Prayer and the Problem of Evil

Earlier this week, Ryan Mahoney raised the question: Does God move when we pray?  And although he has sought (and will continue to seek) to limit the discussion strictly to the question of prayer, I found myself thinking about a little known passage found in Daniel 10.  So today, in the interest of expanding upon the discussion, and in the interest of opening up a new discussion related to the problem of evil, I would like to address this passage and ask a few questions.

“In the third year of King Cyrus of Persia, a message was revealed to Daniel … At that time, I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks.  I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.  On the twenty-fourth day of the first month I [Daniel] was beside the great river, the Tigris.  I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen; around his waist was a belt made of gold from Upaz.  His body resembled yellow jasper, and his face had an appearance like lightning. His eyes were like blazing torches; his arms and feet had the gleam of polished bronze. His voice thundered forth like the sound of a large crowd.

Only I, Daniel, saw the vision; the men who were with me did not see it.  On the contrary, they were overcome with fright and ran away to hide. I alone was left to see this great vision. My strength drained from me, and my vigor disappeared; I was without energy.  I listened to his voice, and as I did so I fell into a trance-like sleep with my face to the ground.  Then a hand touched me and set me on my hands and knees.  He said to me, ‘Daniel, you are of great value.  Understand the words that I am about to speak to you. So stand up, for I have now been sent to you.’ When he said this to me, I stood up shaking. Then he said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, Daniel, for from the very first day you applied your mind to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard. I have come in response to your words. However, the prince of the kingdom of Persia was opposing me for twenty-one days. But Michael, one of the leading princes, came to help me, because I was left there with the kings of Persia. Now I have come to help you understand what will happen to your people in the latter days, for the vision pertains to future days.’”

The first question that must be raised with regards to this passage is simple.  Who is the figure that comes to visit Daniel and deliver the message?   While some, such as E. J. Young, have tried to identify this figure as YHWH, the divine warrior Himself, the context of the passage does not readily support such an identification.[1]  For starters, when this being first speaks to Daniel, he states that he has been “sent,” to the prophet, implying that he is acting upon the orders of a higher authority.  If this figure is meant to be understood as a theophany of YHWH, this language makes no sense for there is no higher authority that could have sent God on this mission.  More significantly, the passage also tells us that this figure has run into fierce opposition that he, himself, is unable to overcome without the assistance of Michael, the archangel.  So clearly, what we see in this passage is not an encounter between Daniel and YHWH, but rather an encounter between Daniel and an angelic being that has been dispatched by YHWH.[2]   Now that we have addressed this essential detail, we can begin to move forward with our discussion as we seek to answer the question: does God move when we pray?

First, notice the conditions that Daniel describes at the outset of this encounter.  For three weeks, he has “mourned,” opting not to eat any choice foods, nor to employ the use of any lotions to soothe his skin.  What must be pointed out here is that Daniel is not in the habit of foregoing these minor luxuries.  Rather, as we first saw in chapter one, Daniel foregoes food only in such particularly harsh and grueling seasons where he is desperately seeking a response from the Lord.  So while the circumstances surrounding this event are not entirely known to us, it is safe to say that regardless of what is causing Daniel’s sadness, it is of sufficient strength to cause a protracted period of suffering and “mourning,” which in turn leads Daniel to self-deprivation, a humble pursuit of “understanding,” and prayer.[3]  In other words, the prayers that Daniel finds himself offering up are not the sorts of common, everyday prayers that people offer seeking a better job, a renewed relationship, etc… These are fervent, heart-breaking prayers that desperately plead for the Lord to make His ways known to Daniel.

Interestingly enough, Scripture seems to go out of its way to make it perfectly clear that God heard Daniel’s prayers “from the very first day.”  What’s more, not only did God hear Daniel’s prayer, it would appear that He sent the angel “in response to [Daniel’s] words.”  Taken at face value, this seems to be a fairly strong argument against the impassibility of God.  For unless one desires to engage in all manner of theological gymnastics in the hopes of justifying a pre-commitment to a questionable doctrine, the plainest reading of this text gives us a picture of YHWH directly responding to the ongoing prayers of His beloved servant.

Having said that, we must now engage with a second issue raised by this text.  Look back to the closing lines from this passage:

“’Don’t be afraid, Daniel, for from the very first day you applied your mind to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard. I have come in response to your words. However, the prince of the kingdom of Persia was opposing me for twenty-one days. But Michael, one of the leading princes, came to help me, because I was left there with the kings of Persia.Now I have come to help you understand…’”

After affirming that YHWH has heard Daniel’s prayers and has even sought to answer them, the angel goes on to reveal that he was delayed by “the prince of the kingdom of Persia” for a period of 21 days.[4]  And it is at this point that the interpretation of the passage becomes incredibly complex.

For if God is both omnibenevolent (all-good) and omniscient (all-knowing) as historical, orthodox Christianity has consistently affirmed, than why would He have not sent forth sufficient forces to meet the demonic opposition in Persia?  Without question, the passage is clear in affirming Daniel’s state of distress.  Moreover, it seems intent on affirming the goodness of God as it takes pains to point out the fact that God both heard Daniel’s prayer and responded to it.  So the goodness of God cannot be called into question by this passage.  That leaves us with two perplexing problems.

First, did God know that the demonic opposition was coming?   While many Christians will be quick to shoot down this question, it is a question that has been raised by Open Theists; and it is a question that an honest reading of the passage seems to raise.  If God knew the opposition was coming and in His goodness, He genuinely wanted to answer Daniel’s prayer, then why did He not send sufficient forces to deal with the opposition?  Did He not know what was coming?

If, on the other hand, one wants to affirm God’s omniscience, than how is it really fair of the author to suggest that God tried to answer Daniel’s prayer.  For if God knew the opposition was coming and didn’t send sufficient forces to address the opposition, than how could it legitimately be said that he “responded” to Daniel’s pleas?  A “response” that cannot adequately address known opposition is not a “response” in any meaningful sense of the word.  Moreover, such a weak “response,” when one has unlimited power, seems to deny the goodness of God.

Thoughts?


[1] Young, The Prophecy of Daniel, 225.

[2] Some, such as Steven R. Miller, have tried to argue that this being is Gabriel.  His conclusion is reached based upon the fact that Gabriel is often portrayed as the angel charged with delivering significant messages throughout Scripture.  Such an attempt to identify the angel in this manner, however, is unnecessary and ultimately irrelevant to the text and its purpose. Daniel, 281-2.

[3] Daniel 10:12.

[4] Generally speaking, most modern Evangelical commentaries argue that the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” is not an earthly prince or king, but rather a potent, demonic spirit that operates in that region.  For more on this matter, see relevant discussions in the previous commentaries mentioned as well as commentaries by Tremper Longman III and Joyce G. Baldwin.

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3 Responses to Prayer and the Problem of Evil

  1. lovalon says:

    Enjoyable discussion of theodicy. In my humble opinion, the Bible is tough when it comes to forming a rounded view on the question; especially since theodicy (so-called) is treated within the same book from every possible angle. But that’s the genius of the Bible over every philosopher that came after! Anyway, I recently put up a short essay on the question of theodicy from the perspective of John Milton (a classical realist) & Descartes (idealist). Check it out if you get a chance ( http://philosophymajor.wordpress.com/ )

    regards

    • Lovalon … Thanks for stopping by. I’m actually planning on running a short series on various theodicies that have been advanced in different eras, so you might want to check back once in a awhile. As for the essay you linked to above, that was a good read. It’s been years since I’ve read Milton; and I had completely forgotten about his concept of Satan as a self-created force. Hope to see you around.

  2. Doug Hutchcraft says:

    I agree that theological gymnastics must be performed to suggest God’s already made up His mind on everything and doesn’t respond, even “change His mind” in some instances, when He is sought. King Hezekiah’s “death date” changing comes to mind. God says “You do not have because You do not ask.” Seems pretty straight forward: there are answers to prayer just waiting to happen if we will first seek and ask Him.

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