Prayer and the Purposes of God (Far From Home #8)

Prayer and the Purposes of God (Far From Home #8)

In this post we return to the story of the prophet Daniel as we seek to understand the role that Prayer had in understanding the purposes of God in exile. The Navigators have nine core values and the fifth of them is: “Expectant Faith and Persevering Prayer rooted in the Promises of God”.

Looking back to the early development of the Navigator ministry in the 1930s with Dawson Trotman, it is clear that there was consistent desire to pray through the promises of God, particularly from passages such as Jeremiah 33:3: “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things you do not know” and Matthew 9:38. In so doing they were following in the example of Biblical characters, just like Daniel does here in his prayer in Chapter 9.

“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 70 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

Daniel here marks his request in prayer by the outward signs of fasting and putting on sackcloth and ashes. These were pictures of mourning, repentance and abasement. Sackcloth was made of goat’s hair, which was thick, rough and uncomfortable to wear. Ashes point to our mortality. From dust we were taken, and to dust we shall one day return. They also signify grief, desolation and despair. So Daniel is engaging in serious confessional prayer over a period of time, which we can see in the continuing verses of 4 through 19. Daniel prayed this prayer in response to words of prophecy from Jeremiah – likely it was the following verses:

“This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon 70 years. ‘But when the 70 years are fulfilled I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will make it desolate forever. I will bring on that land all the things I’ve spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations.”

Jeremiah 25:11-13

…and a few chapters later in 29:10 “This is what the Lord says: ‘When 70 years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.”

It is because of these words that Daniel was able to know God’s purpose that the exile would only last 70 years, which is what motivates him to pray, because he doesn’t know exactly when those 70 years began. Was it when he himself was exiled, in 605BC, or perhaps in 597BC when the Temple had been ransacked, or perhaps in 586BC when the City of Jerusalem was completely destroyed?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

17Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favour on your desolate sanctuary. 18Give 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. 19Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”

Daniel 9:17-19

We do know that these 70 years must have started around the time that Daniel was taken into exile because we now know that Babylon fell to Cyrus in the year 539BC, who then decreed that any captive Jew could return home to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem.

When we begin to pray into the promises of God, God chooses to use all things, including people who don’t know Him, to fulfil His purposes. Case in point is King Cyrus, who if you’ve ever been to the British Museum and seen something called the “Cyrus cylinder” you would know is one of the very earliest non-Biblical sources that confirm Biblical events, in this case the returning to the land of the Jews after Cyrus’ decree. We learn more about King Cyrus in Isaiah 44-45:

“Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’ 1“This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:2 I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. 3 I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honour, though you do not acknowledge me.5 I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me,6 so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

Isaiah 44:28-45:6

What, then, are God’s purposes here? Well, they are threefold:

  • Firstly, that Cyrus might come to know him in the same way that Nebuchadnezzar came to know the LORD through his interactions with Daniel
  • Secondly, He wants people everywhere to know that He is the LORD.
  • Thirdly, he wants his own people to know him as their Covenant-keeping God.

Therefore, God’s primary purpose in the world is to make Himself known. He is a missional God, and we need to read the Bible as a guide to how to undertake that mission. We know that the New Testament calls us to mission, with the Great Commission:

“Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations,” and the promise of Pentecost: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.”

Matthew 28:19-20

But, the Old Testament also speaks deeply of the concern that God has for all the peoples of the Earth, including the Gentiles. For example, in 2 Chronicles 6 it records Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple. King David had wanted to build the Temple, but because he’d been a man of war, committing bloodshed, God forbade him from doing so. And instead commissions his son, Solomon, a man of peace to carry out this task. David begins the preparations, but the Temple is constructed by Solomon.

When it is complete, he stands on a high bronze platform so that all the people can see him, but then proceeds to speak to them about God, the Greater King over Israel. And, in vs. 32-33 we read:

32”As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 33then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

2 Chronicles 6:32-33

In Acts Ch. 10 we read the story of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who is obviously an example of the foreigner mentioned in 2 Chronicles 6. He happens to be a God-fearing gentile, and Peter is sent to him to confirm the Good news of Jesus Christ. Peter does go, although somewhat reluctantly, and preaches the Gospel. And then the Holy Spirit comes down upon Cornelius and his family, and Peter realises that God’s purposes extend way beyond the Jewish people to include the gentiles as well. Just as we have seen from the earlier passages in the Old Testament too. God is a missional God, and He always has been.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

It is perhaps obvious to say, that Daniel, who prayed for the resolution to the exile, did not get to see the Temple rebuilt. He was already an old man at the time of his prayer, possibly well into his 80s. And there are things that we may well find ourselves praying for that we will never live to see the outcomes of.

This raises the question of is there any point in praying for things that I’m not actually going to see? The answer of Daniel is an emphatic yes. In 2 Peter 3, Peter discusses the return of Jesus that the Disciples are waiting for. He asks and answers four questions:

  • Can we be sure?
  • Why the delay?
  • What will happen?
  • How should we live?

So, right at the start of the Christian church, way back in the first Century AD, people already began to ask questions about life, the end of the world and the promise that Jesus was going to come again. And they were already beginning to scoff and to doubt it would ever happen. And here we are over 2000 years later.

Everything goes on as it has always done from the very beginning, and we may well ask the same questions ourselves today: Can we really be sure? Peter takes his readers back to the Old Testament and reminds us of the great flood and the story of the Ark. The very fact that the world has been devastated before gives us confidence to believe the promises that the world that we know will one day come to an end.

He also addresses the question of why the delay? Within years of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, people were expecting his immediate return. And they probably expected it to happen in that generation, hence why we see this question pop up in various of the epistles in the New Testament.

We too might ask ourselves why hasn’t Jesus returned yet. In the case of the church at Thessalonica, people were stopping work because they expected Jesus to return imminently. Peter addresses the issue of the delay, by saying that God is patient, wanting everybody to come into the Kingdom, instead of seeing them perish, but in fact see them come to Him through repentance.

Thus, it is important to realise that as we engage in praying into the promises of God, that God’s timing and our own are completely different. The crucial thing is that God is outside of time. There is no past and no future with God. He lives in the eternal present, and thus yesterday, today and forever are all the same for him.

Time is immaterial to God, but we are bound to it. We are inherently creatures of time, trapped in the cycle of yesterday, today and tomorrow. But, as Peter says, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day for God. Our struggles around the timing are a result of us being stuck in the dimension of time. This may help us to reflect and begin to understand when we see delays in answers to our prayers.

As Peter continues, he tells us that the world will be completely destroyed by fire, but then in Revelation 20 & 21, we read that there will be a new Heavens and a New Earth. How then should we live? Peter’s answer is that we are called to live as exiles in the light of the fact that this is not our real home. And that we should be looking forward to the world to come.

To conclude then, how should we pray for others, as exiles and an exiled people. First of all, we should pray persistently. And secondly, we should pray transformatively. A great example of this from Scripture is in Ezekiel 37 where God asks the question of Ezekiel, can these bones live? And of course they do, as Ezekiel prophesies, God sends His spirit and the bones come to life.

As we look around the world today, we can perhaps see that there is a very large valley containing some very dry bones. Or, to use another metaphor, the tide of faith seems to be receding. But, just as Daniel prayed as an exile in a foreign land, we too need to pray into the difficult circumstances of our own spiritual exile, trusting that the purposes and promises of God can breathe life into these dry bones once again. And that the tides can wash back over the dry and barren lands and produce a crop that yields a bountiful harvest of men and women coming to accept that Jesus Christ is LORD.

Will we live to see this happen in our lifetimes? I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for it to happen, just as much as we should be expectant for the coming return of Jesus. God wants us to trust that He will bring about His purposes in the world, and that we can trust His promises, so He invites us to pray into them, so that our desires would be aligned with His.

See other posts in this series: Far From Home

  1. Living in Exile
  2. Refusing to Compromise
  3. Making a Home for ourselves
  4. Comfort for the Exiles
  5. Restoring a Broken World
  6. Where is God in Exile?
  7. Sanctuary for the Exiles
  8. Prayer and the Purposes of God

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