This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer. I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.
The Bible is filled with images of family–long lists of “begats” and genealogies, parables about sons and fathers, brothers, weddings, brides and grooms…God is even described as our Father, with Christ as “the son.”
One of my hobbies is genealogy– tracing my family’s roots back through several generations and several different places. While the Bible warns that we should not get caught up in “endless” and vain genealogies that lead to false pride and foolish divisions (1 Tim. 1:4/Titus 3:9), there are many good reasons to pay attention to families, family histories, and family dynamics.
First, the family is God’s design– God instituted marriage, parenthood, and family units. It is God’s will and purpose that we should not live in isolation and self-absorption, but learn to depend on and be responsible to others. Families honor, protect, love, provide, comfort, teach, encourage, build and work together. Even in a broken world, filled with dysfunctional and chaotic family relationships, the purpose and design of “family” is still part of God’s good and perfect plan for living. Broken families and toxic relationships are not a failure of God’s plan– they are the result of Sin’s power to distort and corrupt the Good that only God can create. The great news is that God also has the power to restore and redeem individuals and families; offering “rebirth”, adoption, and an eternal “inheritance” within His family!
Second, families can teach us about the astounding and limitless love of God. There is something about the bonds of familial love that stretch us beyond our regular capacity to hope, to sacrifice, to share, to grieve, to endure, and to forgive. Who has seen a mother or father go hungry so their child can eat; or a sister or daughter donate her kidney or bone marrow to help heal a family member? Or a father carry his son who could not walk, or a wife who visits her aging husband when he no longer knows her face? How can we see such devotion and not be struck by how much greater, wider, deeper, and more eternal the Father’s love is for each of us?
Third, family (particularly the idea of genealogies and long family histories) teaches us the eternal nature of God. We live our lives as part of three or four generations– a span of 70 or 80 years for many of us–and we concentrate our efforts on “making our mark” for less than that entire span. But even the longest of our lives are so short in the span of God’s plan for His people. We have one lifespan to play an important role in the story of centuries. When we fail to understand that role, we can miss our sense of purpose in life. Sometimes, we overestimate our own importance or miss the significance of our own legacy. Even “important” people are forgotten, or have their legacies tarnished or rewritten in the pages of history. And those people who never made the history books are often the inspiration for actions and movements that span generations and change nations. When I study the history of my own family, I find lives that were cut short by war or disease– yet these lives shaped the lives (or were the lives) of my ancestors, and without them, I would not be who or how or where I am today. Maiden aunt, baby brother, empty seat at the table– every life touches others in ways that God alone truly comprehends. “Coincidental” meetings, “unplanned” children, migration patterns, epidemics– all loom large in a single generation, but they all become part of the fabric of each person’s “history.”
Lastly, genealogy reminds us that we are all one enormous family! There is so much talk on the news and online about all our differences– language, culture, skin tone, beliefs, skills, abilities, interests, even diets!– and it is important to note that God loves variety and created us each with unique and precious differences to reflect His infinite character. But sin twists our differences into conflicts; sin spreads lies about God’s character, and thus, about how we (or others) reflect, honor, understand, acknowledge, or obey our amazing creator. Differences may cause division in our broken world, but they do not cancel God’s mercy or limit the reach of His love for us all.
This was brought home to me in a small way this past week, as I was preparing for two important reunions. My high school class celebrated the 35th anniversary of our graduation in 1984. I saw friends and classmates I hadn’t seen in weeks, months, or, in some cases, 35 years! But it struck me that our class is very much like a family– we grew up together; we learned to get along (most of the time), to share, to work together, to understand and appreciate our differences and our unique gifts–we send birthday greetings and share pictures, we laugh together, grieve together, share fond memories and special connections with one another. We pray for one another, argue with one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another. There are some who have distanced themselves–whether through physical distance or emotionally– from the rest of us. Some have even ended their earthly journeys. But that doesn’t make them any less a part of our class/our family. We are short and tall, thin and stout, hairy and bald, dark and light complected; we are single, married, divorced, and widowed– some with children still at home; some with no children at all. We are rich and poor, healthy and ill, walking around with scars and wounds and unresolved questions, arrogant assumptions, or chips on our shoulders. And we are optimists and mentors, healers and teachers, helpers and protectors. We are loud and quiet, social and task-oriented, driven and laid-back, dreamers and doers. And in my genealogy research, I have made genetic and marriage connections to about 1/3 of them! We really ARE family, and I can show how we are related! How small would this world seem if we looked at our brothers and sisters across the world, and realize that those connections are so much greater than the differences that divide us?
The second reunion I attended this weekend was “family.” All of us descended (or married to descendants, or adopted by descendants) from my great-grandparents. Not all of us were there– in fact, this was mostly just one “branch” of the family, and a few “twigs”. We estimate that there are nearly 500 people who can claim the same ancestral “roots” from the same two people, and this “branch” contains over 250 of them! Once again, we don’t all look , or act, or think alike– some are tall, some are tattooed, some are old, some are newborns, some argue about college football teams, or politics. But we love each other, encourage each other, and many of us share our prayers and concerns and joys and pains. My great-grandparents (and all their children) left a legacy of love and faith that continues to influence and inspire the fourth, fifth and sixth generation to follow!
When we pray for others, we are always praying for our family! Praying for our neighbors and classmates and co-workers– we are praying for family! Praying for our enemies, for strangers, for those who look and speak differently than us–We are praying for family! May God give us eyes to see and hearts to love our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and even the “long lost family members” and lift them up in prayer to the One who loves us and wants to bring us all into His family!
I don’t think it’s any accident that God placed Adam and Eve in a garden, or that Jesus used so many farming metaphors in his teachings. There are a lot of Biblical lessons to be learned in gardening and farming–lessons about living, about relationships, and, of course, about prayer.
Plant seeds! It seems almost too basic to list, but how many of us (and I count myself) have a tendency to hold on to our faith, to the wonderful promises of God, to the grace He has given, to the love we should be sharing with others? How many opportunities do we lose because of fear, busyness, or self-interest over the interests of others? Today will soon be yesterday– it will never return to give us another, better chance to make a difference. Small steps taken are better than grand plans that never come to fruition! ” Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Colossians 3:23 Pray boldly, pray deliberately, pray consistently.
Seek (and give) nourishment. Just as seeds and plants need light and water, we need to take in the nourishment of scripture, meditation, prayer, and fellowship. We need to spend time with the one who is “the light of the world”, and “the living water”. Even so, we will experience seasons of drought and shadow. We need fellowship with others who can keep us in touch with the true source of light and life– and we need to be there for others in their time of need.
Expect a harvest–but expect some surprises, too! God’s ways are not our ways (https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/God~s-Ways-Beyond-Human-Understanding) God often chooses to answer our prayers or alter our circumstances in ways that defy or exceed our expectations. God never answers our prayers only to gratify us in the moment– His plans are mysterious and eternal. They are also righteous and perfect and just.
Do your friends pray? Do you pray for your friends and neighbors? Do you pray with your friends? Prayer is often seen as a private and very isolated activity– just you talking to God. But prayer is much more. Prayer can bind people together in a common purpose. It can encourage and embolden others as we pray together, share burdens and blessings, and seek God’s wisdom on their behalf.
Conversely, when our friends don’t pray, or discourage us from spending time in prayer, we can become weak and lose the fullness of joy that comes from a rich prayer life. When Jesus walked among us, He spent time with people– sinners, self-righteous religious leaders, friends, and strangers alike. And He often went away and alone to spend time in prayer. But He also made a habit of taking a few key friends with Him; friends who would “watch and pray” when others might have distracted Him with their questions or doubts. Throughout the Bible, there are numerous examples of others who sought out friends and companions to join them in prayer.
There is a lot more I could write about this concept today, but I think it is more important to act on it. I have a journal full of names, places, and situations that require prayerful attention– people battling cancer or depression; cities facing riots and economic upheaval; families in the midst of divorce or other crises. And I have friends who share my concerns and who can join me in praying (even remotely) for them.
If you have friends who pray– connect with them and pray for and/or with them today. If you don’t– pray that you will find companions who will come alongside you as you make this journey to pursue a life of prayer. Look for opportunities to join a group– in person, or on-line–that shares prayer requests (and answers to prayer!) Best of all, pray to and with Our Father, who will never leave us or forsake us, who always listens, and who has given us the constant companion of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and encourage each of us.
One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.
Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.
But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.
And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.
Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.
Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.
I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.
But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.
And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.
Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.
A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.
It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.
I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.
Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.
The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes
Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.
My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!
Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.
The Biblical figure of Daniel is mostly remembered for being thrown into a den of lions as a punishment for praying to the God of Heaven in defiance of a new law (proposed by his enemies, who hoped to set him up). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+6&version=NIV The story is a familiar one– so familiar that we sometimes pass over the context and details. I don’t want to retell the entire story, but I want to put it in context. There is a lot more than just a den of lions and a miraculous rescue.
First, the Book of Daniel is filled with loosely tied stories in the life of Daniel, an Israelite captured by the Babylonians, and living in exile over the course of over seventy years. By the time we get to chapter six, Daniel is likely in his late eighties or early nineties! He has served under at least five monarchs in two empires, and has seen the utter collapse of two major capital cities (Jerusalem and Babylon). Because of the episodic nature of the first half of this book, we have very few details of Daniel’s everyday life– we never learn if he was married or had children; if he was ever allowed to return to the land of Judah; or if he was able to use his position and influence to help other Jewish families or speak out against the idol worship and human sacrifice practiced by his captors. In the story of Belshazzar, it seems that Daniel had been relegated to a lower position within the palace during the years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death– Belshazzar did not know of him; only because the Queen remembered his ability to interpret dreams was Daniel summoned and brought back to court. The events of chapter six are unique and shocking to us, but not in the context of Daniel’s life.
There is a pattern that gets repeated throughout Daniel’s story– it is the confrontation of two great powers– Daniel’s faithful service to God puts him in opposition to the powers of his captors. He is a captive and a foreigner, but that is not what makes him (and his three friends) a target of powerful enemies. It is his prayer life and his obedient devotion to God that causes him to be singled out. In seven decades, that devotion has never wavered, and Daniel’s life of prayer has been consistent, both in private and in public. Daniel doesn’t have to argue, protest, or announce his devotion. When he is praised for his abilities, he quietly gives the glory and credit to God. When he is vilified and betrayed, he quietly waits for his vindication to come from the God he has trusted through the years.
Darius, (like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and others before him) is impressed by Daniel– enough that he appoints Daniel to a position of great power and authority within the kingdom. Daniel, because of his humility and integrity, is not threat to the rule of Darius–but he does pose a threat to those under him who are hungry for power and prestige. There will always be people in this world who will try to destroy what they do not understand or respect. Darius is not the author of Daniel’s dilemma, but a tool in the hands of corrupt officials. Daniel could have been hurt, enraged, or defeated by this decree from Darius– but he recognized that the real enemy wasn’t Darius, or the crooked satraps who put him up to it (or the hungry lions he faced)– the real enemy was the opposition to Almighty God and the refusal to acknowledge His authority. Darius is quick to learn that God’s power is real and absolute, and that God is gracious in his power, and loving toward his servants. The wicked satraps did not learn this lesson, and they perished.
Notice that, just as in the story of the fiery furnace, God did not remove the danger. Daniel’s friends had to go into the fiery furnace…Daniel had to go into the den of lions. And these were not just overgrown kittens. They would have been captive lions– just as Daniel was held in captivity! They were trapped in this den, unable to hunt for their food; dependent on the whims of their captors. They were kept in a state of uncertainty, fear, and hunger. They were desperate, and hurt, and angry. When Daniel is brought out of the den, and Darius orders the conspirators to be thrown in (with their families), the lions pounce with terrifying ferocity, not even letting the bodies hit the bottom of the den! God may allow us to face some terrifying “lions”– scoffers and rebels and desperate people who will try to take their anger and hurt out on us. Will we trust that God can stop their mouths while we wait for deliverance?
Daniel’s calm response to this entrapment was not the result of Daniel being “holier” than someone else, or more clever; God did not send him a vision of assurance that he would live to see another day. Daniel must have been terrified of facing several starving lions! At his age, he would not have had the strength to fight them. But Daniel’s obedience and trust won the respect of yet another ruler from a very different culture. And God’s miraculous rescue won the awe of Darius– so much so that he issued a decree throughout his realm to all peoples of every language in the kingdom to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel! Faithfulness, humility, and obedience always open up opportunities for God to display His Glory.
Just as Daniel was thrown alone into a lion’s den and sealed inside by a large stone, one day Jesus would be thrown into a tomb to face death and hell. He was sealed in with a large stone, but no one came to his rescue. He stood and faced our enemies– Sin and Death. His flesh was torn and crushed and His blood poured out, and He bore the wrath and punishment that we deserved, so that Sin and Death were defeated. And when He was finished, the stone was removed, and Jesus emerged victorious! His faithfulness, humility, and obedience let to Glory and Life. We may never face a literal den of lions– we may not be tested with persecution, but Jesus has already won the battle; He has permanently closed the mouth of our greatest enemy, and set us free!
Daniel’s prayer life is not marked by spectacular prayers of rhetorical magnificence. He isn’t known for fervent fasting and wailing prayers for the rescue of his nation (though he probably said many). Daniel is noted for his consistent practice of praying– good days, bad days; days of glory or ignominy; days of ease and days of uncertainty; days spent serving wise rulers, and days spent serving madmen and spoiled brats– Daniel quietly and faithfully went to God in prayer. He didn’t make a public spectacle, but he didn’t hide, either. Will we be faithful to seek God’s face throughout the day– in little matters and times of crisis; in praise and in pain; for our daily bread, our neighbor’s health, our nations’ revival, and our world’s salvation and healing?
The Book of Daniel is a series of stories, disjointed, and filled with signs and wonders. Many scholars and critics over the years have suggested that these stories cannot be true; that they are legends created centuries later and added as Jewish propaganda. The story of Belshazzar in chapter five was a perfect example, they claimed. There was no written evidence for the kingship of Belshazzar. The last king of Babylon was a man named Nabonidus, so how is it that this story assumes that Belshazzar was the king giving a feast on the very night Darius would invade and conquer the empire? Recent discoveries, however, show that Daniel is more accurate in detail than the ancient historians, who were writing about the “big picture.” (For more explanation, visit this site: https://creation.com/archaeology-belshazzar). Belshazzar would have been the ruler/crown prince/regent of Babylon on that night. Not only that, he would have been young, spoiled, and eager to establish his own authority and prominence. This fits with the actions and reactions of these two men–the fact that Belshazzar would casually raid the storehouses for golden goblets that had been untouched in the days of his more powerful predecessor; that he could only offer Daniel the position of “third highest ruler”; the fact that, while Daniel is not contemptuous, he shows less deference to this “king” than he did to Nebuchadnezzar. In fact, he refers more to the glories of Nebuchadnezzar and the judgments of God than he does to the current state of Babylon or ANY of its other rulers.
There is a huge time gap between the earlier chapters and this one. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign was long; his son and grandson reigned after him (though both their reigns were much shorter). Belshazzar’s father, Nabonidus, reigned for over 15 years before losing the empire. The young Daniel of chapters one and two is now likely to be in his 70s or 80s! He has served faithfully under at least five rulers, but he is still considered an “exile” (see verse 13 of chap. 5), a foreigner, and a captive. In Daniel’s life of faith, service, and prayer, he has seen the “hand of God” working in his life and in the lives of those around him. Daniel has learned to trust in God’s provision, to submit to God’s direction, and to wait expectantly for God’s wisdom.
Belshazzar is terrified of the “Hand of God” as it writes on the wall of his father’s royal palace. He is the son of privilege and mysticism–the Babylonians were known for using signs and wonders to plan campaigns, seek power and wealth, and predict success. Their gods were capricious and full of wrath. But Belshazzar had never been visited by the God of the Universe. He had never taken the time to “number his days”, or consider his ultimate destiny.
Compare the judgment of God against Belshazzar (Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres–God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting; your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians) with this psalm of Moses (Psalm 90)https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+90&version=NIV. Two take-away points:
Belshazzar’s days were numbered and he was found wanting. Daniel’s days were numbered, too. Daniel waited years, living as an exile and second class citizen, serving kings and powers who ignored, or even scorned his God. His life was prolonged, yet he continued to serve with no freedom or personal reward in sight. And his trials and oppression are not over yet! (There is a den of lions in Daniel’s future!) But God doesn’t look at our lives in terms of power, success, wealth, health, position, or other outward factor. God sees the small acts of service, the daily discipline of worship, the humble trust and dependence we place in Him. Daniel’s story has not been about accomplishment. Daniel never built anything; he never accumulated anything; he never preached mighty sermons, or wrote beautiful songs of worship. And even though God used him to solve riddles, interpret dreams, and prophesy, Daniel had nothing to put on a scale. Yet he was not found wanting, as Belshazzar was.
Daniel was not afraid of the Hand of God because he had learned to number his own days (See Psalm 90: 12-17), and he was able to gain wisdom, satisfaction, peace, and hope in knowing that the Lord God would establish even the smallest works of Daniel’s hands and make him glad for as many days as he had been afflicted. May we pray for, praise, and pursue the Hand of God in our lives today.
God is all-powerful. He is sovereign over all the universe for all eternity. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Yet, in His majesty, He is merciful; unwilling that any should perish.
In the book if Daniel, we encountered the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace for failing to bow down to a giant statue commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar. The mighty king of Babylon was an absolute ruler, and failure to obey one of his decrees could result in death. That it did not end in death for the three young men baffled and impressed their king. But it didn’t change him.
The very next story in the book of Daniel is one that is less familiar– it is another curious interjection into a book of (seemingly) disjointed stories. In chapter three, Daniel narrates his friends’ story, in which he is curiously absent. In chapter four, Nebuchadnezzar is the narrator, Daniel is one of the characters, and his three friends are never mentioned. (Because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, he uses Daniel’s Babylonian name, Belteshazzar.)
The chapter begins almost as a mirror image of chapter 2, except the writing style is very different–more formalized, and written more as a proclamation. (https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%204) Nebuchadnezzar is being troubled by a recurring dream. Once again, he calls in all the astrologers, sorcerers, etc., to interpret the dream. However (whether because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, or because he has learned a little self-control), this time there are no threats involved, and when the lesser wise men fail, Nebuchadnezzar himself sends for Daniel, confident that Daniel can provide an answer. Nebuchadnezzar actually flatters Daniel as he asks for an interpretation, but Daniel is still cautious. This dream is more disturbing than the first, because it is more personal and immediate. God is warning Nebuchadnezzar directly that his pride has gotten out of control and God is about to step in a pronounce judgment on it. God will teach Nebuchadnezzar about humility by causing him to lose everything, including his mind!
Daniel carefully gives Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation and the warning from God, and adds his own wish that his king might escape punishment by humbling himself before the Almighty God. But in a year’s time, Nebuchadnezzar forgets. In the very act of praising himself, Nebuchadnezzar hears the voice of God, who drives him away from his kingdom, from society, and from rationality. For seven years, Nebuchadnezzar lives as a beast, eating grass, roaming outdoors, and covered with “the dew of heaven”. At the end of that time, he comes to his senses and is restored to his mighty kingdom a wiser, humbler, and grateful monarch.
What a contrast between these two rulers! Nebuchadnezzar demanded total loyalty and obedience. When it wasn’t given, the reaction was instant fury and a sentence of death. God is the One who ultimately deserves our total loyalty and obedience. When it isn’t given, the sentence is death (Romans 6:23a). But God, who has the complete authority to pronounce the death sentence, is more interested in deliverance than in destruction. Make no mistake, God will punish Sin; God will destroy those who persist in evil and rebel against Him. But God’s heart is reconciliation and redemption. God did not kill Nebuchadnezzar; He didn’t strike out at him in fury and cast him immediately into the fiery furnace of Hell–though He had the power and authority to do so. God had given Nebuchadnezzar his life, his power and his kingdom. He took it away. And then he restored it. God took away Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to reason– and he restored that too. And while Nebuchadnezzar was living as a brute beast– in the middle of his punishment– he was covered with “the dew of heaven.”
Curiously, this phrase, “the dew of heaven” is used all the way back in the book of Genesis. It is used by Isaac as he blesses his son Jacob (disguised as Esau). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+27%3A+27-29&version=ESV Even as Jacob was practicing deception that would have dire consequences, God’s blessing was being poured out on him by his father. And centuries later, in his midst of punishment, Nebuchadnezzar was blessed by God, who provided for his needs, and ended up giving back all that had been lost because of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride.
God punishes– He punishes those He loves! He teaches, humbles, and disciplines. But He is not in the business of destruction. He was with Nebuchadnezzar throughout his period of madness and humiliation, ready to restore (and even increase) all that he had lost.
May we honor this God of grace and mercy– his mercies are greater than his wrath, and his grace is greater than all our sin! Nebuchadnezzar finally learned to praise, worship, honor, and obey the “Most High God.” May we do the same.
None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).
The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.
Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).
Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.
Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.
We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.