For a book which is to take the reader into the most mysterious and spectacular events, Daniel opens in a very low key manner. Yet we do not have to look far below the surface to find the great issues and themes which are to dominate the book. Indeed a proper understanding of Chapter 1 is essential to give us our bearings in the often puzzling material which follows.
The structure of the chapter is threefold. Verses 1 and 2 place the story in the context of world history; verses 3-20, the main bulk of the chapter, tells how Daniel and his friends come to prominence and face their first big test; verse 21 is a historical note which points to the end of the Exile and shows that Daniel was significant in that entire period.
1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure-house of his god.
It is impossible to understate the devastating effect of the Exile in Babylon to the Jewish people. Their God appeared to be weaker than the gods of Babylon, their holy city was destroyed, and their temple burned and its vessels removed. The story here, however, is brief and unemotional. Certainly this is not the final devastating sack of the city (for which see 2 Kings 24:10-25:21), but the first raid on the city in 605 bc which was to be followed by a further capture of the city in 597 and the final destruction in 587. However, from the perspective of the author all this had already happened and the whole question of whether God was in control was an agonisingly real one.
Three factors, of great significance for the book, emerge in these first two verses. The first is the placing of the story among the realities of contemporary power politics. Nebuchadnezzar, the vigorous young king of the new Babylonian empire, which had risen on the ruins of the fallen Assyrian empire, was the most powerful figure on the scene. Against him the feckless figure of Jehoiakim, the puppet king of the tiny state of Judah, was no opposition at all. The paralleling of the names of Babylon and Jerusalem symbolise not simply two states, but the conflict between the city of the world and the city of God in every generation. This story, therefore, is not merely a piece of ancient history, it is a word to every generation of the faithful, and part of the purpose of the commentary is to apply the text as well as expound it.
This is particularly underlined by the second emphasis in these verses. The rise to power of Nebuchadnezzar was not ultimately due either to his superior military strategy or to the weakness of his opponents; it was a deliberate action by the Lord of history. 'The Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand.' Significantly God is called 'Lord'; the Exile is not a devastating setback to his plans; he remains in control and will use the events to work out his purpose.
Thirdly, the specific reference to 'the articles from the temple of God' is significant. This is one of the many hints of the profounder meaning of the Exile. Like the Exodus this was a conflict between the God of Israel and pagan gods, with this time Yahweh appearing to have been defeated. These vessels are to feature later in the drunken orgy of Belshazzar in Chapter 5; and, given the sense of horror with which Babylon was regarded, the action would appear particularly impious.
So in a few brief phrases, the main issues and concerns of the book are outlined. This is to be about power and who is in control. It is to be about appearances and reality, about the way God works out his purposes.
With the vital historical and theological background in place, the author now focuses on how it all affects four young men. The Exile happened to real people, and if its implications for faith and life are not simply to remain high-sounding theories, these have to be worked out in actual lives. Thus the author begins the characteristic feature of Chapters 1-6 which is a number of stories about Daniel and his companions.
This first story is soberly and concisely told, with none of the visions and cosmic drama which occur later, and yet it is vital in establishing the tone and atmosphere of the whole book. What this story emphasizes and indeed embodies is a particular lifestyle; how to live for God and be faithful to him in an unsympathetic environment. Chapter 11:32 speaks of 'the people who know their God', and Chapter 1 is vital in demonstrating what that means. As we shall see, the thrust of this chapter is to dramatise the choices that God's people in every age must make as they try to live a godly life in the midst of an alien culture.
First, the author introduces us to the situation and the main personalities:
3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—4 Young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that, they were to enter the king's service.
6 Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meschach; and to Azariah, Abednego.
Presumably removing these kind of people would both weaken Judah and bring new blood into Babylon. These were people who already had the advantages of birth and education. The language used of them closely resembles that employed of Joseph who was 'a discerning and wise man' (Gen. 41:33) and reminds the reader of an earlier man of God who rose to prominence in a foreign court. Terms such as 'wise', 'understanding', 'insight', forms of which occur here in verse 4, recall the Wisdom tradition of books such as Proverbs. All this points to something else: in Ancient Israel, Wisdom is inextricably bound up with 'the fear of the Lord' and inevitably the reader wonders what will happen when the wisdom comes into contact with Babylonian wisdom which is likewise bound up with the worship of Babylonian gods.
This issue arises straight away with the mention of the two areas most significant in the story: the language and literature of the Babylonians (v. 4) and food and wine from the king's table (v. 5). What is interesting is to see Daniel's response to these two issues; he and his friends participate fully in the training programme but make a stand over the issue of eating, and that second issue is dealt with in some detail in the later verses.
Exactly what they would be studying is clear from the phrase language and literature of the Chaldeans. In Daniel, 'Chaldeans' refers particularly to the sages or soothsayers who were an important group in advising the king. Much of their study would involve magic, sorcery, divination and astrology (see e.g. 2:2). When about to embark on an expedition or to determine policy the king would consult with them, and we shall see in Chapter 2 how a disturbing dream is regarded as their concern.
The practical relevance of this is that we need to be familiar with the cultural and intellectual attitudes of our world. This will mean study and familiarity with many attitudes and view points which are alien to the gospel. It is not only possible but necessary if we are to be effective witnesses in our culture. The practice of divination and sorcery was forbidden to the Jews (Deut. 18:10-12; 1 Sam. 28:3ff.), but the understanding of it and interacting with it was a very different matter. To be effective for God in Babylon involved a serious attempt to understand Babylon.
The three year training period has proved to be a remarkably durable length of time for such activity. Like Moses' they were to be thoroughly immersed in the culture and lifestyle of one of the world's great empires. Another sign of Nebuchadnezzar's determination to integrate these young men fully into Babylonian society was their being given new names with elements of the names of Babylonian gods. This again was a common practice: Joseph was named Zaphenath-Paneah and Esther was also known as Hadassah. Once again Daniel makes no protest; what is important is that his heart does not belong to Babylon.
Outwardly, then, the king had cause for satisfaction. His programme was under way and his favoured candidates had accepted with apparent willingness the drastic change in their lifestyle and status. For these young people (and Daniel and his friends were only a few—see verse 6: Among these...) the splendid and awesome city of Babylon must have made Jerusalem seem an insignificant backwater. With its gorgeous palaces lining the mighty Euphrates, its magnificent Hanging Gardens, its military conquests and its unimaginable wealth it must have both fascinated and intimidated. Yet it is not on any of the obvious issues that Daniel decides to make a stand and the story now takes an unexpected turn.
8 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 in this way. 9 Now God had caused the official to show favour and sympathy to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, 'I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men of your age? The king would then have my head because of you.'
The first thing to notice is the word resolved—literally 'placed in his heart'. This was a definite and settled decision arrived at by Daniel and in no sense a gesture. Commentators differ in their explanations of why it was this issue of food and drink. It does seem to be a minor point and yet it is clearly the crux of the chapter and essential to our understanding of the book.
It has been argued that the palace rations would probably have been 'offered to idols' (see 1 Cor. 8), but that is not mentioned as an issue in other parallel stories—e.g. Joseph, Moses and Esther, and the same would apply to vegetables. Similarly attempts to argue that eating meat would break the food laws of the Torah do not wholly explain the issue. It is true that Leviticus 3:17 prohibits the eating of fat and blood as does Leviticus 17:10-14, and presumably these regulations and also the ban on pork were not observed at the Babylonian court. This does not, however, explain the refusal of wine. Most certainly the passage is not advocating vegetarianism and teetotalism. People may for particular reasons adopt these as right for them but they are not givens of the gospel—'the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking' (Rom. 14:17). Moreover this was clearly not a permanent prohibition as is clear in 10:3: 'I ate no choice food, no meat or wine touched my lips... until the three weeks were over.' There again, for a particular reason and for a specific time, Daniel is practising this kind of self-denial, and the implication is that he would normally eat meat and drink wine.
Perhaps the true explanation lies somewhere else. For every believer there comes a moment of decision, an issue where a stand must be made and the choice will determine the whole future character of life. For Daniel that issue was food from the king's table. Studying Babylonian science and culture and bearing Babylonian names could be undertaken with loyalty to God unimpaired. Eating with all its implications of fellowship and solidarity could not. Indeed the very fact that the passage is difficult to interpret is in itself significant. What we have here is not a blueprint with detailed instructions about how to act in any given situation. Rather the concern is with basic attitudes and discipleship. For Daniel it was food, for others it may be vast wealth (like the rich young ruler in the Gospels), for others ambition or relationships. The key issue is that for all of us there is a point at which we must choose to go on in the way of faithfulness to God or to compromise.
Verse 9 shows how God not only overrules the great issues of the rise and fall of empires but is intimately concerned with everyday matters. This shows Daniel's courage; there was no guarantee that the official would act in this sympathetic way. In any case we move now to the plan Daniel suggests.
11 Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 'Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see'. 14 So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
Having made a stand on the matter of principle, Daniel is prepared to be flexible on details. He does not expect the officials to share his convictions nor does he want a public display of his beliefs. He is content that God knows his heart, and he is gracious and pragmatic in providing a way for the official both to be loyal to the king and sympathetic to his charges.
15 At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. 16 So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.
17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
Two matters are now prominent; the first is the result of the experiment with the food and the second is the general link of this with God's overall purpose.
As to the first. It would be to trivialise the story to say that it proves that vegetarian food is better for your health; although as I write these words the news media is full of warnings of 'mad cow disease'. What is more important is that God honours faithfulness to his word. This does not mean (see especially Chapters 3 and 5) that all dangers magically disappear. Rather it is God's way of establishing firmly the young men in this pagan environment and of encouraging them to further faithfulness.
Secondly, verse 17 links this incident with the whole sequence of events. The important word 'gave' occurs again and reminds us that everything is under God's control. This underlines God's approval of the action the young men took in relation to the literature and learning of Babylonia. It is an interesting reminder that while they worked hard and, as already emphasised (v. 4), were highly intelligent, the ability to succeed in their studies was a gift of God. This conviction prevented in them, and will similarly in us, a prideful intellectualism. It is also a powerful reminder that opportunity to study is to be received as an opportunity to serve God and treated as a sacred trust from him. I think a further point is being made: since all knowledge and wisdom are from God, the good insights and useful knowledge from all cultures are part of his generous gift to human beings. As such these are not to be despised but recognised as part of the wisdom God dispenses.
The second part of the verse makes this point in a different way. Daniel was given the special gift of understanding visions and dreams. This is important in a number of ways. Babylonian wisdom depended on sorcery and divination and a mark of a wise man was to be able to interpret dreams (see Chapter 2). For Daniel to have credibility in that situation he needed to be able to demonstrate not only equal but superior ability to the Chaldeans. Moreover, he needed God-given wisdom to discern the true meaning of those dreams. His knowledge of God and his will would mean that there was no danger of imagining that his own intellect or some magical process was behind his success (see 2:27-30). The rest of the book is to demonstrate how genuine was Daniel's gift and how faithfully he used it. This leads to the conclusion of the story which forms the main bulk of this chapter.
18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king's service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.
These verses contain hints of much that is to come in subsequent chapters. Superior attainments seldom lead to popularity particularly when displayed by outsiders, and the vindictiveness of the establishment in Chapters 3 and 5 is an example of this. Ten times better need not be taken literally; it is a standard way of saying immeasurably superior. The phrase they entered the king's service (v. 19) literally is 'they stood before the king'. It would have been better to have kept this phrase with its echo of the description of a prophet of God. Thus in 1 Kings 17:1 Elijah speaks of 'Yahweh, God of Israel before whom I stand' (see, e.g. New King James Version). Since Daniel and his friends have stood in the court of heaven they are not going to be overawed by the court of Babylon. The chapter, which begins with the humiliation of Judah and its royal house, ends with some of that house in a leadership role in Babylon. This had not happened by force or intrigue but by the overruling hand of God. But before we leave the chapter there is one further stage to go.
And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
If the year of Daniel's exile was 605, the date referred to here is 539. Probably a boy in his late teens in Chapter 1, he would be well advanced in his eighties when the Babylonian empire fell to Cyrus the Persian. Just as verses 1 and 2 established important principles for understanding the book, so this verse gives us a long perspective. Jeremiah 25:12 predicted a seventy year exile, and this is vital for the theology of God's control of history. As we shall see, particularly in Chapters 7-12, while human power can be awesome it is always given a specific time; only one kingdom lasts for ever.
The rise and fall of the Babylonian empire was not due to some abstract pattern of history which with iron logic decreed that events would follow a particular pattern. Rather events are in the hand of the God of Israel who is also God of the nations and God of heaven and who 'gives' and withholds power. It is interesting to see how this positive note is paralleled at the end of the historical section of the book:
So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian (6:28).
Whatever the circumstances, whoever the human agent in power, God will protect his people. Even more strikingly at the end of the Apocalyptic section of the book, beyond the trials and difficulties of this present life there is a hope and inheritance which is lasting:
'As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance' (12:13).
The name 'Cyrus' symbolises the end of Exile. Isaiah indeed speaks of Cyrus as God's 'shepherd' and 'anointed' (Isa. 44:28 and 45:1), and in these chapters the prophet is speaking not only of the end of Exile, but of the End and the coming of God's kingdom.
As we have seen, Chapter 1 is an essential foundation for understanding the whole book and it would be useful at this point to mention basic assumptions which will both round off our study of the chapter and introduce the next stage.
The first basic assumption is that God is in control; formidable powers stand against him, huge obstacles are in his path, but his purposes cannot be thwarted. This is no abstract doctrine. This is worked out in the harsh world of power politics. Moreover it extends to the details of personal living and to such basic matters as eating, drinking, learning and working. Knowing a God like that is the only way to stand firm among the treacherous cross currents of an alien culture and indeed to outlast that culture.
The second assumption is that revelation and insight are needed to discern what God's will is in these confusing circumstances. These are not primarily gained by study and intelligent application but by openness to God and an acknowledgement of his gifts. Vision and revelation are at the heart of the book of Daniel because simply looking at world events without a key to interpret them will lead to despair rather than hope. That key is the nature of God revealed in his living word. We have already seen how this chapter draws on other Scriptures and we shall see this even more clearly as we continue our study. If we want to hear what God is saying and see what God is doing we must know Scripture.
The third basic assumption complements this. To be effective for God we also need to know our own context and discover where the points of crisis will come. We need to listen to the news and current affairs programmes, read newspapers, be familiar with politics, society, culture, music, arts and as much as we can of contemporary culture. Only then will we be able to be effective communicators in our society and speak the eternal truths of the gospel in ways which will relate to contemporary people and their concerns.
Fourthly, this chapter is fundamentally about the kind of attitudes and lifestyle appropriate for those living in an alien environment. As we saw in our analysis of verses 8-10 the issue of food was a specific one for Daniel and his friends in that context. For each of us there will be issues specific to our context where we will need to make a stand. That stand will determine the course of our lives and our future usefulness to God.