We Are Covered with Shame – Daniel 9:1-11
By: Northern Seminary
As a youngster I wanted to be a lawyer. I was naïve, but I imagined myself as a legal genius, winning a stunning verdict to free someone falsely accused of murder, or defending the rights of the under-privileged against powerful vested interests.
But I never pursued law as a career. It wasn’t lack of ambition, but what put me off were two more naïve thoughts. Back then, in Scotland, a law degree required some understanding of Latin. The little I already knew of Latin persuaded me I did not want to learn more. The other deterrent was a suspicion that sometimes I would be obliged to try to help people escape conviction who were actually guilty, and I knew I’d struggle with that.
So, I gave up all thoughts of becoming a lawyer.
Instead I became a pastor. I was a few years into that calling before I realized that instead of learning Latin I’d spent years trying to master the more difficult languages of Hebrew and Greek! And, instead of taking up criminal law with the likelihood that sometimes I would have to try to set a guilty person free, I’d become a pastor which meant all my time was spent trying to get guilty people free! Everyone is a sinner, and I was trying to help them escape the consequences of their failure. It’s a strange world.
However, that contrast isn’t quite fair. What I did as a pastor to help guilty people go free was very different to what a lawyer does in a criminal case. The lawyer’s goal is to secure a ‘not guilty’ verdict – in other words, for the court to decide there’s no convincing evidence against the accused. As a pastor I wasn’t trying to do that. Everyone I dealt with was guilty, and usually there was plenty of evidence of their wrongdoing. My goal was not to suggest people weren’t sinners; the goal was to help guilty sinners find forgiveness.
From end to end the Bible has stories of people needing and seeking forgiveness. One of the most honest and moving times is recorded in a prayer by Daniel for the exiled Israelites in Babylon.
Daniel himself had been a captive from about the age of fifteen, a victim of some of the earliest conquests over Judah by Babylon around 604 BC, and there are exciting and moving stories of his experiences in Babylon in the book that carries his name. But when he was about eighty, around 538 BC, Daniel took careful note of prophecies recorded in Jeremiah 25:11-14. Jeremiah spoke of seventy years and then Babylon would be overthrown. Daniel knew that seventy year period was nearly at its end, so the exile could soon be over. His people could be set free.
But the slavery the Israelites had endured was more than conquest by a powerful enemy. Their imprisonment was the judgment of God on serious and repeated failures by the people to honor and obey him. They were a guilty nation. And now they needed to find forgiveness.
Daniel prayed for that forgiveness. His prayer is full of deep insights and heart-felt passion. But it is not a short prayer. Therefore, in this study we will draw lessons from the first half, and in the next study from the second half of Daniel’s prayer.
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. 3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
4 I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:
“Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.
7 “Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. 8 We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you. 9 The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; 10 we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.
From this first half of Daniel’s prayer, four important lessons stand out that relate to sin and forgiveness.
- When people recognize God’s greatness they also recognize their own shortcomings.
I grew up living only nine miles from St. Andrews, the ancient ‘home of golf’ and still the location for many major golf tournaments today. I played golf, and as a youngster I imagined that one day I would be a world famous golfer. But then my Dad would take me to a major event at St. Andrews and we’d watch Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus at the peak of their golfing prowess. It was a sobering experience. They hit the ball so far, so hard, and so accurately. I was awestruck. And any ambitions I’d had about being a great golfer were gone by the end of the day. Compared to their amazing skill, mine was as nothing.
When people come close to the majestic and holy God, they see their shortcomings – their sin and failure – more starkly than ever before.
Daniel addressed God as “Lord, the great and awesome God” (v. 4), and immediately then said:
“we have sinned and done wrong.” (v. 5)
Isaiah “saw the Lord, high and exalted” (Is. 6:1) and heard the seraphim calling:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
And immediately Isaiah said:
“Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Is. 6:5)
The contrast between God’s goodness and our badness was plain. Human weakness and sin was obvious and could have no defense.
Every one of us has a bias towards self-justification. Somehow being ‘too tired’ or that ‘the temptation was just too great’ is an excuse we allow. And so we treat the sin as if it doesn’t matter. But if we see the majesty and greatness of God, our excuses evaporate faster than morning mist when the sun reaches full strength, and we see how far short we fall. The more we see the goodness and the glory of God, the more we realize how poor our lives are in comparison.
- Forgiveness requires an honest recognition of guilt.
Often people diminish their guilt in one of two ways. One way is that they pretend their failure wasn’t too bad really. At college I played on a rugby team. We were poor players and we lost most of our matches. But sometimes we’d comfort ourselves by saying, “I know we lost 20-0, but we thought we might lose by twice that score. So we didn’t do too bad.” Not too bad? It was still 20-0!
The other way people lighten the burden of failure is by ignoring the bad things and focusing on (what they think) are good things. My rugby team was actually quite good at passing and kicking the ball, so we’d console ourselves that we’d passed and kicked really well. We talked that up and hardly mentioned we’d still lost the match!
All of us have our techniques to minimize the failures in our lives.
But Daniel did nothing like that. He could hardly have been more honest:
“…we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.” (vs. 5-6)
Daniel never pretends their wrongdoing wasn’t as sinful as it might have been. And there’s no argument that the bad was balanced by good in their lives. God set a standard, and they flagrantly and miserably failed to reach that standard. “We have sinned and done wrong,” says Daniel. It was an honest recognition of guilt.
- Failing God badly is shameful but not final.
As a pastor I came across two reactions to sin. One group of people could not stop condemning themselves. Over and over they would ask, “How could I have done that? How could I have gone so wrong?” I’d tell them about forgiveness, and they’d pray for forgiveness. But within hours they’d be berating themselves again for being such failures. They couldn’t stop blaming themselves.
If that group were almost too appalled by their sinfulness, the other group seemed not nearly appalled enough! Some would say, “It’s not my fault. That’s just how I am made.” And some would do nothing more than shrug their shoulders and promise they’d try a bit harder next time. In other words, either they argued they were made or raised flawed, or they acted like children who’d simply colored outside the lines, but everything could be solved with an eraser and a little more care and attention next time.
Daniel, in his prayer, is neither someone who wallows in sin nor someone who treats sin lightly. The nation’s failure is an appalling offense to commit against a loving God, but there is a future and there is hope.
He is very clear first about the magnitude of their sin. He prays:
“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel. …We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you.” (vs. 7-8)
For emphasis Daniel repeats the word “covered.” It’s as if shame is now the giant overcoat which they must wear forever. It reminds them constantly of their weakness, and marks them out for all to recognize as failures. The horror of what they have done is clear. The significance of their sin is recognized. “We have sinned against you,” Daniel says to God. There can be no excuse for their behavior.
They have no excuse for their sin, but that does not mean God cannot excuse it. Yes, “we have sinned against you,” he writes. Yet, he says: “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him” (v. 9).
Daniel writes these words about God’s mercy right in the middle of a section on the awfulness of their sin. It’s as if he needs to remind himself that though his nation’s sin is an appalling offense to God, the God before whom they bow forgives sin and gives new life.
Of those who spoke to me as their pastor about their failings, some had lost sight of the dreadfulness of their sin, and others had lost sight of the greatness of God’s love. Sin is shameful. But God’s mercy is wonderful.
- Their sin is the responsibility of all of them.
When Daniel began his prayer, he said: “I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed” (v. 4).
Daniel confessed about the sins of the nation? Daniel was only a boy when he was taken away to Babylon. Back then he was not a king or prince or any other kind of leader of his people. But he did not excuse himself.
And throughout the prayer Daniel excludes no one from the guilt:
- We have sinned
- We have been wicked
- We have turned away
- We have not listened
He leaves no one out:
“…we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you.” (v. 7)
He sums it up:
“All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.” (v. 11)
Mostly we think of sin as personal, something that belongs to an individual. Daniel would have understood that, but not limited his understanding to that. Sin and guilt could also be of many people. Daniel confessed collectively because he saw the sin as that of the whole nation.
As a nation they had turned from God. As a nation they had engaged in appalling sins. As a nation they had refused to heed the prophets. As a nation they had failed to repent. Therefore, as a nation they were now far from their own land, the slaves of another people. No one is excused from the sin, just as no one is excused from the consequences of the sin.
Daniel was not wrong. Responsibility for sin belongs, at times, not only to the perpetrators but to a wider group.
Who determines the laws? Who influences the moral standards? Who allows certain behavior to be socially acceptable? Who keeps quiet in the face of wrongdoing? Who fails to stand up for the abused and exploited? Who trains up the young in the ways they should go? Who are the parents, the youth leaders, the civic leaders, the leaders of industry and commerce, the leaders of the nation who should set the example others follow?
Individual wrongdoing rarely occurs in isolation from influence. Everyone – by action or inaction – determines that influence. Everyone has some part when a nation, a city, a church, a school, or any other body of people go wrong. Therefore confession of sin belongs also to everyone.
At this less-than-cheery point, this study will stop. If this part of the prayer seems a depressing place at which to finish, bear in mind the prayer of Daniel is not yet finished. Daniel’s prayer is much more than merely sharing his angst with God. He is about to appeal to a loving and good God for mercy for his people, and for God to fulfill his promise to restore and heal.
But the prayer began with getting honest.
- Compared to the standards of a holy and awesome God, their sin was clear.
- That sin was blatant, and no amount of fancy talking could have made it less serious.
- Deep shame was on the people, but shame would not have the final word.
- As a whole nation they had gone very wrong, so what is to come, a renewed commitment and obedience to Almighty God, would also need to be that of the whole people.
In the next study, we will find the rest of Daniel’s prayer and real hope for good things to come.