woodcut of Daniel in a pose of lament
Daniel: We brought this on ourselves

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, January 21 is Daniel 9:1-19, Daniel’s prayer. These are my notes on the text:

First impressions and questions: What are we going to have to talk about, once we say “Daniel confesses sin on behalf of Israel, and asks the LORD for forgiveness”?

The text is emotional, and the prayer is long, and repetitive. Why?

Daniel says (v3) he is seeking “an answer” – what sort of answer? Does he get it? (See 9:20 and following – but is that an answer?)

V14 says God “kept watch over this calamity” – which seems strange, and possibly a little creepy. Think of the kind of things someone keeps watch over: animals; toddlers; onions simmering on the stove; … making the “calamity” sound like something alive, or something being carefully prepared …

V19 “for your own sake” – Daniel’s appeal is entirely to God’s self-interest. (How do I feel about that? I’m not sure …)

Background: According to study Bible notes, the succession of Persian kings goes like this: Darius I (522-486 BCE) –> Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes) (486-465 BCE) –> Artaxerxes I (465-425 BCE) –> Xerxes II (425 BCE) –> Darius II (423-405 BCE) –> ?? –> Arses (338-336 BCE) –> Darius III (336-330 BCE). The point seems to be that none of the Dariuses fit the description of v1 precisely on all counts. Rashi says the Ahasuerus of v1 is not the one in Esther, because that one was Persian, and the text refers to someone who is a Mede. This issue is one of the pieces of arguable evidence for the date of the text of Daniel; how does that affect the reading of this prayer? Rashi also has a long explanation about dates, and concludes that Daniel’s comments about “the number of years” boil down to his conclusion that there are 18 more years of captivity, if the 70 years mentioned by Jeremiah (25:11-12, 29:10) are reckoned from the destruction of Jerusalem, rather than from the first exile under Jehoiakim. The prospect of another 18 years of exile seems to be what motivates Daniel’s mournful intercessory prayer.

The fasting, sackcloth and ashes of v3 are customary practices associated with mourning (see e.g. Genesis 37:34), penitence (see e.g. Isaiah 58:5; Jonah 3:6-9) and desperate prayer (see e.g. 2 Samuel 12:16, Esther 4:16).

Closer reading: The prayer is largely two long lists of contrasting deeds, those done by God (sometimes My Lord Our God and sometimes THE HOLY ONE our God), and those done by us (“we” vv5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18; “all Israel,” v7, 11, 13).

God is great and awesome (v4), righteous (or just) (v7), merciful and forgiving (v9), but also, rightly (v14) angry and wrathful (v16). God has spoken through the prophets, and specifically through Moses, frequently and clearly enough that Israel has had ample opportunity to “hear” God’s instruction. God “brought” God’s people out of Egypt (v15), but God “brought” calamity upon Israel, Judah and Jerusalem (v14), a calamity God “kept watch over” until it was realized.

“We,” by stark contrast, have sinned (3x), done wrong, acted wickedly (2x), rebelled (2x), turned aside (2x) from commandment and ordinances, not listened, committed treachery, not obeyed (literally, “heard”), transgressed: a long litany of bad behavior. Daniel never specifies the sins and wrongs all Israel has committed. Whatever they are, they were prohibited by God’s voice and made known “by the hand” of God’s “servants” the prophets, including Moses (vv6, 10, 11, 13). In the context of the book of Daniel, in light of the commands Daniel and his companions have been careful to observe in previous chapters, we might infer that the sins and wrongs at least include not observing purity regulations like those associated with diet, and worshipping graven images, although those might not be the only sins and wrongs Daniel would have had in mind.

Daniel has been portrayed so far as righteous, but here he identifies himself with the unrighteous “we.”

The prayer is emphatic and explicit that, while “the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel” have suffered an unprecedented calamity, and while this is a calamity personally prepared by the Holy One’s, God’s act in bringing this calamity upon the people is entirely justified. The people’s suffering does not diminish God’s righteousness, mercy or loyalty.

Daniel appeals for a change of circumstances (vv15-19) on the grounds of God’s past acts on behalf of the people (vv15, 16); God’s character, which is merciful (v18); and God’s honor, which is being diminished by the degradation of people and place associated with God (v19). While the prayer expresses the suffering of the defeated and exiled Israelites, it doesn’t appeal to what we might describe as divine empathy – that is, it doesn’t ask God to end the people’s suffering because surely God doesn’t want them to suffer, or because suffering is bad per se. It asks God to end the suffering because that suffering is making God look bad.

The prayer sets up a strong set of contrasts between God and God’s people. God high, people low (shame and calamity fall on them – from above); God righteous and compassionate, people unrighteous and rebellious; God powerful, people (currently, certainly) powerless; God loyal, people disloyal; God deserving (of obedience), people undeserving (of forgiveness). The prayer also begs for a reversal – literally, a “turning” on the part of God’s anger, despite the earlier failure of the people to “turn” in the appropriate way, but rather their lamentable “turning aside” (vv5, 11). Although the people have not “heard” God’s instruction (v14), Daniel pleads with God to “hear” this prayer (vv18, 19).