Two lessons from the life of Daniel


  • Toy figure of Daniel in the lion's denThis was a Sunday sermon at Glenwood Church on 25 August 2013. An audio recording is available on the Glenwood website.

    Daniel lived most of his life a long way from his home in Southern Israel, because when he was a teenager the Southern Kingdom called Judah where he lived was obliterated by the Babylonian Empire. He is also the central character in the Old Testament book called Daniel.

    I believe that we can learn lessons from Daniel’s life and that his experiences can make sense for us today and help us as we strive to follow Jesus and live in a way that glorifies the God we follow, so I will be drawing out two lessons for us – one from Daniel’s witness as a young man, and one from his faithfulness when he is much older.

    Read: Daniel chapter 1

    It’s not a promising start, is it? Like many other people he knew, Daniel was forced to march several hundred miles away from his homeland to Babylon. In Jewish history this is known as the Exile, with a capital E.

    Taking conquered people away from their homeland was a tactic used by the great war-faring nations of the time. They wanted to deliberately uproot and displace people they had conquered for a number of reasons – their empires and cities were built using slave labour, and conquering people was a handy way of getting more slaves. But also it made political sense – if people didn’t stay in the area that had been conquered they were less likely to rebel.

    So, what was Babylon like? It was the centre of a superpower empire that dominated the surrounding area. It was a cosmopolitan city with many peoples, many languages, many temples, many gods, many lifestyles. It’s said that the walls encircling the city were 45 miles long and up to 300 feet high in places. You could drive four chariots side by side around the top of the walls, they were that thick. The ‘hanging gardens of Babylon’ were one of the wonders of the ancient world. Nebuchadnezzar built them as a gift to his wife – creating massive terraces dripping with lush greenery and cascading waterfalls in the middle of a dry and arid land.

    This was a city that flaunted its wealth and power. Everything about Babylon was massive. The main avenues in the city were over 100 feet wide. It was built to be the centre of the world. So, you can imagine, going from a tiny city like Jerusalem, to this was mind-blowing.

    What the Babylonians did is try and assimilate their captives into their culture. We see this at work here. The Babylonians were very good at talent-spotting and using people’s skills. Among the prisoners they had taken to Babylon were educated young men whose minds could be a real asset. The Babylonians loved their bureaucracy. Archaeology has turned up literally thousands of clay tablets pressed with cuneiform letters and when the experts in ancient languages translate them, they are usually lists of things. Taxes, tribute, possessions, letters to do with deeds of ownership – all kinds of bureaucracy.

    So they needed bright kids to come in and work in the administration. And they decided that the elite, the best ones they found would work high up, handling the affairs of the Emperor himself.

    And Daniel is one of the chosen few offered this opportunity.

    But the job comes with compromises. To eat the food from the King’s table meant eating food that had been sacrificed to the gods of Babylon. He is given a new name – Belteshazzar. This is linked to the name of a Babylonian God, which is significant because ‘Daniel’ means ‘God is my judge’. ‘El’ is one of the Hebrew words for God. He is effectively told that his God is redundant now; no longer needed; irrelevant.

    What would you or I do in those circumstances?

    When we face calls to compromise our faith to ‘get on’ in the world, what do we do?

    In these circumstances, Daniel decides to focus on what he can change/ He can’t change what people call him. He knows in his heart that he is still Daniel. The name change doesn’t affect him.

    But there is something he can change. He can refuse to eat the food from the king’s table. He can keep himself pure. What other people say about him or do to him is irrelevant. He won’t be judged by God for that. But he knows he is accountable for what he eats. Food that has been sacrificed to idols won’t be kosher. It won’t be prepared the way the Law of God demands. And he chooses not to break the Law.

    He asks permission not to eat and really pushes it. You can sense his manager wasn’t happy about it. Daniel and his friends are his responsibility. If they end up being weedier and weaker than the rest then this manager is going to be held to account.

    Daniel proposes something, which is very interesting. Did you know this is the first recorded controlled trial in history? Daniel says ‘Look, compare us to the others, the ones who eat the king’s food’ – that’s the control group. He tells his manager to judge him and his friends after a certain period of time to see what the effect of their new diet has.

    And the manager agrees. And they are much healthier than the control group, so the experiment is a success.

    So, what can we take from this?

    Does it mean we should never compromise between our beliefs and the demands of other people?

    There are two important lessons. Firstly, there are some things that will forever be out of our control and they are not worth fighting about. What other people say or think about us is beyond our control. We need to pick our battles very carefully.

    But the second lesson is that there will be some battles.

    It would have been easy for Daniel to compromise. This was the opportunity of the lifetime. One minute a captive in fetters, the next in training to serve in the royal court. One minute eating gruel and crusts, the next offered food from the king’s table. And you can bet that was tasty food.

    Daniel had a choice. Accept the offer on the table – the training, the good life, the perks of the job. But he knew that to do that he had to make a trade. He would have to ignore the foundations his faith was based on. He would have to trade away his righteousness before God.

    How many of us have done that? It’s easy to do, particularly at work. Have you ever been asked to lie to someone? Maybe to a customer? Maybe to a high up manager? It’s a small thing. It’s not even a lie. It’s just not telling the whole truth.

    But we know we shouldn’t do it.

    When we are in this position we need to consider what our aim is in life. Is it to have a ‘good job’, get a promotion? We can be promised so much – responsibility, esteem, perks. A company car. An expenses account. Opportunities to travel.

    Slowly, but surely, we can compromise a little bit at a time until we have nothing left. How easy do you think it would be to trade away the treasures of heaven in return for a monthly pay check?

    This is the beginning of Daniel’s story. If he had toed the line, gone along with it, given in to the inevitable, then that would be the end of the book. But it’s not the end of the book.

    Daniel chapter 12 is the last in a series of visions that Daniel has. It’s a bit strange…

    Read Daniel Chapter 12

    In some Bibles, this chapter is given the title ‘The End Times’. There is a whole field of Biblical Study dedicated to what is known as ‘apocalyptic’ literature and it’s very interesting, but it’s one of those fields where we can very easily become distracted and caught up in it.

    I don’t really want to address the content of the prophecy. The more important point about the prophecy is that Daniel had it. Because Daniel was really quite old at this point. We’ve talked about him starting out in his career, and this is him as an old man. Still faithful. Still hearing from God.

    Here’s a bit of history. We know that Jehoiakim ruled in Judah between 609 and 606BC. Jeremiah’s prophetic warnings and criticism of the king are from this time. In 606, Babylon smashes up Judah and Daniel is carted off into Exile.

    Daniel is a young man at this time, in his early teens. Let’s say he’s 14 or 15 when he arrives in Babylon in 605BC. This when the events of Daniel chapter 1 take place. Later Daniel becomes a key member of the King’s court, interpreting his dreams and advising him. In Daniel chapter 4, he interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about going mad, and that is probably about 582BC, when Daniel is about 40 years old.

    There are then a lot of palace intrigues and different people take over and eventually Babylon falls to the Persian Empire who just move in as it were and keeps the court pretty much as is. There’s an interesting story about how Daniel is called in to interpret some mysterious writing that appears on a wall in the King’s throne room during a party thrown by one of the kings who followed Nebuchadnezzar. This is a prophecy that the Medes and Persians are going to invade.

    We know the Medes and Persians took over in about 539BC. It’s the new ruler of Babylon who throws Daniel in the lion’s den in chapter 6, and then regrets his actions, and the last line of chapter 6 says “So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”

    Now, if you’re doing your maths, you’ll have worked out that Daniel was born in about 620BC, and this is now 539BC and that means Daniel is about 80 years old. And he apparently prospered under Darius, and then under Cyrus.

    Over the next couple of years, well into Cyrus’ rule, Daniel receives startling visions of angels, and prophecies of the future and always they have the constant theme that everything is in the hands of God.

    So, in his 80s, Daniel had these prophecies. Two thirds of the book of Daniel – chapters 5-12 are the events and prophecies from near the end of his life.

    So, what lesson, can we draw from this today.

    It’s this. You are never too old.

    You are never too old to hear from God.

    You are never too old for God to use you.

    You are never past it with God. You are never washed up or clapped out.

    This world – this wickedly wasteful world – does not value or respect older people. It sidelines them, it marginalises them, it silences their voices, it strips them of dignity, it regards them as a burden.

    We have forgotten the words of scripture.  Proverbs 16:31 – “Grey hair is a crown of splendour; it is attained in the way of righteousness.”

    You are never too old. In Isaiah chapter 46, verse 4 – God promises this to his people: “Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”

    So, here goes, this is for anyone around the age of 80 or older. (In fact, any age, but particularly if you’re 80 or older.)

    I don’t believe that God is done with you. I don’t believe that, and the reason I don’t believe that is because God wasn’t done with Daniel. The majority of the book of Daniel is about what happens when his is 80 or more – when he prospers under Darius and then Cyrus.

    Do you believe God will speak to you and through you? I think it’s reasonable to expect it to be more likely that you’ll hear from God. If you’ve been a Christian a long time, then you should have a head start on discerning God’s will and hearing God’s voice.

    God waited until Daniel was over 80 years old before revealing these prophecies to him that have been recorded in Scripture and which we have read together this morning two and a half thousand years later. I find that encouraging, and I hope you do too.

    So, that’s the twin challenge of the first and last chapters of Daniel. How will you start out? How will you choose to live in a hostile world? And will you be faithful to the end – living out your days in service to your Lord?

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