A French proverbs reads, ‘Trouble arrives like galloping horses’. Someone added, ‘And it leaves slowly, step by step’. There is no doubt that sudden, radical changes do arise in our lives totally unexpected and they are definitely real! Sometimes we know change is coming and we prepare for it. At other times, change happens so rapidly we are stunned, confused, devastated!
The opening verses of Daniel probably refer to a preliminary deportation of some Jews to Babylon. The Babylonians took the elite first, then followed with a much larger deportation later. One literal translation reads, ‘Then the king commanded … his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility’. This reading indicates that there are not three categories – the people of Israel, the members of the royal family, and the members of the noble families. Rather, there are only two categories – the king wanted the best of the royal family and the members of the nobility. This may suggest that it was not a general deportation of Jews to Babylon, something that would follow later. It also raises some very important questions.
Who was Daniel? Who were his three friends?
That they were part of the first deportation appears to confirm that they belonged by birth to the elite of the nation. As another translation reads, ‘Then the king ordered Ashpenaz … to bring to the palace some of the young men of Judah’s royal family and other noble families’, Dan. 1. 3. This is remarkable in view of the spiritual maturity of these four young men. The history of the royal line of David in the southern kingdom (Judah), and the line of the kings of Israel, the northern kingdom, is sad reading. So many of the kings wandered far from God’s will with tragic results. As was the king, so was the nobility, generally speaking. The prophets thundered their outrage and boldly communicated God’s message to kings and nobles who were not the least interested, often despising these men of God and hounding them to death. The Lord Jesus said, ‘Woe to you … hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets … and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets’. Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets’, Matt. 23. 29-31.
King Jehoiakim, in whose reign Daniel grew up, was one of those rebellious kings. That Daniel and his friends, all from the extended royal family or from the nobility, developed spiritually into young men committed to God and to His truth is, first of all, a tribute to God’s grace and power, but also, secondly, as we have noticed before, a tribute to members of their families and teachers in the temple who, in spite of living in an environment hostile to God and to His word, trained these young men in God’s truth.
Babylon is the term that highlights the radical change in Daniel’s life
It was a new and strange world for Daniel and his friends. According to Bible dictionaries, ancient Babylon was a sprawling city that covered an area of nearly 1000 acres, making it the largest ancient settlement in Mesopotamia, some fifteen percent larger than Nineveh. Babylon contained 1,179 temples of varying sizes for the worship of many gods. Its normal population was near 100,000, but the walls could have sheltered at least 250,000 persons. The outer wall system involved three walls. The innermost wall was about 22 feet thick made of sun-dried mud-brick. Beyond this wall by 39 feet was a second slightly thicker wall also of baked bricks. Then a third wall further out was some 10 feet thick forming the scarp of a moat perhaps as wide as 330 feet.
Babylon in Daniel’s lifetime was a capital city in ancient Mesopotamia, an area covering most of modern Iraq. It was then the largest and the most beautiful city in the world. With its renowned Hanging Gardens and massive walls, classical tradition considered it to have been one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Jeremiah, while anticipating its downfall, named Babylon, ‘a golden cup in the LORD‘S hand, that made all the earth drunk’, Jer. 51. 7. The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) commonly thought to have visited the city around 460 BC reported that its splendour surpassed any city of the known world.
For Daniel and his friends Babylon would represent the absolute opposite of Jerusalem
In their minds Jerusalem was ideally the city where human beings and God could live together in harmony and love. True, they witnessed the apostasy, but they never forgot the spiritual ideal. In our modern world, it is similar to a Christian young person moving from a Christian home and church to the sophisticated, highly secular academic world or a Christian moving into the powerful and wealthy world of great corporations.
Facing the challenge of a new and different environment, the Christian asks some serious questions. How do I adjust to change? How do I ward off temptation? Up to what point do I say ‘Yes’ in a non- Christian environment? Daniel and his friends did not object to everything in Babylon. For example, the change of names reduced their ‘foreignness’ in Babylon. Co-operating with life in the new civilization, that’s if they had choice in the matter, they entered a three-year programme of intense study and training. They worked hard and God helped them. When they finished their studies, they graduated with honours. ‘Then the king interviewed them, and … none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they served before the king’, Dan. 1. 19.
They eventually participated in the royal administration of the Babylonian empire
It is most noteworthy that, being a Jew, Daniel was put in charge of the important province of Babylon – a tribute to the king’s trust in him. Located in key areas, Daniel’s three friends helped him in the administration of the vast and important province of Babylon. Daniel remained with the king, one of his key advisors. Having proved himself a man of God, he was put in charge of all the wise men of Babylon, a truly remarkable position.
There is an important lesson here. It was not impossible for Daniel and his friends to live in Babylon, to participate in the affairs of the nation, even to enjoy and take advantage of certain legitimate aspects of Babylonian life. They achieved what many who have called themselves Christians have struggled with down through the centuries.
How do you live for God in the world that surrounds us?
Some trace the monastic movement back to Anthony of Comus, Egypt. Although born into wealth, he heard the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor’, Matt. 29. 21. As a result, he gave away all his worldly goods and devoted himself exclusively to religious exercises, living for many years in the desert in isolation from the world. Eventually, men followed him and the monastic movement was born.
There are both positive and negative sides to this matter. We all need moments apart from the world. We achieve this by personal and family devotions, by attending church services and sometimes we may be able take a week or more away from our usual activities for a spiritual retreat. On the other hand, we are not called to live in total isolation from the world. Paul’s comments to the Corinthians are important, ‘I wrote to you … not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world’, 1. Cor. 5. 10.
Because we reject the philosophy and practices of a world that has turned its back on God, we do not ‘team up’ with unbelievers. Yet we are to love human beings as God loves them. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son’, John 3. 16. We are to serve that world of lost human beings and to ‘preach the gospel to every creature’. The Lord Jesus Himself set the example, for ‘many tax collectors (hated by the general population for their greed) and sinners (those who did not come up to the standards of the religious teachers) came and sat down with Him and His disciples’, Matt. 9. 10.
Two important issues governed Daniel and his companions in all their adjustments to Babylon
Their belief in God and their dedication to Him was not negotiable. They would live and work in Babylon, not as pagan Babylonians but as Jews who believed in God. They knew that their God, not Nebuchadnezzar, was primarily responsible for the fact that they were forced to leave their well-known and loved world for the strange and foreign civilization of Babylon. The result was that there was no blind, irrational resentment against the king of Babylon. They did not spend their time nor waste their energy blaming Nebuchadnezzar for something God had allowed for His glory.
This is an important lesson for Christians to learn! Our primary ministry is not to condemn the world. The world is the world. We Christians should know this. We are to live in such a way that our lives will prevent the full expression of evil prematurely. But the world will not change. These four young men perceived the greater picture and did not lose themselves in the details of the present catastrophe in their lives.
When do we say to the world, ‘No'?
Daniel’s three friends knew when a situation demanded a negative response. They would not worship the idol made of gold. With respect they told the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up’, Dan. 3. 16-18. Again, we notice that they would live and work in Babylon not as pagan worshipers of Babylonian gods, but as men who believed in the one and true God.
Daniel himself would not stop his private prayer life in his own home because of king Darius’ decree. Daniel’s enemies plotted to destroy him but, they said, ‘We shall not find any charge against this Daniel unless we find it against him concerning the law of his God’, Dan. 6. 5. In the issue of Daniel’s own personal commitment and devotion to God he would not yield. Note, he did not pray on the street corner nor in the entrance to his home so all could see him. In this matter he was not like the Pharisees of later times. Rather in a private upstairs room he knelt in prayer.
The practical result of this was that these men knew when to say ‘Yes’ to Babylon and when to say ‘No’. They may not have clearly understood what God was doing, but they knew he was in control.
They would stand with God and for God in Babylon even if it cost them their lives.
The exiles, including these four young men, learned a difficult lesson in Babylon. They experienced the tension between two different worlds. There was a deeply felt sorrow because they were so far away from Jerusalem. The psalmist captured the exiles’ sorrow when he wrote, ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it … How shall we sing the Lord’s song In a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth; if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy’, Ps. 137. 1-6.
On the other hand, they faced a very difficult challenge! Jeremiah frames this remarkable task by writing, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all … whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters; that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace’, Jer. 29. 4-7.
Had Daniel, and others, not made the decision to honour God in the years of the exile, Israel as a nation would have disappeared. Their faithfulness to God in very difficult circumstances helped prepare the way for the return of a remnant and the coming of the Messiah. By zealously maintaining his faith in God, Daniel was in a sense a guardian of Israel’s future. Israel would not disappear. A remnant would return for the birth of the Messiah and the Messiah would come! Daniel did not see this fulfilment in his lifetime even though he was a key player in bringing it about.
There is a message for us in this tension of living in two worlds at the same time
With faith in God, the Christian, by a consistent, godly life, is a witness to the truth that God is working and the enemy will not triumph. Daniel and his friends lived and worked in the secular world. There they honoured God by the way they lived. They were like Paul and his colleagues. The apostle wrote to his friends in Thessalonica, saying, ‘For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake’, 1 Thess. 1. 5. The Babylonians knew what kind of men Daniel and his companions were. We only know a few details, not all by any means, about their enemies who tried to destroy them. Did others in that great city, the marvel of the ancient world, see in these men something far better, something morally superior, and something truly beautiful that was missing in Babylon and that Babylon could never supply?
In awkward circumstances within the old Babylonian empire, Daniel waited for the coming Messiah. He came but not in his lifetime! In difficult circumstances within a modern world gone mad and devoid of moral and spiritual life, we wait ‘for the Lord from heaven’. He will come! That we may not see the Lord’s coming in our lifetime does not weaken in the least the fact that the risen Christ will return. In the meantime, we are challenged to live for God in the world where He has placed us. The Lord Jesus says today to us with the same authority and power He displayed two thousand years ago, ‘Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit … and be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age’, Matt. 28. 19-20.