In his 1980 television series Cosmos, astronomer Carl Sagan began each episode with these words: “The cosmos [the material universe] is all that is or was or ever will be.” Although presented as a scientific conclusion, this statement is not scientific at all. It is much closer to a religious statement, one that claims that the material universe is the ultimate reality, elevating it to a divine status. And if you listen closely to the way Sagan talked about the material universe, you would hear the sense of awe and worship in his voice.
Carl Sagan is one example of a trend of thought in the late modern world, which is to elevate this world to a position of supreme importance. After all, if there is no other world to speak of, how could this world not be supremely important? I believe there is a direct line from Sagan’s philosophy of deifying this world to the elevation of politics and the power of the state to ultimate importance. Think about it: if this world is all we have, doesn’t it follow that the state becomes like a god to us, the greatest power we encounter and the force that moves history? Just skim headlines each day and see where the attention of the world is focused at all times. Politics dominates our public discourse and controls our daily news cycles, showing the centrality of the state in our society.
And if this world is all we have, and if the state is the highest power we will encounter, doesn’t it then follow that the most important thing we can do is seek to impose our will through political power? If we cannot see beyond this present age, we will naturally assume that it is our actions that matter most on the plane of history.
Christians are not immune to the effects of late modern thought and culture. Although we would never use Carl Sagan’s words, don’t we often operate with the implicit assumption that reality is limited to what we can see and that we are in ultimate control of our lives? The more infected we are by this kind of thinking, the less attention we will give to prayer, for prayer depends on the assumption that reality is emphatically not limited to what we can see, and we are emphatically not in control of our lives or of this world.
The book of Daniel gives us a window into an unseen reality that should move us to prayer. The last half of the book (chapters 7-12) consists of four visions revealed to Daniel about Israel’s future in relation to that of successive empires, finally giving way to the establishment of God’s kingdom. The last of these four visions begins right here in chapter 10 and will continue until the end of the book. We see from verse 1 that this vision came to Daniel in the third year of the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia, which would have been around 536 BC. Once the Persians had conquered Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree that the Jewish captives in Babylon could return to their homeland and rebuild their temple with funds from the royal treasury. And so a number of Jews had returned by this time, but we know from Ezra chapter 4 that the returned exiles faced opposition from local officials, and thus the work of rebuilding had stalled. It was probably in response to hearing bad news from Jerusalem about the rebuilding effort that Daniel decided to spend an extended period fasting from delicacies, meat, and wine. For three weeks—including the time of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread—Daniel mourned over the news he had heard, and although verses 2-3 don’t specifically say so, we can be absolutely sure that he spent much of this time praying for the continued restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. And so after three weeks of mourning, a partial fast, and prayer, Daniel receives a heavenly visitor who gives him a revelation from God about the future of Israel. The content of this revelation will be unpacked in chapters 11 and 12, but today we are going to focus on the introductory section to this revelation here in chapter 10.
This passage is one of many testimonies in Scripture to the fact that there is a world beyond the ability of our eyes to see. The cosmos is not all that is, or was, or ever will be. There is an unseen war between the forces of good and evil that affects the rise and fall of nations and shapes the course of history. And all of this is happening according to the unfolding plan of our sovereign God. Putting these two truths together—spiritual warfare and the sovereign rule of God—gives us precisely the motivation we need to devote ourselves to prayer. So I want to give us three words of direction tied to these two truths and how they lead us a better practice of prayer.
As you let this passage shape your heart and life, first do this:
I. See the Unseen World of Spiritual Conflict.
Children need to hear fairy tales about magical worlds. Why? To stir their imaginations. But then why is it good for their imaginations to be stirred? Is it because imagination gives them the opportunity to escape from reality? No. Actually, fairy tales help bring reality into clearer focus. They give us a glimpse into a mysterious wonder that is an echo of a spiritual reality that we cannot see and so normally ignore. Come to think of it, adults need fairy tales every bit as much as children. We need imaginations that are trained to behold more than our physical eyes can see. That is what living by faith is.
Here Daniel gets a glimpse into a hidden world, where he hears about a great conflict. Those words “great conflict” appear in verse 1 as the subject of the vision that will be reported in chapters 11-12. We will see in future messages that this vision has to do with the future of the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, and how they will affect the people of Israel.
So Daniel will hear about a great conflict that will play out on the stage of human history, but what he hears in chapter 10 is that behind this conflict of nations and empires are warring angelic powers of an unseen realm. Notice what the angel tells Daniel in verse 13: “The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia.” These are all angelic powers, some good and some evil (fallen angels, or demons), who are associated with the empires of this world. The prince of the kingdom of Persia is an angelic power who represents the Persian empire in the spiritual realm. It seems that under his command are the “kings of Persia,” presumably subordinate angelic authorities. These powers were in conflict with the angel who appears to Daniel here, and then Michael, who is called “one of the chief princes” (or “archangel” in the book of Jude) came to join the battle against the prince of Persia.
And it looks like that battle was not over, because the angel says to Daniel in verses 20-21, “Do you know why I have come to you? But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come. But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince.” So this war between Michael (now identified as “your prince,” or the angel who represents Israel) and the prince of Persia will be an ongoing battle, only to be followed by a battle with the prince of Greece. So apparently, the defeat of the angelic power who represents Persia will correspond with the fall of the Persian empire on earth, which will then give way to the Greek empire under the rule of Alexander the Great.
And there is one more reference to spiritual warfare in 11:1: “And as for me, in the first year of Darius the Mede, I stood up to confirm and strengthen him.” This angel is telling Daniel about a battle that occurred two years earlier, when he came to Michael’s aid. That battle probably had something to do either with the Persian conquest of Babylon or with the issuing of Cyrus’s decree that the Jews could return to their land. Since those events directly affected Israel, Michael engaged in battle to turn the course of events for the good of the Jewish people. So if you put all of this together, you can see that angelic powers were at war before this vision was given, they are at war as the angel is speaking to Daniel, and they foresee a lengthy time into the future when spiritual warfare will continue to rage, affecting the rise and fall of empires on the earth.
So what is the meaning of all of this in the context of the book of Daniel? I believe the central message of the book is the statement repeated several times in chapter 4: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” So think of it this way: at any given time only one empire or kingdom represents “the kingdom of men” on earth, and as such, that empire has an angelic authority in a position of power in the spiritual realm. In chapters 2 and 7, we have two different visions of the same basic storyline: there will be four successive, rebellious human empires, each one taking its turn as “the kingdom of men”: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. But then God will enthrone his Messiah, strip the reigning angelic authority of his power, and give “the kingdom of men” to his Son and his people. We know from history that it was during the time of the Roman Empire (the fourth kingdom of Daniel) that Jesus came, was crucified, was raised from the dead, and was enthroned at the right hand of God. According to Revelation 12, when that happened, Satan was cast down from heaven by Michael, the angelic power associated with the kingdom of the Messiah. In the enthronement of Jesus Christ, God has given the kingdom of men to whom he will, in fulfillment of Daniel’s visions. But what I want you to see from this text is that this does not occur without an intense spiritual battle. Angelic powers wage war in the spiritual realm, fighting to establish sovereignty that directly affects events on the earth.
In the New Testament, we see that we are caught up in this spiritual battle. Paul says in Ephesians 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” This battle affects the affairs of nations. Consider, for example, the fact that two years after the public exposure of its horrific practices of selling for profit the body parts of the unborn children it mutilates, Planned Parenthood continues to receive government funding due to entrenched support for it among powerful elites in our society. That is not merely a political issue; it is a spiritual one. Planned Parenthood’s callous disregard for the dignity of human life is demonic, and I mean that literally. But this battle does not only affect political issues. It also affects our own lives, our families, our church. Brother or sister, the pornography that lures you into sinful indulgence only has appeal as long as the enemy manages to blind you to the truth of what it actually is: degradation of the image of God. The unbelieving neighbors you encounter have not submitted to the gospel because the god of this world (Satan) has blinded their eyes to the glory of Christ. Struggles with sin in the hearts of your children are the battlefields on which a spiritual war is waged between light and darkness.
The power we are dealing with in this war is not only real, it is utterly overwhelming. In this passage Daniel gets a glimpse of the spiritual realm when this messenger angel appears to him. The overwhelming presence of this angel sends Daniel’s companions running for cover and knocks Daniel himself to the ground (vv. 7-9). Then Daniel gets back up, trembling (vv. 10-11), but he is left speechless before the power that is before him (v. 15). When he does talk, all he can say is that he has no strength in him (vv. 16-17). Let this spiritual encounter be a reminder to us that we cannot engage our enemies in the spiritual realm at the level of our own abilities. That would be like storming the gates of hell with a squirt gun. Yes, our gifts and abilities matter. God can use them in this spiritual battle. But we cannot rely on them. We are but flesh, incapable of contending in our own strength with the spiritual power that confronts us. If it depends on us, we will never win the fight against pornography, we will never see our unbelieving neighbors come to Christ, our children will be doomed to the captivity of sin, and we will be right there with them.
So beware the tendency to reduce reality to what we can see and thus to reduce significant action to what we can do. The world is much, much bigger than that.
But isn’t this terrifying? Doesn’t it leave our future uncertain if we see this world as the scene of a raging spiritual battle that we cannot even begin to engage by our own abilities? No. That brings us to a second exhortation from this passage:
II. Take Comfort in the Truth of God’s Sovereignty.
We might assume that if spiritual warfare is real, it must imply that there are two roughly equal powers engaging in battle, and so the final outcome is genuinely uncertain. But that is not at all the biblical perspective. In Scripture, spiritual warfare does not diminish one iota the absolute, sovereign rule of God over all of creation. We have seen this point made in every single chapter of Daniel.
The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in this way: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” That means that everything that happens in history happens according to the plan of our sovereign God. That is a biblical teaching. Paul speaks of God in Ephesians 1:11 as the one who “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” In Romans 11:36 he declares “For from him, and through him, and to him are all things. To him be glory forever, Amen.” Biblical examples could be multiplied. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture declares consistently that God is the sovereign ruler of his creation, and as such he will fulfill his purpose in the triumphant establishment of his kingdom.
So where do we see the truth of God’s sovereignty in this passage? Two places in particular. Notice that in verse 14 the angel tells Daniel that he “came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.” In chapters 11 and 12, the angel will make known to Daniel in meticulous detail what will happen with the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires and how they will affect Israel. So that is an indication that God knows the future and has the ability to reveal it before it happens. But that raises the question: how does God know the future? Look at verse 21. Here the angel tells Daniel: “But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth.” The “book of truth” refers to God’s decree, or his foreordained plan. It is the story God has written in advance for the unfolding of human history. God knows the future because he has planned it.
What we see in the story that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation is not only that God is the hero, but he is also the author of this story. As the hero who is inside the story, he engages in the conflict. Yet at the same time he is the author, standing outside the story, directing it to go according to his plan. Even his enemies, who are in rebellion against him, cannot help but play the parts he has written for them.
So how should we respond to the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty? We should respond in the way Paul does in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Yes, we will face intense conflicts, sufferings, and defeats. Yes, we will have setbacks and difficulties in this world. We might even face persecution at some point. We will labor to see the gospel spread, and people will continue to reject our message. We will struggle with sin, in ourselves, in our families, in our church. But we must never succumb to a spirit of defeatism. We must never allow the circumstances of our lives or the events that unfold around us dislodge from our hearts the most comforting truth in Scripture: that our God reigns, and that he is for us.
If spiritual conflict is beyond our ability to engage, and yet our God is sovereign over all things, it is clear that we must us rely on him to fight our battles. But how do we express our reliance on him? That brings us to a third word of direction:
III. Pray for God’s Purposes with Urgency and Confidence.
The two theological truths I have unpacked—spiritual conflict and God’s sovereignty—combine to give us the perfect motivation for prayer. Think about it: what if we had the biblical truth of God’s sovereignty but no indication of a spiritual conflict, no evil opposition to God’s purposes? Then we wouldn’t feel the need to petition God about anything. There would be no urgency to petitionary prayer. But what if it were reversed? What if we had an understanding of spiritual conflict, but had no biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty? Then we might feel the urgency of opposing evil, but we would have no confidence that prayer could do anything to help. For if God is not sovereign, what can he do in response to our prayers? It is precisely the joining of these two truths that enables us to make sense of prayer and to engage in it with frequency, intensity, and confidence that it matters in the fulfillment of God’s good purposes.
We saw in verses 2-3 that Daniel fasted and mourned for three weeks. He does not mention prayer in those verses, but did he pray during that time? Of course he did! We know that not only from the fact that Daniel was a man of prayer (see chapter 6), but also from what the angel tells him in verse 12: “Then he said to me, ‘Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” The powers of heaven were moved in response to Daniel’s prayers. Ralph Davis highlights the connection between Daniel’s prayers and the spiritual battle of the angelic forces when he writes, “Daniel’s prayer sustained a behind-the-scenes triumph over the malicious designs of the invisible powers in charge of Persia.” The affairs of nations, which directly affect Israel and the restoration of Jerusalem, are moved in response to the prayers of Daniel. History itself unfolds according to God’s plan, which he has ordained will be carried along in response to the prayers of his people.
Viewing it this way, we can see why the poet George Herbert called prayer “reversed thunder,” an image of an unfathomable power that reaches from earth to Heaven. Yet properly speaking, prayer itself is not powerful. God is. Prayer is not a magic incantation, an expression of our own inherent abilities to manipulate spiritual forces to our own ends. Prayer is calling upon the sovereign God of creation, who has promised to hear us, who has taught us to pray according to his will, and who will act in fulfillment of his will as we pray accordingly. Prayer is an utterly unique human activity. In it we engage the realm of spiritual powers that are beyond our ability to fathom. And we do so by looking outside of ourselves and to the sovereign power of our God.
In Mark chapter 9 we read the story of Jesus coming down the mountain of transfiguration to discover that his disciples had been unable to cast out a demon from a boy with an unclean spirit. After Jesus casts out the demon, his disciples ask him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus’ response on Mark 9:29 is this: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” The disciples did not yet understand that triumphing over the forces of evil is not about speaking the right magical words, as though we have the ability within ourselves to make it happen. It is about calling on our Father in Heaven to act for us. Prayer is simply faith in action, and the power of faith is not inherent to the faith itself. The power of faith is in its object. That is why even faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. It is not the faith itself that moves them; it is the God to whom that faith looks in prayer. If he truly is the sovereign Lord of all creation, and if we are engaged in a spiritual conflict that is far beyond our ability to win, the conclusion we must draw from these two truths is that prayer is our spiritual lifeblood. The unseen war of the heavenly realm demonstrates why prayer is so badly needed, and God’s sovereignty shows us why it is so effective.
If the cosmos were indeed all that is, or was, or ever will be, I would have nothing worthwhile to say to you this morning. But the story of the Bible shows us that there is much, much more. There is an unseen spiritual conflict that affects the rise and fall of nations and the course of history. But all that happens does so according to the plan of God, who reigns as Lord over all that he has made.
What I want you to see this morning is that you are in the crossfire of this spiritual battle, and you are accountable to this sovereign God. In the end, you will either belong to the forces that are arrayed in battle against him destined for condemnation in a lake of fire, or you will be a triumphant citizen of the kingdom he has established through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have not confessed the lordship of Jesus Christ over you, it is because the enemy of your soul has blinded your eyes to the truth of his glory. I pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit, right now, God has opened your eyes to see the glory of his Son, put to death for your sins, but raised to life again and enthroned over the kingdom of man. I call on you turn from your sins and give your life to him. In the end, it is only his kingdom that will endure. Come and be baptized, and declare to the world that you are now his.
For those of you who are believers, my call to you today is to engage the enemy in battle. Not with conventional weapons, but through prayer. Take a moment to bow your heads and to focus on one area of spiritual conflict where you want to see God act. Maybe it’s a battle with sin in your own heart. Maybe it’s an unbelieving family member, neighbor, or coworker. Maybe it pertains to a missionary you follow. Maybe it’s a battle for the hearts of your children. Or maybe it’s something your heart is drawn to pray about regarding our church and the fulfillment of our mission. Whatever it may be, take a moment to contemplate the reality of the spiritual conflict involved in that concern. And now, in your heart, call upon God to overthrow his enemies and fulfill the purposes that advance his kingdom.
Your words have been heard. Amen.