Friday, January 25, 2008

Thoughts On Daniel.

Blessed be the name of God forever & ever,
To whom belong wisdom & might.

He changes times & seasons;
He removes kings & sets up kings;
He gives wisdom to the wise
& knowledge to those who have understanding.

He reveals deep & mysterious things;
He knows what is in the darkness
& the light dwells with him.

To thee, oh God of my fathers, I give thanks & praise,
For thou hast given me wisdom & strength
For thou hast now made known to me what we asked of thee.

Tucked between Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & the 12 minor prophets that conclude the old testament we find the book of Daniel. Most of us will feel we are very familiar with the book of Daniel. The story of Daniel in the Lion’s den is a favourite Sunday school story but Daniel is not a children’s story. There are important lessons inherent in Daniel for every believing Christian.

First, as usual, we will delve a little into the historical background of both the book, the period & the man so we may better understand the context in which this story is set.

Liberal theologians suggest the book of Daniel was written sometime during the Maccabean wars of 167 ~ 164 BC but there is enough internal evidence to support the more conservative view than Daniel was indeed written during the Jewish exile into Babylon by one familiar with both Hebrew & Aramaic. The ins & outs of that argument are not pertinent here but the original book was written in Hebrew & Aramaic, as would be expected of someone conversant with both languages.

Prior to 721 BC Israel was divided into 2 kingdoms. The northern kingdom of Israel had its capital at Samaria while the southern kingdom of Judah’s capital was Jerusalem. In 721BC the northern kingdom fell to Assyria. Judah, guilty of paganism, idolatry & witchcraft, was attacked 3 times by Babylon (605, BC 597BC, when the royal household fled Jerusalem & finally in 586BC when Judah fell to Babylon) The prophet Jeremiah was in Jerusalem when it fell, the city was destroyed & the Israelites were deported to Babylon. It seems Daniel was taken captive in the first attack on Judah in 605. He was a young man who was probably born sometime about 623 BC during the reign of Josiah & as a member of the royal household was a valuable hostage.

At this time Babylon was considered the most beautiful city of the known world & famous for its hanging gardens, built by king Nebuchadnezzar for his Medean wife, Amytis. It was a walled city neatly divided in 2 by the Euphrates River. So what, you’re probably thinking. Who cares? What has Amytis to do with anything? Quite a lot actually, from a spiritual point of view. Even the very name of Babylon from Babilu means ‘gateway of the gods’ & it was considered a holy city.

The marriage of Nebuchadnezzar & Amytis united the Median & Babylonian kingdoms, a move that freed Babylon from dependence on Assyria, who’s capital, Ninevah, Babylon laid waste. Remember Jonah? What was he preaching against when he went to Ninevah? The deity Istar, goddess of fertility, sex & war, personified in the planet Venus & whose worship included sacred prostitution. Now the wall around Babylon was 90m high, 24m wide, buried 10m into the ground & 97K in circumference ~ think a small great wall of China. The biggest & most impressive of its 12 gates was the Istar Gate, dedicated to the Assyerian goddess. It was exceeding beautiful & very impressive as can be seen from the various reconstructions. It was the main gateway into Babylon & it was probably through this gateway that the Israeli hostages were led. I will discuss the symbolism of this a little later. Bear in mind too that Babylon practised astrology, a practise expressly forbidden in the old testament. This is the world that surrounded Daniel on a day by day basis. It was a world of political intrigue, power struggles & paganism. It was a world of hedonistic luxury. Ringing any bells? Its belief system was the antithesis of everything a practising Jew would hold dear.

You can read in the opening chapters of Daniel the care that was taken to systematically eradicate the hostages’ Jewishness. Please read carefully. They were placed under the jurisdiction of the chief eunuch, which suggests they survived a castration. Their names, all of which contain a reference to the one true God, are replaced with Babylonian names containing mention of Babylonian gods with the suggestion that they who were once the servants of El now serve another god. They were given Babylonian food, taught the Chaldean language, Aramaic, trained in Chaldean laws, manners, customs so that they might better serve their new master. They were young, impressionable, probably homesick & heart weary, surrounded by a secular lifestyle & submerged in Babylonian culture. Think Hitler or Stalin. Nebuchadnezzar certainly knew what he was doing when he took the best & brightest of Israeli youth & began his brainwashing process. He made it fatally easy for them to abandon their faith & their culture. Well, Nebuchadnezzar could change their names but not their hearts.

This is the first lesson we learn from Daniel. He resolved that he would not defile himself. 1:8 This seems such a small thing but in essence we are witnessing a man who has resolved to be holy, set apart for his God, devoted to God, offering God his service, being of one mind with God & wanting only God’s will. Too often we forget that Daniel & his friends were not the only hostages trained in the Babylonian court. What happened to the others? I would suggest that they did not resolve not to defile themselves & were swallowed by the vast Babylonian Empire & sank without trace.

Now the story I want us to focus on is Daniel in the lion’s den. It is one thing to be on fire for the Lord when young & vigorous. Youth tends to think it is invincible. It is another matter entirely as we age. Often times we feel we lack the strength & energy, that we have done our bit or are just too plain tired. We have done what we could & it has made no difference. We become discouraged, disillusioned, even defeated. This should not be so.

When this story opens Daniel is in his mid 80’s ~ not a young man. He has lived a long, healthy life & been greatly blessed by God. He has been successful in his career under different rulers. Here we find Darius, the Mede, ruling Babylon. He is something of an innovative ruler. He appointed satraps & presidents over them to rule the kingdom. Daniel distinguished himself so much that Darius planned to have him rule over the whole kingdom. We know from our own experience how much strife & envy this would have caused amongst his co~workers. They began to talk. They began to plot & plan & here is the 2nd lesson we can learn from Daniel; he had lived his life in such a way as no fault could be found in him! He has an excellent spirit, is faultless in his business dealings & faithful in his duties. Isn’t that a wonderful thing! What an amazing testimony. It order to bring Daniel down his enemies had to fabricate an artificial environment.

Frankly I don’t think Darius was any too bright. His courtiers manage to snare him in a trap of his own making through subtle flattery. ‘O king Darius, live forever.’ Hm? Unlikely wouldn’t you say, but Darius plays along. ‘Anyone who makes petition to any god or man for 30 days, except to you oh, king, shall be cast into the den of lions.’ Tempting to be as a god. Look at what the courtiers are in essence saying. You are the provider of every good thing. You take care of the people’s needs. They should look to you for their providence. These are things that are the providence of God & Darius is about to try & usurp that position. What pride. What folly! He becomes stooge for a day, not god for a month & he is trapped by his own folly.

Under the Hammurabi, the Babylonian legal system, it was legislated that once a judge had pronounced his verdict he did not have the power to revoke it. His courtiers must have been mighty pleased with themselves. Problem solved in their eyes. They knew Daniel’s habits & here is the third lesson we can learn from Daniel. It was his habit to pray 3 times a day. He had been doing it every day for 85 odd years. We need to make the practice of Godliness a habit.

Daniel was an experienced courtier. He would have known immediately what this decree meant & understood the plotting that lay behind it. A worldly man might have argued for discretion. After all there was no need for Daniel to flaunt his beliefs via his open window. He could have pulled the shutters & done whatever he pleased & no~one would have been any the wiser ~ whatever they might suspect but there is a principle involved here. We find it in Mark 8:38. For whoever is ashamed of me & of my words in this adulterous & sinful generation, of him will the son of man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels. Daniel was not ashamed & he was not prepared to abandon the godly habits of a lifetime just in order to preserve his own skin. I would bet the courtiers were counting on it. For the same reason Daniel was not prepared to let his devotions slide for a month. You can bet Daniel knew his scriptures. He knew whence his help came. This meant he was able to act with confidence & assurance. Unlike Darius Daniel perceived the spiritual struggle that was taking place & as a true warrior of God he took his stand. What he knew he practised openly.

He was a brave man. There is no mention here of Hananiah, Mishael, or Azariah. Daniel had to stand alone. He was elderly. He was vastly outnumbered. He knew the fate that awaited him.

Finding himself trapped by his own decree Darius laboured till the sun went down to find a loophole but the conspirators had made jolly sure there wasn’t one so it was dark when they came to take Daniel away. Troubles are always more frightening & harder to bear at night. Again we can draw parallels to our recent history & how often political agents burst in on their target after dark & dragged them away: Nazi’s hunting Jews, Stalin & Mao hunting Christians, country after country violating human rights agreements. We read about it yet somehow miss the point that this was also the reality for Daniel. Yet when they come for him they find him praying, asking God for help. Daniel’s faith & trust do not waver. This is the result of a lifetime in the service of God. Daniel knows whom he is dealing with.

The last part of this story is very familiar to us. Daniel is thrown to the lions. Now this is fascinating for 2 reasons. Firstly kings collected lions as symbols of their own majesty & the Hebrew word seems to indicate they were neither young, nor old nor female so these would have been mature male lions forming an artificial coalition. Typically males will not tolerate outsiders so this will have been a family group. A fully grown lion weighs as much as 225 kilos. If you looked closely at the picture of the gate of Istar you will have seen that one of the mosaics is of a lion. This is the ‘striding lion’ of Babylon. More to the point it is the emblem of Istar. Daniel is literally being thrown to the pagan goddess.

This pit would have been lined with rocks & divided into 2 sections with a door between. The door could be operated from above so that food could be thrown in to one section & when the lions moved for the food, the door was shut & the keeper could have cleaned out the other section. When Daniel is thrown in with the lions Darius goes to the extreme of sealing the pit with a stone & his signet.

Scripture doesn’t record what sort of a night Daniel had. I don’t think I would have been comfortable spending a night with lions like that. Certainly Darius didn’t have a good night. He was not happy about being tricked into losing his best & most able advisor. At first light he rushed back to the pit & the most extraordinary conversation takes place. Did your God save you? Darius wants to know. And calm as you please Daniel answers. And just to drive the point home that the lions were ravenous when Darius rounds up the conspirators, their wives & children & sends them to the same fate they had planned for Daniel the lions attack before they even reach the bottom.

You know as well as I do that God does not always intervene in the lives of his people in such an extraordinary way. He did not deliver Abel from Cain, John from Herod, Stephen from Paul, or Jesus from the cross. Yet we are called to be his people in an idolatrous & sinful generation just as God’s people have always been called down all the generations of man. Our first obligation is to God. Not our employer. Not our family. Not our church. God. The world notices when God’s people lead lives that are holy & different. We are meant to lead such lives. The world is meant to notice.

We must, as Peter says, obey God rather than man & learn to seek first the kingdom of God & his righteousness. We must, as Daniel teaches, resolve not to defile ourselves. We must live our lives in such a way that we can’t be defamed. We need to make the practise of godliness, of holiness, a habit. Why? Because this is sure evidence that we have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus says it in John 14:15 If you love me you will keep my commandments. Without it we will not see heaven. Hebrews12:14 Daniel is given to us for an example that we might know how to stand alone for God when all those around us are following after a world that knows not God.

And this is the blessing given unto Daniel:
Go your way till the end; & you shall have rest, & shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days. May it also be yours.


MamaOlive said...

Amen! On so many points. That age should not stop us. That we ought to live blameless. That we have a duty to God regardless of circumstances.

I used to have nightmares that I would not stand for God when things got tough. I hope it isn't true. He is worth it all.

Ganeida said...

Ditto, sister! But as the saying goes, grace is not extended until grace is needed. God will always meet us in our circumstances so no need to fret.