Having to face the problem of sudden change
A basic element of human nature is the need to belong to someone or something. We look for permanence in our surroundings. We all need something that makes sense of the lives we live. Parents, spouses, children and friends, church, home and employment all contribute to a world we know that gives meaning to our lives. When individuals lose control of their environment because of unexpected change, they are bewildered, sometimes with long-term effects.
Daniel and his friends were very young men when Judah, under Jehoiakim, became a vassal of Egypt. Even so, Judah retained a certain air of independence and dignity. Babylon conquered Egypt, which made little difference to Judah until Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon! In the third year of Jehoiakim’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, set a military blockade around Jerusalem. Totally unexpected by most, the Lord gave king Jehoiakim and Jerusalem into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. That day the unimaginable, the unbelievable happened: a pagan power violated Jerusalem! That same day, the lights went out in the lives of these four young men.
Pleasant circumstances can make us blind to the tragedy of others
It is true that many of God’s people appear to live in very pleasant circumstances. Some may even take the psalmist’s thought more literally than spiritually and, with the language based on the conquest of Canaan, say, ‘The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Yes, I have a good inheritance’ or, as one translation reads, ‘My share in life has been pleasant; my part has been beautiful’. Yet one would hope that even those so blessed would remember the millions, including great numbers of Christians, who are not so blessed.
None of us wants to see the lights go out. None of us is expecting a tragedy to appear in our lives. Yet we all know that ‘tyrants’ of one kind or another can unexpectedly put out the lights in one’s life just as Nebuchadnezzar did in the lives of Daniel and his friends. Illness often produces a life-changing impact for more than the person directly involved. Economic setbacks such as the collapse of a number of major financial institutions in different parts of the world have shocked millions of people who thought their futures were financially secure. A great number of people have lost their employment because of major cutbacks in large corporations and because of work being sourced from areas of the world where wages are lower. Terrorism sobers and frightens us and we no longer talk of ‘if’, ‘but’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ the next attack will take place. Sexual irresponsibility leading to disease, broken marriages and fragmented families is alarming. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, horrendous forest fires, unexpected floods, powerful hurricanes and other disasters take hundreds of lives and leave thousands devastated. A terminal illness brings a life, humanly speaking, to a premature end and often deeply affects a circle of intimate friends. Adjusting to old age in many a case drastically changes one’s life. Unexpected problems in the local church may leave in one a deep sense of disillusionment and scars that take a long time to disappear.
Turning the light on again when the world turns dark is not as obvious as one would think
Is there an alternative to utter despair when our world falls apart? What do we do when the usual framework of life is broken? A large group of the Lord’s followers came to a point when they were losing hold of their world that had become centred in Him. There were too many things they failed to understand with the result that, ‘From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more’, John 6. 66. The plight of the twelve disciples is seen when the Lord Jesus asked them, ‘Do you also want to go away?’, John 6. 67. They knew if they left Him, their world would end. It was Peter who verbalized their plight, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’, John 6. 68-9. If they left the Lord Jesus, the disciples knew they had nothing to hold on to. Life would lose all meaning.
Daniel learned early in his life that God does sometimes surprise us by the way He achieves His purpose. Habakkuk captures that surprise at the way God occasionally works. His complaint is loud, ‘O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, “Violence!" and You will not save’, Heb. 1. 5-7. God’s answer startles the prophet. ‘Look among the nations and watch; be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you. For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans, a bitter and hasty nation … terrible and dreadful’, Hab. 1. 5-7. In his confusion, Habakkuk blurts out, ‘Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?’, Hab. 1. 13.
Finding the path to tread is the problem
It is truly amazing that this young man Daniel reacts very differently. With remarkable maturity, he readjusts his thinking to God’s plans. He seems to understand that God’s plans, which are always good, sometimes involve humiliation, sufferings, uncertainty, shame and time!
Peter and his fellow disciples refused the message the Lord Jesus repeatedly shared with them. He went even so far as to openly rebuke the Lord for talking that way but only to have the Master tell him in no uncertain terms that he, Peter, was like a perilous ambush on His way to the cross. Yet the disciples did not re-adjust their thoughts to the thinking of the Lord Jesus! Even after this serious incident, they persisted in their own concept of a Messiah who does not suffer. They would not accept His clear teaching that the Messiah would die and on the third day He would rise again. The result was that when their world collapsed at His death outside Jerusalem, they were stunned and filled with fear. They had no source of stability, no comfort, no security, no hope!
On the road to Emmaus the risen Christ said to two very sad and confused individuals, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’, Luke 24. 25-26. In his own experience Paul clearly learned that suffering is part of our commitment to Christ, ‘For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake’, Phil. 1. 29.
The way to understanding can be a long one but hinges on just one principle – trust
For Daniel and his companions the dimensions of the tragedy would lead, as far as we know, to permanent exile. The exile began with a long trip to a foreign and unknown world. Those who travel extensively always cherish, generally speaking, the moment when they begin the trip home. We have no information that suggests these young men ever returned to Jerusalem.
As the bird flies, the journey from Jerusalem to Babylon was almost six hundred miles. Because of the Arabian Desert, the route between Jerusalem and Babylon followed the Fertile Crescent. This could mean a distance of almost nine hundred miles. It was probably not a ‘forced march’ to Babylon, for these young men were set aside for special training in order to serve in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. However, it would be a sad journey for Daniel and his friends. They knew that they were walking farther and farther away from home and moving into an unknown future. Humanly speaking, they had lost control of their lives.
What was the necessary understanding these young men required in order to live for God in a foreign and hostile environment? The answer may sound very simple, but it is fundamental. Their trust in God sustained them all along the way. Whatever the moment in history, whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in – even when our world is falling apart – there is a lesson here for all of us.
Trust in God puts your feet on an open road
Did Daniel and the others who were taken into captivity dream of a new exodus, a new beginning? Did they believe that light would again shine in darkness? Do we go too far if we imagine they may have been thinking more about God’s actions in the future than those in the past? Were they men of faith and not just students of history? In the darkest hour of apostasy and catastrophe, did they share the hope – the Good News – that God was going to act in the future as He had done in the past?
They would know that the Messiah, God’s messenger, was coming with salvation. At the same time there was no assurance they would see God’s great act in their lifetime, but that did not diminish their confidence in God. He had promised to act in history with salvation and glory for human beings. They trusted God, not because they knew all the answers to the troubling questions of life, but they knew God. They would have uttered a firm ‘Amen’ if they had heard Paul’s statement, ‘I know whom I have believed’, 2. Tim. 1. 12.
Finding the comfort of the scriptures and the inspiration of hope
Jeremiah the prophet, who went to Egypt with a group of exiles, speaks of the reason for this faith in God. God spoke through the prophet, ‘I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever’. He added, ‘I will make an everlasting covenant with them … I will rejoice over them to do them good’, Jer. 32. 39-41. Ezekiel, who went to Babylon, and possibly returned to Jerusalem, saw the coming glory, ‘And the glory of the Lord came into the temple by way of the gate which faces toward the east’, Ezek. 43. 4. Isaiah, who writes powerfully of dark days ahead, with confidence bursts out in the well known words, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!"’, Isa. 52. 7. Daniel and his friends would know the general tenor of these prophetic messages of hope given to ancient Judah and Israel in very dark moments of despair.
How were Daniel and his fellow captives to live in exile? They were just as committed to God in the moment when the lights went out in their lives as Job was in his time. Job kept his faith in God in spite of all that happened to him. We remember his words, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him’, Job 13. 15. In Job’s case, he saw God’s action in his lifetime, for all was restored in abundance. This does not always happen. As for Daniel and his friends they never saw again a legitimate king over Judah or the special city of Jerusalem or the sacred temple. They did not see in their lifetime a full restoration of the world they had known and loved. Yet, instinctively, they knew they were part of the eternal and glorious restoration.
Finding the path in our day too
Is the story of Daniel relevant for our times? Although we often say that the lines have fallen unto us in pleasant places, think of other places in our world where violence and confusion reign, of other situations that truly frighten us. There is no real permanence in the present situation for the Christian.
The New Testament message is clear. In this world nothing is sure, ‘here we have no continuing city’, Heb. 13. 14. Daniel learned this in his lost and broken world. At the same time we have received ‘a kingdom which cannot be shaken’, Heb. 12. 28. We have hope! Daniel also knew that God would sustain him and bless him. He became one of the greatest statesmen of the ancient world. In that tension of living for God in the world, individuals who trusted in God in ancient times often expressed their confidence in the words from a psalm. The Christian today bursts out in worship, for they to have found that, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’, Heb. 13. 8. In the attitude of trust in God as we face the future, we can praise Him in the difficult moments when the lights go out in our lives and seek to fulfil the requirement of ‘therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name’.
Christians feel uncertainty at the same time they know certainty. When they are surrounded by confusion they perceive order. If they are broken by a deep grief, they partake of an overwhelming joy. In the tension between the present lack of permanence and the indestructible nature of coming glory, Christians experience an unbelievable stability that proceeds from Jesus Christ our Lord who never changes.
So real is this quiet, spiritual stability that martyrs have walked to their deaths singing the hymns of our faith. Countless numbers of Christians have approached death because of natural causes and each in his or her own way has expressed something similar to what William Romaine expressed on his deathbed. William Romaine was the rallying point in London for the evangelical Anglicans over three hundred years ago. On his deathbed at 81 years of age, a friend said to him, ‘I hope, my dear sir, you now find the salvation of Jesus Christ precious, dear, and valuable to you?’ He replied, ‘He is a precious Saviour to me now’.
The author of the following poem is unknown but the message of the poem touches all of us, especially in moments of unexpected change.
As the rain hides the stars,
As the autumn mist hides the hills,
As the clouds veil the blue of the sky,
So the dark happenings of my lot hide
The shining of Thy face from me.
Yet if I may hold Thy hand in the darkness,
It is enough.
Since I know, that though I may stumble in my going,
Thou dost not fall.
Daniel and his three friends were moving into the darkness of a totally unknown world. We can only presume, owing to the sacred record of their faith in God later in Babylon, that with each step on that long journey they encouraged each other in God. I think I hear them chanting some of the songs from the temple days. As they walked towards an uncertain future, they projected their own feelings reflected in the psalmist’s thought, ‘This I declare of the LORD, ‘He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I am trusting Him’.
To be continued.