What constitutes a betrayal? The book of Daniel begins as a historical narrative which wrestles with that question, and the issues of God’s judgement, and His saving power. It recounts the experience of the conquest of the Jewish people by the Babylonians – a temporary judgement, and a time of discipline through divine indignation – from the point of view of four princes of Israel. Chastened by the experience of exile, Daniel and his companions drew the line at disobedience. The dietary laws of the Jews were non-negotiable for them because they did not wish to be defiled in God’s sight. To modern eyes, this looks like hair-splitting. After all, their small country was enslaved in exile, and the Jews allowed their most noble sons to be assimilated into Babylonian culture through education. Why not just eat the food their new masters provided? Was it worth causing a fuss to preserve an identity that had already passed? Surely this was the end of Israel? Daniel is the story of why purity prevails. It is a tale of heaven and earth.
The way that God gave Daniel and his schoolboy companions victory in this seemingly small area is the precursor to a greater story: the faithfulness of men faced with death. The most memorable parts of Daniel are its great set-pieces. The account of the fiery furnace is a great example of faith which does not count the cost, as is the similar narrative of how Daniel faced the den of lions. Both incidents point to God’s faithfulness, and remind us of Jesus, who not only faced the prospect of harm, but died so that he could rescue his people from their faithlessness. Jesus features in the prophetic part of the book too, as
“ one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”
There are many highlights in the parts of the story which take place on earth. Perhaps the most dramatic section of the historical part of the book records the response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to Nebuchadnezzar. The king asks a rhetorical question: who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands? But he receives one of the great answers in all the bible:
“…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
The words “but if not” are truly amazing. Our God is able, but even if he does not save us… These men have grasped the value of God, and have placed it above their own lives. They are in the hands of the Ancient of Days, described by Daniel later in the book:
“As I looked,
thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.”
The intervention of God in Nebuchadnezzar’s life, through dreams and interpretation brings the king to this pass:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”
Besides these dramatic vignettes, and strange role reversals, Daniel narrates the fall of empires through his account of the handwriting on the wall, and the accession of Darius and Cyrus. The first section of the book ends with the words “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” This prosperity is explained with in the context of the experience of his repentance and faith. The cataclysm of history is a metaphor for the deeper reality of faith and faithlessness.
The prophecies which make up the remainder of the book are hard to understand. Indeed they are so hard, that at several points Daniel himself is unaware of their meaning. This, by the way, is a great reason to suppose that they are trustworthy. The first and second visions are explained, but Daniel even says: “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.”
Whether or not the prophecies are clear, their thematic drift is intelligible, and the interpretation given within the book is coherent and straightforward. The important thing about them is that they have been given. That is, they explain what they explain.(Who knows what we will one day understand of them?)
The ninth chapter is a prayer of repentance and faith, which is tremendously encouraging, as, in the next chapter, Daniel is called: “man greatly loved” and is told not to be afraid. Why should he be unafraid? The context is visions of God in judgement, and the Son of Man with all authority. Fear is absolutely reasonable: if anyone has offended that great goodness, how can they stand? The reason given is that “from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” This is a good word, and worth taking note of. God our Savior, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
If you get into the prophetic section, then like as not, with Daniel you will say “I heard, but I did not understand.” Daniel asked: “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He was told, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end.” Bits of the affairs of heaven spilled over into the earth.