The Book, The Prayer, The Fast
February 20th, 1972 @ 10:50 AM
THE BOOK, THE PRAYER, THE FAST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-20-72 10:50 a.m.
On this television and this radio, you are sharing the services of this First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message from the Book of Daniel. Before I do, could I take one of the announcements made in our Sunday Reminder and encourage all of the leadership of our church, Sunday school church-wide, to be present tomorrow night in the gymnasium? We start serving at 5:15. We have a convocation there, and then we go to our Sunday school divisional groups; Monday night, tomorrow night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, these three nights. They are convocations to arrange for, to encourage us, to help us in a marvelous continuing outreach ministry of our people. By the end of April, we pray to go far beyond ten thousand enrolled in Sunday school.
I had a reporter from the New York Times call me Friday. And it lasted so long—I guess they have lots of money up there; they do not mind a long distance call for hours—it lasted so long, I said, “Listen, I have something else to do besides just talk to you.” But the reporter was asking ten thousand questions about our Sunday school, up and down, in and out, all around; so evidently we are making somewhat of an impression on those infidels that live up there, at least. But we have hardly begun; there are so many people yet to be won. And that is the purpose of this convocation. We are going to make plans and implement them in God’s grace and goodness to reach more people for our Lord. And the Lord will help us to do it.
The title of the sermon is The Book, the Prayer, the Fast. And it is an exposition of the first part of the ninth chapter of the Book of Daniel. This is one of the great, great chapters of the Bible. It is the veritable keystone to the prophetic revelations written in this Holy Book. Without it, so much of the prophetic portion of the Holy Scriptures would be darkened and enigmatic to us. And before we come to the prophetic revelation in the last half of the chapter, it begins with a marvelous, intercessory, confessional prayer. And I shall read a part of this first part of the Book of Daniel, ninth chapter:
In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans;
In the first year of his reign I Daniel understood by books—the Holy Scriptures—the number of the years, whereof the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes:
And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love Him, and to them that keep His commandments;
We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from Thy precepts and from Thy judgments… O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee, but unto us confusion of faces … Now therefore, O our God, hear the prayer of Thy servant, and his supplications, and cause Thy face to shine upon Thy sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord’s sake.
O my God, incline Thine ear, and hear; open Thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by Thy name: for we do not present our supplications before Thee for our righteousnesses, but for Thy great mercies.
O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for Thine own sake, O my God: for Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name.
[Daniel 9:1-7, 17-19]
Just to read the passage is to sense and to feel the very heartthrob of this holy and beloved man of God. “I learned,” he said, “by studying the Holy Scriptures, whereby the word of the Lord came to the prophet Jeremiah” [Daniel 9:2]. He was reading the twenty-fifth and the twenty-ninth chapters of the prophecy of Jeremiah. And in those prophecies, Jeremiah said that the Lord would let lie in waste, in desolation, the temple and the city for seventy years, but at the end of the seventy years, the Lord would remember once again, in mercy, His people and they would have opportunity to return back home [Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10].
So he was studying those prophecies. He did not know. He was not able to ascertain the exact time, the certain year that the seventy years began. Had the Lord counted them from the time that Daniel himself went into the Babylonian captivity, then the seventy years was up in the first year of Darius [Daniel 9:1], when Daniel set himself to find the mind of the Lord, for Daniel was carried into captivity in 605 BC [Daniel 1:1-6], and this first year of Darius the Mede is 536 or 535 BC [Daniel 9:1]. So Daniel had been a captive for seventy years.
And when he read in the Bible that at the end of the seventy years, God would visit His people and allow them to go back home, the captivity over [Jeremiah 25:11-12, 29:10], he did not know whether it was at the beginning of the year of his captivity, or it could have been in 598 BC, the beginning year, when Jehoiachin the king was carried into captivity [2 Kings 24:15]. Or the seventy years could have begun at the destruction of the temple, which was in 587 BC. But Daniel knew from the prophecy in Jeremiah that the time was soon coming when the captivity would be over and God’s chosen people could return back home [Daniel 9:2]. So, in that belief that the Lord would honor His promise, and in the persuasion that He was yet merciful toward His people, he says: “Having read it in the Book, I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: And I prayed unto the Lord, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God” [Daniel 9:3-4].
Not only do you sense the heartthrob of the prophet as he prays to God, but do you not also sense the humility, and contrition, and reverential awe by which he comes before God? For Daniel not only learned reading and studying the Holy Scriptures, but he also learned the interpretation by prayer, by supplication, by bowing and confession [Daniel 9:3-5]. I often think had he not prayed so fervently, he would have been less favored with those revelations from God of the present and of the future, which were so luminous before his eyes. But having studied the Bible, and having prayed so humbly, he drew light from heaven upon the very meaning of the words. Under heaven’s elucidation, illumination, the words changed, they lived, they spoke, and Daniel understood them by prayer, as well as much by studying and reading. So having studied, he comes to God, setting his face unto the Lord in prayer, in supplication, in fasting, in sackcloth and in ashes, I would suppose before that open window that looked toward Jerusalem and the Holy Land [Daniel 6:10]. And he prayed unto the Lord and made confession and said, “O Lord, the great and dreadful God” [Daniel 9:3-4].
What do you think of that? Or may I turn it in a negative way? What do you think of people who come before God and talk to God in familiar terms? “The man upstairs,” “my old buddy, buddy God,” “a hail fellow well-met God,” “My old pal,” like “my dog and my horse, God,” how do you feel about that? I’ve never had anybody speak to me about it, nor have I particularly studied or read about it, but there is something about a man, made out of the dust of the ground, being familiar with God that does something hurtful to my soul.
There is such a vast abyss between a man who dies and the great, and mighty, and dreadful Sovereign of the skies, that it seems to me, that when one approaches God, it ought always to be in deepest reverence, and humility, and contrition. Just as Daniel, “I prayed unto the Lord, and made confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God” [Daniel 9:4]. Is not that the spirit of all of the saints of the Bible? When they come into the presence of the Lord, they do so with abject and deepest humility.
When Abraham tarried before God, he said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak unto Thee, I who am but dust and ashes” [Genesis 18:27]. When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up [Isaiah 6:1], he said:
Woe is me! for I am undone; I am a man of unclean lips,
and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips:
for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of glory.
The apostle Paul said, “For this cause I bow my knees before God our Father” [Ephesians 3:14]. And when the apostle John, in the Revelation, saw the Lord, immortalized, glorified, he said, “I fell at His feet as one dead” [Revelation 1:17].
So awesome is the majesty and so wondrous and infinite the glory, that when a man who is made out of dust approaches the great God of heaven, always, he ought to do it in deepest confession and contrition and humility. It was so here in Daniel, “I set my face unto the Lord, in prayer, in supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, in ashes: I prayed unto God and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God” [Daniel 9:3-4].
Now do you notice that he did it? “Prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” [Daniel 9:3]. It is a strange thing that I have found in looking through the Bible: there is no commandment in the Bible, either in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, to fast, or to sit in sackcloth and ashes. The nearest approach to it in the Old Covenant is in the [twenty-third] chapter of Leviticus, where Moses is giving for Israel, the Day of Atonement [Leviticus 23:27-28], called in Israel’s community, Yom Kippur. But even there, all that Moses says is that on that day they were to “afflict their souls.” He mentions nothing about fasting at all.
It is likewise in the New Testament. There is no commandment in the New Testament to fast. The only approach to it would be when the disciples of John came to the disciples of Jesus and criticized them because they did not fast [Matthew 9:14]. And the Lord replied, “How can they fast when the bridegroom is with them? But when the bridegroom is taken away, then shall they fast” [Matthew 9:15]. But there is no commandment. Nor is there a commandment in the sixth chapter of Matthew, when the Lord outlines what you ought to be like, how you ought to act, if you fast [Matthew 6:16-18]. If you fast, you ought not to look disheveled and unkempt, but you ought to comb your hair, and bathe, and dress, and put on your finest clothes and smile, not to appear to men to fast, but just to God. In other words, the power and the blessing of a fasting intercession does not lie in the ritual or the ceremony or the external act, but it lies in the agony of soul that can find no other proper expression except, “I cannot eat. I cannot eat.”
One—to me, as I judge it—one of the problems and one of the mistakes of the early church after the days of the apostles, and certainly of the medieval church, was the persuasion on the part of the Christian people and their leaders that, in corporeal mortification and laceration, somehow there was pious, heavenly, meritorious reward. I think that is none other than the old Gnostic heresy that taught that in the body there was inherent evil and the only way to liberate, and to emancipate, and to elevate the finer qualities of the soul captured in the body, was to torment and lacerate and flagellate the flesh. Somehow they believed that, in the persecution of the body, there was elevation of the soul. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is a plain Gnostic heresy, and for the Christian church to have accepted it and looked upon corporeal tribulation as a means of pious approach to sanctity, to me, is no less heretical, for the Scriptures avow just the opposite!
In the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Romans, for example, Paul will say, “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink” [Romans 14:17]. And in the eighth chapter of the first Corinthian letter and the eighth verse, Paul writes, “But meat commendeth,” meat, that’s old English word for food, “but meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse” [1 Corinthians 8:8]. We are not led into lives of holiness and piety by these external, mechanical acts. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, saying, “Twice every week I fast.” But that did not lead him into holiness or in sanctity [Luke 18:11-14]. Fasting, as such, must be disassociated from an external, mechanical act, for it is not the going without food that leads to that holy, heavenly approach to God, but it is the Spirit that would lead you not to eat.
Have you never felt that way? Have you never been that way? Maybe such burden of heart, maybe such agony of soul, you just didn’t eat—just stayed before the Lord? That has been true of the Old Testament saints. That’s been true of the New Testament disciples; if they fasted, always, it was not some mechanical contrivance such as Lent, or such as Shrove Tuesday, or such as Ash Wednesday, but always it arose out of a deep trial before God.
The first chapter of the Book of Samuel begins with Hannah. She didn’t eat. And her husband, Elkanah said to her, “Why do you not eat? Why eatest thou not? Am I not better to thee than ten sons?” [1 Samuel 1:7-8]. Ah, how much meaning in Elkanah’s word to Hannah! But Hannah had a burden of heart, and she did not eat; she fasted and prayed before God [1 Samuel 1:7-8, 10]. And that boy, that little baby that God placed in her arms, whom she named Samuel, “asked of God” [1 Samuel 1:20], when he became a prophet in Israel, he called all of the people together. They had labored under the iron yoke of the Philistines for twenty years. And Samuel called a great fast, and they importuned the remembrance of God [1 Samuel 7:6]. No ritual as such, no mechanical contrivance as such, but out of agony of spirit, importuning the remembrance of heaven.
It is the story of Esther. She sent word to Mordecai her uncle and said, “Call all of the Jews in Shushan together, and let them not eat or drink, but pray. And I and my maidens will fast, and on the morrow, I shall go in unbidden to the king to ask for the lives of our people” [Esther 4:15-17]. It is out of the agony of soul that true fasting ever comes—and in no other way.
And it was so with Daniel. “I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” [Daniel 9:3]. I don’t suppose we would ever see that, but I have often, in imagination, thought of the city of Nineveh when Jonah came and preached, saying, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed” [Jonah 3:4]. And the king descended from his throne, and took off his royal robe, and clothed himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And from the king down to the most menial servant in the palace, the people fasted and prayed, and God turned and spared Nineveh [Jonah 3:5-10]. Think of the spirit of that. Sometimes when I read that, I think what might happen to America if such a spirit were to sweep over our people. From the president of the United States, who will soon be in Peking, down to the lowliest janitor and caretaker in one of these buildings—if the whole nation gave itself to prayer and supplication, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes. That is the spirit of Daniel as he came before God and prayed [Daniel 9:3-4].
Now let me speak briefly of the prayer. May I say some things that it is not, and then some things that it is? This is truly one of the great, great prayers of all literature, of all the Bible—the prayer of Daniel in behalf of his people [Daniel 9:3], as at the end of seventy years, according to the prophet Jeremiah, God would remember, in mercy, His people [Jeremiah 25:11-12, 29:10]. All right, some things that the prayer is not. One: it is not a recounting of his own merit. He’s not parading his own goodness before God. Rather, he says, “Lord to Thee there is righteousness, but unto us confusion of faces [Daniel 9:7]. I prayed and made confession of my sin and the sin of my people” [Daniel 9:4-6]. There is no virtue in him. No goodness in him. As Isaiah said, “All of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” in His sight [Isaiah 64:6]. And when he comes before God, there is no thought of personal merit or worth.
Again: in the prayer, there is no thought of penance, or atonement, or expiation. It is not by praying, though we’ve prayed forever. It is not by our tears, or our tribulations, or our torment that ever sin is expiated, washed away. Always that is in the mercy of God—always, in no other way. Our praying, we could pray forever, our tears, we could cry forever; they don’t wash away our sins. This is only in the blood of Christ, in the mercy of Christ [Matthew 26:28; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5]. And in no instance, and especially not here, will you find any tendency on the part of Daniel to look upon his praying as a penance, or as an atonement, or as an expiation. He just casts himself upon the mercies of God, “O Lord God, we do not present our supplications before Thee for our righteousness, but for Thy great mercies” [Daniel 9:18]. It is only God that can forgive our sins [Mark 2:7], not our praying.
Then again, what it is not: it is not an exercise in extremity. It is not just because of this great crisis that Daniel prays, for he had prayed all those years before. In the sixth chapter of the Book of Daniel, it says that three times every day, Daniel knelt down before an open window and looked toward the Holy Land and the Holy City and the holy temple, now in desolation and waste, and prayed [Daniel 6:10].
I don’t know what to think about a “crisis prayer,” a “foxhole prayer” as they used to call it. I suppose for a man to pray any time is fine. But oh, it is in a different world! To pray in a crisis and then lay it aside is such a travesty. But this holy man and prophet of God, Daniel, had prayed and he had prayed, and it was a habit of life in prayer, and when this great critical juncture comes at the end of his seventy years captivity, he had known how it is to bow before the great high God in intercession. You know, it’s wonderful to be on speaking terms with God. And in that hour of crisis, what Daniel had done for the years and the years before, he was doing yet again. He was setting his face unto the Lord God as he had in days past [Daniel 9:3].
But enough—what it is; what the prayer is. One: it is an overwhelming, all-consuming confession of need. “O Lord God, we have sinned against Thee [Daniel 9:5]. O God, to Thee belongeth mercies and forgivenesses” [Daniel 9:9]. There’s not strength in us; it must come from God. There are not answers in us; they must come from heaven. It is a confession of need, “On Thy kind arm we fall” [Isaac Watts]. It is an intense prayer, deeply earnest. Can’t you sense this? Listen:
O my God, incline Thine ear, and hear; open Thine eyes, and behold … look upon the city which is called by Thy name …
O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for Thine own sake, O my God: for Thy city and Thy people are called by Thy name.
It is an earnest prayer; it is intense. Now again, I would think that to pray glibly, lightsomely, trippingly, would be better than to don’t pray at all. But I’d hardly call it real praying. For real praying has in it the intensity of the soul.
Moses prayed like that: “Lord, if You cannot save the people, blot my name out of the book which Thou hast written [Exodus 32:32]. If they cannot live, I do not want to live. If they are to be judged, judge me. If they are to die, let me die, too.” He prayed that way. Micah prayed that way: “How shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God?” [Micah 6:6]. Paul prayed that: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the God our Father” [Ephesians 3:14]. Intensely, earnestly, “O God, hear; O Lord, hearken and do” [Daniel 9:19].
And again: it is a prayer for temporal blessings as well as spiritual blessings. You know, we have a strange idea in our heads: we compartmentalize our lives. Here’s a wall on this side, that’s religion; and here’s a wall and on this side, that’s secular considerations and materialities. And we say that, you know, “over here, we’re to be religious, this is God; and over here, this is world, and we leave God out.” Oh, no! There is no approach, there’s no semblance of a suggestion of such a thing as that in the Bible.
In this earnest, earnest, so deeply, fervent, intense prayer of Daniel, not only is he asking for spiritual blessings, mercies, and forgivenesses, but he is asking for—now, you look at these materialities. He is asking for the rebuilding of the house of God in Jerusalem, a material temple made out of stone. He is asking for the rebuilding of the Holy City that now lies in waste. That’s houses and walls and streets. And he is asking for the return of his people to the Holy Land. That includes all of the things that concern a pilgrimage, a trek, a journey: food, housing, carrying [Daniel 9:16-19]. All of these things are alike: sacred in God’s sight.
For a man to pray for his work, and for his task, and for his assignment, and to succeed, and to do well, and to be blessed of God, is as much in order as for a man to pray for the mercies of God and the forgiveness of heaven upon his soul. Praying for the whole of life, for we are not compartmentalized in our life, we’re one personality and we are one people. I am I when I am eating. I am I, still, when I am sleeping. I am I, still, when I get up in the morning. I am I, still, when I go around the tasks of the day, just as much as I am I, when I read the Bible. And I am I, when I pray. It’s all one life and all of it ought to be laid before God. “Lord, here I am. Bless me inside and outside, today, tomorrow, all the years of my life.”
Well, I have another section of this sermon. But I so want to get our appeal on television. We’re going to quit. We’re going to lop it off. You know, it takes a whole lot of spiritual commitment for me to do that. When I prepare the sermon, I just want to say it all so bad. But I so want us to begin, in these services, to let our people who look on television—and there are more than a quarter million people who are watching this service right now. The service is channeled in five different states; there are thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who are sharing this hour right now. And I so want to place on television our invitation.
I don’t know of any reason for coming down that aisle and standing before God except: one, that it blesses you when you do it. And most of all, it encourages somebody else. And when you come forward and give your heart to the Lord and put your life in the fellowship of God’s church, the people who see it, both here—all of us in divine presence and the throng who watch over television—all of us are encouraged when you come. Now, God surely could humble me when I’ve said all of that, and nobody comes. But I don’t believe God is going to do that. We had a marvelous, oh, a marvelous harvest at the 8:15 service this morning! And we’re going to trust God that He will do it again.
In a moment, we shall stand to sing our appeal. And if you’re in this balcony round, somebody you; if you are in this throng of people on this lower floor, somebody you, as the Spirit of Jesus shall press the appeal to your heart, will you come now? On the first note of the first stanza, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, giving your heart to Christ or coming into the fellowship of the church, on the first note of that first stanza, when we stand up to sing, you stand up responding. Stand up coming down that aisle, “Here I am, preacher, I give you my hand. I give my heart to the Lord.” Or, “This is my wife, and these are our children, all of us are coming today.” As God shall press the appeal to your heart, make it now. Come now, while we stand and while we sing.