Thursday, 10 April 2014
Daniel 9 'Daniel, your God is too small'
In the early 1790s William Carey challenged his fellow Baptist pastors about their responsibility for world missions. He received an unfavourable response. One of the senior men present curtly told him, 'sit down young man', and added, 'if God wants to save the heathen, he will do it without your help or mine!"
Surely both men knew that Jesus had promised that the gospel would reach the ends of the earth. Yet one man saw that as a promise that prompted action; whereas the other let that promise produce complacency.
In the book of Daniel we have seen that God is sovereign. Nothing will frustrate his plans. He knows the begining from the end, and all history is in his hand. He will do as he wants for his glory. If this is true then what is there for us to do? Are we simply to sit on the sidelines and be spectators?
Similarly, we know that Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. We know that he who began a good work in us will see it through to completion. If God is going to get his way in this world, and in our lives, then do our prayers matter?
While prayer may be a mystery it certainly does change things. It has been said that more things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of. Somehow our prayers are intertwinned with God's soverign purposes. When God promises that he is going to do something it is not an invitation to simply watch him at work; it is a call to action. As we now see, the promise of God prompted Daniel to pray.
1. The promise of God prompts Daniel to pray (1-19)
The first part of this chapter contains one of the great prayers on the Bible. In chapter six we saw Daniel praying, now we get to hear him.
Remember that Daniel had been taken from the promised land by the Babylonians while he was still in his teens. He had given a lifetime of service to that regime when it was overthrown by the Persians. Our chapter is set in the first year of Darius. That is 539 BC. Daniel is now in his eighties. It is eleven years since the vision recorded in the preceding chapter.
Daniel is reading from the Scriptures, as no doubt was his daily habit. There he comes across a passage in Jeremiah (25:11) that prophesied that after his people had been exiled from their land it would lie desolate for seventy years. In other words it was time for them to return to Jerusalem and its surrounds. So what does Daniel do? Does he sit back and simply wait for God to act? No! He prays. God's promises prompt him to action. He knows that his prayers have a role to play in God's eternal purposes. At the end of the Bible people who know that a day and time has been set for the Lord's return nevertheless pray 'come Lord Jesus.' God's sovereign purposes are somehow intertwined with the prayers of his people in such a way that our praying really matters.
There are two things that I want us to notice about Daniel's prayer. Firstly, it is rooted in the character of God. Secondly, it is full of confession.
A professor in a Bible college asked his students, 'how can we reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the angry God of the New?'
They attempted to correct him. 'Don't you mean, "how can we reconcile the loving God of the New Testament with the angry God of the Old?"'
No, he meant what he said. You see he was trying to underline the point that the God of the Old Testament is in fact the same God as is portrayed in the New. Contrary to what some think, the Old Testament has plenty of things to say about the love if God and the New Testament has some if the severest things to say about the wrath and judgement of a holy God.
Living in Old Testament times Daniel knows that God is 'great and awesome' (4). He knows that Yahweh is the promise-keeping God. He is the God who made a promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he is the God who delivered his people from slavery in Egypt; he is the God who spoke to them at Mount Sinai; he is the God who warned them that if they rebelled he would remove them from the promised land; he is the God who graciously persisted with his rebellious people and waited patiently before delivering them into exile; he is the God who had prophesied that his people would repent and that he would deliver them from exile after seventy years.
It is to this God that Daniel confesses. He confesses for his people and stands as a representative before God on their behalf. We benefit from the prayers of a representative greater than Daniel. 'Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them' (Hebrews 7:25). Our perseverance is guaranteed by the prayers of the Son if God.
The story is told of two rabbis who went to the temple to pray. The first rabbi beat his breast and cried out 'I am nothing, I am nothing.'
The second rabbi followed his example and also beat crying I am nothing, I am nothing.'
A peasant was watching them and decided to join in, 'I am nothing, I am nothing.'
This prompted outrage in the first rabbi who looked at his fellow rabbi and exclaimed 'who does that peasant think he is claiming to be a nothing like us.'
Daniel, who has been portrayed favourably right throughout this book, identifies with this sins of his people. On one hand he sees the corporate nature of guilt (a concept that is alien to our individualistic culture), and on the other hand he knows that he too is personally guilty. He was confessing his sin and the sin of his people (20). Unlike the two rabbis in our story there is a sense in which when we acknowledge that we are sinners we know that no-one stands lower than us.'
Max Lucado says, 'confession is not telling God what we have done, he already knows. Confession is acknowledging to God that what we have done is wrong.' Daniel's prayer acknowledges God's assessment of their actions.
Your God is to small (20-27)
Sixty years ago J. B. Philips wrote a book entitled, 'Your god is too small.' In the second half of this chapter the angel Gabriel tells Daniel that he is thinking of God in terms that are too small.
You see Daniel is pleading with God to forgive the particular sins that lead to the exile and the sins they had committed in exile, but God is going to do something far greater. He is going put an end to all sin, to atone for all of his people's unrighteousness, and to bring everlasting righteousness (24). Daniel is pleading with God to restore Jerusalem, but God is going to do something greater. He is going to bring the anointed one from Jerusalem (25). It is as if Gabriel is saying, 'you are concerned about the seventy years of the exile, but let me tell you of the seventy times seventy years leading to the Messiah.'
Likewise we tend to have too small a view of God. We may come to faith wanting God to forgive certain things we have done in the past, but God not only forgives those particular sins he deals with all of our sin and the wickedness at our very heart. We think in terms of simply being forgiven, but God not only forgives us he adopts us into his family as dearly beloved children. We concern ourselves with finding God's help for life in this world, but God not only helps us now, he is going to cherish us for all eternity. Our view of God is too small!
The last four verses are among the most debated words in the whole of the Bible, so we should hold our opinions with a degree of humility. Are the numbers symbolic (as sevens often are in Scripture) or literal (like the seventy years of exile)? There are many various interpretations.
A friend of mine suggests the following understanding:
The years begin with the decree by Persian King Artaxerxes giving the resources to rebuild Jerusalem in 458 BC (see Ezra 7).
The first week of sevens (forty-nine years) is the time of rebuilding Jerusalem.
The sixty-two sevens (434 years) that follow lead up to the beginning of Jesus' ministry in 26 AD (Jesus was actually born in 4 BC).
The last seven is split in two. The first three and a half years lead to the end of the sanctuary, as the cross makes the system of sacrifices redundant. The second three and a half years is the time when the gospel is offered to the Jews, who reject it, and then it is given to the Gentiles.
Again we are being reminded that our God controls history. He has an exhaustive knowledge of the future. He is working his purposes out. In a way that goes beyond our understanding our prayers and his sovereign purposes work hand in hand.
Does God get his way or do our prayers change reality? Although this question is an either/or question the answer is actually both/and. God always gets his way and our prayers change things. To paraphrase someone else's words, the sovereign God who controls all things has not called us to watch history, but to shape history, through our prayers, for the glory of his great name.
I began by mentioning William Carey. Like Daniel he saw the promises of God as a spur to action. Carey knew that God would bring the gospel to all the nations and he wanted to be a part of God's purposes in his generation. Thankfully he overcame the discouragement given by his fellow Baptist pastors and became a lifetime missionary in India. He is known as the father of modern missions and is famous for the mantra, 'expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.'
One of the greatest ways we can share in the eternal purposes of God is as we pray. His kingdom will come, it will come as we prayers like 'your kingdom come, you will be done, on early as it is in heaven.' As we pray, 'expect great things from God', and through our prayers, our lives and our words 'attempt great things from God.'