Christians around the world are praying fervently for peace in the Middle East, yet the fighting continues. Are our prayers being hindered? A peculiar story from the Old Testament may help us understand what’s going on, says David Instone-Brewer
Our prayers are focussed on Israel/Palestine, but with horror after horror still continuing, it seems that they have made little impact.
Daniel’s prayer for this land in about 535 BC seemed to have the same result – no response. As a prophet, Daniel usually had some inside knowledge, but this time he had no idea what was going on.
His ignorance on this occasion, however, resulted in a fantastic insight for us. We can peep behind the curtain to see how God answers prayer, and discover what can cause a delay.
When angels are late
Daniel was exiled in Babylon, along with the elite of Israel, while the ‘ordinary’ people were left behind – those dismissively called “people of the land” (2 Kings 24:14). Daniel set himself the task of praying for the return of the exiles to Jerusalem – but nothing happened. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting an immediate announcement that every Jew could pack up and leave for home but, as a prophet, he did expect some kind of feedback – a situation report or an indication that he’d got it all wrong and should stop praying. Yet, he heard nothing.
Why is Iran anti-Jewish? Until recently, Iran and Iraq (the land of ancient Babylon) had huge Jewish populations
On this occasion, Daniel knew how the rest of us so often feel. We pray and pray, and nothing happens.
Even Paul had this experience when he prayed for the removal of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Perhaps he referred to an eye condition – a terrible affliction for a scholar. He signed his letters with increasingly large writing, and some said they’d offer him their own eyes if they could (Galatians 4:15; 6:11). He continued praying and the condition wasn’t healed, though God did let Paul know: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Daniel, however, heard nothing for three weeks, and then an angel arrived saying, in effect: “Sorry I’m late.” He explained that he’d immediately set out to respond to Daniel’s first prayer, but he’d been detained by an evil angel he called “the prince of Persia”. He then told Daniel that the “prince of Greece” was also on his way (Daniel 10:13,20). We now know that these were the two empires about to control that area of the globe. The Persians were about to invade Babylon, and afterwards, they would be conquered by Alexander the Great.
A peek behind the curtain
The curtain that hides the spiritual realm is pulled aside a little in this encounter. We understand that there is only one God, but this can lead us to forget about all the other beings in the spiritual universe. Some are so powerful that they used to be worshipped as local gods. This shouldn’t surprise us; after all, it appears from this passage that they were willing to fight on behalf of the people living in their patch.
We shouldn’t be fooled: evil angels who oppose God are not likely to be on our side, any more than a local crime boss is on the side of the shopkeepers he ‘protects’. They use people for their own ends, and I wonder if we can see this being played out today in the Middle East.
If this “Prince of Persia” is a real entity, and if it still controls the same geographical area, we’d expect it to attempt to manipulate the people of modern Iran (Persia) and influence their leaders to carry out its own agenda. And if this being’s agenda is the same as in Daniel’s time, its goal is to destroy Israel.
A strange phenomenon
This may help to explain a strange phenomenon in Iranian politics. Iran, more than any country, uses its considerable wealth to support militias in foreign countries to undermine other governments, while leaving its own people in poverty. It gives money and armaments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen, various militias in Iraq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which foments trouble in neighbouring countries, Assad’s supporters in Syria, and Hamas in Gaza.
Its support of the latter two stand out as strange because, unlike all the others, they aren’t Shia Muslims like the Iranian leaders. We can, perhaps, understand the fanaticism of the Shia Ayatollah running Iran who wants to spread his own version of religion by force. But it makes no sense for him to support Assad, who belongs to the hated Alawite sect who have their own secretive scriptures and don’t attend mosques. And it is very strange for him to support Hamas, who belong to Sunni Islam, which Iran is actively fighting in various places.
If this “prince of Persia” is a real entity, and it’s agenda is the same as in Daniel’s time, its goal is to destroy Israel
The reason, of course, is that both Assad and Hamas can help Iran fight Israel. However that raises another question: why is Iran anti-Jewish? Until recently, Iran and Iraq (the land of ancient Babylon) had huge Jewish populations. Before the world wars, about a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish. Iran is understandably anti-Sunni, because this more-numerous branch of Islam is a threat to them. But until recent times, when Iran declared its intention to wipe out the country of Israel, Jews had never been a threat.
Iran are supposedly supporting Palestinians – but, again, this is difficult to understand, because most Palestinians are also Sunni. Additionally, it means that Iranians are pitting themselves against the huge military and economic might of America – something totally illogical, unless they have strong motives.
Politicians have trouble following Iran’s logic, but Daniel’s angelic encounter gives us a possible insight; its leaders have found it easy to whip up the population into anti-Jewish fervour due to a malignant spiritual influence. The money poured into supporting opponents of this new enemy should be helping the impoverished Iranian people, but instead its leaders follow the logic of a spiritual force they aren’t aware of.
However, their enemies, the Jews, may be equally deluded. After returning from exile a few decades after Daniel, they spurned “the people of the land” who’d been left behind, because they’d intermarried with others and, in the absence of the temple and priesthood, wandered from the faith. The returning exiles even rejected their offer of help to rebuild the temple (Ezra 4:1-4).
Similarly, when Jews returned to Palestine after the second world war, they regarded the inhabitants of the land as foreigners. Most of the Jews who had remained in Israel in Roman times became Christians. Then, in the 7th century, Muslim invaders converted them to Islam. This left a population of about 80 per cent Islam, 10 per cent Christian and 10 per cent Jewish, who lived peacefully together. But when more Jews arrived in modern times, they regarded these Muslims and Christians as foreign ‘Arabs’.
Their mistake wasn’t realised until three major genetic studies came to the same conclusion: the Palestinians are descended from Jews, not Arabs. By the time the Jews realised this, too much blood had flowed for either side to mend their family or even acknowledge their brothers.
When we pray for peace in the Middle East, we are truly contending “against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).