Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. (Daniel 10.12-13)
Gateways to the Ineffable
My mom occasionally warns me about overthinking Scripture. “Let It speak,” she says, “and then give yourself time to let what It’s telling you sink in.” There’s more to her counsel than a mother’s concern her son’s too busy burning up brain cells to get the point. The real wisdom buried in her advice reminds me approaching God’s Word purely on an intellectual level often erects barriers to hearing what It wants to me know, because modern mentality isn’t always amenable to accepting what It says.
Certain aspects of Scripture defy human comprehension. They always have and always will. Yet the Bible is also crammed with supernatural events—visions, miracles, out-of-body experiences, and natural disasters—practically begging us to debunk them with scientific and literary analysis. We don’t need much to get really smug really fast. We pity our forebears for naïvely taking these tall tales at face value. We look down at those who ignore common fact and theory to believe everything in the Bible occurred exactly as recorded. That’s tough for many of us. For example, it’s a stretch to concede the sun and moon actually halted in the sky, as Joshua 10.13 says, to give Israel extra time to win a battle. It may be the crude account of a solar eclipse, or a clumsy metaphor for God’s intervention. We’re good with whatever it is, as long as it saves us from taking it as written. If what Joshua reports truly transpired, it would have hurled the planet into deep space. Since it obviously didn’t, it’s obviously not what happened, and it’s a joke to imagine it did.
If we’re not careful, though, the joke will be on us, as we fall prey to the same fault we disdain in illogical literalists by imposing literal logic on everything we find in the Bible’s pages. Implicit in my mom’s advice is a wise precaution to know when Scripture invites us to forget facts so faith can appear. Its incredible tales shouldn’t discounted as no more than big-fish stories—including the big-fish story of Jonah for which fantastic yarns are named. The Bible’s mind-bending accounts are given so we’ll discover something greater than ourselves. They’re gateways to the ineffable, that mysterious space where God lives and moves in our behalf. Doubting their accuracy or granting them poetic license is fine, if doing so moves us past logic that cripples faith. Getting hung up on Biblical impossibilities defeats their purpose, however. It bars us from entering a place of illumination with no other means of access. And whether or not the stories are real, where they take us is as real as real can be.
Logical literalists won’t find very much to digest in the Book of Daniel. The straightforward narrative portions read like fairy tales. Daniel starts off as a young Hebrew captive in Babylon whose prophetic gifts vault him to heights of power and favor. Envy drives his rivals to plot his demise. They throw him to lions, toss him into a fiery furnace, and constantly test his scruples in ways that might anger the king. Yet Daniel survives every attempt unscathed. Those unable to swallow his outrageous exploits won’t have a clue about what’s going on when the book kicks into high gear. It turns out that Daniel’s a true-blue mystic, and chapter after chapter relates his visions and encounters with celestial beings. It’s like he’s in a perpetually altered state that opens his eyes to a secret dimension. Is all of this legit? Or is Daniel an excitable crackpot? Either way, he’s pretty spooky. But if we can get past trying to figure him out, where his story takes us is amazing.
Chapter 10 takes place after Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon and frees the Jews to return to Israel. Having quit government service not long after the liberation, Daniel chooses to remain. (He’s older by now and Babylonian life is all he knows.) He’s swept up by a puzzling vision of a great war that he desperately prays to decode. When no answer comes, he goes into mourning, limiting himself to a subsistence diet and basic hygiene. This lasts for three weeks. Then, while standing at the Tigris River, an otherworldly figure appears to him. No one but Daniel sees him. The messenger says he’s come to explain Daniel’s vision. But first, he explains what took him so long to show up. “Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them,” he says. “But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days.” (Daniel 10.12-13)
Between God and Us
I’d venture it’s better to find all of this incomprehensible than not. And despite scholars doing an ingenious job of working out the vision’s meaning, verifying its legitimacy with historical events that soon followed, this episode opens a gateway that, for us, has very little to do with history. The key is the messenger’s comment about why he’s late. God hears Daniel the instant he prays for understanding and dispatches an emissary to answer his prayer. Between God and Daniel, however, the messenger runs into interference from a malignant force—“the prince of the Persian kingdom,” i.e., a celestial being determined to foment multinational war. He struggles with the prince for 21 days to reach Daniel, who has no way of knowing that the answer is on its way. From where he sits, it appears no answer is forthcoming. So he mourns a tragedy he senses, yet can’t fully understand.
If we’re too smart about Scripture, we’re apt to rule out the reality of wickedness that wedges itself between goodness we pray for and God’s response. While we wait, conflict erupts in the ineffable, invisible realm across which our answers and explanations must travel. That’s what Daniel’s story wants to tell us. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6.13, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Delays that disillusion and frustrate us have nothing to do with God or us. We’ve not done anything so wrong that God would abandon us—the very idea refutes all we know God to be. Nor have we presented God with a problem too big or impossible to handle. If just one human dilemma or crisis fit that bill, God wouldn’t be worthy of our faith and trust. When tempted to blame God or ourselves with delayed answers to prayer, we resist by acknowledging there’s more going on than meets the eye.
There are powers of darkness in our world. There are forces of evil in heavenly realms. Entering the ineffable—letting Scripture speak and giving It time to sink in—frees us from logic-bound literalism that would dismiss this truth as myth and metaphor. It’s as real as real can be. Thus, Scripture overflows with admonitions to cling tenaciously to faith that God hears and answers prayer. “I waited patiently for the LORD,” Psalm 40.1 says. “God turned to me and heard my cry.” If we made of list of every prayer we’ve prayed, we could check all of them off as “answered,” though we’d also mark many “TBD” in the “Date” column. Daniel teaches us why surrendering our confidence and hope to powers we can't see is not an option while we wait.
We come to You, O God, fully confident You hear us and move for us without delay. Open our minds to know delayed answers to prayer are neither Your nor our fault. Increase our patience and tenacity to wait. Amen.
Malignant forces wedge themselves between our prayers and God’s answers, causing delays that have nothing to do with God and us. Realizing there’s more going on than meets the eye enables us to wait patiently and confidently.