And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored. -Dan. 5:22-23

Introduction

We have arrived once again at a vital time in American history. It is election day. During this political season a certain proverb often comes to mind which says, “Like a bad tooth and an unsteady foot is confidence in a faithless man in time of trouble” (Prov. 25:19). I am constantly reminded that time after time human institutions fail. It should be no surprise, yet I find myself at time slumping in my seat, peeking through my fingers in disbelief at the choices set before us. Quite simply we are voting for pagans (and quite possibly have been with the majority of presidential elections). There is no way around it.

This election has been weighing on me a little more than previous elections. It may be because I am a little older. It may be because I have a growing little family of five and I legitimately have thoughts and questions about what the world will be when my children are my age. My duty as a husband and father are immediately brought to the forefront of my mind. Am I teaching those in my care how to live well, how to follow Christ no matter what? When the time comes, will I teach them how to die well? Barring the Lord’s return, if I leave them before they leave me, will I have given them the tools they need to navigate a barren land and remain faithful to God? It is interesting how the good providence of a dim political sphere rips the world and its system from your grip and gives you a clearer vision of what truly matters. It is times like these that often make me think more about those ultimate issues.

I was comforted by a familiar story from the book of Daniel recently and I believe the lessons from it are immanently practical for such a time as this. But familiarity has a curious way of making us overlook the obvious, and it may ultimately leave us ignorant of the truth that would otherwise transform us. I will offer no new things here, yet I pray by such a familiarity you will comfortably perceive its truth and be pierced by the comfort this story offers.

Background

The story of Belshazzar is the story of the last night of an empire. It is the story of imperceptible demise. Empires , however, do not fall over night. Sometimes giants take time to hit the ground.

Belshazzar was a man of advantage. He was not ignorant of the dealings of God in the world. He had an example of what God would do with a man who lived in rebellion against the voice of the Lord. That man was Nebuchadnezzar, his father. God humiliated his father and made him eat grass like a beast of the field (Dan. 4:28-33). God made him lose his mind. He made Nebuchadnezzar as stupid as the ox of the field. Sin always reduces a man to the level of a beast (Gen. 4:7).

We may confidently say that Belshazzar did not take heed to the dealings of God in the life of his father. In the truest sense of the word, Belshazzar was an existentialist. All that he cared about was the here and now. But a man is not a culmination of the here and now. A man is always a product of his past, whether he wants to admit it or not. Wise men take heed to the past. They cannot, nor can the nation they lead, move forward without a proper view of the past.

On the last night of the empire, Belshazzar was feasting. It was a great feast with much wine flowing. Once the wine was coursing well through his veins he called for the vessels of the Jerusalem temple to be brought out that they might drink from them in defiance of God. Belshazzar partied with what was consecrated to the worship of God. The kings, lords, his wives and concubines all drank from the sacred items of the temple. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. Belshazzar drank in defiance of God, not knowing that very night was the last night of his empire and that very night his soul would be required of him.

Numbered, Weighed, Divided

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the wall. Though silently written the sound was deafening. Like mighty rushing waters, Belshazzar was swept away in fear. His mind was consumed with alarm. Life rushed out of his face, fleeing back to his heart in self-preservation. Groping for answers he called for enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers. No one could answer, except one.

Daniel, the man of God, had answers…and he was willing to speak. Daniel’s answer was not one of hope, joy, political victory, or even long life. It was a message of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come.

Daniel’s message was a message of the past. He reminded Belshazzar of the dealings of God with his father Nebuchadnezzar. He reminded him that it was the Most High God who gave to his father kingship, greatness, glory, and majesty. He also reminded him that it was that same God who stripped his father naked, drove him into the field, made him like a wild beast “until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will.

Daniels message was also a message of the present. God’s ways had not changed simply because the kingdom had been passed from one to another. Daniel rebuked Belshazzar and leveled five charges against him.

  • He did no humble his heart, though he knew how God had dealt with his father.
  • He made war against God. He had lifted himself up against the Lord of heaven.
  • He desecrated what was holy. He drank wine from holy things.
  • He worshiped idols of silver and gold, bronze, iron, and stone.
  • He did not honor God, in whom was his very breath.

And then came the fateful words written on the wall.

MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN

God had numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom and brought it to an end. God had weighed him in the balance and found him wanting. God had divided his kingdom and given it to another. The imperceptible demise of the kingdom was now upon him like a roaring lion. That very night Belshazzar would stand face to face with the God who wrote those fateful words with His very finger and give an account of his life.

Shall Not The Judge of All The Earth Do What Is Right?

The story of Belshazzar is fascinating. I believe it offers three practical lessons (among many others) for the Christian.

First, God is utterly sovereign. He is meticulously sovereign. Maverick molecules do not exist in his universe. He will do what is right all the time because he is in control of all things. Kingdoms come and kingdoms go. One thing is certain – it is not only by God’s sovereign appointment that any particular ruler be established in a nation, but the very decisions of that ruler are not outside the bounds of his sovereign control. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).

Second, Christians must speak the truth in season and out of season (Ecc. 11:1-6; 2 Tim. 4:2). Sadly, religious speech is being attacked daily. What regret we would have as the people of God if in favorable times we were too afraid to speak out of fear of opinions, only to find in unfavorable times we are shut up under law from speaking? Daniel spoke, even as a captive in a pagan kingdom. He spoke plainly, boldly, and without compromise (Dan. 5:17). “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1).

Third, Christians must trust God. The Son of God, according to the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7-8), in his humanity, was not omniscient, nor was he omnipotent. God has concealed from us certain things that we might learn to trust him and be on the watch for his return (Deut. 29:29). If the Son of God, according to his humanity, was reliant upon the Father, if there was such an acquiescence of the heart of the Messiah to rest in his Father’s hands, if he was content in his humanity with not knowing all things (Matt. 24:36), can the believer do less? Is not Christ our example?

Conclusion

The times are uncertain and the future is unknown to all but God. The believer ought not let their heart be troubled. The rebel ought to fear. Their kingdom has long come to and end. Their captain has been chained and thrown into outer darkness. Thankfully for the believer we are not electing a Messiah. We already have one. Hallelujah! So, keep trusting believer. Keep speaking. Our King comes speedily!

Not only does the story of Belshazzar have much to say to us, but it has much to say to both Presidential candidates. Those words are this: God has established His kingdom. It will never be destroyed. It will not be given into the hands of another. A stone not cut with human hands will crush all other kingdoms and bring them to an end (Dan. 2:34). It will endure forever because its King lives forever. The bounds of your kingdom fall within the pale of the ultimate sovereign kingdom of God. The weight of your responsibility is enormous. Act wisely. True wisdom, fit for kings and judges, is found in obedience to Christ (Prov. 9:10). Are you truly wise, dear candidate? Or are “We the people” electing a fool? Are you of the stock of Belshazzar – proud, presumptuous, idolatrous, desecrating holy things? Do you find yourself in the bulls-eye of Psalm 2, raging, plotting, counseling how you may somehow shake off the rule of the Lord? Weighty questions indeed. Eternally significant questions for sure. Take heed to the words of one of the wisest kings who ever lived.

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

For from the rising of the sun even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. -Mal. 1:11

In a previous article I explored giving as an essential part of corporate worship. In that article the central point was to press home the truth that giving is to be done in the corporate worship of God’s people on God’s day, not relegated to an online form or a box in a foyer. To summarize, giving is part of the regulative principle of the church. The central or spring-board text for that article was Acts 2:42. I believe that this text is also central with regard to what I am proposing in this article. I am not arguing here for the validity of prayer in worship. I am proposing that corporate prayer, in the New Covenant, is not to be offered by pastors alone, but by the men of the church.

Prayer is one of the primary ways we draw near to God. Prayer is not only primarily how we draw near to God individually, but how we draw near to God corporately as the church. Mal. 1:11 envisions this when he prophesies that “in every place incense is going to be offered to My name,” tying the Old Testament ritual of incense in worship to, among other things, the act of prayer (Ps. 141:2) in every place where God’s people are gathered (1 Tim. 2:8).  Isa. 56:7 calls God’s house, His corporate gathered saints, a house of prayer.

Even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.

Saints may have their private prayer closets (Matt. 6:6) and rightly so. But as priests unto God (Rev. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:9), possessing the very keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19; Matt. 18:17-18), the local church has been given the right and privilege of drawing near to God corporately in prayer.

The Prayers

Acts 2:42 bring clarity to the practice of the early church with regard to the elements of worship.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (ESV)

This passage states that the church not only continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles (τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων), the fellowship (τῇ κοινωνίᾳ), the breaking of the bread (τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου), but in the prayers (ταῖς προσευχαῖς). Each of these elements are denoted by what is commonly called a definite article. I believe that in the context of Acts 2:42 this article used by Luke is spelling out the particular parts of the corporate worship of God’s people. The church received and obeyed the teaching of the apostles. The church contributed help. The church broke bread. The church prayed. Each of the elements in this passage point to the corporate nature of worship in the early church. The definite article seems to make this notion explicit.

They continued steadfastly (προσκαρτεροῦντες) in each of these things. This verb carries with it the idea of interaction, devotion, or to continue to do something with intense effort. They did these things not as passive participants, but with effort and with devotion. One could argue that hearing has an element of both passivity and activity, but the meaning of this text is clear. The hearing involved obedience (Jam. 1:22; 2:14-26). Not only this, the church actively contributed help monetarily, they actively broke bread, and they actively prayed. This was not an environment where prayers were offered in their hearing, but an environment in which they actively participated. They were not passive in any of the elements mentioned, not even prayer.

Just as the pastor does not receive and obey the apostles teaching in place of the church, just as he does not give contributory help in place of the church, just as he does not take communion in place of the church, so he does not pray in place of the church in corporate worship. Each of the elements are activities of the church. If the command to pray according to Acts 2:42 can be fulfilled solely by the pastor, upon what consistent basis could not the bread and wine be partaken of by the pastor alone? I don’t know upon what consistent basis someone could argue against the  latter application (bread and wine) and embrace the former application (prayer). Both are elements. Both are mentioned in Acts 2:42. Can both be withheld from the congregation? Can one? This may be overly simplistic, but I think what has been said so far makes clear at least one of the implications of the passage and opens up for discussion the logical conclusions that follow when the church is excluded from praying corporately.

The Men

With Acts 2:42 spelling out clearly that the church ought to pray in its corporate meetings, there is a qualification that must be mentioned. The New Testament teaches that the men of the church are the ones who should pray in corporate worship. 1 Tim. 2:1-12 is one place that clearly teaches this truth.

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7 For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. 8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

Paul is writing to Timothy and instructing him how a church should function. Verses 1 and 2 teach that, among other things, all types of prayers are to be offered up to God by the men of the church for all types of people (cf. Acts 2:42). Verses 8-12 proceed to spell out how both men and women are to function in the corporate gathering. In comparison to the function of men mentioned in verse 8, verses 9-12 speak clearly of the attitude, apparel, and obedience of godly women in the church. Verse 8 clearly spells out the function of the men.

Verse 8 states that “in every place the men should pray”. The place in which Paul is speaking is not the believer’s home, or prayer closet (although both of these are surely good and necessary, cf. 1689 Baptist Confession chap. 22, para. 6). Paul is speaking of churches. This conclusion cannot be determined by syntax alone, since ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ simply means in every place. Contextually, however, the place in which Paul is speaking of is clear. His instructions to Timothy are instructions for the churches. Comparing this text with 1 Cor. 1:2 where Paul is addressing the church at Corinth “with all who in every place (ἐν παντὶ τόπῳ) call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” it is clear that Paul is referring to the saints worldwide, gathered together in local bodies to worship.

Paul desires that the men should pray. The reference here is not to the elders (Οἱ πρεσβύτεροι) but to the men (τοὺς ἄνδρας). The word ἄνδρας means adult male. The noun in verse 8 is plural. The men here in verse 8 are set in contrast to the women (καὶ γυναῖκας) in verse 9. Though it must be admitted that Paul’s emphasis is not primarily on the role of men and women but on the priority of prayer in the churches, the point cannot be ignored. Choice implies meaning. Paul chose to make the distinction and he chose to give precise ecclesiastical instructions, so the distinction matters. Simply put, in the analysis of 1 Tim. 2:1-12, Paul has something different to say to the men of the church as opposed to the women. The men should pray.

John Gill offers clarity on this passage. He states,

In this declaration of the apostle’s will concerning prayer, he only takes notice of “men”; not but that it is both the duty and privilege of women, as well as men, to pray in their houses and closets; but because he is speaking of public prayer in the church, which only belongs to men, he speaks only of them; and his will is, that prayer should be performed by them everywhere, or in any place, in any part of the world where they lived. Now was the prophecy in Malachi 1:11 fulfilled, and now was the time come our Lord refers to, John 4:21. This seems to be said in opposition to a Jewish notion, that the temple at Jerusalem was the only place for prayer, and that prayer made elsewhere ought to be directed towards that.

Solidarity and Corporate Relationship

It must be admitted that solidarity and corporate relationship are a fundamental fabric of the basic institutions of God in the world. We see this in the family, the state, and the church. In the family the husband is chief representative. In the state our officials hold this capacity. In the church it is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ who holds this title. On an all inclusive scale we find Adam as a prototype regarding solidarity and corporate relationship for the entire human race.

Corporate solidarity is the foundation for basic human institutions, but we cannot assume that since there is corporate solidarity in these institutions we have warrant to infer that corporate solidarity with regard to prayer in the church can be relegated to a single ecclesiastical figure. We have express Apostolic command for the prayers of the church. The men are to pray. If there is to be some sort of solidarity found in the activity of prayer in the church the most basic level seems to be found in the men of the church. I think we can safely say that whatever belongs to the function of the men of the church, it is certainly not fitting for a woman to attempt (cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1:5-9). “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13).

Additional Light

A few passing comments on at least two other texts are in order.

The first text is 1 Cor. 14:33b-35. In this passage Paul is speaking of the role of men and women in the church. It reads as follows:

33b As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Verse 33b is clear. Paul is speaking of the corporate gathering of the church. The term “their husbands” in 1 Cor. 1435 is τοὺς ἰδίους ἄνδρας signifying an adult male. Verses 34 and 35 are in accord with 1 Tim. 2:1-12.

The second text is 1 Pet. 3:7. It reads as follows:

You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

If a husband lives with his wife in an inconsiderate, disrespectful way it not only affects his marriage, it affects the church. The prayers of the men will not only be hindered in private, in the grace of joint spousal and family prayer, but also in public assembly of the church where they are to pray without wrath or doubting, lifting holy hands to the Lord (cf. 2 Ki. 7:2; Jam. 1:6). There is harmony between Peter’s instructions in 1 Pet. 3:7 and Paul’s instructions in 1 Tim. 2:8.

Much more could be said here but the implications of 1 Tim. 2:1-12 and 1 Cor. 14:33b-35 for sure, and possibly 1 Pet. 3:7, are that women should not lead the church in prayer. Leading the church in prayer is the distinct function of the men of the church.

Fleshing It Out

Some might be wondering how they would ever communicate the truth that only the men are to pray without offending women in the congregation. Others might be wondering how this looks from a practical standpoint. Since the former of the two may be a Gordian knot that only sensitivity, time, and careful pastoral instruction can solve, I would like to offer at least two solutions to the latter.

First, fleshing out the truths of scripture regarding the men of the church praying may be as simple as an elder making the issues of prayer known to the congregation during corporate worship and calling on specific men in the congregation to pray for the things mentioned. If there is tension regarding the role of women versus men on this matter this may be a healthy solution since most will not offer a rebuttal on the spot. It may open up opportunity for questions later which can be handled in the sensitive, careful, and patient way that only a pastor can. This option offers a little more control over who prays yet leaves the scriptural teaching of the men of the church praying in tact.

Second, if there is a healthy understanding of the function of men and women in the congregation simply opening up a time for corporate prayer (possibly with an elder mentioning from the pulpit some of the prayer needs) allows for the men to pray as they are led. This option clearly leaves the scriptural teaching of the men of the church praying in tact.

Conclusion

Corporate prayer, in the New Covenant, is not to be offered by pastors alone. It is to be offered by the men of the church. All types of prayers for all types of people in every gathering of the saints on the Sabbath are to be offered as incense in God’s name. I realize that good men differ on these things, but I believe this to be the clear teaching of the Bible.

Updated 8.18.16