The explosion of horizons

A case study on leadership

I was recently asked to give a short devotional on the issue of leadership in the Old Testament. (This was in the context of a consultation organized by the Mennonite College Federation in Winnipeg.) There is no shortage of leadership examples in the Old Testament-from Abraham the patriarch to such charismatic leaders as Moses, Joshua and Samson. There were many kings, priests, prophets and wise men who had a profound influence on the life of Israel.

As I was reflecting on these leaders, my first observation surprised me. Most Old Testament leaders ultimately shipwrecked on the shores of failure. Moses was a reluctant leader who was called to lead the people of Israel into the promised land but found himself forbidden from entering it. Saul had to be replaced as king. The people of Israel suffered terrible consequences from David’s poor personal and administrative choices (2 Samuel 24). The judges never quite succeeded in bringing the people back to God. On the whole, the prophets were even less successful. In fact, Isaiah was told at the outset of his ministry that he would not succeed in bringing Israel back to God (Isaiah 6).

However, there is one passage which may have something significant to contribute on the issue of Christian leadership:

While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the LORD my God for His holy hill-while 1 was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me …. He instructed me and said to me, “Daniel, 1 have now come to give you insight and understanding. As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which 1 have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the message and understand the vision: “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy” (Daniel 9:20-24).

The reason why this passage may be relevant to a reflection on leadership may not, at first, be apparent. In order to understand its significance, we need to get an insight into the situation in which Daniel found himself.

This story took place in 538 B.C. By that time, Israel had been invaded by the Babylonian army, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed, and the elite of the nation had been taken into exile. This exiled community had existed in Babylon for almost 40 years, and a great danger threatened it: assimilation. The Israelite community was in danger of losing its identity.

It is important to note that it was not the Israelites’ political identity which was threatened; they had lost their political independence a long time ago. It was their religious and cultural identity which was at stake, their identity as the people of Yahweh.

God had promised the patriarchs that their descendants would survive as His people. To ensure that His people would withstand this new threat, He had chosen Daniel and placed him in a position of authority. Daniel’s mandate was to ensure that official policies would be enacted to guarantee the cultural and religious survival of Israel. Daniel was very conscious of this mission. In fact, he oriented his whole life, personal and public, in terms of this mandate. Here lies an important leadership principle: Christian leaders must have a strong sense of mission and integrate it into the fabric of their whole existence.

One would expect a leader of Daniel’s calibre to be very successful. In terms of abilities, talents, professional competence and character, Daniel had it all. But this is not the case. The passage quoted above follows a long prayer concerning a major problem (Daniel 9:4-19). According to Daniel 9:1-3, Daniel understood from a prophecy in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25) that the period of exile would be limited to 70 years and would, therefore, soon come to an end. Daniel should have been elated by this. Anyone else in Daniel’s position would have organized a great celebration and initiated plans to return the exiles to the promised land.

Surprisingly, this is not at all what Daniel did. Daniel, like all exceptional leaders, could see beyond mere appearances. Daniel understood his God and God’s people too well to throw a party. He knew that without true repentance, the people could not benefit from God’s promises. At this point in their history, the people had not shown true repentance, and, furthermore, Daniel was clearly coming to the end of his own life.

An obvious question jumped out at him: What would happen to the people of Israel? It now appeared that the project to which Daniel had devoted his entire life, the mission he had been entrusted with, was going to fail miserably. It was unlikely, now, that his people would survive as a distinct religious entity, much less as a vibrant community of faith.

Daniel was well aware that this could not be allowed to occur. For if it did happen, it would contradict God’s promises and ultimately proclaim that God was unfaithful. The nations and the Israelites would come to the conclusion that Yahweh had finally conceded victory to the foreign Babylonian gods.

Daniel only had one option left to him: prayer.

His prayer, found in 9:4-19, expresses the profound despair which assailed Daniel. The most remarkable facet of his prayer is the complete identification of Daniel with his people. If anyone had the right to dissociate himself from the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, it was Daniel.

Throughout the entire book, Daniel is presented as blameless before God and men. Yet, in spite of this, he deeply identified with his people; he was not an outsider pleading for another group. His prayer does not say: “They have sinned, they have done wrong.” It reads: “We have sinned, we have done wrong” (verse 15). If there is a principle to retain from this prayer, it is that Christian leaders must completely identify with those they are called to lead.

Christian leaders…
…have a strong sense of mission and integrate it into the fabric of their whole existence.
…can see beyond mere appearances.
…completely identify with those they are called to lead.
…have the ability to persevere in their love for God, the church and society even when laced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
…have the ability to rise above the oppression of a world that worships the present.
…have experienced an exploded perspective.

The kind of prayer Daniel offered received quick acknowledgement (verses 21- 23). Daniel prayed about something that greatly mattered to him but was also of critical importance to God. When these two coincide, great things happen. God’s answer was swift and effective. Maybe this is the principle Jesus was teaching His disciples when He taught them to pray: “Out Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10).

The critical portion of Daniel, chapter 9 is verse 24. In this verse, the angel transmits God’s answer to Daniel’s prayer. The answer was not what Daniel expected (nor what we readers expect). Daniel’s concern was extremely focused–on the immediate survival of his people. His timetable did not extend much beyond a few weeks, or at best a few months, into the future. When we realize what Daniel’s expectations were, the response is that much more surprising.

The answer begins with this somewhat puzzling expression: “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city.” The meaning of this numerical expression is not completely clear. It has been variously interpreted as referring to days, weeks or even years. The most likely interpretation is that it refers to seventy ‘sevens’ of years, or 490 Jewish years (cf. Leviticus 26:18; 2 Chronicles 36:21). Daniel wanted to know what would happen to his people in the next few months, but God gave him the agenda for the next 490 years!

Many attempts have been made to interpret the number 490 in chronological terms. The results have been rather disappointing. Therefore, it may be wise to explore whether the expression’s real significance may be symbolic. The fact that the text uses a perfect number, “seventy ‘sevens”‘, strongly suggests a significance beyond the literal meaning.

This “perfect number” was not simply a reference to the next 490 years, but a powerful way of highlighting the entire future course of human history. God was saying something extremely significant. He was giving Daniel a new perspective on reality. God was telling Daniel that, contrary to all appearances and expectations, his life had significance beyond his wildest dreams. Daniel believed that his life’s work would soon come to nothing, that he had failed. God’s message radically negated this. God was saying that the significance of Daniel’s life, far from being limited to the immediate fate of the Israelites, would extend throughout history and would affect all future generations.

It was God’s way of saying that history was not disintegrating into chaos; God was still at the helm; God’s project for His people was holding, and Daniel was part of that project.

In response to Daniel’s prayer, God gave Daniel an answer, but not the one he had anticipated. God moved beyond the expected and caused what I call an explosion of the horizons. Daniel was a leader whose perspective had become too narrow. The problems he was facing were truly overwhelming-the unfaithfulness of God’s people and his own apparent failure. Daniel therefore needed to develop a new perspective on God and on life. He needed to realize anew who God is and that life is much more than a succession of days. Daniel needed to rediscover that human life had meaning and significance beyond what he could see.

One of the key characteristics of a Christian leader is the ability to persevere in his or her love for God, the church and society even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. To persevere, the leader, like Daniel, needs much more than a few pious words of encouragement or a dose of fluffy positive thinking; the leader must experience an exploded perspective. The perspective suggested in the book of Daniel is that of a great, majestic and powerful God who, while He is deeply entwined in our present, stretches that present across the centuries into eternity

The book of Daniel was written to teach believers that the present is not absolute in the sense that this is all there is.

We live in a society which idealizes the present. We care little for the past, and we do not project into the future. The present fills our horizon.

In a world where there is no anchoring in the past and no sense of a meaningful future, crises will create a profound feeling of hopelessness. Human beings need hope to live, but hope is impossible in a world where there is no future.

The book of Daniel reminds us in a powerful way that we have a future regardless of the bleakness of our present, for God is in our future, and He is also the bridge between our present and the future.

The ability to rise above the oppression of a world that worships the present is probably the greatest quality a Christian leader can demonstrate. To commit oneself to God and His great project is also to receive the promise of a life whose significance extends infinitely beyond the limitations of the present. Our time on this earth, our work, our relationships have meaning and significance far beyond this life. To know that who we are and what we do will produce ripples throughout all of human history and ultimately be received by the God of Ages, must profoundly affect our perception of the present. Because our lives are connected to eternity and thus have infinite significance, we can live with hope, joy, courage, honour and commitment.

—Pierre Gilbert is a professor at Concord College in Winnipeg, and also serves as a faculty representative of MB Biblical Seminary.

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