The book of Daniel is apocalyptic literature laced with prophecy, numerology, dreams, visions, definitive portrayals of good and evil, and detailed eschatology. Noncanonical apocalyptic literature, which was common at the time of Daniel’s writing, had similar elements. Apocalyptic literature employs exaggerative, metaphorical, and metaphysical language. It uses creative narrative events to veil contemporary flesh-and-blood historical events.
Daniel 10 is best viewed as the work of a creative spiritual poet who was trying to make sense of the chaos and suffering he saw all around him and within his community rather than as the work of an empirically minded historian trying to accurately portray a spiritual realm. While early readers of Daniel could decode some of Daniel’s messages, the meaning and referents became more obscure over time. Apocalyptic scholar John Collins reminds us:
“Biblical scholarship in general has suffered from a preoccupation with the referential aspects of language and with the factual information that can be extracted from a text. Such an attitude is especially detrimental to the study of poetic and mythological material, which is expressive language, articulating feelings and attitudes rather than describing reality in an objective way. The apocalyptic literature provides a rather clear example of language that is expressive rather than referential, symbolic rather than factual.”
Biblical scholar Stephen Cook cautions against a reductionist approach to apocalyptic literature, especially one that suggests it is just conveying truths about historical matters. He writes,
“Too often interpreters mistake the blazing, mammoth characters of apocalyptic narratives for colorful expressions of the routine and commonplace—for persons, places, or events within human experience and history.” In other words, Cook cautions against suggesting apocalyptic literature is just referring to historical events and has nothing to do with spiritual truths and a metaphysical realm.
While apocalyptic literature may be trying to convey both historical and metaphysical truths, the meanings are veiled by a creative literary genre. Due to the ambiguous metaphysical truths embedded within the apocalyptic texts, the texts should not be mined too quickly for universal applications to prayer. It is unwise to understand Daniel 10 to be making a definitive theological claim that there are times when the answer to our prayers could take weeks to arrive because angels and demons are having epic battles in the heavenly realm. The same caution should be used in making a theological claim that Daniel 10 definitively demonstrates that intercessory prayer is a powerful form of spiritual warfare. The text does not demonstrate the notion that our prayers are synergistically affecting the outcome of angelic warfare while simultaneously affecting earthly circumstances.
We don’t know why we have a story about angels and princes fighting and delaying the answer to Daniel’s prayer for over twenty-one days. It is in our sacred text, therefore it is inspired. Because we do not know the reason for its inclusion in Scripture, we wrestle with the questions of how it came about and what it means for us today. Perhaps the skillful, creative, and prophetic writer of this apocalyptic literature had an imagination like that of Christian fantasy novelist C. S. Lewis. The genre of apocalyptic literature was his God-inspired outlet to convey contemporary, traumatic, and dramatic truth.
Apocalyptic writers commonly used visions and angels as literary devices to signify the divine importance of the information conveyed. I can imagine a community reading this text and saying to themselves, “A mighty angel leaving a battle to deliver a message! Wow, this message must be vitally important. We had better heed this.” What we definitely know is that Daniel intentionally uses a nonliteral, creative, and strategic writing style, just like other non-biblical, apocalyptic writers in his day.
Let’s say those events depicted by the author of Daniel were real. God does not need angels to deliver visions, he can deliver them himself and without delay (Genesis 15:1; 46:2; Isaiah 1:1; Ezekiel 11:24; Acts 16:9). As a matter of fact, early on in the book, God gives Daniel a vision at night based on a prayer Daniel had prayed that morning (2:19). Talk about express shipping! In the chapter before the events in question (Daniel 10), when Daniel is “still in prayer” (9:21), Gabriel comes to him straightaway, saying, “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed” (9:23). Why does it take the angel twenty-one days to come to Daniel when God could give the vision himself or send another angel to come to him promptly, as Gabriel does?
Whoever the Prince of Persia is, at the time of the messenger’s visit to Daniel, the messenger and the archangel Michael have not yet defeated him. The angel talking to Daniel tells him he will go back to fight the Prince of Persia. Therefore, the Prince of Persia is still alive, well, and fighting in battle while they are talking. The angel says to Daniel, “Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come” (Daniel 10:20). Why would it take that long for an archangel and other angels to defeat the Prince of Persia? One assumes an archangel or “chief prince” (10:13) is much more powerful than other angels. Additionally, it is highly doubtful that a powerful and influential angel would leave a fierce battle to give Daniel a non-urgent vision (“the vision concerns a time yet to come,” 10:14) before returning immediately to battle. This is especially true when God could have given Daniel an immediate vision, something that God had done for him many times in the past.
Apocalyptic literature does not have to be free from plot holes. This genre intentionally incorporates visions, angels, demons, and symbolism as literary devices to disclose more earthy truths. The question of exactly what mysteries Daniel was trying to convey behind his symbolism has led to a myriad of interpretations and hundreds of books. They are conversations that are outside of our particular focus on prayer.
While God does use angels to deliver messages on occasion, God is an omnipresent being who can, and does, promptly answer prayers, speak to us, and show us visions. I would think a proper theology of prayer—especially one developed under the New Covenant—would not have us worrying about whether our mail will get stuck in transit due to the heavenly postal workers’ fighting with each other. Our understanding of God’s transcendence and immanence is different than that of the Old Testament writers. We don’t believe God hangs out in the heavens and occasionally comes to earth for important tasks. Modern-day believers believe in God’s transcendence, but they focus more on his immanent closeness, that is, his dwelling within us via the Holy Spirit. Do you think demons battling outside of us can keep God from speaking a message to us when he is inside us, especially if we are humbly open to hearing his voice? Because God is inside us, it doesn’t take long for the mail to arrive.
As an aside, if there have been angels battling demons for hundreds of thousands of years, shouldn’t we assume that there are many dead angels and demons? Considering angels are on ‘Team God,’ and God is a brilliant war strategist with enormous power, one wonders how ‘Team Satan’ has not been annihilated after all this time. Some say angels and demons can’t die. If that is the case, what are their weapons? If they cannot die, how big are the stakes? If they cannot presently be annihilated, then why aren’t most of them rounded up and placed in chains until their final swim in the lake of fire (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20)?
I am not suggesting that angels and demons do not exist. I am merely saying that there are a lot of unanswered questions about their roles, their weaknesses, their battle strategies, and the interplay between our world and theirs.
Let’s get back to prayer. We have no indication whatsoever that Daniel was engaged in any “spiritual warfare.” God heard Daniel the very first time he prayed: “Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them” (10:12). God’s hearing after one prayer gives credence to Jesus’s words when he says, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
Unlike in Daniel 9, where Daniel is “in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth” (v. 3), in Daniel 10, he is said to have “mourned” and fasted for three weeks. That is not to say Daniel did not pray and petition, only that Daniel 10 doesn’t make any mention of it, nor does the chapter make use of the word “prayer.” Perhaps Daniel was exhausted and was literally in a state of helplessness and mourning, as the text suggests. The messenger tells Daniel, “The prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days” (10:13). We have no indication that Daniel’s mourning contributed anything to the battle between the messenger, Michael, and the Prince of Persia. Therefore, Daniel 10 should not be viewed as a text proving the success of petitionary prayer and spiritual warfare.