On Mother’s Day, I thought it would be interesting to consider Daniel’s story from a mother’s perspective. We don’t know anything about Daniel’s mother except that he must have had one, so this is pure speculation. But if these young men were only about 13 or 14 years old when taken from their homes by a foreign army, it stands to reason that their mothers, if they survived the siege of 605 BC, would have been utterly devastated. As this story unfolds, I wonder -- would Daniel’s mom, and the moms of his faithful friends Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, be proud of their sons? I think so. From all accounts, it certainly looks like they raised their children right. Daniel’s story is a testament to the power of faith against overwhelming odds. More than that, it is a story of God’s faithfulness against all worldly forces. I have to ask, would your mom be proud of you for the way you keep the faith? Would she stand with Daniel’s mother and say, “That one is mine. I am bursting with pride.”? I hope so.
A Divine Detour (v1-2)
Our story today can be broken into three parts. The first is very simple, but incredibly profound. Verses 1 and 2 reveal the background of this story -- it was a divine detour. Notice who gave Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar in verse 2 - "And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand" (emphasis added) -- it was the Lord's will that Jerusalem be seiged and broken. Israel was being held to account for its faithlessness. Instead of fulfilling the covenant they made with God through Moses’ at Mt. Sinai, they had drifted far, far away from Him. Instead of being a light to the world, they had become a light hidden under a bucket. There were a few bright spots -- David. Samuel. Josiah. But mostly idolatry and selfishness ruled. The conquest of Judah was no accident. This catastrophe was meant to be. In fact, it was a fulfillment of God’s promise:
"‘And it shall be that if you earnestly obey My commandments which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled.’ “Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, lest the Lord’s anger be aroused against you, and He shut up the heaven so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce, and you perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11.13-17)
Remember that -- sometimes God himself is leading you down the path you find so difficult. If you find yourself on an unpleasant detour in life, a road that you wish you could escape -- remember first of all that God is with you on that road, and that it may be God himself who brought you there to accomplish his will in your life and the lives of those around you. That’s the way it was for Daniel and his friends, and that’s the way it is for us.
Determined not to be Defiled (v3-16)
The next segment of today’s text recounts a test of faith for Daniel and his friends -- the first of many such tests in the book of Daniel. This is when Daniel and his buddies go vegan, at least for a time. (We know from his own account in chapter 10 verse 3 that Daniel probably went back to eating meat and drinking wine some time after this). Regardless, the important thing to notice is that these young men were determined not to be defiled.
I say “determined” because they don’t give up when they meet a little resistance. The restaurant manager -- the chief eunuch -- says “no way” to their special order, but Daniel keeps on. He asks the waiter instead -- the steward who brings their food to them. Daniel doesn’t give up at the first sign of resistance. He is not going to take no for an answer. That’s persistence. That’s determination. And it pays off! Moreover, look at the way Daniel doesn’t stop at identifying the problem; he also offers a solution. We love to point out what’s wrong, but we completely miss the mark by stopping there. God doesn’t need us to point out society’s ills and do nothing about them. He wants us to go further than armchair quarterbacking our culture’s problems -- He wants us to be a part of the solution. If our determination ends with complaining, we are a part of the problem.
Second, these young men were determined not to be defiled. What does that mean, “defiled?” We know that it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the food they are being offered. There is no general prohibition against meat or wine in the Jewish law. Now, there are some specific prohibitions against pork and horse meat, and also meat where the blood was not drained properly. So it is probable that these young men were interested in staying kosher. But I think there is more to it that that, because that doesn’t explain the refusal to drink wine.
Jesus spoke about this idea of “food and defilement.” He taught it is not what goes into your mouth, but what comes out that defiles. (Mt 15.11) In other words, you aren’t defiled by what you ingest, but by the things you say and do. It is the outward expression of your heart, soul, and strength that can defile you. Eating spoiled food might make you sick, but it isn’t a sin. However, it is a sin to slander, to be greedy, to envy, to boast. In the same way, it is also a sin to worship a false idol and to put the one true God in second place.
For Daniel and friends, I believe the defilement would probably have come from eating meat and drinking wine that had been offered in worship to the false gods of Babylon. The king’s delicacies -- this food and wine presented to Daniel and his friends -- were almost certainly used as articles of worship in the service of the Babylonian false gods. Daniel and his friends were more concerned about the spiritual impact of eating this food.
Now I’d like to point out what did Daniel and friends did NOT feel defiled them:
Name-Calling: Daniel’s name meant “God is my judge” but Belteshazzar probably meant “Marduk protect his life.” Hananiah means “Yahweh has shown grace” while Shadrach means “command of Aku” the moon god of the Babylonians. Mishael means “who is what God is?” while Meshach means “who is what Aku is?” Azariah means “Yahweh has helped” but Abed-Nego means “servant of Nebo.” The Babylonians tried to erase God from their lives by giving them new names tied to their false gods. Of course, it didn’t work. But the world tries to do that, doesn’t it? Label us. Call us names. Brand those who stand out. While some of us might be tempted to react childishly to name calling, it didn’t seem to bother Daniel and company. Why? Because they knew who they were, and no amount of name calling would change that. They had a rock-solid sense of identity, and they knew that our true identity comes from God. No outside label could change what was on the inside. Interestingly, this “Jewish-to-Gentile” renaming convention apparently was pretty common. Pharaoh renamed Joseph “Zaphnath-Paaneah”, which means something like “Ruler of secret things.” Simon and Saul also had gentile names -- we know them as Peter and Paul. So we can see: being labeled by the world does not defile us.
Worldly Education: It is intriguing that these young men who were so concerned about their school lunches did not object to being educated in the Babylonian school system. Presumably they were being educated the important core subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic, but at the same time they were also exposed to volumes of pagan ideas. If they were being taught astrology, it was almost certainly in the context of the Babylonian pantheon of false gods. So why didn’t they also worry about being defiled by this education? Why not refuse to be educated by the Babylonians? In fact, it seems that just the opposite happened -- they rose to the top of their class, outlearning and outpacing all of their peers! How can that be for four good, God-fearing boys?
I believe that if God truly is Lord of all, and also the God of truth, then all truth is God’s truth. That is, math is God’s truth. He invented it. Physics is God’s truth -- He invented that too! Quantum mechanics? God’s. Every truth that God allows us to test and discover was authored by God. While we should never be content to become just another brick in the wall, we also need not fear no education. We should enjoy exploring His creation and putting our minds to use for God’s glory, as Daniel and his friends did. But what about those obviously false ideas and pagan philosophies -- what are we to do with those aspects of our education? Should we refuse to learn anything about them, or should we seek to understand them as well? I say this: a chemist must understand and handle poison. That doesn’t mean they need to ingest it. And military strategists must learn to think like the enemy in order to defeat them. I believe it is not only appropriate, but essential for us to study secular ideas -- to get to know their weaknesses and strengths, so that we may bring all possible knowledge under the rightful Lordship of Christ, the author of all truth. (See Deut 32.4 & ligonier.org/learn/articles/all-truth-gods-truth-sproul)
Submitting to Pagan Kings: These young men did not object to serving an obviously pagan king. While I’m sure they would have preferred to be back in Judah serving a God-fearing king, they knew all too well that few kings in Judah ever feared God anyway. More than that, they understood the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men -- a theme that is going to resurface many times throughout Daniel’s book. They understood that God was the God of the whole world, not just Canaan. They knew that even the mighty Nebuchadnezzar was just a breath away from being deposed by their God, and they therefore had nothing to lose by submitting to his authority. Of course, there were times when they did refuse to submit -- but those were only times when the Babylonian king demanded that they put God second. When king and country demand the place of God in our lives, we must respectfully disobey. However, as long as governments and kings do not cross the line and demand the place of God, we should submit to them, recognizing Him who gives authority. (See Rom 13.1)
For Daniel and friends, when they faced such trials, the most important goal was simply to keep God first.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6.4-5)
Designed for Duty (v17-21)
Finally, in verses 17-21, we learn that Daniel and his friends were designed for duty. That is, they had a divine destiny. In spite of all the opposition and hardships they encountered, they recognized that it was all part of God’s design. We know that God would use even these four boys as part of His great plan to redeem mankind and to bring peace and light to all men through Christ. These brave boys were eventually promoted to the highest positions of authority of their time, and God would work through them to:
Serve as witnesses to the King and the Empire of the One True God.
Inspire their fellow exiles to remain resolute in their faith.
Remind us today that history -- and the future -- are in God’s hands.
How Does Daniel’s Story Impact You Today?
Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Their reaction to this awful -- but divine -- detour of exile into a foreign country shows us how to keep the faith when all seems lost. Their determination to keep God first and not be defiled by worshipping other gods teaches us to skillfully and respectfully fight the good fight. Their recognition of God’s sovereign design for their lives and His divine call of duty sets the bar high, and calls us to finish the race marked out before us. These stories are meant to serve as a seminal reminder of the power of faith in the midst of seeming chaos. We are not to be overcome by the world, but to overcome evil with good.
The writer of the book of Hebrews speaks to us:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12.1-2)
Up there in the stands, among that great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on toward the great finish line, you can see four young men -- not much more than boys, really. They are standing, waving their arms and cheering for you -- “Keep the faith! Fight the good fight! Finish the race!” May they inspire each of us to greater faith.