A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens opens with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For the book of Daniel, the opening would simply be, “It was the worst of times.” The first verse of Daniel reads, “In the third year of the reign of Jehoakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.” The setting for the book of Daniel is a time of great wickedness such that God has brought the Babylonian Empire in as his instrument of judgment against the people of Judah. The prophet Jeremiah is also preaching to the people at this time. So the book opens in crisis as Babylon invades Judah. Verses 3-4 reveal that the cream of the crop among the people are captured and taken to back to Babylon. Babylon takes people of the royal family and nobility. They are also captured youths without blemish, the good looking in appearance, the skillful in wisdom, knowledge, and learning, and those competent to stand in the king’s palace. In our language we would say that the best and the brightest were taken away. Among those taken away are three men who will be the main characters in the book of Daniel: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (1:6).
The book of Daniel exists to give hope for living during hopeless times. While it was a message for Daniel and those who had been captured in the first invasion, the prophecy was preserved for future generations to give hope in hopeless times. What is God doing while the people are in exile and how does this give them hope? How do the people behave while in exile, waiting for the Lord and how does this give us hope? This will be the framework for our study of this great book called Daniel.
The Lord Gave Over Judah (1:1-2)
What jumps off the page as we read the first paragraph of chapter 1 is that the text does not say that what was happening was because Nebuchadnezzar was a wicked man who got a wild hare to go attack Jerusalem. Rather, listen to the words of verse 2: “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God.” The Lord did this. The Lord gave the king of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar. The Lord gave the vessels of the temple to Nebuchadnezzar. The Lord did this. Now if you were the ones carried away into captivity, you would think that you are the losers. You would think that you were rejected by God. You would think that God had forsaken you. But listen to the prophecy of Jeremiah who is speaking at this time to those who were not taken captive and are still living in Judah.
1 After Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the craftsmen, and the metal workers, and had brought them to Babylon, the Lord showed me this vision: behold, two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. 2 One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. 3 And the Lord said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 5 “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. 6 I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. 7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
8 “But thus says the Lord: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. 9 I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. 10 And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.” (Jeremiah 24:1–10 ESV)
God declares that those who are were taken into captivity in these invasions are the good figs. They are actually God’s remnant, not those who are left behind. God is with the people in exile. God has created a people for himself within the borders of the Babylonian Empire. God’s people are in Babylon, not Judah. The first paragraph of Daniel reveals that God is working. God gave his people into the hands of the Babylonians.
Resolved To Remain God’s People (1:3-8)
But this leads to a problem. The Babylonians are going to attempt to assimilate these skillful people into their own culture. They will be educated for three years (1:5), given the food and drink of the king (which means they would eat and drink well), and they are given new names. The new names are Babylonian names representing the Babylonian gods. In short, these four are tested as they are given the opportunity to become complete Babylonians. This is what makes the declaration of verse 8 quite powerful:
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. (Daniel 1:8 ESV)
The conflict is represented even stronger in the Hebrew. The same word translated “resolved” in Daniel 1:8 is also in Daniel 1:7 when the chief gave these four men new names. The chief intended new names but Daniel intends not to defile himself. In fact, the contrast is even stronger as the text presents it. In verse 7 these men are given new names so we would expect to read their new Babylonian names for the rest of the story. However, verse 8 does not say “Belteshazzar” but “Daniel.” This continues through this chapter. Look at verse 11 where we still read the Hebrew names of these men, not the Babylonian names. This even continues in chapter 2 where we read their four Hebrew names in Daniel 2:17. These men will not be assimilated into their culture. They are resolving to not defile themselves for the glory of the Lord. They refuse to just simply be one of the Babylonians but are holding on to their heritage as God’s people. Do you see the message of faithfulness to God? Know who you are. Hold on to the fact that you are God’s people living in exile and do not defile yourselves or become like the people you live among. Notice that these men are not going to overthrow Babylon or start a revolution. Verse 8 indicates this. Daniel does not go on a hunger strike against Babylon. The text says he asked the chief to allow him not to defile himself. They will live faithfully to God within the system of government and culture that they find themselves in. They will be pressured to compromise throughout the book, and are pressured to compromise in this first chapter. But God’s people remain undefiled while living in exile.
God Gave (1:9-21)
But the hero of this story is not Daniel, not the three friends, but God. Notice how the text emphasizes that our eyes remain on the Lord. “And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs…” (Daniel 1:9 ESV). God gave Daniel favor and compassion. The word “favor” is the Hebrew word “hesed” which is often used to refer to God’s unfailing, loyal, and covenantal love. Daniel has asked to not defile himself in verse 8. But notice the answer is not in verse 9. There is an interruption. There is an intervention to show that God is the reason why the answer is going to be positive for Daniel. God gave Daniel favor before the chief and so the chief listens to the request of Daniel. God has brought this about! God is blessing his remnant.
Notice that God is the hero again in verse 17. “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.” (Daniel 1:17 ESV) God is the one who gave these four men learning and skill and gave Daniel understanding in visions and dreams. God is the reason why when these men stand before the king, they are found to be ten times better than all the magicians and enchanter in the kingdom. God is seeing these men through, even though they are living in exile. In fact, we see that God sees Daniel all the way through the time of the exile as verse 21 notes that Daniel lives until the beginning of the Persian Empire.
God gives is how we surviving living in our land. The knowledge that God gives is how we live with hope during times in our land that appear to be hopeless. Think about how far away God must have felt when these men were captured, taken from their homes, made to live in Babylon, and taught a whole new culture. But God was giving to them though they were in exile and God did not forget them or neglect them. Please consider: what miracle has happened in chapter 1? There is no miracle in chapter 1 but God is with his people. God is giving, so do not quit and defile yourself. God is giving favor and compassion so do not turn your back on being who God has called you be.
We are calling this series in Daniel, Hope In Hopeless Times. We are going to read about these four men living in exile, taken away from the promised land and left to live in Babylon. The New Testament counterpart to this book is 1 Peter. The first letter by the apostle Peter opens that he is writing to “the elect exiles of the dispersion” (1:1). Then remember how Peter ends the letter: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son” (1 Peter 5:13). We are living as exiles. We are longing to go home to be with the Lord. We are living in Babylon, the symbol of wickedness and worldliness. Peter is using the imagery of Daniel to write to Christians in his letter about how to live as exiles in the world. Listen to how Peter taught this concept to Christians:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11–12 ESV)
God is faithful to his exiles. God is faithful to his people who live on this earth, in a worldly and wicked culture. We are in this world but we do not belong to this world. We are useful to the world but we are uncompromising in our faith and devotion to the Lord. God has not forgotten us. No matter how much our culture may turn against Christians, God is with his people. God gives so we must be faithful to the Lord.