Faithfulness in Babylon | Daniel 1:8-21

But 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.

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.

Daniel 1:8-21 ESV

Having studied last week the first seven verses of chapter one, we are now acquainted with the context and setting of the book of Daniel. As I mentioned in the introduction, the book is easily broken in to two distinct halves (chapters 1-6 and 7-12). The first six chapters are primarily narrative and describe events that bring into conflict Daniel and his three friends’ faithfulness to the LORD and their submission to their new, pagan king. I am giving these chapters the subtitle Fear God; Honor the Emperor (which is quotation of 1 Peter 2:17) because I believe that it accurately describes the central tension that we see in each chapter’s story. Even in the idolatrous land of Babylon, Daniel and his friends were still called to honor their king; however, they did not live in fear of the world ruler in whose palace they dwelt, for they knew that he could only kill the body, not the soul. Instead, they only feared “him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). This fear of God, rather than men, gave them the resolve to both honor the king while also refusing to comply with his sinful edicts, and it made them ten times wiser “than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all [Nebuchadnezzar’s] kingdom” (Daniel 1:20). The fear of the LORD can do nothing less than drive out all other fears and lead to the very wisdom of God.

GODLY DEFIANCE // VERSE 8

Our text begins by immediately attaching itself onto our previous passage through the word but. Recall that verses 3-7 briefly described the fourfold reeducation that the Daniel and his friends were to undergo: 1) they were deported to Babylon, 2) they were trained in the language and literature of the Babylonians, 3) they were given daily provisions from Nebuchadnezzar’s own food supply, and 4) they were given Babylonian names, which evoked Babylonian deities. The word but is used for contrasting two things, and here it is marking a shift into the tension of our passage. The exiles of Judah placed in this three-year program for assimilating them into the Babylonian culture, but Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that the king drank.

This is young Daniel’s first moment of resolute noncompliance, and it evidently occurs at the very beginning of his new life in Babylon. Notice, however, which of the four actions of reeducation that Daniel resolves to defy. He went away to Babylon rather than resisting unto death. He learns the language and literature of the Babylonians, just as he is commanded to do. He even acknowledges and answers to his new Babylonian name, Belteshazzar.[1] Yet Daniel draws the line of nonconformity at eating the king’s food and drinking the king’s wine, which is the very element of his new life that Daniel may have been tempted to hold as a consolation for all that he was forced to experience. Why, therefore, did Daniel view taking the king’s food and wine as an act of defilement?

While no definitive answer is given, Iain Duguid provides what I find to be the most likely reasoning:

The issue here was not simply that the Babylonian food was not kosher, that is, prepared according to the Jewish dietary laws. Nor was the issue that the meat and wine had first been offered to Babylonian idols, for that would have been the case with the vegetables as well. If there had been something intrinsically evil about the Babylonian food, then Daniel would have had to abstain permanently from royal meat and wine, which does not seem to have been the case (see Dan. 10:3). The key to understanding why the four young men abstained from the royal food and wine is noticing that instead they chose to eat only those things that grow naturally- grains and vegetables-and to drink only naturally occurring water (1:12). This suggests that the goal of this simple lifestyle was to be constantly reminded of their dependence upon their creator God for their food, not King Nebuchadnezzar. Dependence on Nebuchadnezzar’s rich food would have been defiling because it would have repeated in their own lives the sin of King Hezekiah that brought this judgment upon God’s people in the first place (see 2 Kings 20:17).[2]

So Daniel is resolved to maintain a visible display that he is dependent upon the LORD rather than upon Nebuchadnezzar, yet how will the man of God make his intended defiance known? We read: Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. Take special notice of two words. Daniel asked to be allowed not to defile himself. He pointedly did not demand special treatment. He did not appeal to his status as a servant of the Most High, the only true and living God; instead, this young man already had the wisdom to understand, as we saw last week, that God Himself had given he and his friends into exile. His recognition of God’s ultimate authority over his circumstances enables him to treat with honor his immediate authority, the chief eunuch. His defiance, therefore, is resolute but not revolutionary. His appeal to his superior was humble, meek, and without fear.

GOD’S PROVISION // VERSES 9-21

The remainder of our passage is marked by two purposeful repetitions of the phrase from verse 2 that we focused so heavily upon. In verse 9, we read, And God gave, and then in verse 17, we find that God gave once more. The LORD who gave Daniel over to the Babylonians also gave him favor while in Babylon.

First, we find that God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs. Ashpenaz desired to grant Daniel’s request, but another tension is added to the situation. He states, 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. If Daniel was found by Nebuchadnezzar after the three years ended to be malnourished or was even simply less healthy than the others with him, it would reflect poorly upon Ashpenaz since he would have allowed Daniel to forego the king’s provisions.

Although Daniel did not fear the king as Ashpenaz did, the young prophet proposed a test to the chief eunuch’s steward. 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. Consider how Daniel alleviated Ashpenaz’s fears. He virtually eliminated any risk to the chief eunuch by establishing that the test would only last for ten days, which would not alter the course of the three years if Daniel’s proposal failed. We then view Daniel’s submission again by telling Ashpenaz to deal with your servants according to what you see.

We are then told this report of the test:

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.

The ten-day test works just as Daniel and his friends had faith that it would. On a diet of water and vegetables, they grew fatter than all the others in their program. God indeed had given them favor and compassion, and He was not done giving to them. The chapter concludes as follows:

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.

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had been chosen to serve in King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace because they were “skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace” (v. 4), and now God gave them learning and skill in literature and wisdom. As for being competent to stand before the king, Daniel’s peculiar gift for having an understanding in all visions and dreams would prove valuable to Nebuchadnezzar in chapters 2 and 4. In other words, God purposely gave them the ability to excel in their new home and station.

And excel they did! None of the other youths could match the skill and wisdom of these four youths. Their understanding exceeded tenfold the understanding all of Nebuchadnezzar’s magicians and enchanters, who were the wise men of the ancient world. Furthermore, we are told that Daniel remained in the palace until the first year of King Cyrus. The man who is often called Cyrus the Great was the founder of Persian Empire and the one who conquered Babylon. Thus, we are being shown God’s faithful provision to Daniel at the very beginning of this book by learning that the prophet would outlive the empire that captured him.

BELOVED, I URGE YOU…

With an overall understanding of our passage now in mind, how might we apply it to our own lives today?

Brothers and sisters, we must take a cue from Daniel. Like Daniel, we are exiles from our true home, for “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), and the world around us is Babylon. As with Daniel, we have been placed here by the sovereign hand of our God; therefore, we are not called to shun the world entirely. Just as Daniel learned to live the life of a Babylonian, so must be equipped to live in this world. However, just as Daniel never lost his true identity as a servant of the LORD, so must we take care that we are never given over to worldliness.

Again, we can turn to the epistle of 1 Peter, where in verse 11 of chapter two the apostle wrote: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your souls.” This world is constantly pulling us toward indulgence in our flesh’s passions, both of comfort and of fear.

First, the world bids us to indulge in the comforts that it provides, to eat and drink of its choicest delicacies. However, as James 4:4 tells us, “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Like Nebuchadnezzar’s food and wine, the comforts of this world also beckon us to enter a kind of covenant with them. Indulging in the desires of our flesh becomes an anti-Lord’s Supper. During Communion, we receive the bread and cup in remembrance of our daily and hourly dependence upon Christ our Savior; however, as we gratify our flesh’s wants, which is the same as submitting to the world’s pattern, we are declaring and testifying to our dependence upon the world instead. The fact that we monthly eat and drink in remembrance of Him quickly becomes crowded by the fact that choices at the grocery store or of entertainment are made only in remembrance of ourselves.

If there is one thing that the past year should have taught us, it is that our modern world, in which even the poor are able to live better than medieval kings, is still fragile. We should certainly choose to thank the LORD for indoor plumbing, refrigeration, transportation, heating and air conditioning, antibiotics, vaccines, anesthetics, and groceries stores that (mostly) never seem to lack food. If, however, these become the source of our security and dependence, we should take heed that we are only fleeing into another tower of Babel. Throughout Scripture, we witness the LORD stripping His people of their comforts and security in order to remind them of their dependence upon Him. Yet as beloved children, we should long to remember our dependence upon our Father at all times. This is why, in a world of plenty, we are a people who fast, abstaining from physical nourishment in order to remember our true source of nourishment.

Furthermore, just as Daniel only apparently abstained from the king’s food and wine during his three-year training, we too need the wisdom of Spirit through the Scriptures to understand when a worldly pleasure is or is not permissible.

Second, the world would also pull us toward indulging in fear, which is certainly a passion of the flesh. Like Daniel, we can see this on the political scene. While the world is descending into chaos because of the latest happenings in politics, we should be pillars of calm and resolute peace. The highest authority that a secularist knows is government; therefore, it makes sense for our largely secular society to treat each election as though the fate of all existence were at stake. This life is all they have, so their chance of establishing a utopia slips further away with every loss. We, however, know that the utopia does not come until this earth flees away at Christ’s return and a new one takes its place. Furthermore, we know the eternal King whose throne shall never end and whose will cannot be thwarted. Even if our country dissolves into a heap of dust and our bodies are burned up along with it, we will only be launched into our everlasting rest in universal kingdom of our Lord. We must be a people whose very lives point toward the peace that can only flow from heaven, so that the world around us would be drawn to ask about the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

Yet how are we to have this unshakeable hope and otherworldly comfort to abstain from the passions of the flesh? We find the answers in the two verses before in 1 Peter 2:9-10,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who call you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Our great hope and joy are not rooted in our own faithfulness, for which of us could ever measure up to Daniel (let alone Jesus!)? Instead, “this is all our hope and peace: nothing but the blood of Jesus.” We were a people of darkness whom the Light of the world came to rescue and to redeem. Jesus our Lord has saved us from our sin by His own blood, bearing the fullness of God’s wrath so that we can now receive His unmeasured mercy. What is more, we have an even greater provision than Daniel did in Christ. God gave Daniel favor and compassion with the chief eunuch, and Christ unites us to the boundless favor and compassion of God as our Father. God gave Daniel and his friends wisdom, but our Father has given to us Christ, who is “the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).

This gospel, this good news, is our anchor, our foundation, the stable ground beneath our feet and upon which all else is built. We are still, indeed, called to abstain from the passions of the flesh, both of comfort and of fear; however, to do so apart from rest in the finished work of Christ is nothing more than the religious show that the Pharisees put on. With Christ as our everlasting hope and comfort, we would do well to remember this trustworthy saying:

If we have died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him;
if we deny him,
he also will deny us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

2 Timothy 2:11-13

[1] Although we should continue to notice that throughout the book, Daniel also maintains his identity as Daniel.

[2] Iain Duguid, Daniel: Reformed Expository Commentary, 13.

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