On patriotic holidays such as July Fourth, I always intend to pray for my country. I also mean to pray for Israel, for the many nations experiencing great suffering, for Christian missionary work throughout the world, and for the return of Jesus to establish His righteous Kingdom.
But I usually don’t get very far with such prayers. Over the years, I have lamented my laziness, and decided that others have more of a calling to intercession than I do. But now I think there is also another reason at work. Resolute and persevering intercession seems to be at war with gratitude and worship. Even in heaven, the voices of the souls of the martyrs, calling “How long . . . ?” from under the altar (Revelation 6:9-10), seem to us to clash with the just-concluded anthem of “blessing, and honor, and glory, and power” (5:13, KJV) — even though, since “every creature” joined in that chorus, the martyrs apparently offer both protest and praise. In the same way, the watchmen posted by the Lord on Jerusalem’s walls, calling on Him day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest till He establish the city and the kingdom (Isaiah 62:6-7), come across as unbalanced, as severe and fierce, though, as heralds of the rejoicing Bridegroom (verse 5), they roar in hope.
God is so kind that He helps us with such dilemmas, teaching us in many different ways. He gives us His great and precious promises, but His Word also presents accounts and examples of people believing these promises, living by them, and claiming them in prayer.
There is one promise in particular that Christians often think of on patriotic occasions, but we don’t always remember the context. David desired to build a Temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, and made many preparations for it. His son Solomon spent seven years building it, and all Israel gathered for seven days just to dedicate it. Some time after this, the Lord appears to Solomon at night and makes this promise:
I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a Temple for sacrifices.
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among My people, if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this Temple so that My name may be there forever. My eyes and My heart will always be there. (2 Chronicles 7:12-16, NIV)
This promise is made at the height of the Kingdom of Israel’s glory. Its territorial boundaries were greater than at any other time, with safety and “peace on all sides” (1 Kings 4:24-25); we also read, “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth” (10:23, NIV). This was Israel’s golden age.
Now we move ahead about 420 years, and we find one person who enters into this promise. The times are very different: because of sin, the Lord has torn Israel in two, handed them over to their enemies; the Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem lies in ruins, and the people are in exile. It seems to some as if all the promises of God have failed. But a man named Daniel is reading his Bible and trying to understand.
. . . 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. (Daniel 9:2, NIV)
He’s thinking that the time should be about up, and yet there’s no sign of a restoration.
So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. (9:3, NIV)
Remember what the Lord said to Solomon: “if My people . . . will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways . . .”
I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:
“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with all who love Him and obey His commands, 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 fathers, and to all the people of the land.
“Lord, You are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame — the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where You have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to You. O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against You. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against Him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed Your law and turned away, refusing to obey You.
“Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against You. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to Your truth. The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything He does; yet we have not obeyed Him.
“Now, O Lord our God, who brought Your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for Yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. O Lord, in keeping with all Your righteous acts, turn away Your anger and Your wrath from Jerusalem, Your city, Your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and Your people an object of scorn to all those around us.
“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of Your servant. For Your sake, O Lord, look with favor on Your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open Your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears Your name. We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For Your sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people bear Your name.” (9:4-19)
This is a remarkable prayer. Notice, first, that Daniel fully identifies with Israel. If anyone among the exiles could have called himself “special,” it was Daniel: he had been chosen as a young man, trained in all the wisdom of the Babylonians; he had lived many decades in or near the king’s palace. But from the first, when he insisted on a diet of vegetables and water, he allied himself with the Israelites, a displaced people, living as refugees.
Moreover, Daniel doesn’t say that a previous generation sinned — or “those people.” He keeps saying “we.” There is utter humility here — no excuses, no boasts. Partly because of this, as he prays, his faith rises up; he reminds himself of what he genuinely believes about the character of God: “You are righteous . . . merciful and forgiving . . . righteous in everything [You] do . . . great in mercy.”
The outcome of this prayer is astounding. While Daniel is still speaking, the angel Gabriel shows up to instruct him (9:21). Within two years the first return begins, and the rebuilding of the Temple. (1) More enduringly, the Lord reveals to Daniel and to us that He has a plan “to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness,” and He announces the coming Anointed Ruler (9:24-25, NIV). In other words, when Daniel prays, the Lord in some measure reveals Jesus to his heart.
It can seem out of balance to pray like this; it’s as if Daniel has joined the ranks of the martyrs and the watchmen. Normally, we want and need to enumerate our blessings and give thanks to God, and praise Him for who He is. Daniel knew this; in an earlier chapter, he is described as praying, “giving thanks to his God” three times a day (6:10, NIV). But sometimes God calls intercessors to focus their attention on the glass half empty, to groan and travail over sin and its consequences. And yet Daniel isn’t moved to pray because things are “so bad,” because of a plague or a drought. Rather, it’s a promise from God, stirring his hope, that prompts him to cry out for restoration. Remember, he has just been reading the words of his contemporary Jeremiah:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14, NIV)
Daniel doesn’t turn from thanksgiving to intercession because conditions are so awful, but because God is so good and His purposes so marvelous. The prayer of faith that honors God doesn’t spring from a desperate, bargaining fear but from clear-eyed hope in a gracious Lord. And it is a people filled with wonder, practiced in the discipline of giving thanks, who are best equipped to take up the calling (be it long or short) of unrelenting intercession. We give Him no rest because of the joy set before us.
Let us then pray for our nation, and for the world, not because we have no other hope but because we have been given such an astonishing hope. We are able to humble ourselves, and to acknowledge the extent of our depravity, as we stand in the light of His glorious plans. This holiday, let’s pray not because we see desolation — wars and refugees, famines and epidemics, injustice, poverty, trauma, ruination — but looking toward the unseen, grasping hold of some great Biblical promise of national and global healing. If we spend time in His presence, taste His goodness, consider His plans, we will invite His coming.
Father, we pray:
- That You will establish, guide, and bless “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness,” and that You will raise up people in every place “to lift up holy hands in prayer” (1 Timothy 2:2, 8, NIV), for, though we are now citizens of the heavenly realms and of God’s Israel (Philippians 3:20; Ephesians 2:6, 12, 19), still, so long as we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, RSV; 1 Peter 2:11), we seek the peace and prosperity of the places to which You carry us (Jeremiah 29:7);
- That You will open doors in every land for the message of the gospel (Colossians 4:3), “that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1, NIV), and that as Lord of the harvest You will send out workers into the field (Luke 10:2);
- That believers “may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Thessalonians 3:2, NIV), that You will protect them from the evil one (John 17:15), and that we may all be one in Christ (John 17:21-23), increasing and abounding in love and in faith (1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).
- We pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), that You will establish Jerusalem and make her the praise of the earth (Isaiah 62:7), and that all Israel may be saved (Romans 10:1; 11:26).
- And we groan with all creation for the return of Jesus, liberation from sin, and “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21, NIV), when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2, NIV), and when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, NIV; Isaiah 11:9) and every knee will bow “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, NIV). Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20; 1 Corinthians 16:22).
When even one person humbles himself or herself, prays, seeks God’s face, and turns from wickedness, He begins to heal the land. So we ask for “a spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10, NIV).
(1) Here I am following the dates proposed by The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985): Solomon’s Temple dedicated in 958 B.C., Daniel’s prayer in 539-38, and the return under Sheshbazzar and the commencement of Temple construction in 537-36 (see pages 482, 485, 1313, 674). Note that 1 Kings 9:1-2 and 2 Chronicles 7:11 suggest that the Lord’s promise to Solomon was made some years after the Temple dedication, when the royal palace was also completed; NIV Study Bible (489) dates this at 946 B.C. or later.