The Prayer of a Much-loved Man Daniel 9:1-23


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Daniel 9:1-23

Daniel, as we have already seen, is an interesting mix of different sorts of material. We first had the famous stories of the first six chapters – remember, I don’t ever use the word “story” to mean that what we read was not true history; I mean only that the nature of the material is that of a narrative – then some visions granted to Daniel at different times in his later life. And now, in the midst of those visions, we are given another account of something that happened in Daniel’s life, this time when he was an old man, probably in his 80s. What we have in chapter 9 is an account of Daniel’s “devotions,” or, at least that is what we would call it nowadays. On this occasion he read the Bible and prayed, as, no doubt, he did every day. Why this prayer was written down and recorded for posterity is an interesting question to which we will return.

The prayer was prompted by his reading in Jeremiah that Israel’s exile was to last 70 years. More on that in a moment. The relationship of that number to the future, which has been the subject of the visions in the last two chapters and will be the subject of the final paragraph of this chapter and chapters 10 and 11, will be addressed by Gabriel at the end of the chapter, the section we will not read this evening.

Text Comment

v.1       Time had passed since the vision reported in chapter 8. Babylon had fallen and the Persians were now in charge, though, as you remember, Daniel had continued as a court official in the new regime. Now Darius the Mede is identified as “the son of Ahasuerus.” Nobody is entirely sure who that Ahasuerus actually was; we’ve encountered that sort of problem already in Daniel.

v.2       We find the prophecy of Jeremiah in Jer. 25:11-12. “Seventy,” of course, is a nice round number and strikes the careful reader of the Bible as likely to be symbolic, even if it were also a literal chronological period. Both 7 and 10 in the Bible are symbols of completeness and 7×10 doubly so. Other references to the seventy years of the exile in 2 Chronicles and Zechariah further suggest that the number is symbolic and not to be taken literally. [Longman, 222] That fact is important to remember when we get to the prophecy of the 70 weeks next time.

One problem in taking the number 70 as literal in this case is that we don’t know precisely when the 70 years should be considered to have begun. Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. but Daniel was carted off to Babylon twenty years earlier with a comparatively small number of skilled and promising Jews in 605 B.C.  There was another deportation of Jews to Babylon in 597 B.C. Darius’ first year was 538 B.C., some 67 years after 605, but only 48 years after 586 B.C. The decree of Cyrus to allow the exiles who wished to do so to return to Jerusalem was also published in 538, the very year mentioned here in v. 1. It wasn’t precisely 70 years in any of the three cases, though close enough to approximate 70 years if we count from 605 B.C. when Daniel was taken. But it is not a “literal” number of years in any case.

What Yahweh had promised was that Israel would return to the land and the temple would be restored when Babylon’s years were over. God was as good as his word! In fact, if 586 is the date at which we ought to begin counting the 70 years, he was far better than his word. No doubt what made Daniel pray this prayer was precisely the fact that the appointed time was up. Babylon had fallen. As a government insider, indeed as a major player in the new administration, he was perhaps already aware of plans to issue Cyrus’ decree sending the Jews home. We may even wonder if Daniel, given the measure of his influence with Darius, had something to do with the promulgation of that decree.

Note, by the way, that we have here another instance of one biblical writer citing another as the Word of God. Believers knew what was the Word of God almost immediately upon its publication because they knew through whom that Word had come. In this case it was Jeremiah the prophet. They knew that Jeremiah was God’s prophet. They knew what he prophesied was the Word of God. [Longman, 221] We also hear of Daniel reading the Word of God. To be sure, most people would not have had a written copy of the Bible – as much of it as had been written by this time – but Daniel did.

v.3       That the prayer is a confession of sin we will read in the next verse. But Daniel’s preparation for the prayer – fasting, sackcloth, and ashes – already suggests the nature of the prayer.

v.5       It is highly interesting and important that Daniel includes himself in this confession of sin, as if he too were guilty of Israel’s wickedness and rebellion. We may be inclined to think, “Wait a minute. Why is Daniel of all people, confessing Israel’s transgressions of God’s law as his own, when he risked his life again and again to obey God’s commandments?” It is a question that we need to be able to answer. As it happens, this entire issue came up recently in our PCA world when the General Assembly adopted and published on behalf of our Church a confession of sin for its complicity in American racism, its failure to take a stand for the equality, freedom, dignity, and equality of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Many of our older men spoke movingly of their personal failure during those tumultuous days, especially in the South, failure to see how they themselves had lived and spoken as defenders of white privilege at the expense of black Americans and even black Christians. They would have hotly denied that they were racists, but they didn’t lift a finger on behalf of the rights and dignity of African Americans. They saw that clearly now however little they saw it at the time.

But in the debate over the adopting of this confession our confession, your confession of sin there were others who argued that confession of sin must be personal and that they could not be expected to confess sins of which they were not themselves guilty. In many cases, so their argument went, they weren’t even born at the time the sins being confessed had been committed. How could they be expected to confess sins committed by others when they were not even in the world at the time? And if such a confession were made by the Church for the Church, weren’t they being implicated as racists and advocates of Jim Crow when they were not? Isn’t there something dishonest or hypocritical about that?

The first thing to notice in thinking our way through these questions is that Daniel’s confession of sin in which he expressed his solidarity in sin and guilt with the people of Israel is hardly unique. We find such confession of corporate solidarity in sin elsewhere in the Bible. In Deut. 9 the generation of Israel that stood poised to enter the Promised Land is addressed as if it had been complicit in the sins of the generation that had left Egypt at the Exodus and repeatedly sinned in the wilderness. Those folk were now dead and their children and grandchildren were being addressed by Moses in Deuteronomy, but the Lord spoke to them as if they too had provoked him to wrath in the wilderness! [9:7] As if they had been those clamoring for a golden calf or complaining against Moses! Interestingly, in Psalm 106:6, the author of the psalm expresses the same viewpoint. He says, “Both we and our fathers have sinned…” But the psalm goes on to enumerate Israel’s sins in the early generations as if the psalmist and his contemporaries had been there and were implicated in all those ancient sins. In Nehemiah 1:6, Nehemiah prayed a prayer of confession much like Daniel’s and included himself as a confessor. And I could go on. This solidarity may be explained in several ways.

  1. We are all sinners and the sins of others are, in nature and type, our sins as well. So to exempt ourselves from any confession of sin, as if we cannot utter the words, is not only dishonest but an act of pride, as if we were in no way implicated in the sins being confessed. The brutal fact is that there is no sin we are not guilty of committing! If not by the hand, we have committed it by the heart. So let’s have none of this, “I wasn’t there and didn’t do it!” Of course we whites are implicated in the Church’s racism. In our attitudes, our actions, our indifference and our lack of action, the sins of the 50s and 60s are our sins today as well. Who can deny it?
  2. The Bibleand it takes some getting used to for American believers in the 21st century never treats the individual in such isolation as we are inclined to do in American life today. Every person is part of a community and the life of that community is his or her life. He is, she is part of that community like it or not; his fortunes and hers are the fortunes of that community, and so on. We recognize this more easily with respect to our immediate families, but it is just as surely true in larger ways as well. We do not sin simply individually; we sin as a community and, as members of that community, we are responsible for what the community does or does not do.
  3. None of us is fully aware of how much our lives, our moral sense has been shaped and determined by our community and our culture. In ways we usually do not realize we are more like our community in its defects than we may wish to admit. In our own case, the more perceptive among us realize that we are in some respects more American than Christian, so we are regularly more guilty of the defects of our Christian communityAmerican as it is than we are prepared to realize. Confessing our sins together is not only right and honest, therefore, but a good way to a more realistic assessment of ourselves!

v.11     Daniel is referring to the covenant curses, listed in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, the various ways God promised to punish Israel if she were unfaithful to the covenant. One of the curses, as you remember, was that God would scatter his people among the nations, send them into exile to live among foreign peoples, often as slaves. What this means, of course, is that Israel couldn’t plead ignorance. They knew precisely what the Lord had told them he would do should they prove unfaithful to him!

v.13     Daniel’s great concern is not that Israel had been punished for her sin, but that the punishment had not produced a thoroughgoing repentance. Now we know from Ezra and Nehemiah that there were faithful men and women among the returning exiles, so Daniel must be referring to the generality of Jews in Babylon and, perhaps, in Judea as well. No doubt he received reports from time to time about how things were going back home, just as Ezekiel had. Perhaps this is why Daniel wrote this prayer and why it was preserved in Holy Scripture. The people of God needed repentance and, therefore, they needed to know what repentance sounded like and what it looked like. The same covenantal material provided for eventual restoration if only Israel would repent of the sins that had sent them into exile.

v.19     An argument is being made here. Did you catch it? From v. 16 to v. 19 notice how many times the Lord’s name or honor are appealed to. He should answer Daniel’s prayer for the sake of his own name. Notice the “your” so often repeated in these verses: “your people,” “a name for yourself,” “your righteous acts,” “your city Jerusalem,” “your holy hill,” “your people” again, “your servant,” “your own sake,” “your sanctuary,” “the city called by your name,” “your great mercy,” and, one again “your city” and “your name,.” Israel’s spiritual desolation reflects poorly on the Lord, whose people they are. That is Daniel’s argument! The Lord needs to act for the sake of his own reputation! Real believers always care about the Lord’s reputation! [Davis, 120]

As you know, the Bible teaches us both by precept and by example. We are taught how to live the Christian lifewe are given commandments, we’re given specific spiritual instruction but we are also shown how to live it and how not to live it. And so it is with the Bible’s teaching about prayer. We are given teaching about prayer in many places in the Word of God. For example, the Lord Jesus famously taught his disciples how to pray. They asked him, “Lord teach us to pray” in Luke 11:1 and he replied with some instruction. Part of that instruction was the Lord’s Prayer. But we are also treated in the Bible to many prayers, illustrations of the art of prayer which are of immense value in teaching us how to pray. And through the ages God’s people have learned themselves how to pray by reading the prayers of the saints recorded in the Bible. Think of the prayers of Moses, Hannah, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Jesus himself, Paul and others. And, of course, think of the Psalms, so many prayers of so many different kinds. Here is prayer in flesh and blood, in living color, offered in the welter of life’s experiences.

This prayer of Daniel is such an exemplary prayer. It will teach us not only what a prayer should be, what it should contain, but also how it ought to be offered. We have here both the matter and the manner of prayer.

Let me give you some idea of what I am talking about. Daniel tells us at the outset that his prayer is a confession of sin. But you will see that he doesn’t simply launch away into a list of Israel’s transgressions. In his opening address to God he identifies the Lord to whom he is about to speak. He addresses Yahweh as a God of fearful majesty and, at the same time, of great faithfulness. He begins by acknowledging who and what God is. He is great beyond belief but he is also faithful to his Word. Indeed, the entire prayer presupposes God’s faithfulness, both in punishment and in mercy. God has done what he said he would do but he will be merciful as he promised to be.

A good prayer should do the same and many biblical prayers do. The one praying first catches some sight of God before he begins to speak to him. David speaks of “setting the Lord before himself.” Such a practice changes the way we pray. If we get a real sight of God, if we feel as though we are actually speaking to the Almighty, we pray in a different vein and a different voice. Alexander Whyte has a magnificent passage on this very subject in his great book of sermons on prayer entitled Lord, Teach Us to Pray.

“If, then, you would learn to pray to perfection – that is, to pray with all that is within you – never fail, never neglect, to do this. Never once shut your bodily eyes and bow your knees to begin to pray, without, at the same moment, opening the eyes of your imagination. It is but a bodily service to shut our outward eyes, and not at the same moment open the eyes of our inner man. Do things like this, then, when you would be in the full spirit of prayer.… Let your imagination sweep up through the whole visible heavens, up to the heaven of heavens. Let her sweep and soar on her shining wing, up past sun, moon, and stars. Let her leave Orion and the Pleiades far behind her. And let her heart swell and beat as she says such things as these to herself: ‘He made all these things. He, whom I now seek. That is his sun. My Father made them all. My mediator made them all to the glory of his father. And he is the heir of all things.” [244-245]

Well, that is what Daniel did in his own way. He first caught a sight of God in his greatness and goodness; only then did he begin to speak. We should do something similar. There is an anecdote told of Lyndon Johnson – I love this because it jibes with a problem I have when he was John Kennedy’s Vice-President, and Russell Baker, then a reporter for the New York Times. Baker, one day coming out of the Senate chamber wearing a press badge, was accosted by Johnson who pulled him into his office and began to lecture Baker on the importance of Lyndon Johnson in the Kennedy administration. Apparently he felt he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved from the press. While Johnson was lecturing Baker on the realities of Washington politics, he jotted a note on a slip of paper, rang his secretary, and then gave it to her when she entered the room. A few minutes later she came back into the room and handed him the same slip of paper that he quickly read and then crumpled up and threw in the trash. Throughout he had not stopped talking. Curious after his one-sided conversation with the Vice-president, Baker consulted with the office staff and discovered what Johnson had written on the note. It read: “Who is this I’m talking to?” The secretary had found out who Baker was and scribbled his name on the note and handed it back to the Vice-President. [Davis, 116-117]  I used to send John Pribyl to find out who it was that I had just talked to or that I was about to talk to. That should not be true of us when we go to prayer. We should know only too well who it is that we are talking to and, if we do, he will have our full attention and we will offer a proper prayer.

As children we learned the acrostic ACTS to teach us what our prayers should contain: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (another word for petition). Not every prayer certainly, but our longer prayers and our prayer life in general should contain all of those things. Isaac Watts went further with his “Nine Elements of Prayer.”

“Call upon God, adore and confess,

Petition, plead, and then declare

You are the Lord’s; give thanks and bless

And let ‘Amen’ confirm the prayer.”

As an exemplary prayer Daniel’s includes adoration and confession and supplication or petition with a dash of thanksgiving, not made explicit but certainly implicit. So its content is instructive. But so is its manner. There is passion in this prayer! We see it in Daniel’s fasting and sackcloth and ashes. But we hear it as well, not least in the repeated “O Lord” and “O my God” that we find throughout. We also detect the passion in the extremity of the language. He speaks of Israel’s shame, not only of her disobedience but of her treachery, of her present great calamity, of her great wickedness and so on. If you want your children to grow up thinking that prayer is not of much consequence by all means pray in their hearing prayers that are listless, perfunctory, colorless, and lacking any passion. What better way to teach them that it is no great thing to speak to the Almighty! But no one would conclude that about prayer listening to Daniel pray! Alexander Whyte said that the more passion a man puts into his prayer, the more space the Bible devotes to that prayer. And thinking about it, it seems to me that he is right. Think of the passionate prayers of Moses, of Hannah in her tears, and of David. Their prayers were heartfelt, full of deep concern, and longing; they were reverent but they were nothing if not determined. They made an argument, they plead for mercy, and they revered the God to whom they spoke.

So in those ways and others, Daniel’s prayer here in chapter 9 is an exemplary prayer. It is a specimen of the kind of prayer you and I ought to pray, both in its content and in its manner. The saintly Thomas Boston, the 18th century Scottish minister and theologian, recounts in his Memoirs of a time when he was facing a particularly difficult and important decision and was, for that reason, in great need of the Lord’s guidance and help. Whom do you suppose that he asked to pray for him? Another minister? A family member? He writes:

“I desired James Minto, a godly man, and a mighty pleader in prayer, though otherwise of very ordinary abilities, to remember my situation, and to plead for light [for] me…” [74]

Boston knew very well that that the person who prays in earnest is the one most likely to be heard; the person who prays with pleadings that come from the heart whose prayers are most likely to avail with God. But there is something more about prayer here that I want to draw to your attention. Did you notice the connection drawn between what Daniel had read in the Word of God and what he prayed? He read that the exile was to last 70 yearswhatever he understood by the 70 – until the days of Babylon were done. And so he prayed that now that Babylon’s days were done, the Lord would look with favor, would shine on his sanctuary and would restore his people to Judea and to Jerusalem, the meaning of his words in vv. 17-18. Here too is the biblical nature of prayer as the necessary means to an already determined end. We wonder why we have to pray for things that have already been promised and in many respects have already been determined. If God is sovereign, if he has a plan, why do we need to ask him to do what he himself has said he will do? But all through the Bible, we find the godly praying for just those things that God has promised them. Prayer is a means by which the promise comes to pass.

  1. We pray for the forgiveness of our sins and must. The Bible commands us to do so. It even says that we will not be forgiven if we don’t seek forgiveness. But, then, a Christian is already assured of his or her forgiveness as one justified in Christ. We are praying for what in a certain sense we have already received!
  2. The year, the day, and the hour of the Lord’s return has been fixed from eternity, but we are taught to pray Maranatha, “O Lord, come!” As worldwide evangelism is a prerequisite of the Lord’s return, so is his people’s prayer for it.
  3. And here it was the Lord’s promise in the covenant to return his people to the Promised Land that drove Daniel to his knees to pray for that very result, already promised by the Lord through Jeremiah.

However we understand this, I think if you will stop and think about it, you will realize that virtually every prayer you pray is, in this way, like Daniel’s prayer: based upon or motivated by what the Lord has told you in his word. You pray for mercy because he has promised to be merciful to his people. You pray for your daily bread because he has promised to provide for your needs. You pray for your children’s souls because he has promised to be your God and the God of your children. You pray for forgiveness because he has promised to separate your sins from you as far as the east is from the west. If he hadn’t made those promises we would never think to offer those prayers! Even for those things for which he made no specific promise you still pray because he has promised to give you the desires of your heart. And, in any case, you know from the Word of God that only he can give you the blessing you seek.

In all these ways and many more, prayer is the reflex of the Word of God, it is the believer’s response in faith to the promises of God. It is, indeed, the most customary act of faith in God to pray for his promises to be fulfilled, as Daniel prayed here. You do it every day. In such prayer the believer both acknowledges what God has promised and his own faith in that promise, together with his or her longing to see the promise fulfilled. I don’t suppose that Daniel supposed that Israel would not return to the Promised Land unless he prayed for Israel’s return. But I’m sure he was absolutely convinced that Israel would not return without the Lord himself taking her back to Judea, that the sanctuary would never be rebuilt unless the Lord saw to its rebuilding. So, he spoke to God about the longing of his heart to see these promises fulfilled.

Daniel didn’t pray because he thought the Lord had forgotten his promise about the 70 year exile. He didn’t pray because he thought the Lord had to be persuaded, almost against his will, to be faithful to the promise he had made. He was praying to express his own heart before God, his own longing to see the Lord’s name exalted among his people and before the world; he was praying to express his sense of complete reliance upon the Lord’s word and faithfulness. He was asking God to be faithful to his Word but not out of any sense that the Lord might otherwise be unfaithful, but because he wanted to Lord to know that he was taking God’s promises seriously. He was rather expressing the longing of his heart and his concern that the promise be fulfilled for Israel’s sake and the Lord’s own name’s sake. He was saying that he would have no claim whatsoever on God’s time or attention apart from the fact that God himself had made such promises to his people. He was taking God at his Word and pleading with God to be true to that word because otherwise his people would have no hope. “Please, please do what you said you would do,” was Daniel’s prayer and, in fact, almost every prayer that you and I ever pray is the same. Prayer, therefore, is an act of faith, of confidence in God’s word, wanting God to do what he said he would do so that his name might be exalted in our lives and the lives of many others. God wants us to take him at his word and prayer is the biblically appointed way for us to do that.

Let me finish with this. Daniel’s prayer was a prayer of the confession of sins. Do you realize that the Christian church is the only institution in the world that confesses its sins? In this it is utterly distinctive. The United Nations doesn’t confess its sins, the United States government doesn’t confess its sins, other religions make very little, if anything at all, of confessing the sins that are obviously an unassailable fact of our lives. Some Jews do it, but then they too learned to do so from the Bible. Christians are not less wicked than other people, but we have learned to see our sin for what it isan offense against God and man and to acknowledge that wickedness to God and seek his forgiveness. [Davis 119] Only the Bible teaches human beings to “loathe themselves,” which is the way Ezekiel puts it in 36:31. To be sure, we may love ourselves as well, as the Bible makes clear, but always and only honestly, recognizing that we must loathe our selfishness and bad behavior at the same time and that we must come to God without in any way hiding the truth about ourselves or our need of his grace and forgiveness. What good is God’s mercy if we don’t feel the need of it? The Holy Spirit and the new birth produce a new sorrow at the same time as they produce a new life. Indeed, the new life is nourished by that new sorrow which produces the humility and the longing for righteousness that are the engine of a holy life pleasing to God. Here is the lesson of Daniel 9: You become a person like Daniel – a person who is greatly loved – by cultivating the same mind he had and by praying the sort of prayers he prayed!