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TEXT: Daniel 1:3-21
SUBJECT: How to Live for God in Babylon
Today, with God's blessing, we will continue our study of Daniel, what has to be one of the Bible's most loved--and least understood--books. If you've read it, you know why people love it: it's exciting, what with young men walking out of a fiery furnace, an old man surviving a lions' den, and kings dreaming of Empire and being humbled by the handwriting on the wall. For pure excitement, action movies have got nothing on Daniel.
Chills and thrills are not all it has, however. Daniel is also a deeply mysterious book full of appalling creatures and terrible conflict, all told in the bizarre and unfamiliar language of apocalyptic. This is why people, who love the Lord and work hard to understand this part of His Word come to very different conclusions as to what it means.
With the Babel of interpretations ringing in our ears, we're tempted to skip it altogether, or maybe to read it for 'devotional' purposes, but with no real desire or hope of understanding it. This cannot be the right way of going about it. Of course, some parts of the Bible are more challenging than others, but this is God's Book for God's People, not for scholars only, but for all of us.
How do we read Daniel with confidence? There is a spiritual side to this, and we mustn't forget that. Knowing any truth depends on the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, and so, every time we pick up the Bible, we ought to pray along the lines of Psalm 119:18--
Open my eyes,
that I may behold wondrous
things out of your Law.
If we start with the Holy Spirit, we don't end with Him. We also use our minds, and I don't mean only bright and learned minds, because, let's face it, most of us are on the dull side and our learning is--to be nice about it--rather sketchy.
That's okay because the first rule to understanding Daniel is one everyone who has ever hit a baseball, shot a basketball, caught a football, or kicked a soccer ball knows:
Keep your eye on the ball!
This is where we go wrong in reading Daniel. We take our eye off the ball, we forget why the author wrote it or what he was trying to teach us.
'The end of the world' comes up in Daniel, but that's not what the Book is about. Nor is about the heroism of young men, though that's in here too. What the Book is about is the Sovereignty of God . In vv.1-2, the Holy things in God's House are taken into Babylon and put into the house of its gods. The idols have defeated the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That's how the story begins, but from v.3 to the end of the Book, we find God fighting back and coming out on top!
Daniel, therefore, is about God 's war on the idols, and His victory over all the gods--then and now, from Marduk to Mammon to Marxism--
Every knees bows
and every tongue confesses
that Jesus is Lord.
In the Book of Daniel, this war is fought in several stages., some hot--the Fiery Furnace comes to mind--and some cold. This is what we have in today's story, a cold war, weapons of mass destruction that look like a Thanksgiving Day Dinner Table.
The story takes place in Babylon, the capital of the world's greatest Empire. Some time before, Nebuchadnezzar had defeated Judah in battle and taken some of its leading citizens into captivity, including four handsome and intelligent boys, maybe ten or twelve years old.
They are prisoners of war, but their chains are made of velvet. They haven't been put into a prison or labor camp, but into the King's Academy to be groomed for the diplomatic corps. Had they stayed home, they would have been in Judah's royal service, but now, it's the king of Babylon they're going to serve.
To fit them for their future work, the king issues three orders. In the first place, they're given Chaldean names, and there's more to this than patriotism or ethnic pride. The change from 'Daniel' to 'Belteshazzar', for example, was fundamentally different than calling Pierre Peter or changing Laszlo to Lester.
Both sets of names were religious. The old names honored the God of Israel, while the new names honored Bel, Nabu, and Aku, the gods of Babylonia.
On receiving their new names, they were enrolled in the University where they studied the language and literature of their masters. Much of what they learned was good and useful, I'm sure, but running through it all was a thread of paganism with its creation myths and sordid tales of the gods.
At the University the students would eat like kings, dining on the same delicacies that were set before Nebuchadnezzar himself.
When you hear the word, 'persecution' what comes to mind? If I said, 'Our brethren in Somalia are suffering for Christ's sake', what do think of? I think of prison and torture and labor camps and death; burning at the stake, public beheadings, and so on. Or maybe things a tad softer, like ridicule and defamation of character.
What I don't think of is academic scholarships and fine restaurants. These are good things, things starving students piling up debt would love to have!
But Daniel and his friends saw things differently. Of course, they like good food--who doesn't? And the opportunity to study is a boon to anyone who loves learning and wants to make something of his life.
But underneath these good things, the young men spied a sinister motive: Nebuchadnezzar was trying to make them into Babylonians! He wanted the People of God to become something they were not, to be like everyone else, worshiping false gods, pursuing false goals, and living false lives.
To borrow the words of Paul, in Romans 12:2, he wanted Daniel and his friends--
Conformed to this world.
Notice, he doesn't say, 'conformed to the world', but to 'this world'. It's not 'world' as in earth, but 'world' as in this present evil age, an age where God is ignored, His will is secondary, and people live for themselves and not for the good of their neighbors.
Nebuchadnezzar was an open-minded pagan. He wasn't trying to eliminate the God of Israel or to outlaw any practice of His religion in the Empire. He just wanted to keep the Lord in His place, to put Him in context, the context of Pagan Babylon.
Let Daniel and his friends celebrate Passover in their homes, if they want to, but, in public, they've got to blend in. They've got to think and feel and act--and eat--like Pagans.
The young men accommodated the king as far as they could. They took the new names without protest and they went to his school and came out with the highest scores.
They must have found this all very distasteful, but they went along. Why? Two verses help us understand them. The first is Daniel 1:2, where we learn that they were in Nebuchadnezzar's court by God's will. It was the Lord who sent them into exile for the sins of the nation.
They could have argued that a pagan king has no authority over God's people--and they would have been right, he doesn't. Unless God gives it to him. Which He did.
The second verse is Jeremiah 29:7 (and remember Jeremiah was an exact contemporary of Daniel)--
Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord for it: for in its peace, you shall have peace.
The false prophets were saying the Exile would be over soon, but Jeremiah knew better. Daniel and his friends would never get back to Judah. They were strangers and pilgrims on the earth and they had to adjust their dreams and desires and hopes to that stark reality.
Just as we do. Perfect lives, perfect families, perfect churches, perfect jobs, perfect places to live do not exist in this world! Instead of wasting our time trying to find them or pining away when we don't, we have to live in the world as it is and make the best of a bad situation. We can do this with patience and good humor because we know life under the sun is not the only life; there's also a life over the sun.
LINE IN THE SAND
When it came to unpleasant things, the young men were willing to go along to get along. They were flexible. But when it came to sin, they were uncompromising.
They could go by new names and attend school without breaking the Law of God. But the king's food? No, they couldn't eat that with a good conscience.
Why not? In his great commentary on Daniel, John Goldingay gives seven possible answers, but has to admit he doesn't know what the issue was.
Was the king's favorite food pork chops? Was it sacrificed to idols? Was it imcompatible with mourning the sins that led to the Exile? We don't know. What we do know, however, is all we need to know. V.8 says, for whatever reason, the king's meat and wine would defile the Jews. In other words, it would be a sin eat the king's delicacies or drink his fine wine.
The men would rather risk the king's wrath than to offend their God. But they didn't think this was going to happen. They believed God had put them here, and that He would provide for them.
After a time of prayer and mutual encouragement, the men came to their adviser and asked for a change in diet. Instead of the king's rich fare, they'd prefer a diet of vegetables and water. The man liked and respected them, but they were asking a lot of him. If the Hebrews come in scrawny and pale while all the other students are fit and buffed, the king is going to blame the steward and cut his head off!
Had Daniel been a religious jerk, he would have replied with a grand pronouncement of some kind., striking a heroic pose. Thankfully, he wasn't that kind of man. He understood the steward's dilemma and found a way to accommodate him without betraying God.
'Test us', he said--but what he meant was 'test God'. Give us ten days without the king's food, and if the Lord doesn't bless us with good health, we'll eat whatever you say.
The steward agrees, and, after ten days--
Their countenance appeared better and fatter in flesh than all the young men who ate the king's delicacies.
In a tight place, Daniel and his friends had been faithful to God, and God had been faithful to them.
THE REST OF THE STORY
On graduating from the Academy, Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed-nego were presented to the king--
And in all matters of wisdom and understanding about which the king examined them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers who were in his realm.
They were put into positions of high authority where they served the Lord for their rest of their lives. How long the other men lived, we don't know, but the last line of the chapter is a telling one--
Thus Daniel continued until the first year of King Cyrus.
Cyrus was the King of Persia, the man who brought down the Babylonian Empire. So Daniel, the humble servant of God, living a life of simple obedience, outlived the mighty Empire that took him and his people captive.
This makes me think of I John 2:17--
And the world passes away and the lusts thereof. But he who does the will of God abides forever.
FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT OF FAITH
The world is at war with you, and if it has to, it will apply brute force to make you give in. But most of the time, it doesn't have to. It lulls us and woos us and slowly seduces us until we think and feel and live like everyone else.
We've got to fight back, fight back as Daniel and his friends did, with simple obedience to the known will of God and humble trust in Christ to give us the victory.
Our trust will not be misplaced, for He too was tempted as Daniel was--to make stones into bread--and He stood up to Satan and won the victory for Himself and for us. When things got hotter, Jesus did not forsake His duty, but submitted to it from the heart, going to the cross, dying for our sins and being buried. Then God raised Him from the dead giving Him all authority to exercise His will in the world.
Part of His will is to make you holy, to keep you in temptation, and give you victory over the malign powers of the devil and his servants. You can trust Him, as others have, not one of whom wishes he hadin't--
He who believes in Him shall not be put to shame!
Amen. Praise the Lord.
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