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Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Daniel 1:3-21)

Introduction

Texans have an expression for being in a difficult situation. They call it “being between a rock and a hard place.” That is an appropriate title for this message because Daniel seems to be caught in the middle between God and Nebuchadnezzar. If Daniel were to follow exactly the plans Nebuchadnezzar had for the Hebrew captives, he would defile himself and displease God. If Daniel simply refused to do what Nebuchadnezzar expected, he would be in trouble with the king who had taken him captive.

This is not the only time in Daniel where we will find tension between pleasing God and pleasing those in authority. In chapter 3 Daniel's three friends must choose between bowing down to the king's image and being thrown into the fiery furnace. In Daniel 6, Daniel’s choice is between forsaking his prayers and facing the lions.

The dilemma Daniel faces in chapter 1 is different from that found in Daniel 3 and 6. In these latter chapters, the issue is: Pleasing God OR Pleasing men.

In chapter 1, Daniel and his friends face the opportunity for: Pleasing God AND Pleasing men.

The task at hand was not an easy one. For Daniel and his friends, it would require commitment and perseverance. Beyond that, it would require divine strength and intervention and certainly supernatural motivation. Daniel and his three friends did not do “what comes naturally” in this chapter. They did “what comes supernaturally,” to the glory of God.

Think for a moment how a person like Daniel could have felt toward God and toward government, because of what had happened to him. From what little we are told of Daniel’s early childhood (see Daniel 1:1-2), we can surmise that he grew up in Judah, perhaps in the city of Jerusalem. He was likely born of parents high in the social rankings of Judah, maybe even of royal blood (Daniel 1:3). Daniel’s life dramatically changed for the worse (or so it seemed), through no fault of his own.

Long before Daniel’s day, the united kingdom of Israel once ruled by Saul, David, and finally Solomon, divided into two nations. The northern kingdom, known as Israel (sometimes called “Ephraim” by the prophets) was consistently wicked, worshipping idols and forsaking the law of God. The southern kingdom, known as Judah, was often wicked, too, but had times of repentance and revival.

The prophets of God warned of future judgment against Israel if she did not repent from her wicked ways. Israel did not listen, and God’s judgment came upon this wayward nation in the form of defeat and dispersion by the Assyrians.

Assyria was eager to extend her empire by adding the southern kingdom of Judah to her conquests, but God intervened, sparing Judah from the hand of the Assyrians. God pointed to the fall of Israel at the hand of the Assyrians as an object lesson for wayward Judah. He warned of a similar fate for Judah at the hand of the nation of Babylon. Judah refused to heed these warnings, so captivity came upon the southern kingdom as well.

Daniel, along with a number of other Hebrew youths, were part of the first wave of captives held hostage in Babylon. Several attacks on Jerusalem would follow, with many Hebrews deported to Babylon to spend 70 years in captivity. As were others, Daniel was torn from his native land, his family, and his friends, so far as we know, never seeing his homeland again. It is even possible, since Daniel is called a eunuch, castration was a part of his humiliation as a Hebrew hostage.18

How easy it would have been for Daniel to become bitter toward Babylon, toward his own people [after all, Israel’s sin brought on God’s judgment], and even toward God [God gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 1:2)]! We are not told about the attitudes and actions of any of the other Hebrew hostages, but it is probably safe to assume they did not respond the way Daniel and his friends did.

The first chapter is critical to our understanding of the entire Book of Daniel, providing the historical setting for the entire book, and especially revealing the mind set of Daniel and his three friends. It explains, in part, the reasons for Daniel’s rise to a position of great influence in the Babylonian government.

Chapter 1 introduces Nebuchadnezzar, the king under whom Daniel serves in chapters 1-4, as being impressed with Daniel and his friends because of their wisdom. As the book proceeds, the king begins to understand that their wisdom is from God. In Daniel 1, Nebuchadnezzar places the articles he took from the temple in Jerusalem, the “house of God,” into the house of his god supposing that his “god” is greater than the God of the Jews. By chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar is humbling himself in worship and praise before the God of the Jews, acknowledging Him to be the God of the universe—God alone.

Daniel 1 presents those who live in the “times of the Gentiles,” whether Jew or Gentile, with the ideal, the goal for which every Christian should strive—pleasing God and pleasing men. Daniel and his friends are the “ideal Jews” who did what the Jews as a nation did not do. They refused to defile things the Jews persistently practiced. In our text, Daniel and his friends provide us with a model of biblical submission, primarily a submission to God, but also a submission to those under whose authority God has placed us.

Chapter 1 instructs us in holiness. Daniel and his friends knew where and how to “draw the line” between what was defiling and what was not. We who desire to live godly lives will find much to gain from the example of Daniel and his friends, as revealed in this great text of scripture.

Finally, our text establishes a connection between godliness and wisdom. As a result of their actions, Daniel and his three friends are given wisdom which far surpasses that of all others in Babylon, whether Jew or Gentile. Our text has much to say to us about the source of true wisdom. Let those who would be wise learn from Daniel and his friends and listen well to what the Spirit of God has to teach us, through these men, about godly living in an ungodly world.

Historical Background
(1:1-2)

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God;19 and he brought them to the land of Shinar,20 to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god.

The defeat of Jehoiakim and the capture of Jerusalem and Judah should have come as no surprise. For a long time, Judah had been warned of divine judgment at the hand of Babylon.

Therefore thus says the Lord, “Behold, I am about to give this city into the hand of the Chaldeans and into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall take it. And the Chaldeans who are fighting against this city shall enter and set this city on fire and burn it, with the houses where people have offered incense to Baal on their roofs and poured out libations to other gods to provoke Me to anger. Indeed the sons of Israel and the sons of Judah have been doing only evil in My sight from their youth; for the sons of Israel have been only provoking Me to anger by the work of their hands,” declares the Lord. “Indeed this city has been to Me a provocation of My anger and My wrath from the day that they built it, even to this day, that it should be removed from before My face, because of all the evil of the sons of Israel and the sons of Judah, which they have done to provoke Me to anger—they, their kings, their leaders, their priests, their prophets, the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 32:26-32).

Over a century before Nebuchadnezzar marched on Jerusalem and Judah, the circumstances of this divine judgment are announced by Isaiah to King Hezekiah:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts, ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and all that your fathers have laid up in store to this day shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the Lord. ‘And some of your sons who shall issue from you, whom you shall beget, shall be taken away; and they shall become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon’” (Isaiah 39:5-7).21

Judah’s captivity was a divine judgment for the sins of this nation. Daniel’s prayer, recorded in chapter 9, reveals his grasp of this fact. Daniel was fully convinced that it was God who gave Jehoiakim king of Judah, into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. It was this knowledge which enabled Daniel to deal with his own circumstances in the godly manner evident throughout the Book of Daniel.

The Setting
(1:3-7)

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel, including some of the royal family and of the nobles, youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding, and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and he ordered him to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. And the king appointed for them a daily ration from the king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank, and appointed that they should be educated three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s personal service. Now among them from the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Then the commander of the officials assigned new names to them; and to Daniel he assigned the name Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach, and to Azariah Abednego.

Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was rapidly expanding. He needed men of great ability to fill positions of power and responsibility in his administration. He instituted a plan which would identify the most gifted and skillful Hebrew captives available and prepare them for positions of responsibility. Daniel and his Hebrew peers were the “cream of the crop” in Judea. Nebuchadnezzar knew this well. This, in fact, is why these young men were taken captive to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar set about a carefully planned course of education.

Ashpenaz, placed in charge of this training project, was to select the finest and most qualified candidates from among the Hebrew captives. Those selected had to be physically and mentally flawless, as well as highly trained and proficient in a broad range of knowledge and skills. They were to be the most promising candidates for court service that could be found.

These men would require further education, for which the king made provision. I do not understand from our text that the king was attempting to brainwash the Hebrew captives. Those selected were already highly trained and knowledgeable. Their schooling had already been virtually completed before their captivity. What they did need, in order to serve in the court of the king of Babylon, was to speak, to read and to write in Aramaic, the language of that land. They needed language school. As I perceive verse 4, this is precisely of what their education was to consist. No doubt the study of Chaldean literature would involve the religion and culture of Babylon, but the principle purpose of their schooling was not to tempt these youths to forsake their culture or religion as much as it was to equip them to serve in the administration of a Babylonian king.

Those who find brainwashing seem to read too much into the text and do not take the text’s words literally enough. They also fail to understand the mindset of the polytheist, the person who believes in many gods. The polytheist is not troubled or offended that someone may believe in gods other than his own. In fact, the polytheist is often more than willing to consider adding the gods of others to his own gods. The only thing which greatly offends the polytheist is exclusionism, believing their God is the only God. We should not be surprised that the sailors on board that sinking ship with Jonah, urged him to call out to his own gods, even though not their own:

“Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6).

The Assyrians sought to strip the Israelites of the northern kingdom (and the others whom they captured) of their religion and culture. The Babylonians were content to allow their captives to worship their gods and practice their religion, so long as it did not challenge the religion at Babylon. Later on, the Persian king Cyrus would go so far as to assist the Jews in reestablishing their religion, even to rebuilding the temple.

I believe that Nebuchadnezzar operated his empire on the premise that the broadest possible representation of skills, cultures, and religions strengthened his rule rather than weakened it. Diversity was not a liability to him, but an asset. This may be why there are so many types of wise men (magicians, conjurers, sorcerers, and Chaldeans—see Daniel 2:2) in the service of Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar also provided those being schooled with food from his own table. I am not convinced that Nebuchadnezzar had any intention of offending any who ate of his food, or of being the cause of their defilement.22 To eat food from the king’s table was an honor and a privilege. It was the finest food available. Joseph, for example, honored his brothers by feeding them from the food at his table (Genesis 43:34). David provided a place at his table for Mephibosheth, the son of his friend Jonathan (2 Samuel 9). This was no cafeteria food like we ate in our college days. The Hebrew captives were given the opportunity to eat gourmet food at every meal.

In addition to the schooling Nebuchadnezzar provided for the Hebrew captives, he provided each of them with a new name. Much has been made of both the Hebrew and Babylonian meanings of their names,23 which will be discussed later.

Avoiding Defilement Without Offense
(1:8-16)

Any of the following four points in Nebuchadnezzar’s program for the Hebrew captives could have posed a problem for Daniel and his friends:

(1) Exchanging their Hebrew names for Gentile names.

(2) Attending a Babylonian school.

(3) Participating in the government of a Gentile nation which had no fear of God, which worshipped heathen gods, and which had overcome the southern kingdom of Judah.

(4) Eating food which was served at the king’s table.

From our text, we find three of these associations with Babylon posed no problem for Daniel and his friends. Only one of these four areas—that of eating the food served at the king’s table—was considered defiling. Why was eating the king’s food defiling, while the other associations were not? What distinguished this one area from the other three? Let us briefly consider each of these four areas and seek to learn why Daniel and his friends distinguished the one area from the other three.

Receiving a Babylonian Name

No doubt the Hebrew names of Daniel and his friends may have been offensive to the king and other Babylonians. While all their Hebrew names point to the God of Israel, their Babylonian names appear to refer to the heathen gods of Babylon. Why, then, would the giving of a Babylonian name not be considered defiling?

(1) In the first place, the Babylonian names were not a matter of choice for either Daniel or his three friends. We know that the names we are called are not a matter of our choice, or even our preference. The king (not to mention anyone else) could call Daniel whatever he wanted.

(2) Likely Daniel was aware of an Old Testament precedent for a heathen king giving a new (foreign) name to a Hebrew in his service. Pharaoh gave Joseph the name “Zaphenath-paneah” (Genesis 41:45). Joseph did not reject this name, nor is there even so much as a hint that God considered the name defiling to Joseph.

(3) In the Old Testament Scriptures, name-giving was most significant when God gave the name. In some cases, God gave a person’s name before or at the time of birth. This was the case with the Lord Jesus (Luke 1:31). Also God changed the names of some individuals. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham, and that of Sarai, his wife, to Sarah (see Genesis 17:4-5, 15). The change of a person’s name had to do with a change God was bringing about in their destiny. Since only God can change a person’s destiny, it is only His name-giving that is of the greatest significance.

Think about this in the context of the Book of Daniel. To name someone or something, or to change ones name, is to claim authority over the one named. Adam, who was placed in authority over all the creatures in the garden, including his wife, gave each of them names (Genesis 2:20, 23). When the commander who was placed over Daniel and the other Hebrews changed their names, he was expressing his authority (and thus that of Babylon) over them. As later events in the Book of Daniel will reveal, the king himself will fall before Daniel and acknowledge the power of his God. The “claim” implied in the new name is a claim which the Babylonian potentate will later renounce. The renaming of the four Hebrews is therefore shown to be inconsequential, because these men belonged to God and were under His authority and control.

Attending a Babylonian School

We know that the Babylonians were heathens. They did not worship the God of Israel; they worshipped pagan gods. It is unlikely that the Hebrews would attend a Babylonian school for three years without hearing some things contrary to the scriptures and to the faith of these young men. Was attending a pagan school not a defilement for Daniel? According to our text, neither he nor his friends thought so. Why? Let me suggest several possibilities.

In the first place, the purpose of the Babylonian education was not to brainwash the Hebrew captives,24 in my opinion, but to teach them to speak, read and write Aramaic, the language of the land. As polytheists, the Babylonians were not threatened by differing religions or other gods.

Second, education, even a secular education, is not intrinsically evil. Education is not to brainwash but communicate ideas. The student is not compelled to agree, or to believe what he is taught.

Third, these young men were not highly impressionable children who would unquestioningly accept anything they had been taught. These were well-taught men grounded in the Old Testament scriptures. Daniel is certainly familiar with the prophecy of Jeremiah at least, and probably much more (see Daniel 9:1-19). They had the Old Testament scriptures as the standard by which to judge all they were being taught, and they evidenced the courage to stand on their own.

Had these four Hebrew youths been required to attend a Babylonian preschool, it might have been a different matter. In his early years, without training in the scriptures, a very young child would tend to believe what his teachers told him. Daniel and his friends were attending a school that was much more like college than kindergarten.

The clearest guidance comes from a precedent set in the Old Testament scriptures. The Law of Moses provided Daniel and his friends with the example of two Hebrew youths, both of whom were raised in a foreign land and well-educated in the ways of those who did not believe in the God of Israel—Joseph and Moses. Joseph’s schooling was not a formal education, but he surely learned the ways of Egypt. Moses received a more formal education, about which Stephen reminded his Jewish brethren:

“And Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22).

I believe Daniel, gaining from the example of these two godly men, did not consider attending a Babylonian school defiling but rather an act of obedience to the God of Israel.

Becoming Part of the Government of Babylon

By becoming a part of Babylon’s government, Daniel and his friends could have felt unpatriotic, even to the point of being traitors to their nation. The term “collaborator” or perhaps even something worse might have been used of Hebrews who were officials in the Babylonian government. In New Testament times, the Herodians or tax collectors were the object of great disdain by their Jewish peers.

Why did Daniel have no difficulty with becoming a part of the government which defeated his own nation and destroyed the temple? Two reasons are immediately evident. First, the Jews had sinned, the judgment of Judah had been prophesied, and the defeat of Jehoiakim by Nebuchadnezzar was at the hand of God (1:2). The sovereign God who raises up kings and puts them down (see Daniel 2:21) is the one who gave Judah into the hands of the Babylonians.

Second, to seek Babylon’s well-being was to be obedient to God’s instructions, as given by the prophet Jeremiah:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens, and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

False prophets had been assuring the people of Judah that divine judgment would not come on Jerusalem and its temple.25 Later they would assure the captives in Babylon that their stay in this foreign land would be brief. Jeremiah told his fellow Jews that their stay would be 70 years, so they should settle down in Babylon.

Neither Jeremiah nor the Jews of Judah were to pray for the people of Judah because the time for their judgment had come (Jeremiah 7:16-20). They were, however, to pray for the well-being of the Babylonians. They were also instructed to work for the welfare of that place (Jeremiah 29:7). In seeking the good of Babylon, they were seeking their own welfare. Daniel’s years of service to Babylon greatly benefited the king and his captors. It also benefited the Jews. Daniel was not defiling himself by his involvement with Nebuchadnezzar or his government. Instead he was obeying God’s commands as given through Jeremiah.

Eating Food From the King’s Table

Only one thing is understood as defiling in Daniel 1—the eating of the food from the king’s table. We are not told exactly why Daniel considered this food defiling only that he did consider it defiling, with no doubt in his mind. If a Babylonian job, a Babylonian name, and a Babylonian education were not defiling, a Babylonian beefsteak was.

Two reasons seem most likely for Daniel’s sensitivity to defilement. First, this king would not hesitate to serve foods identified as “unclean” by the Law of Moses (see Leviticus 11). Secondly, the food and wine served at Nebuchadnezzar’s table may have been associated with the worship of heathen gods, similar to the problem described in 1 Corinthians 8-10. In either instance, or perhaps in both, Daniel saw defilement as a danger to be actively avoided.

A less sensitive Hebrew might have acknowledged the defilement of the food from the king’s table but excused its consumption as inevitable. Indeed, he might have cited scripture to prove that defilement was a part of God’s plan. Ezekiel, a contemporary of Daniel, spoke of the defilement which the Jews would experience in Babylon due to eating unclean foods:

“And your food which you eat shall be twenty shekels a day by weight; you shall eat it from time to time … And you shall eat it as a barley cake, having baked it in their sight over human dung.” Then the Lord said, “Thus shall the sons of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations where I shall banish them.” But I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I have never been defiled; for from my youth until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has any unclean meat ever entered my mouth.” Then He said to me, “See, I shall give you cow’s dung in place of human dung over which you will prepare your bread” (Ezekiel 4:10, 12-15).

No doubt Daniel understood that eating unclean food was a part of the divine judgment of Judah. Nevertheless, he purposed in his heart that, if at all possible, he would not defile himself by eating such food.

Submissive Separation
(1:8-16)

8 But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself. 9 Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials, 10 and the commander of the officials said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has appointed your food and your drink; for why should he see your faces looking more haggard than the youths who are your own age? Then you would make me forfeit my head to the king.” 11 But Daniel said to the overseer whom the commander of the officials had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days, and let us be given some vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 “Then let our appearance be observed in your presence, and the appearance of the youths who are eating the king’s choice food; and deal with your servants according to what you see.” 14 So he listened to them in this matter and tested them for ten days. 15 And at the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food. 16 So the overseer continued to withhold their choice food and the wine they were to drink, and kept giving them vegetables.

The challenge for these men was to avoid the defilement of the king’s food while at the same time avoiding a confrontation with the Babylonian authorities. Daniel must strive to please God and men. Later on in the book, Daniel’s three friends (chapter 3) and then Daniel (chapter 6) must disobey the king and face his wrath. But in chapter 1, there is no civil disobedience. Daniel finds a way to be obedient to God without being disobedient to civil authority.

How Daniel accomplishes this is a fascinating story! Daniel’s actions, with reference to God and men, are motivated and governed by the biblical principle of submission. Let us trace the events of these verses with the concept of submission in view and learn about the nature and manifestation of biblical submission.

Daniel purposed to obey God by keeping himself free from defilement. Having determined that eating the king’s food and drinking his wine would be defiling to him, Daniel set out to abstain from them, but in a submissive way. He sought out Ashpenaz, the commander of the king’s officials, asking permission to abstain from the king’s food.

The text tells us that God intervened causing Ashpenaz to look upon Daniel with favor and compassion (verse 9). You might expect this to result in Daniel’s request being granted, but it did not. How easy it would have been for this Babylonian official to demand obedience without explanation. Instead Ashpenaz openly disclosed why permission could not be granted.

Ashpenaz greatly feared the king. From what we read in the following chapters, his fear was well-founded. Nebuchadnezzar was a harsh man whose wrath was to be avoided at all costs. If Ashpenaz granted Daniel’s request and it resulted in Daniel’s appearance being unsatisfactory, the king would have his head. Ashpenaz would not allow Daniel’s request for fear that doing so would adversely affect Daniel and himself.

The information the commander gave Daniel was of great value. Daniel understood that his actions would affect his superiors as well as himself. He needed to act in a way to please God and to protect and prosper his superiors.

Daniel’s wisdom is evident as he acts on his convictions and the information which the commander gave him. The goal of Daniel’s Babylonian superiors was to obtain the optimum physical and mental performance of those in training. No one really cared what Daniel ate as long as he prospered, physically and mentally.

Daniel sought out his immediate superior, referred to as the “overseer” in verse 11, whom Ashpenaz had put in charge. Since he was directly involved with Daniel, Daniel sought him out, not in an effort to circumvent Ashpenaz, but because he was in a position to execute and evaluate Daniel’s proposed plan of action.

The goal was peak performance, physically and mentally. The “control group,” against whom Daniel and his friends could be compared, was the rest of the Hebrew trainees. Daniel proposed that he and his friends be allowed to eat vegetables for ten days and then their condition compared with the rest. If Daniel’s group could match or surpass the others, then the goal of the Babylonian officials was obtained, yet in a way that did not defile the Hebrew youths. Daniel’s proposal is submissive because it seeks the permission of the one directly in charge; it seeks to fulfill the purposes of Daniel’s superiors.

The proposal was accepted. It would seem God divinely intervened not only making the condition of Daniel and his friends markedly superior, but in a very short period of time. Daniel’s proposal not only preserved the purity of these four Jews, but it did so in a way that benefitted their superiors. After all, if Daniel and his friends were so obviously superior to the rest, the king would give some of the credit to those in charge of them.

In Favor With God and Men
(1:17-21)

17 And as for these four youths, God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all kinds of visions and dreams. 18 Then at the end of the days which the king had specified for presenting them, the commander of the officials presented them before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 And the king talked with them, and out of them all not one was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s personal service. 20 And as for every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king consulted them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in all his realm. 21 And Daniel continued until the first year of Cyrus the king.

Verses 17-21 are the kind of ending we all enjoy. If this account were a fairy tale, we would now be reading, “And they all lived happily ever after.” It is not a fairy tale, however; it is a divinely inspired historical account. Chapter 1 ends well, but we know from other texts of scripture that faithfulness to God does not always result in immediate blessing. Faithfulness always leads to blessing but very often God’s blessing comes later. Here is one of those instances when faithfulness is immediately rewarded. Let us savor the sweet success of Daniel and his three friends as they find favor with God and with men.

It seems each of the Hebrew captives who completed the king’s three-year course of instruction had some kind of oral examination by the king personally. The personal involvement of Nebuchadnezzar suggests that the tasks he had for those selected included very high level positions in his administration.

The assessment that Daniel and his three friends were “ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in all his realm” may have come directly from the lips of Nebuchadnezzar. They do inform us of this fact: Daniel and his friends were clearly and decidedly superior to all the rest. They were not just at the “top of their graduating class,” outranking their fellow-Hebrew classmates; they were vastly superior to those already serving the king as magicians or conjurers. These four were the best there were, the intellectual “top guns” of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom.

Seeking to preserve their purity not only brought Daniel and his friends the commendation of God; it also resulted in the commendation of a heathen potentate, who at this moment in time had no regard for the God of Israel. Here favor with God led to favor with men.

Conclusion

The first chapter of Daniel is not just a story told to make us feel good or assure us that whenever we are faithful to God, we will be commended by men. It has many important lessons. As we conclude the study of this chapter, let me summarize some of the lessons we can learn and apply in our lives.

(1) Daniel and his friends are examples of godly Jews in contrast to the Jewish nation as a whole. God judged the northern kingdom of Israel, followed by her southern “sister” (see Ezekiel 16), for defiling themselves with the worship and practices of heathen neighbors. Daniel and his friends kept themselves from defilement even in the midst of a heathen land, when death was possible for refusing the king’s provisions.

The southern kingdom of Judah was instructed to submit to defeat and captivity at the hand of the Babylonians because God had given them over as a judgment for sin (see Jeremiah 29, Daniel 1:1-2). In spite of God’s specific instructions to submit to Babylonian rule, Judah’s kings persisted in rebelling against her authority, resulting in additional destruction (see 2 Kings chapters 24 and 25).

Six centuries later when Israel was subjected to Roman rule, the same spirit of rebellion would be evident. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day would not acknowledge Israel’s sin or God’s judgment as the reason for their subjection to Roman rule. This stiff-necked spirit is evident even in those who believed in our Lord:

Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “we are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?” (John 8:31-33).

The same rebellious spirit which resulted in several waves of attack and captivity by Babylon resulted in a devastating attack by Rome in 70 A.D. Just as Babylon, six centuries before, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, Rome under the leadership of Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the temple once again.

In contrast to this autonomous, self-willed spirit of rebellion against God (who gave Jehoiakim and Judah over to Nebuchadnezzar) and against Nebuchadnezzar was the submissive spirit of Daniel and his three friends, who faithfully served the kings of Babylon for the years in captivity. Daniel and his friends were everything Israel should have been but was not.

(2) Daniel 1 puts forward ideals for which every true Christian should strive: physical and mental excellence, employed to please God and men. There will be times when we must choose between pleasing God or pleasing men. In such times we must choose to serve God and not men. Though sometimes tempted to forget and even forsake this goal, let us strive to please God and men, the ideal placed before us not only here, but elsewhere:

Now the boy Samuel was growing in stature and in favor both with the Lord and with men (1 Samuel 2:26).

When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him (Proverbs 16:7).

And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him (Luke 2:40).

And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52).

(3) Daniel teaches us about our Christian witness and evangelism. Nebuchadnezzar, Ashpenaz, and the overseer were all true heathens, so far as described in Daniel 1. Daniel’s religion and his God were insignificant to them. They did not care about his personal convictions. No doubt, Daniel’s conscience concerning food from the king’s table made no sense. Indeed, it probably seemed stupid. Who would turn down a steak dinner?

These heathens did notice Daniel and his friends, not because of their faithfulness to God, but because of their submissive spirit, strong bodies, and scholarly minds. They were interested in the bottom line—performance. Nebuchadnezzar first took note of Daniel and his friends because they best met the qualifications he sought. He chose them in spite of their religious scruples more than because of them.

It is little wonder that many Christians have a poor testimony with their employers and co-workers today. Many Christians think of their work as secular and unspiritual. They do not excel or even try to do their jobs well. Spiritual ministry is what is important to them, spiritual things like witnessing. They often witness on the job when they should be working. A Christian witness begins in the workplace, on the job, by Christians doing a job well, as unto the Lord. If we excel at what we do, men will take note. They may then be more interested to hear what we have to tell them about God:

Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men (Proverbs 22:29).

(4) Holiness requires a commitment to be pure, a plan to accomplish this purpose, and persistence in carrying out the plan. If there is a key verse in chapter 1 to fix in our minds, it is this:

But Daniel made up his mind [literally, set upon his heart, see marginal note in NASB] that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank … (Daniel 1:8a).

Holiness does not happen by chance. Sanctification is God’s work brought about in and through men and women who, in dependence on His Spirit, diligently strive to be faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some people equate spirituality and spontaneity. Daniel not only purposed to be pure, he planned ahead. He sought a means to avoid the king’s food before he would be defiled by it. He persevered in seeking God’s way of escape when his first effort seemed to fail. Daniel was not passive in living a godly life. He was actively seeking to please God by avoiding defilement.

(5) God was still at work in the lives of His people, even in the days of Judah’s judgment and captivity. God was working in the lives of the disobedient to bring them to repentance. He was at work in the lives of the faithful (like Daniel and his friends) to bless and prosper them, even while in captivity in Babylon. God had not forsaken Daniel and his friends; He was in control. God gave Jehoiakim and Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (1:2). He granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of Ashpenaz (1:9). He gave Daniel and his friends wisdom and knowledge which surpassed that of all others (1:17).

(6) Wisdom does not come from men, but from God. Daniel and his friends were not wise because they went to a Babylonian school. They were not even wise because they may have been educated in a Jewish school. The other Hebrew captives may have had a similar education in Judah. Daniel and his friends were wise because they trusted and obeyed God.

The wisdom which God granted to Daniel and his friends is the wisdom also available to us. Consider the following characteristics of wisdom, as defined in God’s Word:

True wisdom comes only from God. There is a false wisdom, which Satan promotes and the world believes, but true wisdom comes only from God. That wisdom is often viewed as foolishness to those who do not know God:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your body, And refreshment to your bones (Proverbs 3:5-8).

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10).

For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones. Then you will discern righteousness and justice And equity {and} every good course (Proverbs 2:6-9).

There is no wisdom and no understanding And no counsel against the Lord (Proverbs 21:30).

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:8-11).

Daniel answered and said, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, And knowledge to men of understanding. It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, And the light dwells with Him” (Daniel 2:20-22).

For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

True wisdom comes from the Word of God. Those who know God’s Word and know it well, will be wiser than those scholars who are ignorant of the scriptures:

O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, For Thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Thy precepts (Psalm 119:97-100).

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, To discern the sayings of understanding, To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice and equity; To give prudence to the naive, To the youth knowledge and discretion, A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel, To understand a proverb and a figure, The words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:1-7).

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Wisdom comes to those who put God’s Word into practice. It is not just those who are aware of God’s truth who are wise, but those who act in obedience to that truth.

But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:14).

In Romans 1 beginning at verse 18, Paul describes the downward moral and mental decline of those who receive revelation concerning God but reject it. The more men reject God’s revelation, the more God gives them over to moral and mental corruption. The more men respond in obedience to God’s revelation, the more insight and wisdom they gain from God. Daniel 1 describes the reversal of the downward process described in Romans 1. As Daniel and his friends obeyed God and sought to remain pure, God gave to them physical, moral, and mental growth. Wisdom is for those who seek and serve God:

How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Thy word. With all my heart I have sought Thee; Do not let me wander from Thy commandments. Thy Word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against Thee (Psalm 119:9-11).

God’s wisdom comes to all those who seek it diligently and ask for it in faith:

My son, if you will receive my saying, And treasure my commandments within you, Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding; For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD, And discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:1-6).

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:2-5).

(7) God graciously grants not only wisdom, but fellowship to encourage his people to do what is pleasing in His sight. Is it not interesting to find these three friends of Daniel in chapter 1? Appearing out of nowhere, they surely were a great encouragement to each other as they sought to keep free from defilement and to serve God faithfully. I believe it was the response of each of these men to the defilement of the king’s food which caused them to stand out from all the rest of the Hebrew captives and which then brought them together as friends.

How faithful God was to give these four men this fellowship at a time of great temptation and need. It is this kind of friendship and fellowship which the church needs today. These words from the New Testament Book of Hebrews should be our motto:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).

There has never been a time when God’s wisdom was needed more than in our own day. May God work in us, as He did in the lives of Daniel and his friends. May we like Daniel purpose in our hearts not to be defiled, though we live in a godless society. And may God give to us the wisdom which he gave to Daniel and his friends.

Chapter 1:
Questions and Answers

(1) What guidance did God give the Jewish captives in Babylon concerning their conduct during captivity?

The Jews had the Old Testament Law with the examples of men like Joseph and Moses. Both lived in Egypt and learned the ways and the language of the Egyptians. Both were named by the Egyptians (see Genesis 41:45; Exodus 2:10).

In addition, the Jews had the benefit and guidance of Israel’s history, as outlined in the historical accounts of the Old Testament. They also had the Word of God as revealed to the prophets. There were specific instructions from the prophets as to Jewish conduct. Specifically Jeremiah 29 instructs those Jews in Babylonian captivity how to conduct themselves.

(2) Why could Daniel and his friends willingly submit to Nebuchadnezzar and his officials?

They understood that God had given Jehoiakim (Daniel 1:1-2) and Judah into the hands of the Babylonians as judgment for the sins of their nation. They knew it was God who raised up kings and put them down (Daniel 2:21). Their belief in God’s sovereign control of history led them to obey Gentile rulers in obedience to God. The relationship of the Jews and their Gentile rulers differs little from our relationship to the government God has placed in authority over us (see Romans 13:1-7).

(3) Why did Daniel and his friends not consider Babylonian names, Babylonian schooling, and working as officials of the Babylonian government defiling?

Babylonian names were given to them by those in authority over them. They did not take the names for themselves. Joseph and Moses before them had names given to them by unbelieving Gentiles. Ultimately, it does not matter what men call us. It is the name we are given by God that matters, for in that name we find our destiny (see Luke 10:20; Acts 4:12; Revelation 3:12).

The Babylonian schooling Nebuchadnezzar planned for the Hebrew captives was not, in my opinion, required so that the Hebrews could be brain-washed, or their religion and culture set aside. According to the text, these captives had already completed most of their schooling. The additional education required had to do with the Aramaic language, which these Hebrews would need to serve effectively as government officials. These men appear to have already gained a grasp of the Old Testament and their faith would not be shaken by the instruction they would receive. If Joseph and Moses could receive their education from Gentile unbelievers and still be faithful to God, so could Daniel and his friends.

Joseph (and Moses to a lesser degree) worked in Egypt as a part of the Egyptian government. By living a godly life, he was a witness to his faith in the way he conducted himself. He also greatly benefitted the nation of Egypt. Daniel and his friends did the same.

I believe that the clearest and most direct guidance came to Daniel and his friends through the prophecy of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 29, God spoke to the Jewish captives in Babylon, informing them that they would have a lengthy stay, and that they should become a part of Babylonian life (without compromising their faith), praying for these people and seeking their welfare. I believe these four men viewed their employment with the government of Babylon as obedience to God’s instructions to them through Jeremiah.

(4) Why did Daniel and his friends consider eating food from the king’s table defiling?

The food these men ate became a matter of personal choice, thanks to Daniel’s wisdom and perseverance in dealing with his superiors. The text does not tell the exact reason why Daniel was convinced he would be defiled, but we do know that this was his strong conviction. Most likely Daniel’s conviction was based on the Old Testament Law. Food served at the king’s table would hardly be chosen or prepared in accordance with the standards of clean and unclean given in the Law (see Leviticus 11). The blood may not have been properly drained from the animals when they were slaughtered and prepared for eating. The food may also have been associated with some heathen sacrifice or worship ritual.

(5) What was it about Daniel and his friends that impressed Nebuchadnezzar?

We are not told that Nebuchadnezzar was impressed (at first, that is) by Daniel’s God, his religion, or his convictions. Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by the way Daniel surpassed all others in physical condition and in mental skillfulness. The king was impressed because Daniel and his friends did their tasks better than anyone else.

(6) Why would Nebuchadnezzar want Hebrew captives as part of his top level of government?

Scripture does not give the reason for Nebuchadnezzar’s desire to employ Hebrew captives in his government. It is my opinion that he, as one who believed in many gods, may have wanted to include a broad representation of cultures and religions in his government, believing that each culture had its own strengths. He may have wanted all of them on the side of his empire. I do not see this king trying to brainwash or suppress the religions or cultures of his captives, so long as they were willing to cooperate with Babylon.

(7) What distinguished Daniel and his friends from the rest of the Hebrew captives in Babylon? What distinguished Daniel and his three friends from the Jews as a whole?

They seem to have been the only Jewish captives at the time who continued to trust in the God of Israel and live in accordance with His Law. In short, Daniel and his friends wanted to remain distinctly Jewish, as the people of God, even though they were living in a foreign land.

While Israel as a nation had defiled itself by engaging in the worship and religious practices of the heathen nations, Daniel and his friends were committed to avoid such defilement. While Israel as a nation resisted God’s authority and that of nation which God had placed over them (Babylon, at this time, and other governments later on), Daniel and his friends submitted to God by submitting to Babylonian authorities.

(8) What is biblical submission? How does it differ from some incorrect concepts of submission? How does Daniel exhibit true submission in this chapter?

Biblical submission is not a begrudging compliance with the letter of the law set down by those over us. Submission begins with an attitude which desires to obey God-given authority as an act of obedience to God. Biblical submission seeks to view matters from the standpoint of one’s superior. It seeks to understand and, if possible, to accomplish the goals of the one in authority. When the goal of authority conflicts with the clear instructions of the Word of God, we must obey God rather than men. When the means or methods of those in authority conflict with biblical directives, biblical submission seeks to accomplish the goal of the one in authority, but by means which are not contrary to scripture. Daniel and his friends sought to reach their optimum physical and mental potential, not by eating food which would be defiling to them, but by eating vegetables.

(9) What is the relationship between moral purity and wisdom?

Romans 1 (verses 18 and following) teaches what other passages corroborate: moral impurity and mental dullness are directly related to each other. The apostle Paul states that when men reject the revelation God has given them, God gives them over to moral depravity and mental muddle. Their minds become darkened and their thinking distorted. When Daniel and his friends purposed to obey God by avoiding defilement, the result was not only the improvement in their physical condition, but they were granted an extra measure of wisdom. Knowing God’s Word and obeying it keeps one pure (Psalm 119:9-16), and it makes men wise (see Psalm 119:97-100).

(10) Does God always bless those who are faithful to Him, like Daniel?

Yes, God is always faithful to bless those who are faithful, and to punish the wicked. God’s blessing, like His wrath, does not always come immediately. The blessing of Daniel and his friends is unusual in that it comes so quickly. All blessing and punishment are certain, even though they may be delayed. Even God’s delays are for our good and His glory.

(11) What evidences are there in Daniel 1 of God’s sovereignty and of His divine intervention in the affairs of Daniel and his friends?

Even when God had “given Israel over,” He had not given up on His people. The prophecies of Daniel are a testimony to the future which God has for His people (which includes Jews and Gentiles). There are three statements in Daniel 1 alone which indicate not only the sovereignty of God (His control over men and creation), but also His intervention for the sake of His people: “The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his [Nebuchadnezzar’s] hand” (verse 2); “God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials” (verse 9); and, “God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom” (verse 17).

(12) What does our text teach us about holiness and biblical separation?

Throughout its history, the nation Israel (and later on, the church) has had great difficulty with this matter of separation. They were to be separate from sin and defilement in order to be holy, and thus to imitate and demonstrate the character of God (see Leviticus 11:44ff., which is in the context of “clean” and “unclean” foods; 19:2, which is in the context of idols; and 20:7).

Often Israel failed to keep themselves from the defilement which characterized the heathen nations. The people of God imitated the sins of their neighbors rather than remaining distinct, separate, pure and holy. At other times, Israel viewed holiness only in terms of physical separation. They isolated themselves from contact with “sinners” and thus thought themselves to be “holy.” Frequently during the life of our Lord, the self-righteous separatists criticized Jesus for associating with sinners (see Luke 5:27-32; 15:1-2). The biblical reality is that we ourselves are sinners, who live among sinners (see Isaiah 6:5). We are to live in the world, but not to be of the world, sanctified by means of God’s Word (John 17:15-17).

(13) What is the contribution of chapter 1 to the entire Book of Daniel?

Chapter 1 sets the scene. It explains that God has purposed and allowed the captivity of His people. It explains the lifetime of Daniel’s submission and service to foreign kings. It contrasts the cause of Israel’s captivity (rebellion and defilement) with the submission and purity of four faithful Jews, whom God blesses even in their captivity. Very importantly, this chapter reminds us of the ideal: pleasing God and pleasing men. While even Daniel (chapter 6) and his three friends (chapter 3) will be forced to disobey human authorities in order to obey God, obeying God and man is the ideal for which we should strive if at all possible. Daniel’s ministry began with a commitment to serve God faithfully and to avoid defilement (compare 2 Timothy 2:14-26).

(14) What is the contribution of Daniel 1 to us? What lessons can we learn from this chapter?

We, like Daniel, find ourselves living in the times of the Gentiles. We, like Daniel, have been called to live under the authority of a government which does not believe in God or seek to promote true religion. We, like Daniel, are to avoid defilement, and yet submit to human government and serve it well, to the glory of God.

From Daniel, we learn about biblical holiness and separation, about true submission, about the relationship between holiness and wisdom, and about the sovereignty of God.


18 The marginal note in the NASB at Daniel 1:3, indicates that Ashpenaz was the chief of Nebuchadnezzar’s “eunuchs.” It is not clear just how literally the term “eunuch” should be taken. In Isaiah 56:3, the same Hebrew term is rendered “eunuch” and quite obviously refers to one who cannot produce offspring. At best, we can only say that castration was a possibility.

19 Only some of the vessels from the temple were taken to Babylon at the time Daniel was taken captive. Later, all the remaining vessels were taken there (see 2 Chronicles 36:18). These temple vessels play a prominent role in the events of Daniel 5.

20 Shinar was introduced in the Book of Genesis. This is where Nimrod built the first city (10:10), where the Tower of Babel was constructed (11:2), and where wickedness is to be banished (Zechariah 5:5-11).

21 See also 2 Kings 20:16-18.

22 I do think he would have been offended to learn that Daniel and his friends believed food from his table would defile them.

23 See, for example, the renaming of Abram to Abraham in Genesis 17:5, or the naming of Joseph’s sons in Genesis 41:50-52. When a name has a significant meaning to be impressed upon the reader, we will be informed of the meaning of the name and of its significance. Unless God makes a point of a man’s name, I am not inclined to think that we should.

24 This is the view of Lehman Strauss and of Donald K. Campbell: “I take it that they were really being permitted an unlimited indulgence, which was a part of Nebuchadnezzar’s brain-washing device. It was the king’s subtle method of orientation, a clever scheme to denationalize them completely. This same form of denationalization and brain-washing is being carried on by communists in our day.” Lehman Strauss, Daniel (Neptune, New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1969), p. 37.

“Daniel and his friends had to be reeducated if they were to be of any value to Nebuchadnezzar. They were to be indoctrinated or brainwashed so that they would no longer think or act like Judeans, but like Babylonians.” Donald K. Campbell, Daniel: Decoder of Dreams (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1977), p. 9.

25 See Jeremiah 7:1-15.