The Privilege of Prayer – Daniel 9
Praying with Daniel 9
Nigel Styles is the Director of Cornhill Training Course in London. Nigel helps us to learn from one the great prayers of the Bible in Daniel 9.
It’s worth being clear: the Bible is not about me! It is about God. And the book of Daniel makes this point strongly … it is all about Him.
But stories, events, history, conversations, and even personal prayers, get recorded so that we can listen in. And learn. Although Daniel prays in chapter 9 at a unique moment in his life and in salvation history, we can pray with the Bible, learning from the what, why and how of his praying.
The nation of Israel is in crisis. The northern kingdom, Israel, has been overcome by Assyria, and virtually disappeared from history. The southern kingdom of Judah has been carried off into exile in Babylon. Daniel is crisis literature: what on earth is God doing? He has made promises about this people being his people, promises of prosperity in a place of his choosing, promises that seem to stretch into eternity. And now, those promises seem empty, and God looks as powerful as a lump of jelly.
The striking reply to this crisis comes in the very first two verses (1:1-2): God did this. He ‘gave’ Judah to Babylon. He had promised that this most awful of outcomes would happen if Israel were rebellious against their saving Lord. In other words, they were in exile not because God broke his promises, but because he kept them. It was sin that took Israel into exile. It was sin that kept them there. It was their sin that needed to be confessed.
Daniel 9 begins as the book began. Verse 1 retells the real historical event that happened in 539 BC and that is recounted in Room 55 in the British Museum: the Babylonian dynasty ended and the empire of Persians and Medes became top dog. Verse 2 reveals that all such events are written up, in advance, on God’s wall calendar, and written down for us in the Old Testament. He decided that after just seventy years – the lifespan of a man - the down-trodden Jews, powerless and dejected, would return home.
The clock is ticking
Imagine a text from someone you hardly know that reads: I’m in town next week … I might pop by. We all know what that kind of text means - they might, but they probably won’t. That’s very different from a text from your wife saying: I’ll be home by 7 tonight. If it gets to 7 and she still hasn't arrived, you’re waiting. By 7.30 you’re clock-watching. By 8.00 you try to phone, but can’t get through. And then it’s 9 … then 10 … and you’ll be saying to yourself ‘I know something must have happened’. You know your wife. You know what her promise means. Something must have stopped her.
In our story, Daniel is pacing the floor. He’s read the message. He knows his God. He knows what his promise means. Something must be stopping him. Indeed. For Leviticus 26:40-45 says that, if Israel were to end up ‘in your enemies’ lands’, they must ‘confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers’. Their heart must be humbled. ‘And then I will remember my covenant’.
So that is what Daniel does. He confesses iniquity. Whose iniquity? Daniel could legitimately have prayed: they have sinned. After all, he has already shown integrity in high office, exemplary godliness in the public square, and bold praying. But he doesn’t pray about ‘those people over there’ who sinned, but about ‘us’. I counted up 23 times in these verses that he says the same thing. He totally identifies with a sinful people, as their godly representative. We sinned.
And nor does he blame God in this crisis: what’s stopping him? what’s wrong with him? Daniel asks: what’s wrong with me? He assumes that the problem is my sin, not God’s goodness.
An nor does [Daniel] blame God in this crisis: what’s stopping him? what’s wrong with him? Daniel asks: what’s wrong with me? He assumes that the problem is my sin, not God’s goodness.
I remember visiting an old lady in hospital. It was obvious from her weakened, emaciated body that she was a few days from death. I explained the gospel to her and urged her, before it was too late, to trust in Jesus for forgiveness of her sins so that … She interrupted me: ‘why do I need forgiveness?’ How extraordinary to be that near death and think that you don't need to be forgiven.
But not so extraordinary.
Because, as the sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin said: ‘This, then, is our righteousness: to confess ourselves guilty … in order that God may gratuitously absolve us’. Do you hear that? Righteousness begins with confessing ourselves guilty. We can only be right with God when we admit we’re not.
That’s why it’s the Christian who prays: ‘forgive us our sins’ in the Lord’s Prayer. Loathing of our sin is a mark of having a new heart. It’s the maturing Christian who becomes more aware of personal sin. It’s the Christian church that publicly confesses sin, because we are falling over ourselves to say sorry - sorry to God and sorry to one another. To you, O Lord (7) belongs (literally, in 9) ‘mercies and forgivenesses’. Again and again. Because to us belongs ‘open shame’ (7).
Covered with shame
When you can’t resolve what you see in the world all around you with the truths you read in the Bible. Begin in verse 5: ‘we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled and turned aside from your commands. To us, O Lord, belongs open shame.’
Do you recognize the diagnosis? Do you pray about your sin, like Daniel? Do you cringe because you are shocked and dismayed as you think of it? Do you really, really loathe it? Is it like some sticky mess all over you that you can’t get off yourself? We are covered with it, and covered with shame because of it.
Start your prayers here. And especially when you can’t make head-nor-tale of what God is doing. When he seems weak in a world of strong men. When you can’t resolve what you see in the world all around you with the truths you read in the Bible. Begin in verse 5: ‘we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled and turned aside from your commands. To us, O Lord, belongs open shame.’
Yes, the Bible is not about me. But it teaches us to lean on the ‘great mercy’ (18) of our covenant Lord.