Prayer may well be the greatest need of the Church today. We often pine for revivals and great moves of the Holy Spirit where souls are saved and the sick healed, but those things won’t happen without prayer. Like never before, we need prayer.
The problem is, a lot of Christians engage in what they think is prayer, but their needs continue to go unmet, their spiritual lives are anaemic, and their testimony for Christ invisible. It’s not necessarily because they are bad Christians or unfaithful to the Lord in any way. If these folks understood what real prayer was, their experience would be completely different. To help us all grasp the essentials of prayer, we turn to Daniel because he was a man who knew how to pray.
When most of us think of Daniel, we think of his powerful and far-reaching prophecies of the end times. Daniel was undeniably a great prophet, but before he became that, he was a man of prayer.
Daniel 9 is one of the most significant chapters of the Bible, containing one of only a handful of prophecies that sheds light on the future of the God’s people in relation to the nations of this world. But, it is also a chapter of prayer; in fact, the first 17 verses of Daniel 9 contain his prayer.
1. The scene of the prayer
Before we look at the content of Daniel’s prayer, we need to look at the circumstances surrounding it.
We learn some important details from the first two verses:
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.
First, we learn that Daniel wrote chapter nine sometime in 538 BC. Daniel’s people, the Jews, were nearing the end of their Babylonian captivity. Two years after Daniel wrote these words, in 536 BC, King Cyrus would issue a decree allowing the Jews to return home. Rarely in Scripture do we read one Biblical writer citing another, but Daniel did just that, citing something the prophet Jeremiah had written decades earlier. So, right away we know that Daniel was not just a prophet but he was also a student of the Word of God. What struck Daniel about Jeremiah’s prophecy were these verses:
This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. (Jeremiah 25:11)
This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jeremiah 29:10)
God had given Jeremiah details about the Babylonian Captivity before it occurred, and Daniel, reading what Jeremiah wrote, deduced the end of the Captivity was near. So, he went to God in prayer.
Daniel’s attitude about what Jeremiah had written stands a lesson to all believers. Daniel believed what Jeremiah had written; he took the words of Jeremiah’s prophecy literally. He did not do what so many Christians do today; he did not spiritualize Jeremiah’s words or twist them or give them strange, mystical meanings. Daniel read what Jeremiah had written and believed what he had written without thinking there were other meanings to it. As far as Daniel was concerned, when God, through Jeremiah, said the Jewish Babylonian Captivity would last 70 years, he believed the Captivity would last 70 years!
Not only did Daniel take the Word of God seriously and literally and at face value, it was the Word that moved Daniel to pray. Daniel studied the Word of God and it was while he was studying the Word of God that he felt the need to pray. How often does that happen to us? How do we treat the Word of God? Is it just an interesting book full of helpful stories? Do we discount it? Do we make fun of it? Do we ignore it? Far too many believers have such a low opinion of Scriptures that those Scriptures seldom influence how they live and never how they pray. But Daniel wasn’t like that. Daniel understood that God’s will was revealed in God’s Word. This is something a lot Christians don’t understand. If you study God’s Word, then pray about what you’ve studied, you will begin to see God’s will.
2. Elements of Daniel’s prayer
Prayer isn’t just talking to God; it’s more than that. Real prayer is not easy. Real prayer takes effort and endurance. Real prayer is a workout for your spiritual self! It strengthens your spiritual muscles. And Daniel shows us how to pray.
Daniel’s prayer didn’t just happen, he planned it. For many of us, prayer is a hit-and-miss thing; it’s a thing we do when we have time just before we eat or before we drift off to sleep. But real prayer should never be considered an optional activity of the spiritual life. Real prayer, is in fact, as vital to the believer as breathing is. Daniel took his prayer life seriously, and he planned before he prayed.
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)
Daniel got down to business; he didn’t waste words. Here was a man who knew exactly what to pray for. Notice that he “turned to God.” This highly suggestive phrase tells us that he “turned away” from everything else. Daniel didn’t let things distract him when he got down to the business of prayer. Even the need—Jeremiah’s prophecy—was prayed for, but not concentrated on.
Daniel’s prayer was chock full of content. He didn’t babble. Daniel had a burden on his heart, he knew what he wanted and he went to God. What was the burden? Daniel believed in God’s Word. Daniel was able to discern God’s will for His people and God’s will was Daniel’s burden. This leads us to the question: If Daniel knew God’s will, why did he have to pray about it? The Apostle John helps us understand why we have to pray about God’s will:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. (1 John 5:14)
The Bible makes the assumption that Christians will know God’s will before they pray. We make the exact opposite assumption; when we go to prayer we don’t expect to know God’s will—we hope that He will let us in on it before we finish. Knowing God’s will takes effort on our part, and most of us don’t want to expend that effort. The problem is that if we don’t know God’s will, then we have no confidence when we pray. How can pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven if we don’t know what that will is? Knowing God’s will does not usually happen in a moment. You shouldn’t wait until a need pops up and immediately expect to know God’s will about it.
Daniel was fully aware of God’s will for his people and that’s why he went to prayer. He knew God’s will because he knew God’s Word. Remember, before Daniel went to prayer, he went to God’s Word and studied it. When he discovered God’s will, he then went to prayer.
Daniel’s prayer was full of content. He did not pray about everything hoping he’d say something God would hear or that he would stumble on God’s will by sheer chance! Daniel prayed in confidence about something he was already convinced of: God’s will.
Not only did Daniel have confidence in the will of God, when he prayed he prayed from his heart:
...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. (Daniel 9:5, 6)
Daniel called a spade a spade! He was candid as he prayed, and so should we. We need to learn how to pray simple, straightforward, focused prayers, holding nothing back. We should be honest and up front with God as we pray because He certainly is that way with us. Notice what James said in regards to prayer:
You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2, 3)
As Daniel prayed and confessed his sins and those of his people, he was being completely candid. It reminds us of what the psalmist said in Psalm 66:18—
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened...
It’s a good idea to get sin out of the way before you pray, by the way! God won’t pay attention to anything you have to say if you harbor unconfessed sin in your heart.
Looking at verse 3 again, we see that Daniel’s prayer included: fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. When Daniel went to prayer, he prayed in pain. No, Daniel didn’t engage in flagellation; he didn’t scar his body to show God how serious he was. But he did deprive himself of comfort as he prayed. This kind of thing has no merit before God, but it does do the believer good: it reveals to us the sincerity of our prayers.
This is why prayer should never be easy. Paul understood this aspect of prayer and tried to get his friends in Rome to understand it, too:
I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. (Romans 15:30)
Notice the word Paul used: struggle. The Greek word means “agony.” Paul was struggling or agonizing in his ministry and he asked his friends to join in the struggle through prayer. Paul wanted them to agonize just as much as he was, but in prayer! When was the last time we did that? Have we ever agonized in prayer? Real prayer is work; it’s a labor, sometimes it’s a pain! Lazy or indifferent Christians don’t know how to pray.
It’s painful to approach God in complete humility and honesty. Earlier we discovered that we must confess our sins before we pray so God will hear us. This is painful! It can be embarrassing. Joshua found this out the hard way. After he and his army were defeated at Ai, Joshua went before God and prayed, but he prayed with the completely wrong attitude. Look at how God responded to him:
The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions.” (Joshua 7:10, 11)
Joshua would have wise to just be honest and humble before God. There is no need to fear what God thinks of you; He knows you better than you know yourself. God is a loving heavenly Father who knows you are an imperfect sinner HE saved by HIS grace. So don’t pray like Joshua did! Just be open, be honest, be candid and be relaxed in His presence. And never, ever forget this most important verse:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… (Romans 8:1)
Considering what was at stake, it’s remarkable that Daniel hold a great big prayer meeting and invite all of his Jewish friends to join him! Daniel’s prayer was personal and it was private. Even though it was an intensely private, personal prayer, Daniel prayed on behalf of all his people.
Daniel wasn’t the only character in the Bible who loved to pray personally and privately. Jesus often withdrew from the crowds to pray by Himself. Jesus often prayed with small groups, like His disciples, but we never see Him leading in a corporate prayer. Not that there is anything wrong with public, corporate prayer. Preachers do it all the time. But public prayer is nothing like private prayer. Public prayers tend to more formal and short. Praying in private should be very personal and seldom brief.
Lastly, Daniel’s prayer was powerful. His prayer reached into the highest heavens. Today, astronomers can see into the depths of the solar system and beyond thanks to technology. We have taken pictures of other planets and other galaxies that are so far away that even if it were possible to travel at the speed of light, it would take centuries to reach the closest one! And yet prayer is so powerful it can penetrate into heaven.
The power of prayer is beyond man’s ability to understand it because the real power of prayer does not reside in man himself. The Holy Spirit is who empowers every word of properly prayed prayer. It is the Holy Spirit who enables you to pray according to God’s will:
…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. (Romans 8:26)
In order for prayer to be 100% effective 100% of the time, it has to be prayed in the Spirit; it has to be supernatural. True prayer occurs when the believer yields himself to the Holy Spirit and allows the Spirit to talk to God the Father through him.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:18)
We must learn to pray like that! It takes work and it takes effort. But that investment of time and energy pays incredible dividends! If we can pray as Daniel prayed, our prayers will get results; we will witness God’s will coming to pass. In fact, we will be participants in the fulfilment of God’s will!