Daniel’s situation parallels our own. For most of his life, Daniel lived as part of a believing minority in a majority pagan (not using as a derogatory term but only to indicate it as non-Jewish) culture.
From the time he was a teenager until he died around the age of 90, he served under a series of pagan kings. He never had the luxury of living in a country surrounded by people who believed as he did. From his story we will draw many useful principles as we attempt to live for Christ in a world filled with people who do not share our faith. Daniel’s prophecies may soon be fulfilled. This book is filled with dreams, visions, and prophecies about the end times.
Daniel’s God is our God too—and He is still on the throne. This may be the most important lesson of the book. God is in charge, and it is simple and clear. He is in charge of nations, families, and individuals. He is in charge of the past, the present, and the future. He is in charge of good days and bad days, of happiness and sorrow, of joy and heartache, of great victories and shocking defeats. He is in charge when a child is born and he is in charge when death knocks at your door.
All of us will benefit from pondering the courage of Daniel and his three friends. How should we live in a world where believers are outnumbered and often overwhelmed? Where is God in the midst of aggressive secularism? How do we proclaim Christ in a world that doesn’t even believe in the concept of truth? Daniel provides a positive model for how to live for God when no one else shares your faith.
In order to place the book firmly in our minds, here are a few background facts. Daniel lived approximately 400 years after David and 600 years before Jesus. The book covers the period 605 BC to about 530 BC. In the beginning, Daniel is a teenager, approximately 15 years old. When the book closes, he is about 90 years old. During his long life, God allowed him to serve under a succession of Babylonian and Persian rulers. From being an imported hostage, he becomes a trusted prime minister and counsellor to some of the mightiest rulers in world history.
When the book opens we find Daniel and his friends being forcibly taken from their homes in Jerusalem and deported to Babylon. There these godly teens will undergo an enormous cultural transformation as they are trained to work for a pagan king.
Identifying the Main Players
Three main players take the stage in the opening verses. First, there is Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. They represent the world system that is hostile to the people of God. Remember that Babylon in the Bible is always (with no exceptions) a symbol for evil and anti-god paganism. What starts with the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 comes to a climax in Revelation 17-18 as the entire world system is finally destroyed at the Second Coming of Christ.
Second, there is Daniel and his three friends (The Four Freshmen). They represent the believers in the world, striving to obey God in the midst of much spiritual opposition. Finally, there is the Sovereign Lord who leaves his children in the world and yet purposes to bring them safely to glory in the end. He never speaks a word, yet he is the One behind the scenes orchestrating events to bring about his desired ends.
As I meditated on this passage it seemed to be an object lesson on how the world tries to seduce the church. What starts with a frontal assault becomes a very subtle attempt at total assimilation. In the midst of the spin of circumstances, we will focus eventually on four teenage boys who somehow found the courage to say no to temptation and yes to God. To borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
The World Seeks to Destroy Our Heritage
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it (Daniel 1:1). I find it instructive that this book begins with a total humiliating defeat. The very first verse takes us back to 605 BC as the armies of Nebuchadnezzar surround the capital city of Israel. We know from history that eventually the king of Babylon had his way and overran the city’s defences. From that day onward the temple, the city, all the things that mattered most, fell into the hands of the pagans.
This led to the first deportation. A second one followed in 597 BC and in 586 BC the Babylonians attacked again, this time utterly destroying Solomon’s Temple, leaving the city in ruins and the walls were torn down. Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon in the first wave of deportees. Now they are far from home and separated from all they have known. How will they worship God without a temple, without sacrifices, and while living among unbelievers?
The World Seeks to Deconstruct our Faith
And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god (Daniel 1:2). Nebuchadnezzar took the articles from the temple (various worship objects made from gold and silver) and brought them back to Babylon with him. He then placed them in the temple of the chief god of Babylon, called Bel or Marduk. Taking the worship objects was meant to show Israel’s complete defeat. The message was clear: Our god is greater than your god. By looting the temple, he thought he had defeated the God of Israel.
But there is more to this than just pagan boasting. Many years earlier, during a period of spiritual decline, the Israelites had brought the symbols of other gods into their temple. Now God allows a pagan king to take his treasures into a pagan temple. Such is God’s righteous judgment. No principle in the Bible is so well established as this: What goes around comes around. The Jews had desecrated their own temple through consorting with idols, now God allows the pagans to come in and do the same thing.
From a worldly point of view it appeared that God was dead. How else to explain the looting of the dwelling place of the one true God? And that raises a crucial question: Can we trust a God who is defeated? Can you trust God when all the evidence suggests he is dead? Will you be faithful even when your world falls apart? Is your God greater than your circumstances?
In 1845 James Russell Lowell wrote the famous poem “The Present Crisis.” It includes this well-known stanza:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,— Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own. All was not lost, although the looting of the temple made it seem that the Lord had been defeated and the Babylonians had won the Battle of the gods.
The World Seeks to Reconstruct Our Values
Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service (Daniel 1:3-5).
It’s helpful to know that starting with this verse, everything else in the book of Daniel takes place in Babylon. From this point on, Daniel is away from his homeland and as far as we know, he never returned, not even for a visit.
I call these verses – Assimilation. It begins with a selection process aimed at the cream of the crop of Jewish teenage boys. The king assigns them to Ashpenaz, his right-hand man. He then makes sure they get the best education Babylon can offer. For three years they will be immersed in Babylonian knowledge, culture, history, language, and religion. At the end of that time, they would enter the king’s service and be assured of high-level government positions.
This is very clever and also very seductive. Mind control always begins with the young. Nebuchadnezzar called in his Vice-President of Human Resources—Ashpenaz, and gave him a three-step plan for re-educating these sharp young Jewish teenagers.
Step one was a full scholarship to Babylon State University, the Ivy League of the ancient world. There they would learn science, maths, Akkadian, astrology, commerce, and history. Step two was to offer them free food from the King’s Buffet. It was all-you-can-eat all the time. I’m sure we all understand this. Even back then they knew that the way to a young man’s heart is through his stomach. Step three involved changing their names (verses 6-7).
Richard Griffin points out that these Jewish teenagers were on the fast-track MBA program. It’s like being given a full scholarship at the School of Business or being singled out by the boss’s right-hand man for special mentoring.
Talk about a sweet deal, this was it. It was the kind of break most guys would jump at. And to be fair we have to say that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t think of it as an evil thing. He probably thought he was doing these young men an incredible favour. And Ashpenaz was just doing his job as well.
The World Seeks to Undermine Our Identity
Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego (Daniel 1:6-7). Although it isn’t obvious from the English text, all these names had special meanings. The Hebrew names all contained references to the God of Israel. The new Babylonian names mention the gods of Babylon:
Daniel (“God is my Judge”) became Belteshazzar (“Bel, protect the King”).
Hananiah (“The Lord is gracious”) became Shadrach (“Command of Aku”, the Sumerian sun-god).
Mishael (“Who is like the Lord?”) became Meshach (“Who is what Aku is?”).
Azariah (“The Lord is my helper”) became Abednego (“Servant of Nebo,” another Babylonian god).
The original Hebrew names tell us that these four teenagers must have been raised in godly homes by parents who raised their children to serve the true God. By giving them new names Ashpenaz meant to obliterate their past. This was nothing less than systematic brainwashing. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t want good Jews working for him, he wanted good Babylonians who happened to have a Jewish background.
Note that he didn’t overtly force them to change their religion. The whole process just made it very easy to forget. They were being weaned away from their past little by little. Soon they might forget it altogether. Clearly, the goal was for these young men to think and act and speak like the pagans around them. And it might have worked but for one all-important fact: You can change the outside but you can’t change the heart.
Here is hope for all Christian parents who worry (and rightly so) about the negative influence of the world all around us. In the end, our job is to plant the seed of God’s truth and then trust God to bring in the harvest. Most of us know Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to the world.” I love the way J. B. Phillips renders it: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould.” The world will squeeze us. We can’t avoid that. But we don’t have to give in to the pressure.
Here, then, is the Babylonian plan to transform these young men:
New Home – ISOLATION
New Knowledge – INDOCTRINATION
New Diet – COMPROMISE
New Names – CONFUSION
The World Will Not Prevail Against the Church
Here you have four teenagers ready to take on the mightiest man in the world. It would seem that they don’t have a chance. But we know they survived with their faith intact or there wouldn’t be a book of Daniel in the Bible. How did they do it? They understood that four plus God equals a majority. When you factor God into the equation, suddenly Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t look so big.
I intentionally passed over a key phrase in verse 2 that we need to think about at this point. It’s the little phrase “the Lord delivered.” What happened to Jerusalem was no accident. I’m sure the headline in the next issue of the Babylon Sun-Times read, “Nebuchadnezzar takes Jerusalem.” Wrong! He didn’t “take” Jerusalem. God gave it to him, and if God had not given it to him, he would never have taken it at all.
I came across a wonderful statement that seems to fit our text and the strange, difficult days in which we live. “Christians should be the calmest people on earth.” What a thought that is. We have no right to run around dripping our hands. Not when our God is on the throne working out his purpose on the earth.
The book of Daniel opens with what appears to be a clear triumph of evil over good. Yet God allowed it to happen for his own higher purposes. I’m sure Nebuchadnezzar didn’t know that and I’m sure the Jews had trouble believing it but it was true nonetheless.
Hearts in Heaven
As I ponder this text in its larger setting I ask myself what set apart these four teenagers from the others. How did they find the strength to survive in a pagan land? The answer may be found in the first verse of the next section, which tells us that Daniel “purposed in his heart” not to eat at the king’s table. It all comes down to the heart in the end. Nebuchadnezzar could control the environment in which they lived, but he couldn’t touch their hearts.
What an insight that is. Their bodies were in Babylon but their hearts were in Jerusalem. They never forgot—not even for one moment—who they were and where they came from. Therefore it didn’t matter where they happened to be—or even what names they happened to be called. The faith of their childhood was tattooed on their hearts and the mightiest man in the world was helpless to do anything about it.
How will we survive the continual onslaught of the world in our day? The same way they did. By putting our hearts in the right place. For us it means that even though our bodies are on earth, our hearts must continually be in heaven. And if our hearts are in heaven, then it doesn’t matter where we happen to be on earth because the world can’t touch us.
God used the attempted seduction of Daniel and his friends to prepare them for greater work to come. Here is yet another example of God’s sovereignty at work. What the Babylonians meant for evil (they didn’t see it that way but that’s what it was), God meant for good. He put these four young men in a most vulnerable spot because he knew their hearts could stand the test. He even allowed them to be trained in a pagan school so that they might eventually become leaders in the pagan government.
God Is Not Defeated!
I know it’s easy to be overwhelmed in these days when the world presses in on all sides. Yet we have the words of Jesus in John 17:15, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”
God has willed that his children should live in the world and yet be preserved from destruction by the world. He puts us in dangerous places (like Babylon) and then displays his power on our behalf. God is the One who gave Israel over to Babylon. He uses the world to knock out all of our props so that we will turn back to him.
What an important lesson this is to all of us. Israel was defeated, but God was not defeated. God wills that his children survive and thrive in the most difficult circumstances. This is part of what Jesus meant when he said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18b).
Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash