“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Making God Look Good

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Lions, Darius, and Prayers… Oh My!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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The Hand of God

We’ve been going through the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar played a prominent role in chapters one through four, but he suddenly disappears from the narrative, and a distant successor, Belshazzar, comes to prominence for the space of a single chapter. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+5&version=ESV

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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From Fiery Furnace to “The Dew of Heaven”

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Things That Make You Wonder…(Daniel, Chapter 3)

The Biblical book of Daniel can be difficult to read. It contains stories, but they don’t seem to tie together. And sprinkled among the stories are visions, dreams, and prophecies. In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar threatens all the wise men of Babylon in his fear over a disturbing dream. (https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/17/daniel-prayer-under-pressure/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/19/daniel-prayer-under-pressure-part-2/) At the end of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate in awe of the God of Daniel, and rewards Daniel with a high position. He even rewards Daniel’s friends who prayed for him.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!
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  • 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!
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  • 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.
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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.

Daniel–Prayer Under Pressure

In Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel, there is an interesting story. Most often, students of the Bible focus on the prophetic meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But I want to look at the context, and see what this story tells us of Daniel, his friends, his boss, and his God. (see text here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=NIV )

First, let’s look at the extraordinary presumption of Nebuchadnezzar. (God will deal with him severely a few chapters later!) The ruler of the vast Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar’s word is absolute. His whims and moods control the destinies of all his courtiers, as well as all the people under his domain. Princes, satraps, governors, advisers, military leaders, and common citizens all live in fear of his absolute power, even as they try to curry favor and rise among the ranks.

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Nebuchadnezzar is not (at this point) crazy; he is not a foolish man. He has led campaigns to destroy several strong enemies, and has wisely appointed a number of officials to administer his sprawling empire. Daniel (and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are among several captured youth who are being assimilated into this administration. But this story shows the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness and humiliation. He has had a dream (some translations suggest it was a recurring nightmare) that disturbs him greatly. It has him agitated. It causes him to act in an irrational manner. He calls in all the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and sorcerers of the kingdom. He is desperate for answers.

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We don’t know how many various men (or even women) were called in, but they represent all the best minds of the entire Babylonian empire. And Nebuchadnezzar wants the impossible–not only are they to correctly interpret his strange dream; they are to do it without any clue about what happened in it! As they try to reason with their king, he accuses them of wanting to mislead him, and threatens them with death and the destruction of their homes and families! This is a very real threat– the king’s word is absolute, and his wrath inescapable. Nebuchadnezzar’s bizarre actions and irrational fear are signs of much worse to come. As powerful as he is, the king is plagued by insecurities throughout his reign. Pleasing, or even appeasing such a man must be like constantly walking a tightrope.

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The story seems to suggest that Daniel and his friends were not included in the first summons before Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps they were still too young to be included; perhaps they were still in training. But it is clear that they will be included in the execution orders if they cannot please this tyrant. This marks the second trial faced by Daniel in his captivity, but it is the first time he comes to the forefront of Nebuchadnezzar’s notice. While the king raves and threatens his other counselors, he listens to Daniel’s plea for more time. In the end, he is awed by Daniel’s interpretation, by Daniel’s courage– and by the God Daniel serves.

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No matter what irrational situation we may face today, no matter what impossible task we are given; no matter who threatens us or makes ridiculous demands– God is more powerful. He causes kingdoms to rise and fall. He knows the future, and nothing is outside his control. Even the most dire circumstances and impossible situations can lead to opportunities …opportunities that showcase God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.

Daniel– A Life of Dangerous Prayer

When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.

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Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.

But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.

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But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.

In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”

Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.

There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!

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It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.

No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.

The “God of Jacob”– not “Jacob’s God”

For a blog about prayer, I’ve been spending a lot of time doing Bible study on the character of Jacob. But I think there is a huge connection. The stories in the Bible are powerful and important, not because of the human characters, but because, in them, we see how God interacts with a variety of His created people. And that can help us as we come to God in prayer.

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When we begin to understand that the “heroes” of the Bible are often ordinary people who encounter Almighty God, we see that little has changed in the course of history. God still chooses to bless and challenge ordinary people– for their own good, and as a witness to others.

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In today’s world, we often reverse the importance of the characters in our own stories. Christians talk about “my God” or “our God”, as though God belongs to us or serves us. But the Bible doesn’t speak in those terms. God is not “Jacob’s God” or “Solomon’s God” or “Queen Esther’s God,” or even “Israel’s God.” Instead, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of Israel. He is pre-eminent. God exists, rules, creates, and acts on His own terms, not ours. And He exists, rules, and acts universally. No person, group, or nation can claim that God blesses them because of who they are or what they have done. Thus, there is no African God or Caucasian God or Chen Family God, or Jean’s God, or Muscovite God, etc. There is only One God– but He wants to be the intimate and personal God of every person on the African continent, and in Moscow, and everyone named Shirley, Clarence, Chen, Smith, Martinez, or Klein. He invites each of us into a personal relationship, but He remains Holy and Unchanging and Sovereign.

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The very same God who wrestled with Jacob wants to be your best friend. He also wants to be your King and Lord of your life. When we pray to “the God of Jacob”– we are not praying to “Jacob’s God”. We are praying to the very passionate lover of our soul. He just happens to be the same God who loved Jacob enough to take him through a series of adventures many centuries ago; the same God who promised never to leave him; the same God who blessed him and preserved him and made him the father of a great nation. Just think of what He’s waiting to do for and through you!

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