Prayer in the Old Testament
The subject of prayer is important because it is a vital part of the Christian’s life. Consistent with this basic truth is the abundance of material on prayer in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In this article I am going to focus on one prayer as an example of prayer in the Old Testament. It is the prayer of Daniel found in Daniel 9:1–19 and it is an inspiring example of a prayer on the part of a man who lived most of his life in exile while also living in anticipation of God’s deliverance.
Contextually, Daniel 9 is a remarkable chapter of the word of God. It is Remarkable because it contains one of the greatest intercessory prayers found anywhere in the Bible (9:4–19), and at the same time, it contains one of the most mysterious sections of prophecy as well (9:20–27). This means that in this chapter we have a delicate balance between the known and the unknown, the accessible and things that remain mysterious to this day.
One thing that makes Daniel’s prayer so remarkable is Daniel himself.
Although he is a man like us (cf. James 5:17), he is a special man in the Bible. Although he was a captive in the land of Babylon from the time of his youth, he never forgot who he was, where he was from, and whom he belonged to. Daniel was never compromised and seduced by the charms of Babylon. All the days of his captivity he longed for the end of the exile and the restoration of the city of Jerusalem with its temple. This is all the more remarkable when we consider the length of his captivity and the privileges of high office that he enjoyed in a pagan city like Babylon.
If ever there was a chapter in the Bible where you can get bogged down in prophetic speculation, this is it. The last part of the chapter, Daniel 9:20–27, has spawned a multitude of theories and explanations down through the years. In fact, the ESV Study Bible lists four different major interpretive approaches to the seventy weeks of Daniel’s prophecy, a telling reminder that there are divergent interpretations of the passage. This indicates that God does not intend us to figure out all the details, nor is it important that we do so, rather He wants us to grasp the bigger picture that leads us to Christ and has implications for our lives (Cf. 1 Cor. 10:11–13).
The book of Daniel begins by telling us how Daniel, along with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were carried off as young men to Babylon and how they stood strong in the place of their captivity by “staying hungry” for God. They did this by refusing to defile themselves with the luxuries of the king’s court and table. They did not want the affluence of Babylon to turn their hearts from God. We do this today when we keep God and His will central in our lives. Like Daniel and his friends, we are called to live God-centered lives in the middle of a man-centered world and in that way avoid being defiled by it.
This theme of standing alone and apart from the crowd reoccurs in chapter 9, only this time with more detail added. In chapter 9 we get a remarkable look at the man Daniel. We are told, “In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:1–3).
We should note that even at this stage in his life, when Daniel was well past eighty years of age, he is a busy man who is involved in the life and politics of Babylon. He obviously enjoyed good health and he is fully engaged with what is going on around him. But at the same time he is also a lifelong student of the Hebrew scriptures and in this passage we find that he has been reading and meditating on Jeremiah 25:11–12 and 29:10. These prophetic verses declare that as terrible as the desolation of Jerusalem would be, its duration is limited to seventy years. Aware of the divine word regarding the exile, Daniel understands that the seventy years are drawing to a close and therefore it is time for God to bring an end to Jerusalem’s desolation and the exile of the people. What makes Daniel special in this regard is that his realization of God’s stated purpose moves him to pray.
To put it another way, Daniel prays because he understands the relationship between “means and ends” in God’s economy. He is not passively waiting for God to act, nor does he think that because God is sovereign and has promised to bring the exile to an end that it does not matter whether or not he prays. It is just the opposite. When Daniel understands from the Scriptures that the time of the exile is drawing to a close, he starts to plead, pray, and petition God. Daniel is a man of spiritual understanding and of prayer. Given these things it is not surprising that Daniel is fervently committed to God. He is not a man of half-measures. He is devoted to the God of Israel.
Even before Daniel starts praying, we can learn many things from him about prayer. It is not enough to remain undefiled from the world; we must stay involved as believers and look at life in light of the Scriptures. Today, the Bible is not shaping the lives of those who attend church the way it did in the recent past, even as little as twenty-five years ago. In addition to a growing ignorance of biblical content there is a measurable disconnect with what the Bible teaches on an array of subjects. We must continue to read and study the word of God and interact with those who challenge us when it comes to applying the word to our lives. And we must pray and work in light of the promises of God revealed in the scriptures.
In terms of prayer, we must avoid any kind of “hyper-Calvinism.” While it is not absolutely true that “God helps those who help themselves,” there is an element of truth in it. God has ordained means: we must plant, cultivate, and pray, and then by God’s grace reap a harvest. The world and the people of the world are not sitting idle. They are always evaluating and re-evaluating their strategies. We need to make sure that we are doing what we can—and then leave the results to God!
This brings us to Daniel’s prayer as recorded in 9:4–10. It is one of the great prayers in the Bible and rightfully deserves a place alongside Solomon’s prayer of dedication in 1 Kings 8:22–61, Jesus’ so-called High Priestly prayer in John 17, and the prayers of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1 and 3.
The first thing we should observe is the thoroughly God-centred nature of Daniel’s prayer. Notice how many times the word “LORD” is used in the chapter and particularly in the prayer. “LORD” translates the Hebrew word YHWH, which is the covenant name for God. It is not found in any other chapter of Daniel, but seven times in chapter 9 (verses 2, 4, 10, 13, 14 [twice], and 20). This teaches us that Daniel is praying to the Lord God who is sovereign over all of life and he is praying as someone who is in a covenant relationship with God.
Generally speaking in the Bible, a covenant is an agreement between equals, or between a king and his people. This particular covenant is of the latter variety. God’s covenant with His people Israel was established at Mount Sinai after God rescued them from Egypt. It was a covenant that promised blessings if there was obedience, and judgment if there was not. Because of this, Daniel realizes that the covenant is both a blessing and a curse for the people. It was a blessing that granted them many privileges as His people, and a curse that brought His judgment if they sinned against Him. Entering into a covenant with a righteous God is a serious thing, and the nation of Israel is proof of this twofold reality. The same is true today for Christians as the new covenant people of God: with privileges come responsibilities, and we are held to a higher standard.
The righteousness of God means that He is committed to the glory of His own name. Israel had dragged the name of God through the mud by their repeated sins in spite of God’s grace. Daniel understands the seriousness of this and steps forward and takes on the role of a mediator and pleads for forgiveness. He acknowledges Israel’s sin. In fact, he speaks of it as if it were his own. He also acknowledges God’s righteousness in all He does. What has happened to Israel is hardly a surprise! They had been warned over and over again that judgment would fall if they did not repent and walk in obedience to the Lord.
Too often today we focus on secondary matters. We fail to see that our biggest problem is that we are not as devoted to the Lord as we should be. We think that we can sin without repercussions. We worry about what others will think when our primary concern should be God and His word and His opinion of our lives and conduct. Prayer must begin with God and must always be mindful of His perspective on the world, its peoples, the past, the present, and the future.
The second thing we should notice is the way Daniel grapples with the profound and important dilemma that is caused by the fact that God is righteous. On the one hand, God’s righteousness is seen in that He is judging Israel for their sins. He is committed to His word and this is the ultimate reason for their exile. But on the other hand, Daniel seems to be pleading God’s righteousness as a way of reversing the exile and finding a way forward. How can this be? What can be done for Israel given God’s righteousness and their sinfulness? Humanly speaking the situation would appear hopeless, but Daniel 9 tells us that it is not, and this is ironically seen by the way Daniel pleads the righteousness of God as a solution to the problem!
To understand what is going on we must observe that Daniel never prays that God will cease to be righteous, rather he pleads his righteousness. As Sinclair Ferguson puts it, “God’s righteousness is now Israel’s only hope”. The only hope for Israel is that God—in grace and mercy—will keep his word to honour and magnify His holy name. And when you stop and think about it, this is the sinners only hope in any generation. We need to listen to Daniel as he pleads with God: “Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favour on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous. But because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”
The third thing we should notice about the prayer is what it reveals about Daniel’s theological thoughtfulness, fervency, passion, persistence, and willingness to cast himself without reservation on the grace and mercy of God. This is what makes the prayer exemplary at any point in redemptive history and why it is so eloquent even today. We cannot pray as we should if we do not know who we are as His creatures; whom we are praying to, and what He requires of us. Prayer must be based on the great verities of God and must move forward based on a knowledge of His promises and the salvation that He has revealed in His Messiah. This kind of prayer will be fervent and full of passion because it is more than just a ritual activity, it is full of life and power because it apprehends by faith what God is doing in the world and it looks forward to a new world to come.
Daniel’s earnest persistence in prayer is based on his faith in the righteous God Who cannot lie. He is convinced that God will be true to His covenant word and he pleads accordingly. He not only serves the Lord throughout his lifetime in Babylon, but he prays in anticipation of the promised deliverance. He understands that the only hope of the nation is found in the grace and mercy of God—and that this is his only hope as well. It is no wonder, then, that this prayer spoken so many years ago still throbs with life and stirs the emotion for the believer who reads it. Daniel’s prayer needs to be read and re-read because it is an Old Testament paradigm when it comes to grappling with God amid the complexities of life and looking for a better day when God fulfills His word to those who bear His name.
Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to observe that Daniel was not disappointed. Not only did God answer his prayer and bring the exile to a close and Israel back to their land, but He sent the angel Gabriel to Daniel while he was speaking and praying, confessing his sin and the sin of his people Israel with the most astounding message. In the days to come, God tells Daniel, He is going to do more than He has been asked. There would come a day when He would finish transgression, put an end to sin, atone for wickedness, bring in everlasting righteousness, seal up vision and prophecy, and anoint the Most Holy Place (9:24). The ultimate answer to Daniel’s prayer and the dilemma caused by God’s righteousness is found in the Lord Jesus Christ, His life, death, resurrection, and ascension on high.
Kirk Wellum is principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College
1 Sinclair B. Ferguson, "Daniel" in New Bible Commentary, edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 759.