Why would Daniel, a faithful and godly man, confess over and over to sins which he did not commit?
There is something very compelling about Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9. The language is poetic and beautiful, and the prophet’s love for God and His ways shines through.
But there is something very strange about it also. Why would Daniel, a faithful and godly man, confess over and over to sins which he did not commit? Obviously, repentance and forgiveness are important in the life of a believer. But I cannot repent for your sins, and you cannot be forgiven for mine. What kind of person even tries to confess the sins of others in his private prayers? What good did Daniel think his beautiful words would do?
Perhaps there is more to the old prophet’s prayer than we first thought. The first step in understanding this prayer is to consider people’s possible reactions when they become aware of the sinfulness of their community.
Then I turned my face to the LORD God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. (Dan 9:3).1
Daniel’s Other Options
What do people typically do when they recognize their community’s sins? The most common reaction is to simply walk away from the organization. Many people reading these words will likely have seen this happen in their circles. And perhaps some readers have left a hostile community to be where they are now.
Walking away from his faith was not Daniel’s way.
In Daniel’s case, walking away was a real option as well. Of course, he could not have wholly abandoned his Jewish identity. But there, in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, it would have been all too easy to live life increasingly as a Babylonian and less and less as a Jew. And, reading between the lines in the book of Daniel, it seems that many of his contemporaries did exactly that. But walking away from his faith was not Daniel’s way.
What other options are there for a faithful individual in a sinful community? While it is true many leave, many also stay. And some justify doing so by consciously or unconsciously choosing to minimize or downplay the problems they see. Nobody is perfect, right? And there is always some other group we can point to whose sins and problems are worse than our own.
This option would certainly have been one for Daniel as well. Whatever sins his people had committed, surely they paled compared to the idolatry and excesses of Babylon. Babylon, the very symbol of everything against God from the beginning! If Daniel wanted to feel better about his community, it would be easy to compare Judah’s sins to Babylon’s and conclude that there was not much to repent. But this was not Daniel’s way either.
And there are other options. Some attempt reform, too often finding themselves discouraged and frustrated like Elijah. Others hunker down and try to ignore the problems they see, allowing bitterness toward their ecclesia to consume them slowly.
But still, we are left with the question—were they his sins to confess? Did Daniel himself have anything to repent of? At first glance, the answer seems to be no. Daniel is one of the few characters in the Old Testament with no recorded sins. And this was not just a selection bias on the part of the inspired narrator. We know that when Daniel’s political enemies searched for corruption, they found nothing. For how few politicians would this be true? Certainly, Daniel was a human who did miss the mark, but overall, his life was characterized by godly behavior. How could he be in any way guilty of the sins he mentions in his prayer?
Perhaps Daniel understood better than we do what it truly means to be a part of a sinful community:
We have sinned, and done wrong, and acted wickedly, and rebelled, turning aside from Your commandments and rules. We have not listened to Your servants the prophets… We have rebelled against Him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in His laws… We have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities, and gaining insight by your truth. (Dan 9:5-6, 9-10, 13).
Our Blind Spots
There are so many ways a once-godly community can fall away. In the Old Testament, the northern kingdom of Israel called themselves worshippers of Yahweh but accepted wildly corrupt doctrines and practices. In Judah, proper worship took place at the Temple, but actual faithfulness to a single God never seemed to stick. Later in New Testament times, Pharisees rejected idolatry and cared deeply about God’s law, yet their hearts were so far from God that they crucified His son.
each community has its blind spots
Readers can likely think of many more historical and modern examples of groups that started faithful but descended into ungodliness. Each one is slightly different, avoiding some errors while ignoring or even embracing others. Mistaken attitudes towards God, negative ways of interacting with others, misaligned priorities—each community has its blind spots.
And, of course, it is easy to see the blind spots of others. We look around at other families or churches, or we look back at previous generations or historical figures steeped in the attitudes of their time. And we smugly assume we can see so much better than they. But somehow, we fail to question what others might see in the assumptions shared by our own families or communities.
And, if we have been raised in or shaped by those flawed communities, we will share those assumptions in some way, too. Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s surrounded by water, we always swim in ideas and habits we never even think of challenging. We pick up those negative views of God, those harmful patterns of thought or speech, those unspoken priorities. We can’t help it.
If we are part of the group, we become part of the problem before we even know what the problem is. By the time we are aware enough to start looking, our blind spots will have caused harm to ourselves and others. Even when our eyes are opened in one way, we tend to overreact, remaining blind to the further problems we create. We may not be the biggest offenders, but we can’t help offending. It may not have started with us, but it is part of us.
So, when Daniel looked around at the flaws of his community—the rebel spirit, the refusal to listen, the carelessness around the law—he recognized that, in some way, those attitudes had shaped who he was as well. He may not have been the biggest offender, but he could not help offending. It may not have started with him, but it was part of him. Scripture does not record how Daniel’s blind spots affected those around him, but the prophet would surely have begun to notice them.
In fact, it is possible to see in the record traces of a genuine attempt to avoid the very sins Daniel mentioned in his prayer. Even as a young man, he displayed a deep concern for God’s law and a respectful attitude towards authority, exact opposites of the sins he mentioned. At what point did Daniel gain the self-awareness to realize the negative legacy he had inherited from his associates? We don’t know. But we can see him as a young man determined to change the pattern. And, later, we see him as an older adult acknowledging privately to his God that he still considers those flaws in his community—and, apparently, in himself. It may not have started with us, but it is part of us.
So, is there any hope for us and our flawed ecclesias? Daniel has an answer for this question, too:
Not Because of Us
So far, our consideration of Daniel’s prayer has been rather discouraging. Our families and communities are deeply flawed. We inherit their negativity and blind spots whether we intend to or not. When we become aware of it, we are already part of the problem. What hope is there in our mess?
Daniel’s hope was in his prayer.
Part of the solution is individuals like Daniel, who begin to see the negative assumptions they have inherited and choose to be the one who breaks the cycle. But we have spent enough time with Daniel to know he did not trust in making better human decisions. His hope was in his prayer.
“Your people have become.” (v. 16). First and foremost, Daniel’s hope was in his identity as part of God’s people. In fact, this was precisely why he could not walk away from the community in the first place. Flawed as the people were, Daniel knew that God would not break His everlasting promises and that his community was still God’s people.
“For Your own sake, O Lord, make Your face to shine upon Your sanctuary.” (v. 17). Of course, Daniel was trying to change his behavior. But he did not ask for God’s blessing because of what he—or anyone else—deserved. Daniel begged for restoration for God’s own sake. God had chosen these people, that city, that sanctuary.
“We do not present our pleas before You because of our righteousness, but because of Your great mercy.” (v. 18). Here it is. Daniel’s only hope, our only hope, is God’s great mercy. We can—indeed, we must—practice self-examination to search out our individual blind spots. And, like Daniel, we need to develop the humility to repent of them, even when others have offended far worse than we have. But we can never change enough, never self-examine enough, never repent enough. However, like Daniel, we can come to the glorious realization that we don’t have to. It never depended on us in the first place. It always depended on God’s great mercy.
“Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by Your name.” (v. 19). If there is any hope for our flawed families and communities, it is for God’s sake: because of His great mercy and our identity as His people.
Daniel’s hope is our hope as well.
As modern-day believers, we are not only grafted into this ancient, troubled, yet beloved family, but most of us also belong to organizations that literally call ourselves by the name and title of His son. (Christadelphians, Brethren in Christ.) Daniel’s hope is our hope as well.
That is why the insight that the old prophet brings to members of sinful groups is so profound. Daniel’s example leads us to question our reactions to the sinfulness of our communities. He encourages us to examine how those sins and blind spots have become part of our habits and identities. And most of all, he inspires us to change our perspective about the problems we see.
May we each learn to love our God and our communities better as we bring our sins to Him in prayer, trusting in His great mercy and our identity as His people.
Denver Ecclesia, CO
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.