioned in the Bible, is an unknown figure from secular historical records, at least so far. Attempts have been made to identify him with different men but without solid conviction. It seems possible that he was a leader of Median ancestry who was by Cyrus ‘made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom’ (Dan. 9:1). This period with its details of the downfall of Babylon is a little obscure: revolutions breed confusion and the pressure of instant decisions. However, we are told that during the year following the defeat of Nabonidus’s army and the death of Belshazzar, while Darius was settling into power, there came a day when Daniel was studying the Bible. What he read moved him to turn in confession to God and Daniel proceeded to pray one of the most complete and extraordinary prayers found in the Scriptures. It is recorded for us in Daniel chapter 9.
Why is this such a perfect prayer?
1] Firstly, it is perfect because it begins and continues in a spirit of worship. ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands’ (9:4). Daniel has been reading what the prophet Jeremiah had written which indicated that soon the people of God would be returning home from Babylon to Jerusalem. This encouraged his praying but he does not clamour about the return: ‘Please send us home! Remember to take me home! When are we going to Jerusalem?’ No, Daniel begins in adoration. God so cares for this people that he will take them back to the promised land. He will do this because he once made a covenant with their father Abraham and with Abraham’s seed. This nation he loved of all the nations in the world, and his gift to them was this land. Daniel’s foundation hope lay in his covenant mercy: ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of love’ (9:4). Jehovah is the God you can trust, because he is absolutely straight. He stands in contrast to the seed of Abraham themselves. Daniel ransacks the whole vocabulary of sin in Scripture to describe this loved people’s guilt: ‘we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name’ (9:5, 6).
Those dark realities are not ignored, and guilt means that Daniel cannot start by insisting, ‘Get us back home’. There are no triumphalistic assertions of big plans about rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple, because all the past generations of God’s people have had a despicable history. Daniel is too wise to look at his fellow countrymen and put his confidence in their works. God alone is totally reliable. For generations these people had continued to worship golden calves, and the Baals. They persecuted God’s prophets and rejected his word, so that everything that subsequently happened to them they deserved. The dreadful exile and the length of their sentence in Babylon had been fair. God was perfectly right to deal with them in this way.
So Daniel’s prayer begins as a prayer of confession. Its hope is in a God who is light. This just God had made the perils of disobedience spectacularly clear. So Daniel cannot chant vain repetitions like the heathen, ‘Two more years. Two more years. Get us home in two more years.’ No way! His whole prayer is determined to justify the ways of God. In fact he does not call the Lord ‘Our God’ until verse 9, and not until verse 17 does he ask for anything. When he does petition the Lord it is just that God may listen. ‘Now our God, hear . . . O Lord, look with favour . . . Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and se . . .’ (9:17, 18). That is all he asks for – a hearing – because their sin has forfeited every right they had before God.
On one occasion the prophet Amos saw vast swarms of locusts coming like clouds to devour all the crops. He thinks of the devastating effect of that, and Amos falls in prayer before God. But what he prays for is mercy: ‘Sovereign Lord, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!’ (Amos 7:2). Now we would have focused on the locusts, ‘Lord, take these locusts away’, but Amos was reflecting on the consequences of the union that the holy God has established with those who profess to be his people. There is a covenant link between sin and its consequences. The wages of sin is death. Whereas this land should have been flowing with milk and honey, the locusts would ‘strip the land clean’ (Amos 7:2) and turn it into a wilderness. Barrenness among God’s people is always caused by their rebellion. So Amos pleaded for God’s forgiveness because he knew as Daniel knew that there were far greater dangers than the loss of crops, liberty, land, or a war. One can set out on a pattern of conduct which results in the loss of God. So Daniel begins in humble worship, as the Saviour teaches us, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.’
2] The second reason why this is such a perfect prayer is because there is no attempt to blame others for the misery they are in. It is the easiest thing for a small people to blame its ills on neighbouring bigger nations: most little countries have an inferiority complex. It would have been easy for the people of God to have said that the plight they were in was due to wicked Babylon. Daniel refuses to do so: ‘O Lord, we and our kings, our princes, and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you’ (9:8). They remembered all that Babylon had done to the cities of Israel, destroying the temple, and enslaving the people, but Daniel goes to the first cause of this. The Christian always goes to the first cause which is Almighty God. That is the bedrock of Christian counselling and evangelical comfort. ‘We have sinned,’ he said, ‘and so we have brought this inevitable divine judgment on ourselves.’ God had sent prophets to them, but the people defied them and would not listen. They would not take Ezekiel or Jeremiah seriously and rather scorned them. They were later eloquent and energetic in painting the sepulchres of such prophets, saying what wonderful men they were. Inside were the bones of the prophets they had persecuted.
Neville Chamberlain once said that the responsibility for the Second World War was Hitler’s alone. Great applause! Men like to hear that sort of thing: ‘the problem with Europe is Germany;’ or ‘the problem with Europe is France.’ And the problem with the church? Well, it’s not us. It’s modernism, or it’s sacerdotalism, or it’s materialism, or the bishops, or Marx, or Freud. It is always conveniently out there away from us. Daniel says that it is ‘we who have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled. We have turned away from your commandments and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets’ (9:5, 6). What is the difference between ourselves and the other people of our town? Are we less wicked? No. It is just that we have seen our sin for what it is. We have acknowledged our behaviour as reprehensible. We have put it before God and we have not attempted to cover it. The Lord’s congregations are the only bodies in the whole world who admit and confess their sin.
I went to see a lady in hospital recently who had broken her arm. After I had talked to her I went round to the other people in their beds and one old lady said, ‘I want to die. I want to die.’ I said to her, ‘Well, if you die you know you are going to meet God, and so you must start praying now if you are soon going to meet God. This is what you must pray “God be merciful to me a sinner.”‘ ‘I’m not a sinner,’ she said immediately, adding, ‘And if you knew me you’d know I wasn’t.’ Can you imagine what psychological pressures that puts us ministers under? The hospital ward is listening on a quiet afternoon to a visiting pastor, and he meets an ill, depressed old lady and apparently, instead of cheering her up, he is trying to point out to her that she is a lost sinner. It seems such an unkind thing for a Christian to do, but no lasting joy can come without a knowledge of our real condition before the living God. Sin is, the Shorter Catechism tells us, ‘a want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.’ That law is summarily comprehended in the words, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Those are God’s just requirements for his creatures who live in his creation. Sin is any lack of conformity at all to that. How blind the person who can say, ‘I’m not a sinner.’
Daniel will not blame others, and does not gloss over his own life. ‘The Word of God came to us, and we did not listen,’ he is saying, and he specifies the sins that are theirs. Are you specific when you acknowledge your sin? Peter wept bitterly over a specific sin. David prayed Psalm 51 over a specific sin. The publican in the temple would not lift up his eyes and beat his bosom; it was specific sins that crushed him. There is hope even for the whole city of Sodom if there are fifty, or even twenty who are confessing their sins. I hope in every gospel congregation there are ten men who, in solidarity with their churches, confess their sins: ‘I am the unprofitable servant. I am the one who has received so many benefits and blessings, and given so little in return.’
Righteous Daniel was a forgiving man, and so could be emboldened to ask for forgiveness from a merciful God. It was John Wesley who on a voyage to America heard General Oglethorpe, the Governor of Georgia, berating a servant for drinking his entire supply of best Cyprus wine: ‘This villain, Garibaldi, has drunk the lot and he will be bound hand and foot and sent back home on a man-of-war. The rascal should have taken care how he uses me, for I never forgive.’ ‘Then I hope, sir, that you never sin’ said Wesley, to striking effect. The Governor paused, and after a long moment threw his keys back to Garibaldi, ‘There, villain, take my keys, behave better for the future.’ Daniel had shown forgiveness to Nebuchadnezzar and would soon show it to Darius also. He could with good conscience seek mercy from God for his own and his people’s sins.
3] It is a perfect prayer, thirdly, because Daniel is concerned for the honour of God’s Name. You see the climax of the prayer, ‘Turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem’ (9:16), and more specifically, ‘see the desolation of the city that bears your Name’ (9:18), and again, ‘O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your name’ (9:19). Why is Daniel praying as he does? Because of what he says in those final words of the prayer, ‘your city and your people bear your name.’ This is the most extraordinary name that has been revealed under heaven amongst men. Here is a God with a reputation, and these people bear his name – as if they have a T-shirt with the name of God emblazoned upon it. They willingly identify themselves with him. They tell everyone that their Redeemer has the most wonderful of names, that it is a name of transcendence, omnipotence and especially of grace. Yet the city that was most closely identified with that name was a heap of ruins, and the people who stood for this name were a motley crowd of prisoners of war living in rags in a ghetto in Babylon. ‘We bear your name and look at us,’ they cried. Daniel was praying, ‘I take your holy name on my lips when I pray to you my Lord, but see how Babylon abuses your name with its blasphemous contempt. This world is judging you when it scorns me, and your city. It sees a bunch of slaves, desolation, conquest, and the ruins of your house. What shame is being poured on your name! People think of us as a lost cause. They identify us with defeat and decline. To them it is all over – your name is virtually of an extinct breed of religionists. We are yesterday’s men. Lord, you must act. Take the initiative. Your honour and your very reality is at stake. Your name is barely traced in the dust of the ruins of Jerusalem.’
For Daniel there was this extraordinary contrast between the glory of God’s name in the past and the weakness associated with God’s name now. He says, ‘O Lord our God who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day’ (9:15). Then he looks around and in the next breath says, ‘See the desolation of the city that bears your Name’ (9:18). Every Christian bears God’s name. They were baptised into the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. How is it with that name today? How is it when they gather specifically in that name today? Is there power and life and love? Is it an enduring name? Is it a desolate name? And Daniel prays for the glory and honour of God revealed in his name to be seen and manifest again.
So three things make it a perfect prayer. It begins with worship. It does not make any attempt to blame others. Its passionate concern is for the honour of God’s name.
There is one more thing about this prayer to be said, and it is about the occasion when it was prayed. Why did Daniel confess his sins at that moment? What made him pray? It had nothing to do with the death of Belshazzar, and the trauma of that midnight hour when he was summoned out of his bed speaking so bravely and truly at that feast. The deaths he witnessed that night and the coming of a new king were not the cause of his praying. It had everything to do with the Scriptures. Daniel had been reading in his Bible the writings of the prophet Jeremiah (9:2). When he was a young boy, Daniel’s mother and father might have taken him to hear the Word of God – as many parents do. Daniel’s parents were in fact able to bring him to hear in the flesh Jeremiah preaching. Aged Daniel is now reading Jeremiah 25:12 or Jeremiah 29:10 in which passages Jeremiah tells the sinful people that they were going to go into exile and it would last seven decades. Daniel, with that same gift of prophecy that Jeremiah had, could go into the presence of God and could talk to God and also receive a word from God which then he would bear out, burning like a fire in his bones, and declare it to men. Yet Daniel, who became a vehicle of Scripture, still studies the Scriptures that holy men of God have spoken as borne along by the Spirit of God. Daniel examines the state of the church and the world about him in the light of the Bible.
How important it is to keep studying the Scriptures, and never to stop. I was staying with a pastor friend, and Larry Mills said to me, ‘I’ve got to go and visit a lady in the congregation. She’s just had a baby and her husband’s a doctor in the Navy. She just came home from hospital last evening. Would you like to come with me?’ So we visited their home and there was the mother with the new born baby. As we talked Larry asked her, ‘Did you have a good night?’ She smiles and said, ‘Not bad at all. The baby woke about half past five and I fed and changed her and then it was half past six – too late to go back to bed. So I had my quiet time. I picked up my Bible and said to the little girl as she lay in my arms, “Now God has given us this book. This is the Word of God, and we Christians every day read it.” So I read the Bible to the child. Then I said to her, “You know, after we’ve read the Word of God we pray. We speak to the Saviour who has given us this Word.” So I put her little hands together and I prayed with her.’ That was her answer. Her daughter was 48 hours old. She was fed by her mother’s milk, and then she was in that atmosphere where with that milk her soul was being fed with the milk of the Word. Before she could ever comprehend a sound, she was under the sounds of those words and the object of the prayers of her mother. She opened for me a window on Christian motherhood, and on the special place that the child of a believing parent has in God’s sight, a ‘holy’ child (1 Cor. 7:14). It is good to remind our young people that many of them were prayed for by their mothers within minutes of being born, and that they too read the Word to you long before you could comprehend a single sound of it. Their parents could not cope with all the pressures of being parents without that Word and prayer.
Daniel had the unique privilege as a man with the gift of prophecy of speaking to God face to face, but he still studied the written Scriptures. Daniel read of an imminent ending of the captivity and a return to Jerusalem. There was nothing in the world around that suggested that within a couple of years God’s people would begin the process of the long trek back to Jerusalem. Daniel’s beliefs were structured by the Word of God. Noah also, two years before the flood, the vast ark almost completed, could see no signs in the cloud formations, no unusual rising of the rivers, no change in animals’ behaviour, nothing at all outwardly to suggest a great flood was soon going to destroy the world. There was a divine prophecy that had come to him maybe 120 years earlier. He believed that Word yet. Some of us have been Christians for fifty years, and we have lived for half a century obeying the commandments and believing the promises of the Bible. It has taught us how to pray and given us hope in dark days. We have cried, ‘Lord fulfil your promises.’
Why pray if God had said that he will do something? Why does the Saviour tell us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ when we know it is certainly going to come. The answer is that God has ordained the restoration of his people from Babylon through making them a different people. No longer will they be the worshippers of Baal that they have been for centuries, but an idol-hating people, a repentant, and a prayerful people. This people loves the name of the LORD above anything else in the whole world. Daniel was a spokesman for that remnant who in Babylon’s crucible for 70 years had been purified and refined. His praying was evidence of the Lord’s beginning to fulfil his word in Daniel’s old age.
It is a faithful people whom the Lord restores, and Daniel was a man of faith. He believes the word in Jeremiah. God will restore them to Jerusalem. Faith is always focused upon a promise, and we should ask ourselves as we pray if we have a promise to support us – not some words that leap out of the Bible and excite us but those ‘exceeding great and precious promises’ God has given to his people through prophets and apostles. They are in the Bible through his supervision, and when Christians pray they do so with a confidence that God will fulfil his promises.
Being sure that there is a promise for us is crucial. God never made a promise that we would get certain grades in our exams, nor that every seriously ill person would be healed, nor that every poor Christian will become rich. He has promised that all things are going to work together for our good. He has promised that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. He has promised to teach us that in whatsoever state we are, we will be content in that condition. He has promised that he will never leave us. He has promised that he is going to build his church and the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it. Such promises are what we plead with the certainty that they come from the throne of the universe. Luther roughly says, Throw God’s promises right back at him.
So, Daniel was reading the Scriptures one day and he sees a promise that means that in a few years the people of God will be returning from exile. He turns that into prayer; ‘For your sake, O my God, do not delay’. It has been so long and ‘your city and your people bear your Name’ (9:19).
Today we are not looking forward to the little city of Jerusalem. We are looking forward to the regeneration of all the cosmos, of a new heavens and a new earth. The Apostle Peter talks about that and he says, You look forward to the day of God and ‘speed its coming’ (2 Pet. 3:12). How do we speed something the time of which has been fixed and promised by Almighty God? How do you speed its appearance? The answer he gives is, ‘you ought to live and holy and godly lives’ (2 Pet. 3:11). In other words by fulfilling our calling and being true Christians, in a multitude of ways: by giving an answer for the hope that is in us whenever anyone asks; by loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbours as ourselves; by husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the church; by wives obeying their husbands; by children obeying their parents in everything; by repenting of the sins we commit. It is by being the most consistent Christians we can possibly be that we speed the day when the new heavens and earth will come. Daniel was speeding his day of restoration to Jerusalem by praying as he did.
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