Daniel, Young Man in Babylon

By Stephen Terry


Daniel, John, and the Church, Chapter 1

(Based on 2 Kings 18 – 25 and Daniel 1)


“But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.” Daniel 1:8, NIV

The early 6th century BC was a period of decline for the Kingdom of Judah. Struggling along since the Kingdom of Israel had been carried away by the Assyrians into a captivity that they would never return from, those in Judah had not learned the lessons to refrain from walking in their own desires and had followed the path their northern brothers had walked. The results were foretold many times by the prophets, but even a blind man should have known that they could not keep doing the same thing Israel had done and expect to end up with a different result. Perhaps this is a lesson we would do well to heed today.

Judah was a kingdom that had rejected worship of the God that had brought their forefathers out of Egypt, the God that had called Abraham from the Chaldees many generations before. This was highly unusual for a nation to reject their own gods and replace them with the gods of others. Yet, this is what Judah had done. They had chosen to reject the God who had revealed Himself through countless miracles done on their behalf for unhearing, unseeing, and unmoving idols manufactured by human hands.

Some date the beginning of this downfall from when King Solomon allowed his many wives to worship the gods of their own countries in Jerusalem. Citing the well-known proverb that “The fish stinks from the head,” they feel that this started the downward course that spread through Jerusalem and the rest of Judah. However, there had always been those who compromised the worship of God with the worship of idols. At Mount Sinai, there had been the golden calf fashioned by Aaron that the people worshipped and stumbled over. But this was not an isolated indiscretion. Even the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses became a stumbling block and was worshipped for hundreds of years until King Hezekiah finally destroyed it.

With such spiritual rebellion, rebellion against the Babylonians who had subjugated them was perhaps to be expected. Many times the prophets warned that the conquering horde was coming, and most ignored those warnings, even considering them traitorous proclamations that were undermining the peoples’ will to resist the invaders. But in spite of being ill-treated by the Jewish leaders, the prophets continued to claim that the invaders had been sent by God and should not be resisted.

To the man in the street in Jerusalem, the Babylonians were considered an evil foe that did not respect god or man. But nationalistic pride and self-righteousness mixed together into a heady brew that prevented many from seeing their own sorry state. The horrors of King Manasseh’s reign were recent history and with the exception of Josiah, his successors were little better. The Biblical account tells us that Manasseh filled Jerusalem with innocent blood from one end to the other. Even with all the wickedness that the Bible writers like to attribute to Babylon, none of them accuses the Babylonians of evil on the level of Manasseh. Sadly, Judah had become more evil than the nations around them.

For these reasons and more, circa 605 BCE, four young men connected to the royal household of Judah were taken as hostages to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. As members of the royal household, they were held to ensure Jehoiakim’s co-operation. This proved a futile hope as Jehoiakim rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar after only three years. This was not because he suddenly decided to trust in God. Rather it was because he tried to ally himself with whichever wind was blowing the strongest at the moment.

After his father, King Josiah’s death, the people of Judah had chosen not to place him on the throne in Jerusalem, favoring his younger brother, Jehoahaz, instead. No doubt, Jehoiakim would have been deeply hurt by this rejection. Perhaps he was hurt enough to betray Jehoahaz to Pharaoh in order to secure the throne for himself. In any event, Pharaoh took Jehoahaz with him to Egypt and left the older brother, Jehoiakim on the throne. In return for usurping his brother and giving him the throne, he surely expected Jehoiakim’s loyalty in dealing with the Babylonians.

However, even though Pharaoh Necho had placed him on his throne, after the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish, Jehoiakim allied himself with Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel and his three companions apparently traveled to Babylon as part of that alliance. The winds soon changed after the Egyptians inflicted a heavy defeat on the Babylonians only a few years later, and Jehoiakim again changed sides. This time, Nebuchadnezzar was not so accommodating with the vacillating Judean king and began the war of attrition that eventually brought Judah and Jerusalem to their knees.

Surprisingly, the four hostages, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were apparently faithful worshippers of the true God. Being of royal blood, they were probably more deserving of sitting on the throne in Jerusalem than were those who wore the crown. Perhaps like their ancestor Jacob at Bethel, they pledged themselves to God on the way to Babylon if God would only watch over and prosper them in that great city. God hears prayers like that, and He heard theirs. With their willing hearts, great things were about to happen.

This is what God asks of each of us today. He asks only that we be willing to enter into a heart relationship with Him. If we do, great things will happen in our lives as well. Often we resist giving ourselves to a relationship with God until we are well on our way to Babylon. But God will still be an awesome God to us. He can take a life that to everyone else appears destined to be forgotten and give it a future and raise it to the highest places, just as He did for Joseph in Egypt and as He was now about to do for these four young Hebrews.

The position of hostages in the ancient world was not like that of captives or slaves. They were treated favorably, often like other members of the royal household. They would eat at the King’s table and be given advantages to learn and make important friendships in their host country. If they returned to their home country under favorable conditions, they might become ambassadors between the two kingdoms.

There was a downside, however. As hostages they might be killed in retribution if their king broke faith with the hosting king. This could have happened to these four when Jehoiakim rebelled, but it didn’t. There were three years between the alliance and when it ended. Some remarkable things happened during those three years. Those remarkable events are where the book of Daniel begins.

Like typical hostages, Daniel and his friends were offered every advantage and educational opportunity and were to be fed from the king’s own table. However, Daniel asked that they not be fed like this but instead be given only vegetables to eat and water to drink. After testing this diet on the young Hebrews for ten days and seeing no ill results, the request was granted.

Some feel that Daniel was setting an example to all to live a vegetarian lifestyle like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But was that the case? If Daniel was promoting a vegetarian lifestyle as preferable, then one would think that Jesus, who extolled Daniel as a prophet, would follow that guidance, but the Bible makes it clear that Jesus was not vegetarian.

More likely what happened was that Daniel wanted to observe the Jewish dietary laws regarding clean and unclean foods. Explaining what today is called “kosher” to his hosts would be difficult. Rather than instruct the royal kitchen in how to prepare a special kosher diet for the four of them, it would be easier to simply request vegetables and water. People often still do this today. Pork has become so ubiquitous in restaurants, those who avoid it will ask for items from the vegetarian portion of the menu and avoid concerns about what meat is in the food altogether. This is far easier than trying to explain things to a waitress who may not even understand that bacon is pork.

In any event, after testing the vegetarian diet on Daniel and his friends and seeing no resulting feebleness, they were granted their requested diet. With this anxiety off their shoulders, they prospered and blossomed under Babylonian tutelage. With God guiding their hearts and the Babylonians educating their minds they found every advantage for their development and even found favor with the king. They were a success story well on its way, but they were not out of the woods yet. They were still hostages and still expendably dependent on the actions of King Jehoiakim. Their transition from expendable hostages to vital subjects of King Nebuchadnezzar would happen in their second year of captivity.

The first chapter of Daniel is important for our understanding of culture and how it relates to our faith. Culture can be seen as a threat to our faith or as an adjunct to faith. Those who see it as a threat often choose to see the walls of the church as a wall to keep the world out. They will guard every door and window in their attempt to withdraw from the baleful influences of the world. They will do all they can to avoid contact with “the world.”

How the church expects to fulfill its commission to reach the world with the message of Jesus Christ while shutting out the world is unclear. It would be a mixed message for Jesus to say, “Come to me,” and then do everything He could to avoid contact with the world. It is difficult enough to get people to step out of the fast pace of modern life to spend a few moments reflecting on their spiritual condition without erecting barriers to prevent that contact.

Part of this isolation is maintained with a separate parochial school system, sometimes all the way through graduate school. If school tuition is expensive, it is deemed cheaper than the spiritual cost of exposure to “worldly” ideas. However, in the end, the young man or woman enters a professional career with little idea of how to relate to those outside the culture of his or her own faith.

The problem is exacerbated when they choose to work for denominational institutions where they can continue their cultural isolation. Regular trips to the grocery store may be the only cross cultural forays for some. Even then if they live in a denominational “ghetto” the foray may still be in a protected environment.

In the parochial colleges and universities, the young collegians often find their marital partners, ones that their own parents would approve of as “safe.” Depending on the size of the denomination, this results in an inbreeding that through common genetics produces certain physical characteristics that become identified with the denomination.  While members of the faith community may not realize it, outsiders may be able to identify them simply through these physical characteristics.

While these characteristics may be neither negative nor positive, the longer the denomination exists as a separate cultural community, the more pronounced these attributes become. Subconsciously, the members of the faith community may even begin selecting for these attributes without realizing it by deeming these features as more normal within the denomination and therefore more desirable in a potential spouse but not understanding why.

The alternative is illustrated in the first chapter of Daniel. Rather than isolate himself from Babylonian culture, Daniel chose to embrace it without compromising his faith. In this, He demonstrated that God is the God of every culture and not only able to work within the culture of Judah. His example was a precursor to the cultural adaptations Christianity underwent with the missionary activities of Paul. Daniel's openness eventually brought the kings of Babylon to honor and revere God.

Had Daniel chosen to live his life behind a Jewish cultural wall, that wall would have precluded any opportunity to have the widespread influence he later achieved. He would have been perceived as just another Jew, sitting in his own little world and irrelevant to what everyone else might be doing. He might find a measure of success within his own cultural community, but his influence beyond that circle would be limited by his lack of engagement.

Too many denominations are doing exactly that today. They are so inwardly focused that they have lost all relevance for the rest of the world. They struggle for new members and either promptly lose them or entrap them in the same isolation.  Those who leave don’t usually do so because of the doctrines but because of the culture that they cannot integrate into their lives for one reason or another.

Having left, no one goes after them. Instead they are usually considered “inadequately grounded” in the new doctrines and promptly forgotten. When anyone actually bothered to check, the problem was often differences with other members over cultural issues. These issues may be regarding how to celebrate certain holidays, what should be worn to church, or even positions for prayer. While there are many more cultural flash points, the message of Daniel is that none of them should be areas of conflict.

The surprising thing is that while some may get from Daniel, chapter 1, a message about diet that it does not teach, they have a hard time seeing the message about cultural adaptability that it does teach. Once the cultural “scales” fall from their eyes, a whole new world of possibilities for sharing the good news of a loving God opens up. Then, like Daniel, God can lift them up to greater responsibilities.



This Article is Provided by Still Waters Ministry