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Daniel's Beautiful Prayer of Confession -- a study of Daniel 9

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

God always meets our earnest confession with forgiveness.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Daniel 9

When Daniel read Jeremiah's prophecy about the 70 years, he realized it would be soon, and so he prayed earnestly to God that the Jews had truly confessed the sins that put them in exile in the first place so that God would indeed let them go home to Jerusalem. It's a beautiful, powerful prayer of confession and trust and a model of boldness.

Lord, hear! Lord, forgive! Lord, listen and act! (9:19)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

"Things I Prayed For"

When I was trying to nail down my idea for an opening discussion, I remembered this extremely obscure 1998 song by an artist named Eli (someone in my Bible study of twentysomethings -- the Bible study where I met Shelly, incidentally -- said "you have to listen to this album") called "Things I Prayed For". In it, he had a verse about things he prayed for when he was a child, and compared them to how he prayed when he was a teen, and then in his twenties. (He was in his twenties -- that was the last verse. Wow, I feel old.)


So, let's do that! No, not write a song (but bonus points if you do). What do you pray for today, and how does that compare with how you prayed 10 years ago, 20 years ago?


I found that to be a pretty self-revealing exercise, and it immediately led me to the follow-up question we should all have: What should I be praying for?


I think it would be worth a few minutes of group time to come up with a list of "things I should pray for". (There are no shortages of suggestions available on the internet, if you want to do some prep:

That last one is from John Piper, a list of what people prayed for in the New Testament. Bizarre observation: I think all of those sites use the same advertising service.)


When you get done with that list, my guess is that you will react with -- "Uh oh, I don't pray for all of those things regularly!"


So, what's your plan to fix it?


Well, all of the great pray-ers I know have some things in common. (Btw, never call someone a "great pray-er" -- it's extremely awkward for them. Just think it in your head and try to pick up their habits.)

  • They keep a prayer schedule.

  • They keep a prayer journal.

Someone in your group probably does this and can explain to you how it works. It's not complicated. Prayer is a discipline; you have to do it regularly. And like any other discipline, you should "track your progress" (not just what you are praying for and when, but how God has responded to past prayers). This article on Lifeway.com gave a simple overview of how prayer is a discipline:

  • Pray persistently

  • Pray passionately

  • Pray with thanksgiving

  • Pray for others

It takes effort on our part. If, when you get to the end of this discussion, you don't think your prayer life is where it should be, then take the steps to change.


The transition is simple -- "Today, we're going to look at one of the most inspiring prayers recorded in the Bible. How will our list compare with the things we read in Daniel's prayer?"

 

This Week's Big Idea: What Do Americans Pray For?

And of course, that opening topic led me to the next logical question -- what do people actually pray for? I found a Barna survey on this from 2017. I know that's not current, but it gives us some talking points.


(This topic may not come up in your Bible study at all!)


They start by noting that the vast majority of "praying Americans" usually do so silently by themselves.


Then they list the things that praying Americans usually pray for. I found this list super-interesting. (In case you can't read the graphic, the top four are (1) gratitude, (2) needs of family and community, (3) guidance, (4) health.)


They call attention to this statistic, which I find very important:

The generation most willing to cover prayer requests from others are Elders (47%), who are almost twice as likely to do so than Millennials (27%).

And they drop some other statistics, like for example that conservatives and more likely than liberals to pray for the government:

But liberals are more likely than conservatives to pray about injustice:

(Note: both of those statistics are too small. Christians should be praying for both. Regularly.)


A final chart isn't really connected with our lesson but is very interesting:


As we study Daniel's prayer, let's learn the what and how of it and let it challenge us to enhance our prayer life.

 

Where We Are in Daniel

Last week, I tried to cover all of Daniel's visions from chapters 7-12

In this middle of those visions is this prayer. Daniel 9 starts with these verses:

In the first year of Darius, the son of Ahasuerus, a Mede by birth, who was made king over the Chaldean kingdom—2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the books according to the word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah that the number of years for the desolation of Jerusalem would be seventy. 3 So I turned my attention to the Lord God to seek him by prayer and petitions, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. (9:1-3)

Hoo doggity. This again. Darius the Mede, the "son of Ahasuerus" (the Hebrew spelling of the name "Xerxes"). I don't want to go through this again. Please accept that I believe "Darius" is a reference to Gubaru, the Median governor installed by King Cyrus ("Darius" means "king"). Ahasuerus/Xerxes was a common name in that part of the world. (The most famous Xerxes was "Xerxes the Great" of Esther fame (and "300"), the son of Darius the Great, the king that Bible skeptics think the author of the book of Daniel mistakenly claimed to be the first Persian king over Babylon.)


The "first year of Darius" was the first year that Cyrus ruled over Babylon -- 539 BC. Something else happened that year -- something very closely connected with our passage (*spoiler alert*):

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus to issue a proclamation throughout his entire kingdom ... “The Lord, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah." (Ezra 1)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Daniel had obtained a copy of Jeremiah's prophecies. In them, he found this:

8 “Therefore, this is what the Lord of Armies says: ‘Because you have not obeyed my words, 9 I am going to send for all the families of the north’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘and send for my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and I will bring them against this land, against its residents, and against all these surrounding nations, ... 11 This whole land will become a desolate ruin, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years. 12 When the seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, and I will make it a ruin forever.’” (Jer 25:8-12)

Jeremiah said he received that prophecy in 605 BC, the year that Nebuchadnezzar first conquered Jerusalem (Jer. 25:1). God's point was that due to Israel's repeated rebellion and sin, God was going to punish them with exile.


(Don't miss how cool it is that one prophet is reading another prophet.)


What caught Daniel's attention with the promise of a time limit for the exile. He knew (because he was there) that the exile began roughly 605 BC when Jeremiah received that prophecy. Daniel is writing this chapter somewhere around 539/538 BC. That's getting really close to 70 years. And Daniel wants to know -- "is it close enough?"


(By the way, an Aside on the length of the exile: we know these dates now -- 605 BC to 538 BC. Technically, that's 67-68 years, not 70. I've always assumed that this was a round number with theological significance (7 being a divine number in prophecy). But you will read other explanations for it:

  • "70" represents a lifetime. By "70", God simply meant that no one who went into exile would come out of it. Daniel, for example, was too old to return (he was probably close to 90!).

  • The seventy years refer to things other than the dates above (maybe even a different set of events altogether).

  • This was a subtle way that God demonstrated His mercy and love for His people. He said He would take 70 years, but in love, He ended their exile early.)


Our passage is followed by the famous prophecy of the 70 weeks, which I will address at the very end of this post. Don't spend your group time on the 70 weeks! Spend it on Daniel's prayer!

 

Part 1: Confession Made (Daniel 9:4-6)

4 I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: Ah, Lord—the great and awe-inspiring God who keeps his gracious covenant with those who love him and keep his commands— 5 we have sinned, done wrong, acted wickedly, rebelled, and turned away from your commands and ordinances. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, leaders, ancestors, and all the people of the land.

First, note the situation. Daniel has prepared for this prayer with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. He is pouring his heart into this prayer. An initial talking point: our preparation affects our prayer. How do you prepare to pray, and how do you think you could do that "better"?


Daniel is not just jumping into this confession out of the blue. See what Daniel had just read in Jeremiah 25:

4 The Lord sent all his servants the prophets to you time and time again, but you have not obeyed or even paid attention. 5 He announced, ‘Turn, each of you, from your evil way of life and from your evil deeds. Live in the land the Lord gave to you and your ancestors long ago and forever. 6 Do not follow other gods to serve them and to bow in worship to them, and do not anger me by the work of your hands. Then I will do you no harm."

In other words, even God's prophets pray using the words of Scripture!


Let me point out how this prayer (and others in the Bible) follow a similar structure, one we've talked about when we have studied prayer in the past:

ACTS stands for

  • A—Adoration

  • C—Confession

  • T—Thanksgiving

  • S—Supplication

This outline can help you understand the "meat" of the prayer:

  1. What is Daniel saying about God?

  2. What is Daniel confessing about himself?

  3. What is Daniel asking God to do?

Answer those questions, and you will have a good grasp on this prayer.


(Another observation I want you to keep in mind: Daniel repeatedly mixes in adoration and confession throughout this prayer. Why do you think he did that? Do you think it would be a good idea to focus on adoration and confession in your own prayers?)


Verse 4 is a beautiful way to speak to God. Why do you think Daniel says those specific things about God? What might Daniel be foreshadowing?


Daniel leans on two names for God -- Adonai (sovereign Lord) and Yahweh (God of the covenant). (If you have time, you can identify ways Daniel taps into God's covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David in this prayer.)


Let me clarify one thing about the context that might help you follow this prayer. Daniel has just discovered Jeremiah's prophecy about the 70 years. He is wondering two things to himself --

  1. Is the 70 years almost up?

  2. Have the Jews lived up to their end of the deal?

Remember -- the last time God led His people into the Promised Land, they angered Him so much that He gave them 40 more years in the wilderness. I think Daniel is seriously worried that the Jews in exile haven't properly repented and confessed. (They have -- while this new generation wasn't perfect, you can read in Ezra and Nehemiah that they didn't want to repeat the sins of the past.) In other words, "God, if You're at all on the fence about this 70 years thing, please have mercy and release us."


Daniel's confession is real.


I'm sure someone in your group will point out something like "this sounds just like Christians in America today". And I think that can help you shape your group prayer! Just please don't let your group say generalizations like "America has turned from God". Most Americans are not Christians! Of course they have turned from God! Rather, focus on Christians in America -- even Christians just in our area.

  • Are we loving God?

  • Are we keeping God's commands?

  • Are we sinning and doing wrong?

  • Are we listening to God's Word and those who share it with us?

Write down the observations your group makes. At the end of your time together, I hope you will spend time as a group praying everything you have observed!

 

Part 2: Righteousness Seen (Daniel 9:7-14)

7 Lord, righteousness belongs to you, but this day public shame belongs to us: the men of Judah, the residents of Jerusalem, and all Israel—those who are near and those who are far, in all the countries where you have banished them because of the disloyalty they have shown toward you. 8 Lord, public shame belongs to us, our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you. 9 Compassion and forgiveness belong to the Lord our God, though we have rebelled against him 10 and have not obeyed the Lord our God by following his instructions that he set before us through his servants the prophets.
11 All Israel has broken your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. The promised curse written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, has been poured out on us because we have sinned against him. 12 He has carried out his words that he spoke against us and against our rulers by bringing on us a disaster that is so great that nothing like what has been done to Jerusalem has ever been done under all of heaven. 13 Just as it is written in the law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our iniquities and paying attention to your truth. 14 So the Lord kept the disaster in mind and brought it on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all he has done. But we have not obeyed him.

Daniel doubles down on this confession.


Let's put this in people terms: what are the hardest things for you to confess to another person? To me, it's when I've broken someone's trust (either going behind someone's back or sharing a secret). (In fact, I'm so mortified by that scenario that it's its own deterrent!)


A lot of people also seem to have a problem with the "you were right and I was wrong" confession (although for a very different reason -- pride).


Well, Daniel is just doing all of the confessions. All of it. I particularly love the juxtaposition of Israel and God in this prayer -- it makes Israel's sin and failure so much more obvious when compared with God's righteousness and love.


It might be helpful to remember that Jews had been exiled to many places, not just Babylon.

And furthermore, the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 sparked what is often called "The Diaspora of the Jews" throughout the Mediterranean basin (which is how the early Christians found synagogues everywhere they went in the Roman Empire).

When Daniel prayed this, God's people were scattered far and wide. And they deserved it. Daniel was at no point arguing that God's people had suffered enough or that God was being too harsh. No! Shame belongs to God's people. But compassion and forgiveness belong to God. If the Jew's punishment were to end, it would not be because they had "earned it" but because God loved them.


"Compassion" and "forgiveness" are power-packed words:

  • Compassion means "to enter sympathetically into one's sorrow and pain". It translates at least five different Hebrew words which have a range of meaning from "to pity" to describing a mother's emotion for her child.

  • Forgiveness means "to pardon for an offense" or "to excuse from payment for a debt owed". It primarily translates two Hebrew words which mean "to take away sin" and "to pardon".

One of Israel's greatest failures was presuming that God was obligated to give her grace despite her injustice or idolatry. God's compassion did in fact mean that He would never stop loving His people, but that did not mean that He would fail to hold them accountable for their sin.


My "Holman Bible Dictionary" includes this very helpful statement under "forgiveness": "The idea that God's business is to forgive and thus forgiveness is secured by any and all who ask, regardless of intent, has no biblical ground. God established the sacrificial system for the dissolution of ritual impurity and the forgiveness of moral impurities. Yet for the 'person who does anything defiantly' there is no forgiveness of sin via sacrifice (Num 15:30-36)." In other words, forgiveness expects repentance and a changed perspective about one's self. Jesus puts that this way: "Matt 5:15 But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses."


Israel had ceased to be repentant about her sin, so God brought judgment against her.


All of this to say -- Daniel was acknowledging that God was right and Israel was wrong.


So, let's build on the previous section's discussion. We've asked "how we're doing" with respect to God's Word. Now, let's build a prayer of confession out of that.

  • What sins do we see among Christians around us?

  • What unrighteousness do we see around us?

  • What rebellion against God happens around us?

  • What role do we personally play in that?

I think of Daniel as a pretty righteous fellow. To me, he's right there with Joshua and Joseph. But he clearly and completely puts himself in the camp of his fellow Jews. And that's exactly what we should do! Once we start praying like "God, I'm not as bad as these loser Christians around me ..." then we have become exactly what the Israelites had become: people who presume that God is obligated to forgive us (because we're "not that bad").


So if Daniel can put himself in such a powerful prayer of confession, then so should we. What confessions do we need to make?

 

Part 3: Forgiveness Sought (Daniel 9:15-19)

15 Now, Lord our God—who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a strong hand and made your name renowned as it is this day—we have sinned, we have acted wickedly. 16 Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, may your anger and wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors, Jerusalem and your people have become an object of ridicule to all those around us.
17 Therefore, our God, hear the prayer and the petitions of your servant. Make your face shine on your desolate sanctuary for the Lord’s sake. 18 Listen closely, my God, and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations and the city that bears your name. For we are not presenting our petitions before you based on our righteous acts, but based on your abundant compassion. 19 Lord, hear! Lord, forgive! Lord, listen and act! My God, for your own sake, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your name.

I'm going to put verses 17-19 on par with the most powerful ever written by a human.


This is the [S]upplication part of the prayer -- Daniel is asking not just for forgiveness but also that God would release His people from exile. The way to relieve the shame of the people is to allow them to rebuild their city, their temple, and begin to serve God as God intended. Remember that Daniel isn't exactly sure when the exile will be ended; he believes that it will happen soon (based on his reading of Jeremiah), but he isn't certain. This is his earnest plea for God to end the exile.


Anything I say about these verses doesn't do them justice.


One thing I should point out is that Daniel isn't "commanding" God to forgive them. Rather, he's using the formula that Solomon used centuries before:

44 When your people go out to fight against their enemies, wherever you send them, and they pray to the Lord in the direction of the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your name, 45 may you hear their prayer and petition in heaven and uphold their cause.
46 When they sin against you— for there is no one who does not sin— and you are angry with them and hand them over to the enemy, and their captors deport them to the enemy’s country— whether distant or nearby— 47 and when they come to their senses in the land where they were deported and repent and petition you in their captors’ land: “We have sinned and done wrong; we have been wicked,” 48 and when they return to you with all their heart and all their soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and when they pray to you in the direction of their land that you gave their ancestors, the city you have chosen, and the temple I have built for your name, 49 may you hear in heaven, your dwelling place, their prayer and petition and uphold their cause.
50 May you forgive your people who sinned against you and all their rebellions against you, and may you grant them compassion before their captors, so that they may treat them compassionately. 51 For they are your people and your inheritance; you brought them out of Egypt, out of the middle of an iron furnace. 52 May your eyes be open to your servant’s petition and to the petition of your people Israel, listening to them whenever they call to you. 53 For you, Lord God, have set them apart as your inheritance from all peoples of the earth, as you spoke through your servant Moses when you brought our ancestors out of Egypt. 1 Kings 8:44-53

God told Solomon that He heard his prayer (1 Ki 9:3), and indeed God did everything in these verses that Solomon asked. "Hear ... and forgive" is simply the formula established in this prayer. "The conditions have been met; now we ask You to remember what You said You would do." This formula can be found throughout the Old Testament (see especially 2 Chr 7:14).


I believe Jesus pointed us to this formula in the strange Parable of the Persistent Widow (and the unrighteous judge; Luke 18). Go boldly to God and ask Him for the things He said He would do! In Daniel's case, God did say He would hear and forgive.


Our phrase today is "Pray in Jesus' Name". It's not a magic formula, any more than "hear and forgive" is magic. It means to pray according to the will of God. Daniel knew that God had heard Solomon's prayer, so he was simply echoing a prayer he knew God approved.


So let's tie everything together.

  1. How should we pray? What steps do each one of us need to take (as an individual) to help us take our prayers as seriously as possible (in this passage, Daniel prepared with fasting and sackcloth and ashes; I'm sure he didn't do that every time he prayed)?

  2. What should we pray for? Think about everything you've talked about with the group -- you probably can't pray for all of it every time you pray, but you can come up with a plan to pray for all of these matters intentionally and systematically.

  3. Get your heart in the right place. Daniel prayed for something truly momentous -- the return of his people from exile -- but he was not selfish or self-serving; his prayer was related to God's glory and God's compassion for His people.


What do we need to be praying for right now at the end of the group time?


I imagine (and hope) that you'll hear some "Come quickly, Lord Jesus!" And amen to that! But until He comes, what do we need to be about?


Work that out as a group, and then spend some meaningful time together praying those very things.

 

Closing Thoughts: Daniel's Seventy Sevens

I mentioned that part of Daniel's motivation was to know when God would release His people from exile. Well, while Daniel was praying, God dispatched the angel Gabriel to Daniel to give him more of an answer than he was expecting.

24 "Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city— to bring the rebellion to an end, to put a stop to sin, to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy place. 25 Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until an Anointed One, the ruler, will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. It will be rebuilt with a plaza and a moat, but in difficult times. 26 After those sixty-two weeks the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the coming ruler will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come with a flood, and until the end there will be war; desolations are decreed. 27 He will make a firm covenant with many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and offering. And the abomination of desolation will be on a wing of the temple until the decreed destruction is poured out on the desolator.”

I'm hoping by including these verses here that it will be obvious why I don't think you should spend any Sunday morning time debating these verses. They have been the object of debate since Americans became fascinated with end-times prophecy, and there is no consensus what they mean. Anyone who says otherwise is incorrect.


There is one thing most scholars agree on: God's point is that the "end of the exile" that Daniel is wondering about is actually the beginning of something bigger and more important.


Many scholars believe that "sevens" refers to "seven years", and so the "seventy sevens" is 490 years, which is tantalizingly close to the amount of time between Daniel's vision (539 BC) and the birth of Jesus. This has led to quite a bit of mathematical gymnastics. Here are some charts you can find online with different interpretations:

As with last week, I'm not including these to say that I agree with any of them. I'm simply trying to demonstrate that people can make these numbers say whatever they want them to say. Put some arrows and some hashmarks in place, and you can look like you know what you're talking about!

Part of the challenge to this prophecy is that we cannot say for certain what the six achievements are that will mark the end of the seventieth week (v. 24). Consequently, there's no way we can agree on how to know if they have ended yet or not!


I'm going to disappoint you and say that I don't know what these verses mean. It sure seems likely that the reference in v. 26 is to Christ's crucifixion, and later to the destruction of Jerusalem (which happen decades apart). But what is the "one week"? Many people say it is the seven-year Great Tribulation of Revelation 7:14 -- but Revelation never says how long the Tribulation will last! That's interpolated from Daniel 9:27 (Revelation says that the beast will have authority for 42 months, Rev 13:5; and the number "seven" is clearly significant in Revelation). (If you didn't realize that, that might be hard to accept.)


I'm fine with the common evangelical belief that the Great Tribulation will be seven years, and that it fulfills the seventieth week of Daniel 9:27 -- but the Bible does not say that. And I think that's very intentional. The Bible treats future-prophecy like Jesus did (which really kinda makes sense) -- it's to give us enough of what is going on for us to trust that God has things well under control. If God were giving us a day-by-day agenda for the end times, then we would have less need for day-by-day faith.


We aren't supposed to know the details. We don't need to know the details. We just need to know that God has a plan for the end of human history, and things will follow it. And we need to trust that His plan is for the best.

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