For the most part, the stories of the Old Testament involve failing to live for God in the midst of the temptations of the surrounding nations. Much of what leads to Israel’s exile is the people’s inability to stand against the compromises offered to them by neighboring nations. One bright light in the midst of this, however, is the story of the exiles Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – we read their story in the book of Daniel. If there was a group we could possibly permit compromising, it would be those taken into the court of the king of the Babylonian Empire, who were trained in all elements of that nation’s culture (Daniel 1:3-4). The opening narratives of Daniel show time and again, however, that these four young men lived and served in Babylon and Persia, essentially doing what Jesus prayed for his disciples in John 17 – they were in the world but not of it.
Having the chance to teach Daniel again this year, I am struck with the strength of character of these four men. They are faithful to God in the face of a king that most likely sees himself as both king and god, and God rewards their faithfulness with growth in all areas of their life (1:17-20). I try to image what it would look like today for these four men. I imagine that many would criticize them for their obedience to those in charge of their education in Babylon. Yet it is stated that it was God that gave them the ability to learn. What were they learning?
“Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:3-4).
I don’t imagine the literature of the Chaldeans was “Christian literature.” At this time, religion and culture were not separated – there was no secular and sacred – so Daniel and his friends were studying Babylonian religion. They were being immersed in the religion/culture of the nation that had taken them captive, most likely with the hope that they might present that culture to their own people, or at least serve the Empire well. What is even more striking than their obedience, however, is that when they see they are being asking to compromise their faith, they draw the line, even at the cost of their own lives.
In my lecture, I coined the actions of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah as “holy stubbornness.” They are not rebels in the sense that they are seeking to overthrow the Empire, but for all four of them, God came before their service to the Empire. Actually it is their service to the Empire and their success that led to their opposition. Both in chapter two and six, these men are opposed by those who had grown jealous of their influence, and sought maliciously to destroy them. In the case of Daniel, his opponents even used his own faithfulness to God against him. Out of this opposition and temptation to compromise for the sake of their own safety, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah’s response in word and deed present some of the most convicting parts of the book for me. In 2:16-18, in response to Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge to Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah to worship his golden image come these powerful words:
““O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
That last sentence hits me right in the gut. Would I, or am I able to say, “But if not…” and mean it? God does deliver them, but even before that deliverance these men have the strength of faith to bow a knee to God and God alone. In chapter six it is Daniel’s actions that speak louder than words. In 6:10 after we hear that a law had been passed against anyone caught praying to anything other than the king, we read, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” It is one of the most defiant acts I can think of in the entire Bible, yet no violence is done or voice raised – just simple faithfulness in the face of the death penalty.
I share this as my main reflection from Daniel in hopes that you will return to these classic Sunday school stories with new eyes. I hope you see what it looks like to be in the world but not of it. To find in the example of these men, that knowing the culture around you does not always lead to being polluted by that culture, but instead, can allow you to know when to take a stand.