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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Learning from Daniel’s prayer of confession

At the Communitas Family Reunion in Malaga last week my friend Wes led a brilliant series of teaching conversations on Daniel 9. In my view it was a model of narrative-historical pedagogy. The historical context was critically appraised and kept in focus, and precisely for that reason our group of mission-minded folk was able to find in it the draft of a powerful story that may give credibility, resilience, and orientation to mission today. What struck me especially—though I’m not the first person to notice it—was that the climax to Daniel’s prayer prefigures the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.

Daniel’s prayer

Daniel prays to YHWH, the covenant God. He confesses the sin and rebellion of his people. They failed to heed the words of his “servants the prophets,” they committed treachery against YHWH, and as a result the “curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses” have been poured out upon them. They have suffered a great calamity: “under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem” (Dan. 9:12).

He pleads with God that for his own sake he will make his face to shine on the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem—his “sanctuary, which is desolate” (Dan. 9:17). The city and the people are called by YHWH’s name, so their predicament is having a profoundly damaging effect on YHWH’s reputation among the nations of the Ancient Near East.

He concludes by asking God to forgive his people and to act to put things right: “Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name” (Dan. 9:19). Shortly after that the angel Gabriel turns up to explain why it was taking much longer than Jeremiah’s 70 years—from the perspective of a Jew in the second century—to put an end to sin and bring in an everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24-27).

So we can summarise the context and content of the prayer:

1. When Daniel 9 was written, Israel was not in exile in Babylon but was coming under increasing pressure from Hellenistic forces to abandon its allegiance to the covenant.

2. Jerusalem was not in ruins, the sanctuary was not desolate, but it was threatened with abominations and the arrival of a king who would make the place desolate (Dan. 9:27; cf. 11:31).

3. The reason for this is the sin of those in Israel who have acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from God’s commandments and rules.

4. Daniel prays i) for forgiveness, ii) for God to intervene soon to rectify the situation, and thereby iii) to restore his reputation.

Jesus’ prayer

The relation of the Lord’s Prayer both to Ezekiel 36:23 and to the Kaddish is often noted. The comparison with Daniel 9:19 serves further to underline the point that this is a quintessentially Jewish prayer that addresses a thoroughly Jewish situation. It is not a Christian prayer. Jesus was a prophet like Ezekiel, an apocalyptic visionary like Daniel. He was the Son finally sent to Israel, to do the work of a servant, after the Jews had consistently rebuffed a long line of prophets.

So we can summarise the context and content of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples:

1. The Jews were under Roman occupation, and the ruling hierarchies were failing to shepherd the flock of Israel, mismanaging the vineyard of Israel.

2. There was a realistic prospect of a Jewish revolt against Roman rule, with the likely outcome that the city and the temple would be destroyed. Jesus predicted the desecration and desolation of the temple:

So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Matt. 24:15–16)

3. This state of affairs was attributed to the failure of a wicked and adulterous generation of Jews to walk in God’s ways.

4. So Jesus taught his disciples to pray i) to be forgiven, as they would forgive those who would violently sin against them as they went about their mission; ii) that God would soon intervene (“your will be done”) as king (“your kingdom come”) to rectify the situation—to bring an end to rebelliousness and establish an everlasting righteousness; and thereby iii) that his name would be hallowed among the nations (cf. Ezek. 36:25 LXX).

The main difference between the two prayers is that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the context of their mission to proclaim to Israel and among the nations that the sovereign intervention and rule of God was indeed at hand.

They pray, therefore, to the “Father” who will safeguard and provide for these “little ones,” who will face opposition and considerable hardship. They will have to trust him for their daily bread. They will have to forgive their enemies just as God has forgiven their trespasses against him. They will pray earnestly that they will not be led into the sort of severe testing of their calling that Jesus experienced in the wilderness and in Gethsemane.

The prayer of the missional church in post-Christian Europe

The situation that the church faces today in post-Christian Europe is historically unlike either of these scenarios, but it’s not difficult to construct a parallel narrative of failure, confession, and divine intervention (kingdom of God) for the sake of his name.

1. The church is struggling to maintain its identity and sense of purpose under an aggressively secularist cultural régime.

2. The secular assumption is that the old Christian order is a thing of the past: organised Christian faith has no future.

3. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to attribute this to the historical “sins” of the church, though perhaps the main factor has been the failure in more general terms to adapt to cultural change.

4. So the missional church in Europe—and, of course, elsewhere—must pray i) that the God who is always faithful to the covenant he has made with his people will forgive us for our sins and inertia; ii) that he will act to re-form the church and make it fit for purpose; and thereby iii) that in this time of mounting environmental alarm, as the prospect of global desolation looms, the reputation of the God who created all things will be restored and exalted among the nations.

Comments

Andrew, do you see the historical narrative approach leading us directly and particularly into environmental critiques of the post-Christian secular world? Or does the approach leave such critiques entirely in our hands? Presumably there are many reasons to think secular humanism will fail and many ways to envision the coming crisis.