And the Lord Gave
January 21, 2024

And the Lord Gave

Series:
Passage: Daniel 1:1-21
Service Type:

And the Lord Gave
Daniel 1:1-21
by William Klock

 

We like to say that actions often speak louder than words.  When things are hard, it’s one thing for someone to promise they’ll be there for you, but it’s something else entirely when they actually are.  And we know from experience, some people are all talk.  They say they’ll be there, but they may or may not show up.  But we all know people who say they’ll be there and we know from our past experience with them that we really can count on them being there.  Some people just prove themselves to be imminently dependable.  When it comes to God, we should know that he is imminently more dependable than even the most imminently dependable human being, but sometimes we doubt—especially when the dark seems so utterly overwhelming.  Israel was no different in that way.  God had spoken.  They had his word through the Law and the Prophets, but still, some day it was just so hard not to doubt.  Think of those awful days for Second Century Judah that we read about last week in 1 Maccabees.  Pagans defiled the Lord’s temple.  Pagans were killing Jews for obeying the Lord’s law.  A lot of Jews were giving in and apostatising.  Their children were being enticed into a pagan way of life.  The faithful cried out to the Lord with pleas like that of Psalm 68, “Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered!”  They prayed and prayed.  They were faithful and they watched as their friends and family were murdered for their faithfulness.  Where was God?  Did he really care for his people?  And so the author of Daniel looked back to the last time this happened, to the days of the Babylonian exile.  The purpose of Daniel was to remind the people of the Lord’s past faithfulness.  It was an exhortation to stand firm in faith, trusting in the Lord.  And so he begins in Daniel 1 and writes:

 

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, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 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.

 

In the third year of King Jehoiakim of Judah.  Assuming that number isn’t being used symbolically—which it might—these opening events of Daniel took place in 605 or 604 BC.  Jehoiakim was put on the throne as a puppet king of the Egyptians, but when Nebuchadnezzar defeated Egypt, Jehoiakim a puppet of the Babylonians.  Jehoiakim was an evil king.  The rabbis described him as a godless tyrant who engaged in incest and murder.  Through the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord repeated rebuked him and warned him of coming judgement.  And here we see the beginnings of it.  What’s described here in Daniel 1 sounds very much like the siege that Nebuchadnezzar laid against Jerusalem in 598 BC—which would mean we need to do more work to sort out the date given—but it’s possible that the Babylonians began applying some of this sort of pressure earlier—a warning, letting Jehoiakim and his people know who was in control.  So Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest of the Neo-Babylonian emperors, came to Jerusalem and showed the city and the people who was boss.  He took sacred vessels from the temple.  The text isn’t specific, but it implies that these were vessels and tools associated with the altar and with sacrifices.  The point wasn’t their monetary value.  The point was that Nebuchadnezzar wanted to demonstrate the defeat of the God of Israel.  Taking the city showed the people that they were now the subjects of the Babylonian king, but taking the consecrated vessels of the Lord from his temple showed that Israel’s God was now subject to the gods of Babylon.

 

And along with those temple vessels, Nebuchadnezzar took with him a group of young men—the first of the exiles—so that they could be taught the ways of the Babylonians.  They were hostages. Nebuchadnezzar probably expected some of them to be sent back to serve a Babylonian administration in Jerusalem once they’d been convinced of Babylon’s superiority.  But, I think, taking these men from the royal and noble families, more than anything else, was meant to show the rulers of Judah that Nebuchadnezzar was now sovereign over them.  Even their children belonged to him and to his gods.

 

But notice that little note slipped into verse 2.  You might even have missed it.  Verse 1 tells us that Nebuchadnezzar came and laid siege to Jerusalem, but verse 2 tells us that it was the Lord who gave him King Jehoiakim and the temple vessels.  The Lord not only allowed this, he orchestrated it.  The Lord is the one who is sovereign, not Nebuchadnezzar…not Antiochus Epiphanes…not Ceasar…not Charles III or Justin Trudeau…the Lord, the God of Israel is sovereign over kings and nations—and, maybe most important, over his own people.  And in those few words in verse 2, we’re reminded of the Lord’s faithfulness—not just to rescue his people as he promised, not just to prosper his people as he promised, but also to discipline them when they were unfaithful, just as he promised he would.  And there’s something else that might slip by us.  In the biblical literature most closely related to Daniel, it’s usually “God gave”.  In fact, we’ll see that later on.  But here it’s “the Lord gave”.  This is not merely the God of Israel, but the God who is Lord over all—over every nation and over every king, even mighty Nebuchadnezzar.

 

Brothers and Sisters, whatever is happening today, remember that God is sovereign and in control.  That someone living through the terrors of the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes would point his people back to Daniel to remind them that the Lord is in control, ought to cause us to do the same sort of thing: to look back not only to the history of God and his dealings with his people, but to do that while hearing his words and his promises to them through the prophets.  Why would God allow Christendom to fall after two-thousand years?  Why is God allowing the church in the West to wither and die?  I think we need to look back to the story of God and his people.  In Israel he established an earthly kingdom to represent his rule in the world, to witness his light in the midst of the darkness.  He didn’t expect perfection, but he did expect faithfulness.  And when Israel refused to be faithful, the Lord disciplined her—as a witness to the nations.  He preferred to be known through his blessing, but if that wasn’t going to work out, his sovereign holiness would be shown through cursing and, eventually, through his restoration of his people in fulfilment of his promises.

 

Christendom, I think, has befallen much the same fate.  The gospel went out and it conquered an empire.  Christendom was born and, a lot like Israel, it represented Jesus’ rule on earth—prefiguring that day when the gospel and the church have finally accomplished their mission to usher in God’s new creation.  Christendom wasn’t perfect—not by any means—but it did represent a people and nations that lived the gospel—people who were faithful.  And the dramatic transformation that took place in the conversion of those pagan empires and nations into Christendom are profound witness to the power of the gospel—a witness I think we’re often unaware of, because we now live in a world transformed by that gospel.  But as the centuries passed, our gospel light began to waver and dim.  The gospel had once put an end to slavery in the Roman world, but then slavery was restored—to our shame.  Christian kings began to colonise and exploit less developed peoples.  And, yes, the Lord used those efforts to carry the gospel to new corners of the world and often to judge wicked peoples, but then those Christian kings plundered those nations and mistreated their people.  Wars broke out and Christian nation rose up against Christian nation.  I don’t think it should be any surprise that the Church in Europe began its rapid decline and godless philosophies and secularism quickly replaced it in the years following World War I—a war in which ostensibly Christian countries brutally fought each other for regional hegemony.  In the years after that war, Karl Barth wrote that his seminary student had lost the ability to smile.  The gospel light was all but stamped out.  The joy of Jesus was all but gone.  In the century since, Europe has become almost entirely secular.  And now here, across the Atlantic, the trend marches on.  And it shouldn’t be any surprise.  As a people we worship the gods of money and self, of materialism and sex and all of that.  We murder our children before they’re even born.  We here in North America were once Christian nations, but—as with Israel in the Old Testament—the Lord will not allow a wicked nation to represent him.  Discipline will come to both the nation and its church and I think that’s precisely what we’re seeing.  But how often do we hear Christians acknowledge that it is the Lord who has given us into the hands of our enemies?

 

If there’s something we can learn from Daniel—and from the bigger biblical story—it’s to recognise how the Lord works and, more importantly, that he is at work.  Brothers and Sisters, the Lord was as present with his people in Babylon as he had been in Jerusalem.  And while it’s a terrible thought to think that we might be living under the disciplining hand of the Lord, we can take comfort in knowing that we are, nevertheless, in his hand.  Let us pray that we will learn the lessons he wants us to learn and that he will restore his blessings.

 

Now, let’s continue with Daniel 1, picking up at verse 5 with those young men exiled to Babylon.

 

The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.  (Daniel 1:5-7)

 

Again, it looks like Nebuchadnezzar has won.  These four men’s Hebrew names all reflected their faith in the God of Israel.  Daniel means “God is my judge”, Azariah “Yah is my help”, Hananiah “Yah has been gracious”, and Mishael “Who is what God is”.  They are all renamed.  It’s not clear exactly what all four of their new names mean, but they’re all intended to express that these four young men now belong to the gods of Babylon.  And the King of Babylon will now take care of them.  They will eat from his table as they’re trained in the superior wisdom of Babylon.  But, the story goes on:

 

Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.” So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.  (Daniel 1:8-16)

 

Why did Daniel and his friends reject the rich food of the king?  Our first guess might be that they insisted on keeping the dietary laws of the torah, but they refused the king’s wine and wine wasn’t part of those dietary laws.  We might guess that it was because the king’s food was first offered to idols, but the vegetables they ate would have been offered to idols like everything else.  Or maybe it was because to eat from the king’s table meant making a public display of accepting his lordship over them.  I don’t think it was any of these things.  First, this was temporary.  Daniel didn’t have any problem eating rich foods later in life.  And, second, they did this in private.  No one but the four of them and the steward knew about this arrangement.  I think the context of the story gives us the reason.  Nebuchadnezzar had taken them to Babylon; had renamed them, effectively submitting them to his gods; and he’d engaged them in this rigorous programme of reeducation for service to his court.  As I read this I remember learning about the Janissaries when I studied Islamic Civ.  The Janissaries were the elite corps of Ottoman troops, serving the sultan’s own household.  They were known for their discipline and, above all, for their loyalty to the sultan.  The creepy thing about the Janissaries was that the corps was made up entirely of men who had been stolen as young boys from the Christian families of the Ottoman Empire, a tax on those who refused to convert.  These Christian boys were converted to Islam to serve the sultan.  It sent a message: “You can refuse Islam, but at any time we can take your children and make them ours.”  I felt queasy the first time I read about that.  I think there’s more than a little of that same idea going on here—and in our present culture, too.

 

Maybe there was some doubt of the God of Israel in the minds of these four.  They knew the scriptures.  They knew the promises of God and they knew his faithfulness.  But here they were in Babylon, given the names of pagan gods, forced to learn the ways of Babylonian wisdom, and fed from this foreign king’s table.  I think we can forgive them for having faith, but still wanting some kind of confirmation.  If they were going to be the elite of the Babylonian court, would it be because of Nebuchadnezzar or because of the Lord.  And so they worked out a deal with the steward in charge of their food.  The chief eunuch wasn’t going to cooperate.  He was part of the programme, after all, but the steward—well, he could have all that food for himself.  And these four young men would know that if they prospered despite a meagre diet of vegetables and water, that the Lord was truly with them.  Nebuchadnezzar had no idea what had happened, but this was not for his benefit.  This was for the four young men, that they would know with absolute certainty that their God was with them in Babylon.

 

Continuing with the text at verse 17 we see what happened.

 

As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus.

 

There it is again: “God gave”.  Just as he gave over Jehoiakim and Jerusalem, and his own sacred vessels from the temple into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, he gave to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  When they stood before the king on exam day, they had ten times the wisdom and understanding, not just of the other young men in this programme, but of the experienced magicians and enchanters of the court.

 

And then that final note that anticipates the whole book of Daniel.  “Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus.”  That’s sixty-six years.  The Lord would be with Daniel and the Lord would preserve Daniel and he would outlast and outlive Nebuchadnezzar and all of his successors.  He would see the fall of the kings of Babylon and their conquest by the Persians.  This last statement makes the point that kings and kingdoms rise and fall, but the Lord is sovereign over all.

 

In closing I want us to think about these statements that it was God who gave.  First, that he gave his people over to Nebuchadnezzar in discipline.  We’ve looked at what that means.  But here we see God giving to these four faithful young men wisdom that they might persevere in faithfulness in those difficult times.  They were thoroughly steeped in the wisdom of Babylon, but it was wisdom the Lord gave them by which they persevered and that gave them favour in the eyes of the pagans.  What are we to do in the midst of trials?  What are we to do in a world in which the Lord has sovereignly allowed Christendom to collapse and his church to dwindle and fall into disfavour?  Brothers and Sisters, ask the Lord for wisdom.  Learn from the world, but listen to the Lord and pursue his wisdom.  That’s not an easy thing to do.  Torah, the law, that was black and white.  Do this and don’t do that.  Wisdom is harder.  Wisdom is knowing what to do in situations where things the answer may not be a matter of black and white.  Wisdom is knowing where to draw the line in those times when there’s no law to make it obvious.  Sometimes walking in wisdom is to walk a tightrope.  The church today is struggling to walk that rope.  Some Christians fall off one side into Progressivism or Wokeness or whatever you want to call it.  Other Christians fall off to the other side into and culture waring or Christian nationalism.  Some of us capitulate to our Babylonian conquerors, taking the path of least resistance, and end up in apostasy.  Others of us fail to recognise that the Babylonians are the agents of the Lord’s discipline and instead of listening for the Lord’s rebuke, instead of listening to hear what he would have us learn, we go to war with Babylon—a fight we cannot and will not win until we’ve first learned the lesson the Lord is teaching us.  What we need instead is the godly wisdom to remain faithful in our exile, while allowing the Lord to do a work of repentance and reform in the heart of his church.

 

Again, it’s not easy.  I guess you could say that’s why it’s called “wisdom” and why the scriptures call us so earnestly to seek after it.  Wisdom doesn’t fall in your lap.  The great sages of Israel tell us that the beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord—again, to pursue him, to pursue his plans, to pursue his ways, to pursue holiness and to cast off all worldliness.  And to pursue the Lord, Brothers and Sisters, that means to steep ourselves in his word, in the very place where he reveals himself and his ways, where he speaks to us.  If you are not steeped in his word, you have no hope of obtaining godly wisdom.  But to pursue the Lord also means to speak to him.  Pray!  When was the last time you prayed for wisdom?  Let God speak to you through his word and then speak to him and while you’re speaking to him, while you’re worshipping him, ask for wisdom.  This is what we see of Daniel and his friends.  They were steeped in the law and the prophets, in the psalms and in the story of their people.  And they prayed.  And they worshipped the Lord.  Second, we need the fellowship of the church.  You can’t pursue the Lord on your own; you need his people.  Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, none of them went into this alone.  They stood firm and in doing so they stood together.  They strengthened and exhorted each other.  So should we.  We need not only the support of fellow believers in order to stand firm, but in the pursuit of godly wisdom, we need the witness and discernment of the Church—of all those who have gone before us and of those who stand with us today.

 

Brothers and Sisters, it’s hard.  I fully expect things will get harder.  And yet you and I have something far greater than Daniel and his friends had or that those faithful Jews living under Antiochus Epiphanes had.  They had the promises of the Lord to their people.  They had his promises in the Exodus and in Deuteronomy.  They had his exhortations and his promises and his warnings given through the prophets.  They had his words.  And they knew their story.  They could look back to the Exodus—and they did every year at Passover—and they were reminded of the Lord’s faithfulness.  Those men and women living in the days of Antiochus could look back to the faithfulness of God to Daniel and know that he would be just as faithful to them.  But Friends, consider that you and I not only look back on all of that, but we also look back to Jesus.  When we come to his Table, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we participate in the events of that greater exodus by which the Lord fulfilled his promises to Israel.  We can look back to the cross and see the love and the grace and the mercy and the faithfulness of the Lord on display as it had never been before.  The Lord of glory humbled himself to become one of us and to shed his blood on a cross for our sake, to shed his blood that we might live with him and know his new creation.  And, too, he has poured out his own Spirit on us and made us his temple.  Brothers and Sisters, in Jesus and the Spirit we have the sure and certain assurance that God is with us, that we are in his hands, and that he will see us through the valley of the shadow of death to know green pastures and still waters.  He will see us through, as the Psalmist sang, for his name’s sake—for he has not only given us his promise, but he has sealed that promise with his own name, with his own reputation, and with his own blood.  In response, Brothers and Sisters, let us be faithful—faithful stewards of his word, faithful stewards of his gospel, and let us pray for and seek his wisdom that we might fear him and walk as a gospel people—light in the darkness.

 

Let’s pray: Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities and our trials; and in all our dangers and necessities stretch out your right hand to help and defend us; give us humility to know your chastisement; and pour out your wisdom on us that we might discern your will and walk in your way; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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