Although the young man Daniel suffered through the terrifying ordeal of being kidnapped and forced to serve in a pagan court of a tyrannical king, those who know Israel’s history know that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are part of the believing remnant within Judah–those Jews who, despite the curse of YHWH upon their own nation, remain faithful to YHWH, and who are preserved and sustained by YHWH in the midst of exile. Yet, Daniel and several post-exilic prophets such as Malachi and Zechariah will be raised up by YHWH to reveal his purposes for his people upon their return to Judah and Jerusalem which will ultimately lead to the coming of the Messiah (Jesus).
Context and Background Matter In Daniel
I think it fair to say that one reason why preachers often turn the great events of redemptive history into object lessons or timeless truths–and often times even these are obscured by illustrations, stories, and multi-media presentations–is because neither they nor their congregations know the Bible well enough (or care to know the Bible well enough) to let the biblical story tell itself, and then trust God to apply his word to the hearts of those hearing it proclaimed.
Because it is a difficult book, requiring a great deal of historical background, the Book of Daniel is far too often subject to such unfortunate moralizing treatment. This is a shame, because the story of four young Jewish boys taken captive, forced to conform to foreign ways, and then finding themselves standing before the king of Babylon (the man who has done these evil things to them) and out-performing by ten times the king’s own best and brightest, is far more interesting than any illustration I might find, any story that I might tell, or any timeless truth we may attempt to identify.
Their story is especially compelling when we know the biblical background which puts this account into perspective–the reason why I will spend some time developing that background. Yes, this is a wonderful story of faith under pressure and resistance in the face of temptation. But it is also a story of God working all things after the counsel of his will, while still caring for these four young men. God has chosen Daniel to reveal future chapters in the great story of redemption.
As mentioned previously, the Book of Daniel can be quite challenging to understand because of its apocalyptic visions and its direct ties to ancient near-eastern history. This is also why it is a difficult book to unpack—for the reasons just mentioned. This is why we are slowly “easing” into our study of Daniel’s remarkable prophecy. In previous posts we spent some time on the background to the book, we looked at its literary structure, and then we established that two themes run simultaneously throughout the course of this book–themes bound together in the person of Daniel, a prophet of YHWH, and the author of the book which bears his name.
Keeping Two Themes in Mind
The first theme is the sovereignty of God over the empires and rulers of the world–including the Babylonian empire and its king current Nebuchadnezzar. We have considered Daniel’s stress the upon the sovereignty of God in the opening chapter of his prophecy–God “gave” Israel’s king Johaikim over to Nebuchadnezzar, along with many gold and silver vessels from the Jerusalem temple used in the worship of YHWH (v. 2). The very idea of Israel’s king being led in chains to Babylon, as well as Jewish gold and silver, which had been used in the Jerusalem temple for the worship of YHWH, now placed in the Babylonian treasury and dedicated to the “gods” worshiped by Nebuchadnezzar, was unthinkable to any Jew. The symbolism attached to these events is not to be missed by Daniel’s reader. Nebuchadnezzar thinks his kingdom is far greater then Judah, and his “gods” are vastly superior to YHWH. He will soon discover otherwise. Yet at the same time Daniel tells us that this tragic set of events occurred because God willed that they occur–the covenant curses meted out by YHWH upon disobedient Israel.
The second theme running throughout the Book of Daniel is God’s providential care of Daniel and his three friends (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah), who together have been taken captive by Babylonian soldiers and then removed to the capital city (Babylon) where they would be made to serve in the royal court. It is hard to imaging how frightening it would have been for these boys–likely between twelve and fourteen–to be kidnapped from their homes and families in Judah, taken to a strange place, where they would be forced to forget their past and learn to worship foreign gods. We see God’s sovereignty and care of Daniel throughout this saga, as Daniel reveals that God “gave” him favor in the sight of Nebuchadnezzar’s chief eunuch, Aspenaz (v. 9), the man responsible for the training (actually the “re-education”) of Daniel and his three friends, whose story unfolds in the first half of Daniel’s prophecy.
Taking capable Jewish youths captive–especially from royal and noble households–was part of Nebuchadnezzar’s larger plan to weaken Judah (a potential enemy) by taking the best and brightest of Jewish youth, especially future kings and nobles, and turning them into servants in Babylonian court. As these young men were made to serve their Babylonian masters, they were a living testimony of Nebuchadnezzar’s power. Jewish royals and nobles made to serve Babylonian royals and nobles–a humiliating demonstration of Babylon’s complete domination over Judah.
The Mounting Pressure to Comply with Pagan Ways
The tremendous pressure upon Daniel and his friends to comply with this Babylonian indoctrination was a matter of life or death. As we will see in the next chapter, the Babylonian king was a cruel and vicious tyrant, and yet in the providence of God, Daniel and his three friends astonished him by how well they had learned the Babylonian language, culture, and history. As recounted in our passage (vv.18-20), based upon their appearance and knowledge, these Jewish boys were now Babylonian servants, ready to dedicate the rest of their lives to serve their new masters. But appearances can be deceiving. YHWH’s favor towards these boys is revealed in verse 17, as once again we see his sovereign hand at work. “As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.”
What makes their appearance before Nebuchadnezzar so remarkable is that throughout the first chapter we have already seen that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, successfully resist their Babylonian captors at virtually every step in their reorientation, despite the tremendous pressure put upon them to conform to Babylonian ways and religion. Daniel identifies his new home as “Shinar,” which was the location of the wicked and rebellious city Babel, destroyed by YHWH (Genesis 11:1-9). We read of how these four Hebrew youths deliberately misspelled their new Babylonian names to keep from honoring false Babylonian gods. We also saw how Daniel and the others managed to avoid defiling themselves by not eating the food offered them from the king’s table–receiving instead vegetables and water.
It may indeed have been the case that as a Jew committed to the dietary laws of his people, Daniel wished to avoid the unclean foods of Babylon. But it is likely that Daniel also wished to avoid any symbolic actions which identified Nebuchadnezzar as his covenant lord–such as table fellowship with the king, the means of cementing a lasting bond between two parties in ancient near-eastern culture. Daniel could serve the king as a servant in the civil kingdom. Yet, Daniel refused to give the king and his gods the devotion and worship symbolized by eating from the king’s table. So when we read in verses 18-20 of the king’s acknowledgment of their superior wisdom and understanding, we know the only way this was possible is through the direct action of YHWH, “giving them” skill, wisdom, and learning, much greater than all the other captive youths serving with them in the Babylonian court. They resist and they prosper.
In order to understand why the closing verses of chapter 1 are so remarkable and surprising in light of the greater story of redemptive history, as well as to help us to gain important biblical background as to why specific things will unfold in the dreams and visions which follow, we need to do a bit more background. So, in the balance of this post, we will first consider YHWH’s covenant promises and threatened curses upon Israel, and then turn to other prophetic declarations regarding both Israel’s exile and eventual release from their captivity in Babylon so as to return home to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its temple. Finally, we will consider the closing verses of Daniel 1 and how these four young men (especially Daniel) will witness God’s judgment fall upon Babylon.
Israel’s History and the Warnings of Covenant Curses
First, we turn back the clock from the days of Daniel to about 1400 BC and the moment when the people of Israel were about to enter the promised land of Canaan after forty years of wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai. While still on the plains of Moab–to the east of Canaan, and shortly before his death–Moses leads what amounts to a covenant renewal ceremony, recounted in the Book of Deuteronomy. On this solemn occasion, as God’s people were about to enter the long-desired land of promise, Moses reminds the people of the blessings promised them by YHWH if in the generations to come they remain obedient to their covenant with YHWH. Yet in Deuteronomy 28:46-48, Moses also reminds Israel of the covenant curses which will come upon them should the nation fall into sin by embracing the false gods of Israel’s Canaanite neighbors. Moses warned the assembled people,
And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, “If only it were evening!” and at evening you shall say, “If only it were morning!” because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see. And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.