THE WORLD THAT SURROUNDED DANIEL AND HIS FRIENDS
1. Jehoiakim the King
Centuries ago Daniel and his three close friends grew up when Jehoiakim was king of Judah. They lived in the unique city of Jerusalem founded by the great king David and they moved under the shadow of the temple built by David’s son, Solomon. The life of these four young men revolved around the king, the city and the temple. In these three fundamental elements of their society the citizens of the nation encountered their heritage which gave purpose to their lives. However, a closer look reveals that all was not well.
Jehoiakim was a legitimate king of Judah. He belonged to the Davidic royal line of kings, the family God had chosen to rule. There would be some consolation that the office of the king was valid. However, the real Jehoiakim is clearly seen in the prophecy of Jeremiah. From the beginning of his reign, he was not in sympathy with the good reforms of his father, king Josiah. There is reason to believe that during his reign the nation of Judah reverted to idolatry and that the king reigned with a heavy hand and blatant injustice. Jeremiah wrote of the king, ‘your eyes and your heart are for nothing but your covetousness, for shedding innocent blood, and practicing oppression and violence’, Jer. 22. 17.
When Jeremiah declared that the temple would be destroyed, the crowd reacted violently. Princes, priests and prophets demanded his death. This did not happen when Jeremiah gave a similar message in the reign of his father, king Josiah. In the fourth year of king Jehoiakim’s reign, God gave to Jeremiah a message and the prophet asked Baruch to write it down. The scroll with the message was eventually presented to the king. Jehoiakim displayed his contempt for God by interrupting the reading, by taking the scroll and cutting it up with a scribe’s knife and then throwing the pieces into the fire.
There is an important lesson here involving king Jehoiakim and anyone else who exercises public authority. John reminds us that there is a higher court for all constituted authority, Rev. 1. 5. Those who rule in the secular world will be held accountable, and as we pray for those in authority over us in the secular world, let us do so earnestly at this time of disturbing changes taking place in our society. We must also pray continually for those that have leadership in the assemblies. We should note that correct, formal relationships, whether religious or political, will not prevent God from disciplining those who do the wrong thing. Jehoiakim was a legitimate king, yet he did not escape the severe judgement of God. Nebuchadnezzar was on his way!
2. Jerusalem the city
It was generally understood in Daniel’s generation that Jerusalem was God’s city. Isaiah wrote in his time, ‘Awake, awake! Put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city!’ Isa. 52. 1. Possibly because the temple was in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, the city was called holy. The name itself may mean ‘City of Peace’. If it were God’s city, one would expect this, Isa. 32. 17.
The historical reality in Jerusalem was altogether different. The leaders and the people were selfish, arrogant and corrupt. In many areas of the world today great numbers of human beings are suffering because political and business leaders are morally corrupt. Nations, following the example of their leaders, are also filled with corruption on every level. King Jehoiakim set the example in Judah. It is not surprising the nation followed him.
We take note that although Jerusalem was the symbol of high culture, sound education, true religion and great social activities, the city was not spared. The outward appearance of a great tradition, symbolized by Jerusalem, the holy city, will not stop the just discipline of God. Nebuchadnezzar was about to violate the city! God placed His name in this city, announcing, ‘I have chosen Jerusalem, that My name may be there’, 2 Chron. 6. 6. Long years after the glorious inauguration of God’s house the priests continued to serve in the temple, offering the daily sacrifices, but their hearts were far from God. The correct order of religious rituals performed ceremonially by those who lack conviction will not stave off God’s discipline even in the temple! Nebuchadnezzar would soon confiscate a major part of the temple’s treasure!
3. Their spiritual roots – the teaching they received
Four young boys were growing up in an environment ruled by a corrupt king, in a spiritually dead city and with a temple devoid of glory. That they survived and became such great men for God in various empires of the ancient world is a tribute to those who helped shape their lives as children and youths. Who were their parents? Who were their Sabbath School teachers? Who formed in them a profound belief in God, a confidence that years later, even under severe testing, they would not abandon? We ask the questions because Daniel does not address these issues. This is part of the unwritten story. Yet, that does not mean this vital part of the story did not exist. Some person or persons spent time with these youths and led them to an unshakeable belief in God. With stories from the nation’s history they would tell them what God was like. They would teach them the importance of the Decalogue. They would explain why the offerings were necessary. The moral darkness of Jerusalem did not extinguish the light of God’s truth in these men and women who taught this group of boys.
We honour the memory of these unknown spiritual teachers who by life and word formed the spiritual lives of these four young men. Within a society that had moved away from God, they passed on to Daniel and his three friends the light of a responsible and permanent commitment to God. They proved that it was possible in such a dark environment to lead people to God. God blessed their efforts, for neither the apostasy in Jerusalem nor even the intense spiritual darkness of Babylon years later would be able to put out that light of faith in God.
God often chooses young people. Samuel was just a lad when God spoke to him. Joseph was young when he began the difficult road that would take him to the highest centres of power in Egypt. Daniel and his three friends were very young. They would not have been set apart for three years of special training for the royal court in Babylon had they not been at this formative stage of life. Isaiah was very well educated. Some believe his Hebrew is the best of the Old Testament. As a young man, he suddenly saw the temple, as it should be, filled with God’s glory. The vision changed his life forever. Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, was young when Gabriel spoke to her. Although Mary was a young woman, there is clear evidence of her deep faith in God and her willingness to do His will. There is surely a message for all of us today in the apostle’s words to Timothy, ‘Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young’.
4. The spirituality of their homes
The training of our children and our grandchildren in the issues of Christian truth is of the utmost importance. We may despair because of the extremely forceful influence of the secular society on our young people. Even allowing for differences between the world of Daniel and his friends and our world today dominated by a technological explosion never experienced before, is there really any difference? Jerusalem was spiritually bankrupt, inundated with influences foreign to their true heritage. In our generation it is difficult to challenge the increasingly loud message that we live in a post-Christian world. Solomon’s wise words may have influenced these four young men long centuries ago. ‘My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother; for they will be a graceful ornament on your head’, Prov. 1. 9. In our times, we listen to Paul, ‘And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord’, Eph. 6. 4. The New Living Translation reads ‘Fathers, don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master’, see also Col. 3. 21.
The challenge to work with our children in our homes, in our extended family circles and in our churches at this juncture of history in the western world is crucially important. Dr. J. I. PACKER reminds us that in years gone by in the general Christian community children were taught basic Christian doctrine. He adds, ‘Modern Sunday schools mostly limit themselves to teaching Bible stories. Children thus grow up in the church without being drilled in its creed’, The J. I. Packer Collection, ALISTER McGARTH, IVF Press, 1999, p. 187. To memorize a ‘Statement of Faith’ does not mean that one is a Christian. On the other hand, to make a responsible commitment to Jesus Christ one must know who He is and what He did for our salvation. H. L. ELLISON writes, ‘Moses stayed long enough with his parents to have his people’s identity and hopes ineradicably impressed upon him, as well as their faith in the God of the Patriarchs’, Daily Bible Readings, Westminster Press, 1982, p. 10. We should never doubt that our children might well be the Daniels, the Hananiahs, the Mishaels, and the Azariahs of the future.
5. The lives that resulted
Was Paul thinking of these youths when he wrote to his friends in Philippi? He exhorts them to be ‘blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life’, Phil. 2. 15-16. It would be hard to find a better description of Daniel and his friends or of those whom God is going to use in this new century to take the gospel to the world.
The lesson is timeless. As a recognized Christian leader reportedly implied recently, ‘when convictions are good and sound because they rest on God’s unchanging truth, people will be prepared to die for them’. Daniel and his colleagues were prepared to die before turning their backs on God. In that commitment to God, they were truly free, free from insidious doubts, free from the fear of death, free to stand up for God, free to be a light in the darkness whatever the cost might be, see Dan. 3. 17.