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Yom Kippur: Interceding for God’s People

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Of the many themes connected with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), one of the most vivid is that of intercession. While the Temple stood, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year on this day to make atonement for the people of Israel. The high priest would beseech God for mercy on His people.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer. It is a day of confession and asking for forgiveness. It is a day of judgement, but it is also a day in which God’s mercy is displayed more powerfully than any other day of the year. For us as believers, it is a vivid reminder of the reality of God’s judgement, but also the incredible mercy He has shown us through the atoning death of His Son, Yeshua.

A traditional Yom Kippur service spends virtually the entire day in prayer. On this day we go through extensive prayers of confession. Most of these confessions are corporate, saying “we have done such-and-such” instead of “I have done such-and-such.” Corporate confession is something that those of us from a Christian background may not be familiar with. It may seem strange or forced. A common reaction to these liturgical prayers of confession is, “Well I didn’t do that; why should I confess a sin I did not commit?” The point is not, however, to suggest that I am personally guilty of all those sins, but that we, as a people, are sinners in need of God’s mercy.

We see several examples of corporate confession in the Scriptures. Consider the prayer of the prophet Daniel:

O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day… (Daniel 9:4–7)

Notice how Daniel phrases his confession in the first person plural (“we” and “us”). Daniel doesn’t say “they sinned,” but he includes himself and says “we sinned.” Did Daniel literally commit all those sins himself? Was Daniel personally responsible for the sin of his people? No. But he chooses to identify with his people and offers a confession on behalf of God’s people as a whole.

Consider also the prayer of Ezra:

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for 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, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. (Ezra 9:6–7)

In this chapter, Ezra goes on to focus his confession on the sin of intermarriage with pagan Gentiles. Ezra did not personally commit this sin, but he identifies 100% with the people even in their sin. He prays as though he is personally guilty in order to confess the guilt of the people to God.

Nehemiah also prays to God, “confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.” (Nehemiah 1:6) There are other examples we could cite, but this should be enough to demonstrate that corporate confession has a definite place in our faith. These individuals were willing to include themselves in that corporate identity, even to the point of identifying with those sins on a corporate level.

Contrast this attitude with the more natural tendency we have to sluff off any responsibility for the failings of others. We look at the history of Israel in the Bible and say, “Wow, what a stubborn people! I’m sure glad I’m not like them!” We look at the more recent history of Christianity in some of its darkest moments and say, “Well those weren’t real followers of Yeshua. I’m not like them.” We look at those we disagree with in the Body of Messiah today and some of the wacky things that go on, and our response is to disassociate from them and refine our definition of “God’s people” to exclude those that embarrass us. But this is not the approach we see in Scripture. It is not the approach of an intercessor.

Corporate confession is actually a powerful form of intercession. True intercession requires identifying with the sins of others. It requires taking responsibility and acknowledging guilt even when it is not ours personally. It requires standing in the gap, and being willing to be identified 100% with God’s people, even in their sin.

I believe that Yom Kippur, of all days, is especially appropriate to offer prayers of intercession on behalf of God’s people. In this vein, our community has composed two short prayers that we have incorporated into our Yom Kippur service for the past few years. I believe they encapsulate part of what should be our deepest heart-cry on this day. I have included the entire text of these two prayers in this post. You are welcome to use these in your own Yom Kippur service if you feel led.

 

Prayer for Israel:

Our Father, our King, we plead for your mercy on the nation that you have chosen. We pray that your compassion would be aroused on behalf of the flock of your care, the people that you have set apart as your inheritance, Israel. Please do not look upon her stubbornness or waywardness. Spare her, and do not make her into an object of scorn. Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?”

Please, Father, open their eyes to see their salvation in Yeshua! Do not permit their eyes to be blinded any longer! Take away her heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. Pour out your Spirit upon your people, as you have promised! Then all Israel shall be saved, as it is written: “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:26-27; Isaiah 59, 27, Jeremiah 31)

 

Prayer for the unity of the Body of Messiah:

Our Father, our King, you have called us from every people and tongue to be set apart unto you as a holy assembly. We are meant to be a body functioning together for the purposes of your Kingdom. But instead we are broken, scattered, wretched, poor, pitiful, blind and naked. We have sinned, been arrogant, selfish, apathetic and complacent, lazy, hard-hearted, stubborn, rebellious, controlling, insensitive, insolent, hurtful of others. We have not been living out the commandment to love one another as Messiah loved us. Instead of reaching out to those around us with love, we have been caught up in bitter controversy amongst ourselves; backbiting, insulting, fighting, arguing. We have shamed the image of Yeshua in the sight of unbelievers by our evil conduct; we have disgraced our Saviour; we have not properly represented you on this earth.

We ask for your forgiveness and pardon! We plead for mercy, that you would not leave us to our own devices! Do not abandon us and leave us like sheep without a shepherd, scattered and fractured and broken! We plead for the unity of believers, that you would bind us together in love through Your Spirit. Not in our own merit do we ask these things, but in the merit of your Son Yeshua. Heed the words of Messiah’s prayer on the night before His crucifixion, as He said: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are One.” (John 17:11)

Messiah also prayed: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

Please look upon us, your assembly, with mercy. Please cleanse us of our fleshly ways and fill us with your life-giving Spirit. Shape us and mould us to be holy and set apart for you. You are our True Shepherd and we have no king but you! “Save your people, bless your inheritance, be their Shepherd and carry them forever!” (Psalm 28:9)

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