Who would you say are the most righteous men that ever lived? (Besides Jesus, of course.)
While I’m sure there are many ways to answer that question, the Holy Spirit identifies three men who belong at the top of any such list:
If a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch out My hand against it, . . . even though these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves, . . . they could not deliver either their son or their daughter. They would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God indicates that He had such regard for the righteousness of Noah, Daniel, and Job, that He would have been willing to spare them from an otherwise nationwide judgment on Israel’s sins. This should make us ask why these men were so esteemed by God. For now, let’s spend some time examining just the righteousness of Daniel.
You’re probably familiar with Daniel’s faithfulness to the Lord, even while he was employed by the idolatrous kings of Babylon and Persia. He was intensely persecuted (e.g., thrown into a lions’ den) for serving the Most High God, and yet God preserved him for many long years of godly service in a foreign land.
But there’s another aspect of Daniel’s righteousness which we might too easily overlook. After reading Jeremiah’s prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem, Daniel confesses to the Lord the sins of God’s chosen people:
Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances. Moreover, we have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes, our fathers and all the people of the land.
Who is it Daniel says had not listened to God’s servants the prophets? “We have not listened.” When we consider the fact that Daniel was just reading and heeding the words of the prophet Jeremiah, we might be surprised to read him praying this way. Somehow, in spite of Daniel’s excellent righteousness and faithfulness to the Lord, he still sees himself as part of God’s sinful people, even confessing their sins as his own. How can this be?
First of all, Daniel appears to feel real shame for his own participation in Israel’s disobedience to the Lord. Relatively speaking, Daniel was more righteous than most, but he faithfully confesses here that he too had fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23; cf. Psalm 14:3). As he read God’s word, he was convicted of ways he personally had not paid close enough attention to it.
One thing Daniel discerned from Jeremiah was that the prophesied seventy-year desolation of Jerusalem was coming to an end. However, even though he knew God’s blessing was on its way, he still did not presume upon God’s mercy. He knew God would only respond and restore His people to the Promised Land if they humbled themselves. So Daniel, like all true prophets, led God’s people in humility. He got on his knees and prayed. In doing so, he demonstrated that confessing sin is one of the most righteous things a man can do:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
Secondly, even considering Daniel’s righteousness and faithfulness, it was appropriate for him to identify himself with the unfaithful people of God. As a matter of fact, this was a very Christ-like thing for him to do. Think of Jesus, the Righteous One, identifying with His sinful people on the cross. There was no unrighteousness in Him,1 yet He claimed His people’s sins as His own, even to the point of suffering the wrath of God for them.
There are a couple of lessons for us here.
First, there is no spiritual existence for the believer apart from the people of God. It doesn’t matter how righteous you think you are, and how much you think other Christians have failed. No man is an island, and no Christian gets to see himself as above or independent from God’s household, the church.
Second, we are to bear the sins of God’s people in our hearts. We should mourn the ways the church has turned aside, even if we have not fully participated in that rebellion. If Daniel could confess Israel’s sins as his own, how much more can we confess the sins of God’s people today? And if Jesus could humble Himself to the point of bearing the sins of His people in His body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24)—if He who knew no sin could become sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21)—how much more can we identify ourselves with the people of God, confessing to the Lord the sins of the church as our very own sins?
Corporate Confession of Sin in Worship
The corporate confession of sin is an element of worship that has largely fallen by the wayside. We like praise, thanksgiving, celebration, and exultation in our worship, but mourning our sin seems like a downer. Besides, it’s kind of personal. After all, your sins aren’t my sins, and her sins aren’t his sins. However, Scripture teaches us that corporate confession is an essential part of the worship of God’s people.
Three of the Bible’s most iconic corporate prayers of confession show up in Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 (one of those happy coincidences of biblical chapter numbering2). These prayers were each prayed by eminently righteous men who nevertheless saw their people’s sins as their own, and they should serve as models for our own confessions of the church’s sins today.
At our church, we have a corporate confession of sin led by a pastor or elder every Sunday in our worship service. We kneel during this time to demonstrate our humility before the Lord. (More on the use of our bodies in worship another time.) Depending on the occasion, the prayer might focus on confessing the sins of the church in America: perhaps our participation in the murder of innocent children,3 or the ways we’ve pursued and promoted sexual perversity. At other times, the prayer might focus on confessing the specific sins of our particular local church: pride, discontentment, faithlessness, sexual immorality, prayerlessness, etc.
Here’s a faithful modern prayer of confession led by an elder at a worship service I attended a couple years ago:
Dear Father, we come before you as guilty children. You are the Almighty God, perfect in power—the source of authority—the One worthy and apt to be our Provider. And today, Father, we are in great need for your provision. You have provided us with salvation from Your wrath through your Son. You have provided us with the Holy Spirit who reveals those things You wish us to know. And now, Father, we need more provision. We need Your pardon.
We have been like deceptive children. We have pretended to pursue Your kingdom, but we have been building our own. We have pursued our own glory while dragging our family along—assuring them this is for Your glory. We have taught them a brutal Christianity. We have become curt and even angry at our spouse for not supporting our pursuit of our kingdom. We have poured out more intentional energy upon public projects than on our covenant children—and they know it.
We have entertained sin in our minds—playing with scenarios . . . and then immediately speak piously of God to others. We hold other people as worthy of God’s wrath . . . but believe our own sin to be sanitized—somehow less than sin. Our hypocrisy stinks to high heaven. We have entered your throne room filthy, and like foolish children have no awareness of our filth in the presence of such blessed purity as our Holy Father.
Lord, listen with mercy as we confess our inmost sins silently to you now.
You, oh God, are the King, the One who was our Judge but is now our Father. We lift our hands up to You in prayer, begging your pardon—eager to rush back into right relationship with our Father. We repent and seek reconciliation with our God. And we ask these things in the name of the One in Whom all promises are yes and amen—Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.4
If you’re like me, that prayer makes you a bit uncomfortable. Isn’t that going a little too far? Not if you hold it up to a prayer like that of Ezra the priest:
O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity and to plunder and to open shame, as it is this day.
Ezra goes on to confess his people’s specific sin of taking foreign, idolatrous women as wives. Then a messy and painful repentance ensues. And lest we think this kind of thing pertained only to the Old Testament, a reading of 1 Corinthians will disabuse us of such a notion.
The point is, our worship of God must be characterized by humility before Him. And one of the most significant ways we humble ourselves before the Lord is through the confession of our sins, not just as individuals, but as His people.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
|↑1||Psalm 92:15; Malachi 2:6; John 7:18; 1 John 5:17.|
|↑2||Looking for Psalms about the law of God? Check out Psalms 1, 19, and 119.|
|↑3||For a deep dive on the church’s complicity in the sin of abortion, see our presbytery’s recent book, Abortion and the Church (Warhorn Media, 2022), available for free at abortion.evangelpresbytery.com.|
|↑4||Renton Rathbun (ruling elder, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Spartanburg, S.C.), prayer during the worship service at the 3rd Stated Meeting of Evangel Presbytery, June 18, 2020.|