The Positive Power of Prayer
February 20, 2000
I suppose that most of us know the final words of James 5:16, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” This oft-quoted promise reminds us that when righteous people call out to God, their prayers actually change things. But we tend to forget the first half of that verse: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” If we ask what kind of prayers are powerful and effective, James might answer that it is those prayers that involve mutual confession and total honesty among believers. Whenever we dare to come clean with God and with each other about our faults, failures, and personal sins, when we stop playing games and cry out for forgiveness, then (and only then) are our prayers truly powerful and effective.
That principle is vitally important to keep in mind as we approach our text. Daniel’s magnificent prayer is actually a long, detailed, passionate confession of the sins of Israel. The only requests come at the very end of the prayer. For the most part, Daniel lays out the sins of the nation in the light of who God is, agrees with God that his judgment is righteous, and then cries out to God to restore the nation to its promised homeland.
In our day such prayers of confession are relatively rare. For the most part we’re quite content to say “forgive us where we have sinned” and then let it go at that. We feel no need to get more specific than that. But Daniel’s prayer reminds us that confession is always appropriate since the Christian life is a life of repentance from beginning to end. Because we are never perfect in this life, and because we continue to sin, we will always need to confess our sins to God.
Sowing and Reaping
When we sin, we are separated from God. Our joy disappears, our sense of God’s presence evaporates, and we live in a gray world of uncertainty and frustration. If we continue to sin, that sense of separation leads to a period of chastening from the Lord where God allows us to go through hard times in order to bring us to our senses. If we do not respond properly to God’s chastening, we spiral downward into despair, regret, anger, and deep-seated bitterness.
I have observed over the years that God’s usual judgment on our sin is to do nothing at all. Most often when we sin God does not need to intervene. He simply lets the natural cycle of cause and effect take its course. When we sin, we suffer the consequences. I believe God lets us fall on our faces in order to bring us to the end of our resources so that having hit bottom, there is nowhere to go but up. He lets us fail so that we will learn that without him we can do nothing. Some of us have to learn that lesson many times because it is the hardest lesson of all. Nothing is more humbling than to realize that without God we are doomed to fail. Left to ourselves we are like sheep who go astray every time.
Daniel 9 records one of the most powerful prayers in the Bible. I urge you to read this entire chapter out loud. Nothing I say can do justice to the power in these ancient words. Read this prayer aloud and you will soon learn how to pray.
The good news in all this is that the prayer of a righteous person can change a life, a home, a marriage, a church, a school, a community, a company, a city, and an entire nation. As Abraham discovered in Genesis 18, only ten righteous men could have saved Sodom. A few righteous men and women who go to their knees can change their world.
I. Where Prayer Begins
The first three verses of Daniel 9 set the scene and tell us why Daniel prayed the way he did. And they also help us understand the kind of prayer that moves heaven and earth. If we want to pray like Daniel, we need to start where he started.
A. Scriptural Insight 1-2 Top of page
We are told that Daniel prayed in the first year of the reign of Darius. That would be approximately 538 BC. Since Daniel was brought to Babylon in 605 BC as a teenager, this would mean he is now over 80 years old, possibly over 85. He is an old man who knows he will not live much longer. Somehow a copy of Jeremiah’s prophecy had come into his possession. As he read Jeremiah he discovered (from Jeremiah 29:10-14) that God promised the captivity in Babylon would last 70 years. Evidently this was the first time he had heard that figure because as he did the math, he realized that if the 70 years started in 605 BC, then by 538 BC the end of the captivity could only be three or four years away.
This enormous scriptural insight forms the foundation for everything in his prayer. Although things looked humanly hopeless and it appeared impossible that the exile would end soon, he now had a firm word from the Lord. And on that basis he begins his prayer to God.
We should do the same. Our prayers never exist in a vacuum. The prayer that touches God’s heart must be rooted in God’s Word. As Luther said, we ought to take God’s promises and fling them back in his face. “Lord, you said you would do this. You made a promise. Now, Lord, do what you said you would do.” Spurgeon noted that “God loves to be believed in.” Well, of course. We all love to be believed in. Why should God be any different? The prayer that changes the world begins and builds on what God has already revealed. When you pray, stand on the promises of God.
B. Serious Purpose 3 Top of page
Evidently Daniel took prayer very seriously. “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Fasting means to be so serious about prayer that you don’t have time to eat. You get so focused on the Lord that food no longer matters. Wearing sackcloth meant putting aside his good clothes and putting on rough burlap, signaling his mourning over the sins of Israel. Sitting in ashes recalls the destruction of Jerusalem and declares his solidarity with his exiled brothers and sisters.
Does prayer make a difference with God? Yes, prayer makes a difference with God when prayer makes a difference with us. If you want your prayers to change things, let them first change you—your habits, your schedule, your priorities, your daily routine, and your inward focus. When that happens, your prayers will be like arrows that hit their target in heaven.
II. How Prayer Proceeds
A. Confession 4-11 Top of page
This section of the prayer needs to be quoted in full in order that we might get the flavor of what Daniel is saying:
O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you (Daniel 9:4-11).
As I read those words, I am struck by how archaic they sound. You don’t hear many prayers like this today, and to be honest, most of us don’t pray like this very often. I suppose to be even more honest, I would have to say that I don’t pray like this very much, which says more about me than it does about Daniel. Nine times he says “we have” or “we are.” Look at the words he uses to describe the sin of Israel: sinned…done wrong…acted wickedly…rebelled…turned away…transgressed…have not listened…refused to obey. Perhaps the strongest statement comes in verse 7: “Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame.” That’s not a Politically Correct statement, is it? After all, we live in a shameless society filled with shameless people who do shameless deeds. The whole idea of “shame” seems to belong to another time and place. We’re not ashamed of anything anymore. We don’t blush because we aren’t embarrassed because we’ve seen it all and heard it all. Even in the church some people dislike the notion of “shame.” That’s Old Testament, they say. In the age of grace, there is no need for shame. Or so we are told. But that is just so much theological flapdoodle. Sin always brings shame and always separates us from God. And when we sin deliberately and repeatedly, we ought to be ashamed. If we are not, it is because we have a seared conscience.
In this prayer Daniel is confessing a pattern of sin. In essence he is saying, “My grandfather sinned. I followed him in his sin. Now my children have sinned and my grandchildren as well.” What happened to Israel took generations to develop. It wasn’t a one-time sin or a moment of weakness but rather a deliberate and repeated disobedience against God. That is why Daniel can be so specific. He names the sins and he uses very strong language.
Today we use other words. We say, “I goofed” or “I blew it” or we talk about “mistakes” and “weaknesses” and we say “I made a boo-boo” or “My bad.” But those terms tend to define sin downward. After all, how bad can a “boo-boo” be? It definitely is not as bad as “acting wickedly.”
He makes no excuses for their sin. Not once does he blame the “dirty Babylonians” or the “miserable Philistines” who led them into sin. None of that. No finger pointing. No “Blame Game,” no self-justification of any kind.
It has been said that the three hardest words to say in the English language are: “I was wrong.” Every husband soon learns how hard it is to say those words. But when all is said and done, no wife likes to say them either. Most of us would rather do anything than to admit we were wrong. Do you remember how much trouble Fonzie had with this issue on the TV series Happy Days? Fonzie was too cool to ever admit he was wrong. Richie Cunningham would say to him, “Go ahead, admit it, you were wrong.” So Fonzie would go, “I was wr-r-r-r-r-r-r-.” And he couldn’t get the word out. So he would end up saying, “I was wr-r-r-r-r-Not right!” But “not right” is not the same thing as “wrong.” If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But if you are “not right,” nobody really knows what you are.
This week I received an e-mail message from a longtime friend who lives in a distant state. After many years of marriage, his wife told him recently that she is thinking about leaving him. The reasons are not easy to explain but my friend admitted that he has problems with intimacy and knowing how to show love and affection. For several months they have been in counseling and the man said that his wife and the counselor figured out his problem long before he did. He then added this sentence: “You know what they say. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” How true. Many people are in trouble spiritually because they are floating down the River of Denial. They would rather live in blissful ignorance than to look in the mirror of reality. But until you are willing to come clean about your problems, you can never get better. The River of Denial flows into the Ocean of Disaster.
After I preached this sermon a friend sent me an e-mail with the word Denial as an acrostic:
And that’s what denial is. It’s lying to yourself about your own behavior. And you can’t get better until you stop lying, stop denying, and start telling the truth.
B. Agreement 12-15 Top of page
Having confessed the sins of the nation, Daniel goes on to declare that they deserved what happened to them. Three times he refers to the “disaster” that befell Israel in being sent into captivity. His whole point is to say, “Lord, you promised you would do this if we sinned. We sinned and you did what you said you would do. We have no complaints against you. We deserved what happened to us.” How refreshing this is when compared to the self-justification that comes so easily to most of us.
Ray Stedman points out that our prayers are often hindered because we like to blame God for our problems. If only things were different, we say. If only we had married someone else. If only the boss wasn’t such a jerk. If only our kids behaved properly. If only we had a nicer house. If only we could get a better job. If only, if only, if only. Do we not understand that in the end, the “if onlys” of life always lead back to God? Because he is sovereign, he is Lord over all the circumstances of life. The buck always stops at his desk. So we secretly think that God has let us down somehow. And if we aren’t careful, our frustration leads to a “root of bitterness” that sucks all the joy out of life and leaves us dreaming of what might have been but never was and probably never will be. We end up unhappy today, miserable tonight, and angry tomorrow. And our prayers bounce off the ceiling and back down to us.
How much better (and healthier!) to say, “Lord, I don’t understand everything that has happened to me, but this I know, everything good I have has come from your grace, and were it not for you, I would have nothing at all.” There are also times when we should say, “I don’t like this but I admit that I had a hand in bringing it about and I fully accept personal responsibility for my own sinful actions.”
C. Petition 16-19 Top of page
In the last few verses of his prayer Daniel asks God to restore the sanctuary (17), the city (18), and the people (19). In essence he is saying, “O Lord, you promised to do it. Now do what you promised.” And I think implicit in the words is the thought: “And do it soon.” You will note also the intensity of his words. Six times in four verses he cries out, “O Lord.” Once he says, “O God” and another time, “O my God.” Verse 19 gives the flavor of this part of the prayer: “O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” It’s worth noting that the petition section comes at the end of the prayer. He doesn’t ask God for anything at all until he has first thoroughly confessed the sins of the people. After all, until the sin that caused the exile in the first place is dealt with, there is no basis for asking God to restore his people.
Taking the prayer as a whole, we discover that everything Daniel says is based upon God’s character:
You are awesome—(4)
You always keep your promises—(4)
You are righteous—(7)
You are a forgiving God—(9)
You have a great name—(15)
You are a merciful God—(18)
In many ways verse 18 is the theme of the whole prayer: “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” What a crucial insight that is. So many times we pray because we secretly think we have “earned” the right by our good behavior to ask God to bless us. Daniel chose the opposite tack. “Lord, we don’t deserve to be heard by you because we have sinned greatly against you. The only reason we come to you is because you are a God of love and grace.” When we approach God with that attitude, we will discover that he welcomes us into his presence and listens graciously to every word we say.
III. Where Prayer Leads
Verses 20-21 tell us that this was an interrupted prayer. While Daniel was praying and confessing his sins and the sins of the nation, he received a visit from the angel Gabriel whom he had met some years earlier. In chapter 8 Gabriel explained to him the vision of the ram and the goat. This time Gabriel comes from God with the news that his prayer has been heard and that an answer is on the way.
This sudden appearance of Gabriel reminds us that time and distance are no problem to God. I suppose most of us think of our prayers as ascending to some distant throne in heaven, which we may imagine to be in some far-off corner of the vast universe. And since (if you stop and think about it) there must be multiplied millions of prayers being offered at any given moment, it’s easy to suppose that your prayers will not receive God’s undivided attention. But Daniel’s experience teaches us otherwise. Because God is God, he can give undivided attention to millions of prayers at the same time. How that can be I cannot say since he is God and I’m not, but it is certainly true nonetheless. If it is true that God knows what we need before we ask him (Matthew 6:8), then it should not surprise us that the answer may be on the way even before we start praying. Isaiah 65:24 gives us this wonderful promise from God: “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”
A. Insight 22 Top of page
Gabriel’s first words are most encouraging: “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding” (Daniel 9:22). True prayer always leads to new insight and deeper understanding. Since prayer in its deepest sense is a kind of “conversation” with God, when we talk with the Lord, we always end up learning things we didn’t know before. Prayer that comes from the heart teaches us things about God, ourselves, and our circumstances that couldn’t come any other way. It is hard to put into words exactly what this means but multitudes of Christians can give a hearty Amen to this truth. When we pray, we enter a realm that goes beyond the physical because we are talking to the God who created everything. What we gain from that is more than knowledge, it is deep insight into who God is and how he works in the world. The best kind of prayer changes us from the inside out as we learn what it means to say from the heart, “Thy will be done.”
B. Encouragement 23 Top of page
The last phrase of verse 23 tells us how God evaluated Daniel the man: “For you are highly esteemed.” Some translations use the word “precious,” others say “greatly loved.” This teaches us that God hears our prayers not because we are good or because we deserve to be heard, but simply because he loves us. Sometimes we may come with the wrong attitude, subconsciously thinking “God has to hear me because I’ve been good this week.” But no mere mortal can ever be good enough to earn a hearing before the great God of the universe. If we are heard at all, it is because we have come in faith standing on the merits of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us. When we enter in his name, we may then “come boldly to the throne of grace” to brings our needs before the Lord.
Let us be clear on this point. It is not by works but only by grace that we are heard when we pray. Because God loved us enough to give his Son to die for us, we are invited to bring our requests before him.
As I stand back and consider this prayer as a whole, two thoughts of application come to mind. First, Daniel’s prayer ought to encourage all of us to pray boldly regarding whatever is on our hearts. God loves it when his children bring their needs to him. When we come in faith, he will not turn us away. Daniel’s prayer was enormous. He was asking for God to end the exile and allow an entire nation to return home. While our prayers may not be as large as that (or they may be if we are praying for whole nations or people groups to come to Christ), if we have the same honesty and the same fervency, and if our prayers are in line with God’s will, we may ask the Lord for whatever is on our hearts, leaving the results with him.
How far can we go?
Second, Daniel’s prayer reminds us that no matter how much we have sinned, there is always the possibility of mercy, grace, and forgiveness from the Lord. Somewhere I read this question: How far can we go in sin before God will no longer forgive us? The answer is, no one knows because no one has ever gone that far. Israel had sinned repeatedly and deliberately for centuries as one generation after another had turned from the Lord. Then came the bitter years of exile when God punished and then purified his rebellious people. But in the end God brought them back to the land, chastened, changed and cured of their love of idolatry.
I am sure that many times during the long years in Babylon, the people wondered if God had forgotten them. Had they sinned so much that they could never return home? Having had so many chances, and having failed so many times, had God finally given up on his covenant people? The answer turned out to be no. God never gives up on his own, not even when his own seem to give up on him. If we are faithless, he is faithful still.
Strange as it may seem, the exile was part of God’s “severe mercy” to Israel. By sending them to Babylon, he was not only punishing them for disobedience, he was also creating in them a new desire to serve the Lord with a whole heart. It was like chemotherapy for the national soul, drastic medicine to cure the cancer of idolatry.
Burning the Sugar Cane
This truth came home to me in an unusual way during our final day on the island of Maui in Hawaii. The island consists of two ancient volcanoes with a flat area in between. For over a hundred years sugar cane has been grown in the verdant fields of the central region. We were driving through those sugar cane fields on our way to the famous road to Hana on the southern tip of Maui, when my wife commented that the first step in harvesting sugar cane is to burn the fields. Now I didn’t know anything about harvesting sugar cane but that didn’t seem right to me. Why would you burn a crop before the harvest? Later I had a chance to do some research and discovered that my wife was entirely correct (as usual). On Maui they begin the harvest by burning the fields with an instrument that looks something like a flamethrower. The flames burn away the leaves, the weeds, and any other trash that may have accumulated, leaving only charred stalks. Those stalks are cut down and taken to the factory where the juice is removed and then distilled into granulated brown sugar and ultimately into processed white sugar. Unless the fields are burned, the harvest cannot take place.
As I thought about it, the Lord impressed upon me that this is a parable of the spiritual life. All of us have things in our lives that hinder the harvest of sweet righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ. We all have the leaves of bad habits, the weeds of stubborn sins, and the trash of accumulated worldly debris that by itself may not be evil but stands in the way of what God wants to do in us. Unless those things are burned away through the fires of adversity, suffering, hardship, and personal setbacks, we will never produce the harvest that God wants to bring in us and through us. Unless our fields are burned, God’s harvest cannot come.
This helps us understand why God sometimes allows his children to go very far in sin. It is not that he doesn’t care or that it doesn’t matter. He does care and it matters greatly to him, but his purposes are often accomplished best by allowing us to face the consequences of our sin, going through the fire of personal failure, and then discovering the joy of the harvest as we return to him, chastened by our experiences and ready to live for the Lord with new zeal, new love, and new determination.
God’s burning is painful but there is no other way to the harvest. Those whom God loves he chastens, not to destroy us but to produce in us a harvest of righteousness that can come no other way.
In the end this truth is very good news because it means there is hope for all of us. The fires of life are rarely pleasant, but they come from the hand of a God who loves us too much to let us go on in rebellion forever. Perhaps the correct response is to say, “Lord, do whatever it takes in my life to bring about the harvest you seek in me.” As we come with that attitude to the Lord, we discover that he is at work even in our hardships, shaping us slowly into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Father, we thank you for the Refiner’s Fire and we thank you for the Potter’s Hand that is slowly shaping us into the image of Christ. Most of all, we are glad that even the worst moments of life fit into your plan for us. Grant us faith to believe when the going is tough. Thank you for loving us more than we know or could ever imagine. Thank you for the promise of a harvest of righteousness that gives us hope for better days to come. Until then, help us to keep believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.