There is something about the word ‘success’ that disturbs Christians. The word does not fit comfortably into our vocabulary. How many sermons have we heard on the subject of humility? How often we have heard Paul’s wise counsel, ‘Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in yo ur own opinion’, Rom. 12. 6. Perhaps we equate success with pride and remember that both James and Peter quote Solomon’s proverb, ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble’, Jas. 4. 6; 1 Pet. 5. 5.
How many stories there are in the Bible of men and women who were devoid of all humility and full of pride and arrogance! Obsessed with dreams of power, Absalom rose up against his own father in an attempt to destroy him. The unlimited pride of Jezebel was let loose as she stirred up unbelievable wickedness by manipulating those around her. Her end was even more pathetic and tragic than that of Absalom. These two cases, plus so many more, confirm the psalmist’s comment, ‘Pride serves as their necklace; violence covers them like a garment’, Ps. 73. 6.
The first lesson we need to learn about success is that in personal achievement that leads to gaining position, fame, or power, we need God’s leading and presence. This is essential for the Christian. To put it in very blunt language, we cannot handle success wisely on our own. Without God we will move in the wrong direction. Daniel is undoubtedly an outstanding example of a truly successful person who rose to prominence as he submitted to God’s will and leading. The early years of Daniel and his friends in Jerusalem were not rigidly compartmentalized – the Sabbath for God and the rest of the week for secular activities and studies. Instead, there was a wholeness to their lives that harmoniously brought God into every aspect of life. We hesitate to believe what has recently been stated by some. Is it really true that many evangelicals today pick up their Bibles when they leave for church on Sunday morning and after the service return it to its honoured place in the home where it remains until the following Sunday? Any measure of truth in this matter would indicate that the week of those who so act consists of one religious day and six secular days. Daniel and his companions from early years lived, played, studied, worked and prayed to God seven days a week.
No wonder they succeeded as spiritual youths to the point that they were noticed by Ashpenaz who was looking for candidates to train for the king’s service. The requirements were not ordinary, rather they were extremely demanding. The potential students were to be widely read in many areas, with a solid basis in general education, able to grasp new concepts and capable of holding high office in the king’s service.
When Daniel moved onto the world scene through deportation from Jerusalem to Babylon, he found himself in a group of intelligent young men. Other Jewish youths also participated in the three-year course, for Daniel and his friends came ‘from among those of the sons of Judah’, Dan. 1. 6. It is somewhat surprising that we have no further news of them. The other students for the three-year course may not have been exclusively Jewish exiles. Of all the students in the class, Daniel and his friends, as the older generation used to say, ‘were at the top of the class’; ‘they graduated with honours’. The king personally interviewed them, and declared he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers who were in all his realm’, Dan. 1. 20. No wonder ‘they served before the king’, Dan 1. 19.
There is at least the possibility that Daniel might have been naturally a brilliant student and administrator. The truth is that Daniel’s brilliance was submitted to the will of God and, as a result, was greatly enhanced. When Daniel and his friends reported for class they did not leave God at the door. They would excel as students not just because of their natural abilities, but because God was with them to help them.
When human beings walk with God they are face to face with an awesome combination. In this particular case, God and four young men were working together in Babylon! Although we hesitate to use the word ‘success’, anyone in Babylon, taking note of what was happening to Daniel and his friends, would be impressed. We are not told what their first service was before the king. We can only imagine that having spent three years in strenuous study, they now became familiar with the royal court, with government business and with international relations. At the same time, king Nebuchadnezzar would be watching them closely and probably saying to himself, ‘I need more men like these four exiles!’
Scholars wrestle with the dates mentioned in Daniel’s book. How much time elapsed between the first two chapters? Most of us, while recognizing our limitations in this area, probably feel it was not a long period. When Daniel interpreted the king’s dream, the young men’s time of adaptation to Babylon was over. Daniel rises to great prominence and power as the civil governor of the whole capital province of Babylon. This was a post of tremendous importance in the political life of Babylon. Someone from an important family, a member of what at that time was considered to be the master race, would usually fill this important position. That Nebuchadnezzar chose a Jewish exile to fill that post shows just how deeply he felt about Daniel. With the king’s permission, Daniel placed his three friends in key positions throughout the province.
This sounds like success however we look at it. These men knew that God was involved in all that happened in Jerusalem and in Babylon. They did not resist God. They did not rebel against God. Instead, they responsibly humbled themselves under the mighty hand of God. Without detracting from the young men’s capacities and talents, they rose to high positions maintaining their integrity, their moral values and their allegiance to God. God was with them and God had a purpose in all that was happening.
The foundation for success in the Christian’s life, in whatever sphere God has placed him, rests solidly on submission and obedience to God. Daniel and his friends did not have all the answers. They were probably totally surprised at the way events turned out in Babylon. Yet, they had no doubts that their rise to power and influence began and remained with God. Daniel’s success was not prisoner to any given set of circumstances like that, for example, of a particular monarch. So often we see someone rise to prominence as a friend and advisor to an important politician. When, for whatever reason, the politician’s career ends, his friend and advisor also disappears from the public scene. In Daniel’s case, kings disappeared from the world stage, but Daniel went on!
Is success under God measured only by what happens in this world? Is it limited only to temporal reality? Is the story of Daniel a fairy tale? Is this something that could happen in the real world of today? The family of William Wilberforce (1759–1833) sent him to a school to improve his education. While there he met Christians who had a profound effect on him. On a visit to the family home, his parents were alarmed and took him out of the school. Away from Christian friends, he returned to his former way of life. As a young man he became a Member of Parliament. In poor health and somewhat depressed he eventually travelled to Europe for a change. On that trip he was either restored to the Lord or soundly converted. Almost his first intention was to resign his seat in parliament and become a church minister. Needing advice, he thought of old John Newton, the converted captain of a slave ship. Pouring out his heart to Newton, he affirmed his strong desire to leave politics and enter the ministry.
The old man listened to him and then quietly suggested that God had placed him in Parliament and that he should stay there for, no doubt, God had a purpose for him in that sphere of power and influence. This was not the advice Wilberforce had anticipated, but he took it as from the Lord. He spent his life seeking freedom for the slaves in the British Empire and at the end of his life he received the news that the act for the abolition of slavery had finally been signed and had passed into law.
The story of Daniel is not a fairytale. The lifework of William Wilberforce is not a fable. They are not alone. Others, well known, and many more unknown, have served in high places in government, science, the academic world, business and the arts. They handled success by their submission to God and God exalted them to advance His work.
Daniel with his friends walked into an unknown world centuries ago probably quoting the promise, ‘Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you’, Deut. 31. 6. What does God have in store for our young people in this new century? Dare we believe that among our children and grandchildren there is a Daniel or a William Wilberforce? Are we helping them as they prepare for a life of obedience to God that might lead to positions of power and influence where they will serve God? Edward G. Dobson writes, ‘God is not removed from the events of history’.1 Edward G. Dobson, Daniel (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1994), p. 24.
We can sit on the sidelines and watch what He is doing or, at His calling, we can work with Him.