Daniel 9 contains one of the most passionate prayers in the Bible. What can we learn from Daniel’s prayer of confession and His appeal to God’s mercy?
The ninth chapter of the book of Daniel contains the well-known 70 weeks of Daniel. What many readers overlook, in their eagerness to jump into this prophecy, is the emotional prayer of Daniel that precedes it.
Daniel, who by this time was an old man, made one of the most heartfelt and stirring prayers in the Bible. What can we learn from how this great man of faith approached the Eternal God?
Preparing for the prayer: sackcloth and ashes
Daniel did not go straight from his study of Jeremiah’s writings (Daniel 9:2) to prayer. He prepared himself to approach the living God by wearing sackcloth, covering himself in ashes and fasting (verse 3).
What is sackcloth? It was an inexpensive, rough material made from the dark hair of camels or goats. Although it was used as ordinary clothing among poorer people, it eventually became associated with mourning and, later, with sorrowful repentance. Covering oneself with ashes accentuated the symbolism.
Fasting has a long history among God’s people, who used this spiritual tool to humble themselves before God (Ezra 8:21; Psalm 35:13).
To the modern mind, Daniel’s preparations of sackcloth, ashes and fasting may seem strange, but they demonstrated his humility. Today, many of us get on our knees to pray, taking a position that shows our humility toward God.
From this passage, then, we see that Daniel humbled himself and prepared his heart before he even began this earnest prayer.
When we pray, we should consider our attitudes, and we should always humble ourselves before God.When we pray, we should consider our attitudes, and we should always humble ourselves before God. We shouldn’t pray to God with an attitude of making demands, but asking for God’s help in a spirit of humility and deference to His will. God is gracious and listens to the humble (Proverbs 3:34).
Confession of sin
The first element of Daniel’s prayer is confession (Daniel 9:4). Some of this may have been personal, but the context of the prayer suggests that this confession was on behalf of the people of Judah. It was an acknowledgment of his people’s sins.
Although it’s true that Daniel held an extraordinary position of leadership in Babylon, he had been an adolescent, more than likely, when he went into captivity. He was not even in Jerusalem when it fell nearly two decades later. He was not personally responsible for any of the sins of leadership that had resulted in Judah’s punishment.
Still, though, he included himself in the confession when he said, “We have sinned and … we have done wickedly” (verse 5) early on in the prayer, later repeating the admission that “we have sinned” (verse 11).
Although Daniel had lived an exemplary, uncompromising life, he readily accepted the guilt of the community, recognizing that no human is without sin. More importantly, he loved his people, the chosen people of God. And he chose to stand with his people in seeking God’s mercy.
When we pray, we should acknowledge our own personal sins. But we should not stand aloof from our families, our communities, our peoples and our nations, but should compassionately identify with them. We don’t just pray for others, but understand and support them in their pain and sorrow and need.
Another important element of the prayer that appears early is the recognition of God as the “great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant” (verse 4).
Judah had been attacked and humiliated by the might of Babylon when Daniel was quite young. As a result, Daniel was forced to leave his home and country as an exile. Yet this experience did not lead to feelings of bitterness in Daniel. There is no cry of “that’s not fair!” Instead, Daniel recognized that God keeps His word and His promises.
The rest of the sentence explains that God keeps His covenant “with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments.” Though God had demonstrated remarkable patience with the nation, He finally acted because Judah had failed to keep its covenant obligations.
In fact, since God is faithful to His word, He had to deliver the nation over to its enemies because He had directed Moses to prophesy that very result (verses 11, 13-14; Deuteronomy 28:15-68).
Though the concept of covenant highlights Judah’s guilt, it also holds out hope for the nation. That’s because God truly is a God who keeps His covenant, and He has repeatedly promised to restore the nation when its people repent. The prophecies of Jeremiah, as well as those of Ezekiel and Isaiah, point to a bright future for both Judah and the lost 10 tribes of Israel.
When we pray, the idea of covenant can guide our thinking as well. (Covenant really means a formal agreement, much like the word contract.) When we enter into a relationship with God through baptism, we enter a covenant. That means we should not merely look to God’s promises to us, but to our obligations to God.
Is that part of our prayer?
Appealing to God’s love for His people
Daniel moved from the sins of Judah and the righteousness of God to God’s love for His people. By reminding God that He was the One who “brought Your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and made Yourself a name, as it is this day” (verse 15), Daniel pointed out that God had already invested much love in the nation. These people in captivity, Daniel reminded God, were His own!
Notice the shift in use of pronouns. Early in the prayer, Daniel had taken his stand with the nation in his confession, using “we” and “our” in references to Judah and its sins.
Beginning in verse 15, however, Daniel began using “Your” in combination with words denoting Judah, Jerusalem or the temple. We see “Your people” (verse 15); “Your city Jerusalem,” “Your holy mountain” and “Your people” (verse 16); “Your sanctuary” (verse 17); and “Your city” and “Your people” (verse 19). In addition, verse 18 describes Jerusalem as “the city which is called by Your name.”
We should take note of Daniel’s example as we prepare ourselves for prayer. Our prayers should focus on God’s will, not our own. We should be thinking about what is important to God first and foremost.
This does not mean we cannot pray about things important to us. But we should first consider how those desires fit into God’s will.
The last two verses of Daniel’s prayer offer us a couple of important points. One of those is the rationale Daniel offered to God for listening to his prayer: “For we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies” (verse 18).
Daniel did not assume that he was so righteous that God should respond. Nor did he rely on his position of status and honor. He recognized that only God’s mercy provides a basis for us to expect God to hear our prayers. We, too, can approach God’s throne in prayer only because of the mercy of God (Hebrews 4:16).
The second gem at the end of this extraordinary prayer is the obvious passion. We see this in the short bursts of imperatives: “O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act!” (verse 19).
Daniel did not merely go through a prayer list, checking off items. He deeply felt what he said to God, urging God to act.
What about us? Are our prayers offered without feeling? Do we pray to God with real passion?
“You are greatly beloved”
This prayer is truly remarkable in its humility and passion, and it’s no wonder that an answer came to Daniel while he was still praying! It’s also no wonder that the angel told him, “You are greatly beloved” (verse 23).
Study more about passionate prayer in our online article “Prayer From the Heart.”
Sidebar: What Prompted Daniel’s Prayer?
To understand Daniel’s prayer, we must first understand his mind-set and motivation.
Daniel himself tells us he had been studying the prophecies of Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2) that indicated his home country of Judah would “serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:11). He also tells us he prayed “in the first year of Darius,” or 539 B.C., which was 66 years after Daniel’s captivity had begun.
What may not be clear from the text itself is that Darius served as a viceroy for Cyrus. Why is this important? Because of another unmentioned prophecy, one that may well have prompted Daniel to begin his study of Jeremiah.
Years before the Medo-Persian Empire, or even the Babylonian Empire, had become the dominant force in the Middle East, Cyrus was mentioned in prophecy.
“To Cyrus,” God declared, “I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me” (Isaiah 45:1, 4). At the end of the preceding chapter, Isaiah clearly showed that God would use Cyrus to start the process by which Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt (Isaiah 44:28).
How exciting it must have been for Daniel to hear about Cyrus as he appeared on the world scene! And once the Medo-Persian Empire had established itself in Babylon, Daniel set about studying to see when, exactly, Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt.
Learn more in our online article “Daniel 9: The 70-Years Prophecy of Jeremiah.”