Week of March 10: Daniel's prayer based on hope of God's grace, covenant remaking


Lesson for week of March 10
Scripture:  Daniel 9:4b-14
    What should we do when we feel fearful? Where do we find renewed hope? Daniel prays! Moving from fantastic images and symbolic mysteries in chapters seven and eight, the prophet Daniels prays to God.
    Someone once asked a saint of the ages: “What must I do in order to please God?” The saint replied, “Pay attention to what I tell you  …  always have God before your eyes …” That’s it! Always have God before your eyes. What better way to do that than to consistently pray. I repeat, in chapter nine, Daniel prays to God.
     Timewise, it is the first year of the rule of Darius the Mede after the Persians had defeated the Babylonians. The year is 559 B.C. Darius’ first year as king of Babylon would have coincided with the first year of Cyrus as the great king of the Persian Empire. This was also the year that Cyrus allowed some Judeans to return to their homeland.
     The immediate context of Daniel’s prayer is his reading of scripture! Daniel is reading the letter of Jeremiah and notes his declaration that the exile will last 70 years. This knowledge leads him to turn to God with a prayer of confession. Daniel knows that the end of the exile will not come automatically; it will require confession and repentance.
     To understand Daniel’s prayer in chapter nine, we need to review our understanding of covenant. A covenant is similar to a treaty. Basically, God makes certain promises to his people, and in response they are to obey the law he announces to them. Blessings and curses are integral to the meaning of a covenant. If God’s people obey the laws God gives them, he will bless them with security, fertility and prosperity (Deut. 28:1-14); but if they disobey the law the resulting judgment will be oppression by enemies and exile. From Daniel’s perspective, centuries after the writing of Deuteronomy, Israel suffered for having broken the covenant.
 Covenant Breaker
     As the scholars tell us, the linkage of “fasting and sackcloth and ashes” in verse three with Daniel’s ensuing prayer suggests the prayer’s two main movements: confession of sin and a plan of deliverance.
     Daniel’s prayer of confession of sin repeatedly mourns Israel’s breaking of covenant. Following the ascription of God as the one who keeps covenant and practices steadfast love, Daniel abruptly moves to Israel’s terrible breaches of covenant. According to Daniel, Israel has broken the covenant in no less than five ways: “Israel has sinned,” “done wrong,” “acted wickedly,” “rebelled” and “turned aside.” As Paul expressed it later in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:23) It was true of Israel and it is true of us.
     A good question here is, “In what ways have we as individuals and as a nation sinned against God?”
 Deserving Punishment
     In the next part of his prayer (verses 11-14), Daniel connects the sin of the people and their present suffering. Because of the Law of Moses and the prophets, God’s people are without excuse. They knew or should have known that if they disobeyed God’s instructions they would reap the consequences. Perhaps they misfigured because of God’s long suffering patience with them. That is always a danger even with us. At any rate, these Hebrews are in exile because of their rebellion against the covenant that God had made with them through Moses.
     Note that Daniel’s prayer makes clear that he believes that actions carry consequences. According to Daniel, the crisis of exile and the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes represent acts of God to human sinfulness. “So the Lord oversaw the great trouble and brought it on us…” (Daniel 9:14).
     But does this tell the whole story? Does human suffering always result from cause and effect rationales? Not according to Jesus! Several times Jesus challenged attitudes of his day that attributed illness or disaster to personal responsibility.
     For instance, the Gospel of Luke tells about some people who come to Jesus after Pilate had apparently killed some Galileans while they were offering sacrifices to God. “Did this mean that the Galileans were great sinners?” asked the people. “No,” said Jesus.
     Then there is Jesus’ comment in Matthew 5:45 where he says, “He (your Father) makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”
     The point is that life is more complex than simply cause and effect thought or theology. Therefore, Daniel’s conviction of God’s punishment of the children of Israel and our lack of understanding of God’s mysterious workings in the world, and even in our lives, must always be held together in a kind of tension.
     Have the class discuss other sources from which our suffering may come.
 Covenant Hope
     In verses 15 and 16, Daniels contrasts the disgrace that has befallen Jerusalem and God’s people with God’s previous action in deliverance that “made God’s name known.” Daniel is now calling on God as the One who delivered his people out of Egypt. As you recall, the Exodus was the signal event in the life of God’s people, defining them as a nation. It was through the Exodus that God freed his people from slavery and brought them into the Promised Land. Daniel sees the return from Exile as sort of a second Exodus.
     At this point, we need to focus on where Daniel’s prayer begins and ends. In verse four, Daniel begins his prayer by addressing God as “the One who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” “Steadfast love,” according to scholars, translates a Hebrew word hesed which in other places means “mercy or loving kindness.” If the covenant is to be restored it will have to rely on God who is urged to covenant-keeping hesed.
     Though the plea for God’s mercy follows the confession and rightly so, it is incorrect to say that the confession alone is the basis for God’s restoration. Daniel knew that people still sin and if there is any real hope for them, it is in God’s righteousness and not their own (9:18). Consequently, Daniel’s prayer is ultimately based on the hope of God’s grace and covenant-remaking.
 Take Action
      Recall that Daniels’ prayer focused on confession. Urge the class to write their own prayer of confession for themselves and their community of faith.