This is a good chapter to puzzle about numbers. How many weeks – or “sevens”? When does that timeframe start and end? Has it already come to pass, or is it still in the process of being fulfilled. Theologians and bible scholars have spilled much ink in debating these things.
And Jesus told us not to spend a lot of energy on the numbers, times, and dates. “Be on guard, keep awake,” he said (Mark 13:33).
My own take, at this moment anyway, is the seventy “sevens” marks a 490-year span between the time when Nehemiah received the decree to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem to the coming of the Messiah. Only God knows whether that’s a correct interpretation!
That’s only one section in this chapter. Let’s not forget the prayer of Daniel.
This is what humility looks like. Daniel confessed the sins of the people of Israel. In fasting and sackcloth and ashes, the prophet laid out the hard truths. The people deserved to be brought into “open shame” – all of them, no matter which tribe of Israel they belonged and no matter in which land they had been scattered.
The people failed to obey God’s commandments. Someone needed to say it. Daniel said it.
In his mind must have been Leviticus 26. God told the people what would happen if they lived in disobedience to his commandments. The land of Israel would be left desolate, and the people would waste away in the lands of their enemies. Daniel had seen this firsthand.
In his mind, though, also was Jeremiah 25:11: “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.” That seventy years was nearing an end. Daniel knew that. And he hit his knees.
Daniel’s confession turned into petition. My own family, after we read this chapter together, remarked how strong Daniel’s requests eventually became. “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not.”
We bear in mind that Daniel wasn’t saying the people of Israel deserved a reprieve in their exile. He wasn’t saying that at all. “For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy.” Daniel never lost sight of the people’s lostness. Rather, Daniel was begging for mercy. He knew he could appeal to the mercy of God. And he gave everything he could to that appeal.
And you might have noticed what happened next. The angel Gabriel showed up. Gabriel said some beautiful words we really ought to find a place for in our own lives. “At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved.”
The answer was sent out at the beginning of the Daniel’s pleas for mercy – even before they were made in full. Even as Daniel was speaking, God’s grace was on the way.
This is God’s way. His grace comes first. Even before we cry out for mercy, his grace is available to us. The apostle Paul said while we still were weak, Christ died for the ungodly. That is, God’s grace came to the ungodly before they even had a thought about their ungodliness. While we were still sinners, living in un-repentance, Christ died “for us” (Romans 5:6, 8).
Daniel and Gabriel help us to strip away any idea we can earn God’s mercy.
I was handing out checks today as part of our Shop Redstone Initiative – a little effort we’ve undertaken to help out the businesses in our town. I went to a couple of shops and gave them checks in exchange for some certificates they’d redeemed from their customers.
It was an exchange. They handed me something, and I handed them a check. It was transactional.
The gospel doesn’t work like that. Rather, it should be pictured as a flood of grace sweeping over people – not “because of our righteousness” but because of God’s “great mercy.”
We empty the gospel of its meaning if we try to insert our own works into the equation. I suppose true “desolation” is thinking we’ve earned our salvation by our own righteous actions.
A question for your day: Are you content with knowing you’ve done nothing to earn your good standing with God – that it only is possible through the cross of Christ?