The Old Testament book of Daniel has a lot to teach us about resolving the tension of choosing whether to resist or adapt as we engage with the culture around us.
Well, hasn’t it been an interesting time in New Zealand politics! If there’s one thing I learnt during our recent election, it’s that when you don’t like people and fear they might gain too much power, you should dig up dirt on them. I’m being sarcastic, of course. That’s not what you should do, but it is what we have witnessed recently.
Times haven’t changed much. This was precisely what Daniel’s colleagues tried to do to him 2500 years ago.
When we arrive at Daniel chapter 6 we find a new king and a new empire. The Babylonian empire has gone and now the Persians and Medes together rule the world. The new king in Babylon, King Darius, has set up a new system for keeping control of his large and diverse empire. He’s installed 120 satraps (provisional governors) to each rule over an area—and over those 120 sat three administrators, with Daniel one of the top three.
Daniel, by this time would have been well in his eighties. Chapter five indicates he had been in retirement, but he was needed again, and so his retirement was put on hold. Darius, like King Nebuchadnezzar before him, seems to have recognised that while Daniel was advanced in years, with those years came wisdom, experience and exceptional qualities that made him stand out from the others. This had been the case for Daniel right from chapter one, when he arrived in Babylon as a teenage captive to be re-educated by the king. Throughout his life God gave Daniel wisdom and led him to places of influence. Chapter six is the culmination of a life of service.
Because Daniel distinguished himself from the other civil leaders, Darius planned to set him over the whole kingdom. This did not go down well with Daniel’s colleagues. Perhaps they were jealous. Perhaps they didn’t like that Daniel was a foreigner. Perhaps Daniel showed them up. Perhaps they knew that if Daniel was over them they wouldn’t be able to get away with certain activities—after all, when they examined Daniel’s life they saw he was a man of integrity.
When they looked for a way to discredit Daniel, there was simply no dirt to dig up. He was not corrupt or negligent. So if they were going to stop Daniel from getting the top job, they would need a different approach.
The main point of difference between the other leaders and Daniel was his religion. Daniel’s loyalty was to his God first, not his king. And so the other leaders went to Darius and persuaded him to create a law that for 30 days the king was the only object that could be prayed to. The idea of being seen as a god appealed to the King’s ego, so Darius didn't even ask any questions. He simply signed off on their idea.
When Daniel heard about the law he did what he always did. Three times a day he went to his upstairs room, where the windows opened towards Jerusalem, he got down on his knees and he prayed. Why he prayed in this fashion we are not sure. Nowhere in Jewish Law do we find instructions to pray kneeling, facing Jerusalem, three times a day. But it seems the Jews in exile developed their own devotional practices. Back in Jerusalem, religious routines centred on the temple and were administered by the priests, but in Babylon they were on their own. So people developed their own ways to stay connected to God.
Well, the spies were out, and Daniel got caught praying. The leaders took great delight in going to Darius and reporting that Daniel had broken the law. We’re told three times in this chapter that the laws of the Persians and Medes couldn’t be repealed, so Daniel’s actions were no small thing and could not be simply overlooked. In the Babylonian Empire, the king was above the law—he could do what he liked. But not so in this new empire.
Here, even the king had to come under the law. That meant Darius was stuck. The law was set in concrete. Daniel had broken it and had to face to the consequence. And the consequence was a den of lions.
‘When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him’ (Daniel 6:14). The New King James version translates it that Darius was ‘greatly displeased with himself’, but Darius may well have been annoyed at Daniel—after all, Daniel was silly enough to go ahead and pray after hearing about the new law. The king could have been angry at his leaders who had clearly set him up! But the king knows he is at fault. He allowed this to happen. He was sucked in by flattery, and now it looked like Daniel, his trusted friend and advisor, would die.
Darius recognised his mistake and tried to fix it, but nothing could be done. Daniel was put inside the lion’s den and the entrance sealed.
The narrator then takes the reader back to the palace with Darius for the night. Like the king, we don’t get to find out what happened in the den until the next morning. Instead, we see Darius spending a sleepless night anxiously pacing and refusing distractions.
First thing the next day, Darius rushed to the den and called out in an ‘anguished voice’: ‘Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God … been able to rescue you from the lions?’
Daniel answered: ‘My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty’ (6:19–22).
Now, the fact that Darius had hope Daniel might still be alive, and Daniel’s response that he had been ‘found innocent’ suggests more was going on here than the execution of someone who had broken the law.
What had happened was a ‘trial by ordeal’. An ordeal was when a person charged with a crime was put through intense pain/torture to determine if they were innocent. One example of a type of ordeal was trial by fire. In this, the accused would have to walk across fiery coals for a certain distance. If they survived, they were innocent. If they died, they were guilty and had received their punishment. This was a way of recognising that people were not always the best judges, so judgment was left in ‘the hands of the gods’.
This helps us understand why Darius still had hope that Daniel might survive. It also helps us understand why the next morning Daniel was taken out of the pit. If this had been a typical ‘execution’, Daniel should have been left there until the lions got hungry, but an ‘ordeal’ was limited to a set amount of time (or distance, in the case of a trial by fire.) Daniel’s survival was interpreted as signalling that greater forces had declared Daniel’s innocence. He was cleared of any wrong.
In contrast, the other leaders were not found innocent … which leads us to the part of the story that was likely left out when we heard about ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ at Sunday school!
The leaders who had conspired against Daniel received the fate they had planned for him. Not just them, but their families too, were all thrown into the lion’s den. This seems incredibly cruel to us, but punishments being given to whole families were attested to in Persian times. As horrible as this part of the story is, it’s a reminder that our wrongs impact others. The fallout from our mistakes may affect the innocent.
In the final verses of Daniel 6, the account of Daniel's life is brought to a close with Darius praising Daniel’s God. Darius concluded that Daniel’s God had an eternal kingdom and that he was the living God, directly involved in the world. He had come to realise that Daniel’s God wasn’t some far-away distant deity. God had directly intervened to rescue Daniel—Darius had seen this for himself.
In many ways, this sums up the first six chapters of Daniel. God had been involved throughout Daniel’s life, even when it didn’t look like it. Even when it must have seemed to Daniel that his world was falling apart, still God was putting Daniel in the right place. Even when it seemed that the earthly kings had all the power and when they thought they were god, the one true God was still in control. Even when Daniel and his friends had to stand alone in the world amongst the cut and thrust of politics, God did not abandon them. God always gave them what they needed so they could do well.
I pray that we will each know Daniel’s God and also find reassurance from Daniel’s story—that God is not just involved in the world, but is in control of the world.
by Carla Lindsey (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 7 October, pp20-21
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.