Last week we talked about the significance of the exile, how it caused a crisis of faith in the people of Israel that now their land was captive and they were ruled by foreign powers—particularly King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. However, it isn’t just called the exile because their land was conquered, but because this Babylonian king removed people from the land and sent them into Babylon, to live in a strange place among strangers who didn’t share their culture. Today we’re going to study one of these stories, of some young men suddenly in a strange and foreign land.
Grab your Bibles and turn to the book of Daniel. Someone please read Daniel 1:1-5.
In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar,[a] and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.
3 Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. 6 Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 7 The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.
Nebuchadnezzar takes over. He plunders the land and temple, taking the precious gold and silver and fine woods used to build the Temple, and destroying it. He takes it all back to Babylon. But it’s not just stuff he takes. He wants young people—particular healthy, handsome, and bright young men from the royal family. He takes them to Babylon, brings them into his own palace and teaches them about Babylon and it’s ways.
Why does he do this? This might seem strange to us. But remember, Nebuchadnezzar was the leader of an empire. Large empires need governors and leaders, because the king himself can’t oversee everything, just like the President can’t oversee the whole of the United States himself. We have governors and Senators and all sorts of people. Nebuchadnezzar was probably in general always looking for smart young people to grow up into leaders, but he particularly chose young people of the ruling class from Judah. Probably with the intent to train them up in the Babylonian way and then send them back to Judah to rule, so he could say, “Here is one of your own to rule you.” And while that person would be born of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar wanted that person to think like a Babylonian, to be his lieutenant as much as any Babylonian would. That’s why he’s training them in the language and books of Babylon.
There would also be another less kind political reason, which is by turning the royal family and nobles of Judah into his servants, Nebuchadnezzar is making a statement that even the highest in Judah is still lower than him, still serves him, and is nothing compared to him.
For three years it says they were to be trained, before entering the king’s service. During this time they were given the sort of food that the king himself ate. This would be luxurious, possibly even better than anything they had at home, because Babylon was so much larger than Judah and would have more resources.
Several young men were taken from Judah but this story is about four particular ones. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. But these are all names of Israel, names that reflect their God in how they’re constructed. The “el” ending and “iah” ending both point to names of God, El being a common name for God—the one Abraham used before the name of Yahweh is used, and the “iah” ending pointing directly to the name “Yahweh.” This wouldn’t be acceptable in the courts of Babylon, not when you’re trying to make these people Babylonians. So they were given new names, names that fit in better. Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Giving people names that fit in better with the local population is actually a really common assimilation practice, one that’s still done by many today. Many times immigrants to new countries choose names that fit in the local language better. That’s not wrong. Sometimes they don’t want to seem different, sometimes they want to be like everyone else. Sometimes they don’t want to hear their original name butchered daily by people who can’t pronounce it. However, this is not the case with these guys. They’re not choosing new names. These names are being forced upon them. And that is wrong. That has happened in American history too. Native Americans being forced to choose “Christian” names rather than keep the names their parents gave them. People who emigrated through Ellis Island being told their names were too hard and being changed randomly by whichever official was writing their name down in the books. These people are not given a choice about whether they want their long Polish last name shortened to two syllables. This is not okay. And it wasn’t okay with Daniel and his friends.
Let’s see what happens to these young men in the Babylonian court. Someone please read Daniel 1:8-14.
8 But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. 9 Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. 10 The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” 11 Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.” 14 So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days.
We already mentioned that the king was basically feeding them from his table, but we didn’t talk about what that meant. Here it says that Daniel did not want to “defile” himself with the food from the royal table. What does that mean? Does it mean the food from the royal table was spoiled or poisoned in some way? No. Was it super unhealthy food, like just cookies and cakes all the time? Maybe, but that wouldn’t have been Daniel’s concern. Our first clue is that word “defile.” Another way to translate it might be “unclean.” And if we translate that maybe that sounds familiar.
Because remember, Daniel is from Judah. He’s an Israealite. This is the first time period where we will start hearing the people of Israel referred to as Jewish or Jews, as basically a shorthand for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Jewish people have to follow the law in order to be right with God, and part of that involves eating the right foods. In modern words we call this kosher.
There are many types of food that people who follow the kosher laws won’t eat like pig or shrimp. And here Daniel is in a foreign court, that basically wants him to forget he’s Jewish and become a Babylonian, and eat all the things that Babylonians eat.
It would have been really easy for Daniel to go along with this. After all, this is one of the worst kinds of pressure there is—not peer pressure but like boss pressure. Your boss is telling you to do something. And if you don’t do it? Well in Daniel’s case he wouldn’t be worried about being fired from a job, but maybe killed or imprisoned. The whole point of Nebudchanezzar bringing these young men to Babylon is to teach them to be Babylonian and here is Daniel refusing, determining to stay Jewish.
But it’s also more than that. Remember Daniel was just deported from the Promised Land. His entire reality and culture has been shattered. What he thought God meant about the Promised Land and the future of the Israelites seems not to be the case. It would be really easy for him to decide that maybe all those laws were stupid—after all God didn’t uphold his end of the bargain why should Daniel uphold his end? But instead Daniel is re-asserting his identity and relationship with God. Just because he has been Exiled, just because he is in a strange land, doesn’t mean he is not a child of God, and doesn’t mean he’s exempt from the laws God would like him to follow. Daniel will stay true, he will stay faithful, even through this season of uncertainty.
So Daniel goes to the guy in charge of them—the palace master, which is probably the guy who runs the whole palace, sort of like Carson in Downton Abbey if you’ve ever watched that—and asks if he can eat different food.
Now this palace master he has compassion for Daniel and his friends, but he’s afraid of his king. What will the king say? The palace master is particularly worried because the food of the kings table is considered the best food, so if Daniel is eating less than the best and because of that he gets unhealthy? The king will probably blame the palace master. So he basically says no.
So Daniel backs up and goes to his own guard, who is in charge of himself and his friends. HE says, “What if we do a test for ten days? For ten days let us eat our way and we’ll see if we get sick. If we get sick, we go back to your ways, if we don’t, well no harm no foul.” The guard thinks on this, thinks its reasonable, so they agree.
Someone please read Daniel 1:15-20.
15 At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. 16 So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. 17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.
18 At the end of the time that the king had set for them to be brought in, the palace master brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, 19 and the king spoke with them. And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they were stationed in the king’s court. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.
For ten days Daniel and his friend eat what kosher foods are available to them—which seems to be mostly vegetables. Why is that? It’s not like Jewish people are vegetarian. Well because kosher meat isn’t just about what kind of animal it is, it’s about how that animal is killed. So the Babylonians wouldn’t kill the animals and prepare the meat in a kosher manner, so the only things that Daniel could know is safe is going to be vegetables. So Daniel and his friends basically go vegetarian.
And lo and behold, they don’t end up any unhealthier than the other young men, in fact the Bible says they appear better and fatter. Remember in this case, fatter would be considered healthier. Because skinny back then usually meant you were starving. So it’s not really “fat” and “skinny” like we might think about it verses “starvation” and “you look like you actually get three square meals a day.”
It also says that God gave them knowledge and skill and wisdom, and that Daniel in particular had visions and dreams—Daniel we’re going to see is a prophet of God.
So after their three years of training, finally the palace master brings them before the king himself, Nebuchadnezzar. And the king talks to all of the young men who studied for those three years, but he finds that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are the best and that no one else can compare. So while I’m sure the other young men got decent jobs, these four young men get the best jobs—working for the king himself, in his own court. And the king finds their wisdom and understanding better than everyone else in the kingdom. So it will be Daniel and his three friends that the king finds himself relying on and going to for advice. We see this played out in the very next chapter.
Someone please read Daniel 2:1-11.
In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed such dreams that his spirit was troubled and his sleep left him. 2 So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king, 3 he said to them, “I have had such a dream that my spirit is troubled by the desire to understand it.” 4 The Chaldeans said to the king (in Aramaic),[a] “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation.” 5 The king answered the Chaldeans, “This is a public decree: if you do not tell me both the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. 6 But if you do tell me the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore tell me the dream and its interpretation.” 7 They answered a second time, “Let the king first tell his servants the dream, then we can give its interpretation.” 8 The king answered, “I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see I have firmly decreed: 9 if you do not tell me the dream, there is but one verdict for you. You have agreed to speak lying and misleading words to me until things take a turn. Therefore, tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can give me its interpretation.” 10 The Chaldeans answered the king, “There is no one on earth who can reveal what the king demands! In fact no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. 11 The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.”
One night the king has a deeply troubling dream and he has no idea what it means. So he summons everyone who might interpret it—magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, everyone. And he tells them he had this terrible dream.
These men respond, “Oh my! Tell us what the dream is and we’ll interpret it for you.” But this is not a course of action that pleases the king. He doesn’t want to tell them the dream just for them to make up some possibly fake interpretation. If they’re so wise and who they say they are, then they should know what he dreamed without him telling them.
The men are like, “that’s impossible. You have to tell us the dream so we can interpret it.” But the king is incessant. He wants them to tell him what they think he dreamed, so he can know they are the real thing and will give him a real interpretation.
To the surprise of no one—except maybe the king—these men can’t do that. They say no one can do it, that what the king is asking is crazy. Needless to say this doesn’t make the king happy. In fact the king gets so angry, he decides every wise man in the land should be killed—and this includes Daniel and his friends, who it seems weren’t present for the initial discussion about the dream.
Let’s see what Daniel’s response to this will be. Someone please read Daniel 2:12-19.
12 Because of this the king flew into a violent rage and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. 13 The decree was issued, and the wise men were about to be executed; and they looked for Daniel and his companions, to execute them. 14 Then Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king’s chief executioner, who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon; 15 he asked Arioch, the royal official, “Why is the decree of the king so urgent?” Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel. 16 So Daniel went in and requested that the king give him time and he would tell the king the interpretation.
17 Then Daniel went to his home and informed his companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 18 and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions with the rest of the wise men of Babylon might not perish. 19 Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night, and Daniel blessed the God of heaven.
Daniel asks for time to consider the kings decree, and it seems its granted. So he goes home to his three friends, and the four them they pray. They pray hard. Because if God doesn’t help them out here, they’re dead. All the wise men in Babylon will be dead. So they pray with all their might.
And God answers. He reveals to Daniel what the dream is, and then Daniel spends the next several verses praising God for being so infinite and wise and choosing to share some of that knowledge with Daniel.
Someone please read Daniel 2:24-30.
24 Therefore Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will give the king the interpretation.”
25 Then Arioch quickly brought Daniel before the king and said to him: “I have found among the exiles from Judah a man who can tell the king the interpretation.” 26 The king said to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to tell me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?” 27 Daniel answered the king, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed were these: 29 To you, O king, as you lay in bed, came thoughts of what would be hereafter, and the revealer of mysteries disclosed to you what is to be. 30 But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being, but in order that the interpretation may be known to the king and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind.
Daniel goes to the guy who is supposed to kill him and is like “STOP. Don’t kill anyone! I can give the king his interpretation.”
So they quickly bring Daniel before the king. And the king is like, “You sure you can do this kid?”
Now this would be a chance for Daniel to claim all the credit, to talk about how amazing he is, and how he knows all these mysteries. Instead, Daniel places the credit where it belongs, with God—who knows all and deemed to give Daniel a glimpse of that knowledge.
In the next section Daniel tells the king what his dream was. It’s about a mighty statue made of many materials being broken into pieces and disappearing. And then Daniel tells the king what it means. It’s about the kingdoms that shall rise and fall after Nebuchadnezzar’s own, and how in the end they shall all disappear until God decides to set up an everlasting kingdom.
Let’s see how Nebuchadnezzar reacts to this knowledge that eventually his own kingdom will fall and others replace it. Someone please read Daniel 2:46-49.
46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face, worshiped Daniel, and commanded that a grain offering and incense be offered to him. 47 The king said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!” 48 Then the king promoted Daniel, gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. 49 Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court.
Some kings would kill Daniel for such words, but this king falls on his face and worships Daniel. He offers him grains and incense, like Daniel is a god. But his words seem to say it’s for Daniel’s God—because his God revealed truly the King’s dream and revealed it’s mystery. Then in the end, Daniel is promoted, made the head of all the wise-men and ruler of the province of Babylon—the home province, the most important one.
But Daniel doesn’t forget his friends who helped him pray to God. And he requests they be promoted to. And together these four Jewish boys, become four of the most important men in Babylon, even though they are strangers in a strange land.
We’ll pick up with more of their story next week.