I love travel books. Whether it is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie or just a second-hand book I picked up yesterday at an antique store, I love to read travel books. They are guides to places I have never been, or when they are really good, they are insights into things I see all the time, but I get to see them in a new way.
The Book of Daniel is a divine travel guide for pilgrims who are passing through Babylon. The six stories and four dreams that make up this apocalyptic book of the Old Testament are many things to us.
They are clearly prophetic. Daniel prophesies the coming of Christ down to the year. Daniel prophesies the kingdoms of the Medes, Persians, Alexander the Great and his successor, Rome. He paves the way for a fifth monarchy which will be out of this world and will never go away, clearly showing the birth and growth of the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. Daniel prophesies desolations, and Daniel prophesies deliverance.
Some wonder whether Daniel is just an allegory written by a later scribe seeking to encourage faith in the Jews. But in
Daniel is a great theological book. The subject of Daniel is not Daniel, nor is it Nebuchadnezzar the king. The proper subject of Daniel is God. And the late great Old Testament scholar, Gleason Archer, had it absolutely right when he summarized this book, “The principal theological emphasis in Daniel is the absolute sovereignty of Yahweh, the God of Israel.”1 And one cannot approach this book without coming into contact with the mystery and the glory and the certain reality of Almighty God ruling and reigning even through evil kings over all of mankind.
But the Book of Daniel is the place where prophecy and theology meet in a teenage boy named Daniel in captivity to a foreign king. Along with Daniel’s friends, the reader comes face-to-face with the realities in his own life:
How a believer must live in times of apostasy
How a believer may follow the Lord in the most secular of conditions
How a follower of Christ can trust Christ even when it seems He is not in control
How a disciple of Jesus can meet the demands of discipleship in the tough, hard places of life
This part of Daniel grips me as your pastor. So I am back to why I love travel books. Think of Daniel as your divine guide to living for God in those times when it looks like God is nowhere to be found. And if we are truly becoming the secular nation that many say we are, then Daniel is God’s guide for our lives as we stand up for Him in this generation.
How Do I Follow God in a Place Like This?
It was summer 1994. I sat with Billy, a new inmate at Leavenworth Penitentiary, in the quiet chapel of the famous military prison. He was a “fresh one.” I can remember that the only sound I could hear in that moment was an air conditioner churning out cold air on that hot Kansas day. Billy was a young enlisted man in the Navy but was now wearing the unmistakable dungaree uniform that told the world he was an inmate. I spoke to him as his head was hanging low.
“Why are you here, son?” I asked.
“Well, I needed money. We were in the midst of an adoption. The baby was soon to come. Now I won’t see her . . . ” He began to sob.
“Go on, Billy.”
“We needed money. I was – am – in debt. I passed a BMW and somehow my eyes were drawn to look inside. I would have never done that before, but this time I did. I wish I had never . . . “
“Go on, Bill . . . ” I prodded.
“Well, there was a wallet on the seat. I have no idea why, but all of a sudden I got this rush all through my body and I just took a rock and I broke the window and I got the wallet and ran. Would you believe it?” He smiled, and I could tell that he was trying to add some evasive humor. “Would you believe it? I broke into the commander’s car.”
We talked about the process Billy went through and how he got from that moment to Leavenworth. “The question now is: what will I do with my life? You see, Chaplain, I want to follow the Lord. But how do I follow Him in a place like this?”
That last question – How do I follow the Lord in a place like this? – is a question on many minds. We are not in Leavenworth, but all of us are in a similar place.
We are in a dry and thirsty land where to stand up for Christ risks alienation from people at work and school. That place has a name.
I know of husbands and wives and even children who must live out their faith in Christ in homes where there is either disdain or disregard from the things of God. That place has a name.
I know of students in universities who must stand their ground in a trial pitting their faith in Jesus Christ against atheistic professors who see themselves as bastions of enlightenment obligated to liberate these poor young people from the chains of religion. Their answer to his essay question will determine their final grade. That place has a name.
I know of people who have been faithful to God and are now facing life and death illnesses, and the urge to join Job’s wife and curse God and die is all too real. That place has a name.
What is that name? The place of exile, the place of loneliness, the place of testing is a place called Babylon. Babylon was the place of captivity for God’s people, including a young man named Daniel. After warnings of coming judgment, God used the powerful armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to attack Jerusalem. About 100 years after the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria, the powerful and ruthless army of the Chaldeans under mighty King Nebuchadnezzar assaulted Jerusalem in 605 b.c. and again in 597 b.c. when King Jehoiakim was taken into captivity. Finally, after an insurrection, Nebuchadnezzar’s army not only crushed the rebellion but also completely destroyed the city of David.
Jeremiah records the awful scene in Lamentations. God’s people, the great and the small, those who hated God, those who didn’t believe in God, those who believed in Him but didn’t follow Him, and those who were faithful, were then carried off into exile. For seventy years, the people of God would have to follow God, trust in God, and worship God as His people in a foreign land. Babylon became the dividing line in Israel’s history. Just as we say b.c. and a.d. when speaking of human history, we speak of pre-exilic and post-exilic (pre-exile to Babylon and post-exile to Babylon) when speaking of the history of Israel. Even the birth narratives of Jesus mention Babylon.
But in the Bible, Babylon is not only that place where Nimrod sought to build a tower to reach to heaven; it is not only the place where God dispersed mankind by dividing them into different languages; it is not only the capitol of the Chaldean Empire in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq); Babylon is not only a real place for Daniel; but in the Bible, Babylon is a metaphor for every group, every condition that threatens faith in God’s people. Thus, Peter will speak of writing from Babylon in
The place where our faith is under attack, the place of antagonism for the gospel, the place to which we are led that seems alien to our faith-that is Babylon.
But the good news of Daniel is that God is also in Babylon. God is in the hard places of life. God is in the prison with you. God is in the antagonistic classroom with you. God is in the wicked workplace. God is in the unbelieving home. And in Daniel God doesn’t minimize the pain of Babylon; He reveals it as it is.
Discipleship in Babylon – A frightening place where the enemies of God encircle you (
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it (
I am gripped by the word “besieged.” It is the Hebrew verb (tsur) meaning, “to siege, besiege, enclose.” Slowly but surely Judah had wandered from God (not Daniel, but his nation) until one day the enemy encircled them. Through no fault of his own, Daniel was also encircled. To follow the Lord now was to follow Him in the presence of enemies. Gleason Archer noted that this whole Book of Daniel is about God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty has led you to live before the Lord in the presence of enemies.
Is this not what David wrote of when he composed that beautiful Psalm which we sang today: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies . . . (
That is Babylon. But that is where faith in Christ must be lived out.
I cannot think of the enemy encircling us without thinking of an incident I have mentioned before. Colonel Roger Ingalvson ejected from his plane in Vietnam and was surprised that he had actually survived the ejection only to float down in that parachute and be encircled by the enemy. For Roger that would be the beginning of a new life: a free stay at the Hanoi Hilton, which no words can describe and for which no country can fully repay for the pain endured for being an American. But that prison was also the beginning of a new life of faith in Jesus Christ. His first year was in solitary confinement. He learned how to examine the parts of a bug’s body and thank God for His creation. He learned to pray. He remembered the Scriptures he had been taught as a young boy in a Lutheran church in Minnesota. Roger was encircled by an enemy. But Roger would tell you that as the Vietcong encircled him, God encircled him as well.
Discipleship is not always as clean as we would like it. But if our goal is to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, and if God is in control, then we can trust Him that He knows what He is doing. We can believe that even when we have been encircled by Babylonians, God is there. And if we are His, then we can trust Him. We can know that He intends for us to follow Him through it all.
In Daniel, there must be a generation that would do that. One day there would be a revival of true faith. One day there would be a rebuilding of the temple. One day there would be a renewed passion for God. Therefore, God must raise up Daniels. And that may be what God is doing in your life. Remember the old hymn and apply the truths to your life:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform,
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Today maybe you feel like you are being encircled by things that frighten you, disturb you. My beloved, behind those Babylonian soldiers you are facing in your world, is the invisible hand of your heavenly Father. You will learn to trust the Lord more there than at any other time.
Discipleship in Babylon – A foreign land where God leads us (
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 (
The beginning of Daniel shows that he was not only a captive of Nebuchadnezzar, but that God was in it. The Bible in no way tries to soften the blow of God’s sovereignty. It leaves us, always, with the great question of the ages, Why would God allow this to happen?
One of the most amazing passages in the Bible is in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him (
I emphasize the words “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness” because only Mark states it like this. Matthew and Luke say, “The Spirit led him” but Mark says, “The Spirit drove him.” Mark, as always, just puts it out there in the hardest possible theological language for you and me to deal with.
This is what is going on here. Jeremiah had been prophesying about this. Now it had come. God had caused a heathen nation to come against the people of God and to take them into a foreign land. Now, God is not the author of sin, and God is good. Yet, this was a bad day in Israel’s history. The baptism of Jesus was good. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one; yet, the third person of the Trinity, we are told, drives the second person of the Trinity into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, to be subject to wild animals.
No resolution of the mystery is given in Daniel or in Mark. We are told this so that we can see that God is in control and not absent even as we are being led away.
A young pastor, recently called to an older congregation, was called to the bedside of a dying parishioner. The lady was a godly woman who had served the Lord all of her life. Suddenly, she was experiencing heart failure. The family was told that their loved one had only days to live. As the young pastor stood with the family and as he recognized that everyone seemed to be looking to him for words, he froze. All of his theology and Bible study and pastoral training suddenly stuck in his throat. He finally managed a word, but it would have been better left unsaid. “Ma’am. This is not of God. God is not in this.” The dying saint raised her head with all of the strength she had left. “Pastor, if God is not in this, then I am lost. My God is right here in all of it. God led me to this place. But don’t worry, Pastor. I love the Lord Jesus, and I trust Him with my life.” The pastor never made that mistake again.
God leads us to places that are foreign to us so that we can trust Him. In some mysterious way – and you cannot read Daniel without acknowledging mystery – we come to know His love greater in Babylon.
Discipleship in Babylon – An intimidating place where we are under the power of an antagonist (
Let’s look at this for a moment. The name change is important because each of the young men’s names contains elements of God’s name. Daniel and Mishael both contain the “el” as in Elohim, the frequently used name for God. Daniel means “God is my Judge.” Mishael means “Who is like God?” Hananiah and Azariah “contain a shortened form of the name Jehovah.” Hananiah means “Jehovah is gracious.” Azariah means “Jehovah is my helper.” Thus these young men took the testimony of God with them wherever they went in their very names. The chief Eunuch gave them new names and the names he gave them all had “a reference to one of the false gods of the ancient Babylonians: Aku and Nego. But as Jim Boice put it, “Nebuchadnezzar changed the men’s names, but he could not change their hearts.”2
And this is the very thing we must see. The outward situation for these young men changed, but their true identity was unchanged.
I talk to people who say, “I don’t understand why God put me under this boss. He doesn’t know the Lord.” Or, “Why the Lord put me in this place that is so ungodly, I will never know.” And you may never know why, but you are there. But what is more important, He is there. If your identity is in Christ, it doesn’t matter if you are in Babylon or where. The truth is that you carry Christ with you wherever you go.
Discipleship in Babylon – A testing place where true holiness is defined (
You know the story. These young men are told to eat the king’s food and drink the king’s drink. The reasons are not completely clear in the text, but since it says that Daniel refused to defile himself, it is likely that the food had been offered to Babylonian idols. Daniel’s faith was now on trial. That is what happens in Babylon, in tough times, in hard times, in places where God is mocked.
I told you last week about returning from Britain with a burden. That burden will not be lifted in my heart until I see revival in America. But this I can tell you: in Britain today, there are not many middle-of-the-road Christians. You are with God or you with the world. If our nation continues on its slide toward Gomorrah, then this will become our Babylon and our nation will become a place where true holiness is defined.
True holiness is a life consumed with the love of God in Christ. True holiness is not religiosity or a goody-two-shoes holiness. That kind of pseudo-holiness cannot withstand the heat of the wilderness or the temptations of Babylon. That kind of holiness cannot withstand the promise of greatness that will come if only you will consume the idolatrous food and drink, if only you will bend the knee.
I heard from a soldier who recently went to battle in Iraq. I heard him say that it is when you are moving through the war-torn, insurgent-infested rubble of Fallujah that you come to understand what you and your unit are really made of.
As a businessman I remember that true holiness was defined, not on Sunday morning, but in the workweek when decisions had to be made that involved living for Christ when being called to join the crowd and live like He wasn’t there. True faith is defined when you are out of town and all day meetings turn into all night partying and you are faced with following Christ or compromising, risking alienation from your boss who grades your performance or assuring isolation from the Lord who loves you.
Maybe you are where you are right now, beloved, to prove the metal of your faith, to determine whether your holiness is a religious, man-centered legalism or a heart constrained by the love of Jesus Christ. As Bryan Chapell said: “We resolve to remain undefiled for the sake of Jesus, who washes us with his blood and holds us in his love.”3
Discipleship in Babylon – A sacred place where others become disciples (
At the conclusion of this story, Daniel chose a simple diet, chose an honorable way to be obedient to his new authority and to honor God. The Bible says that God will honor those who honor Him. Listen to what happened in the court of the Babylonian king (
The testimony of Daniel was established. The rest of this book will tell how God used this lad to speak to a heathen nation, to show God’s sovereignty over all things, to prophecy concerning Jesus Christ, and to establish the lordship of Christ in human history. But it started with a small act of obedience.
When that happens, we become living testimonies for God. In the very hard places of life where we are led, the mysterious places where we don’t understand why the innocent suffer or why we suffer, it is in those places where small decisions are made to trust Christ regardless, it is in those places that we become living testimonies for others. Daniel had to be a testimony for those three young men. Every Sunday school child knows that Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego were going to have a challenge. But would they ever forget the strength of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar would know the strength of Daniel. They would all know the power of God at work in one teen-age boy who overflowed with the love of God in his heart.
We see that this evil place, this place of paganism, became, for one tried and true young man, a place where other disciples were made. Daniel was a great evangelist; yet, he was in a foreign land. Daniel was a great theologian who taught others about God; yet, he was a slave. Daniel was a leader; yet, Daniel was just a lad. In Babylon Daniel stirred up the faith of his friends who would later need strong faith themselves. And he witnessed to a pagan king.
This reminds me of Paul in prison in Rome. He wrote to the Philippians to encourage them about his situation: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (
Through faith in Christ, the hard places of life become sacred places.
You wouldn’t believe that cancer is a sacred place. The mere mention of the word makes us stop, like someone suddenly hearing a rattler and a hiss. But as awful as such a place is, I have witnessed sacred places in such times. A friend of mine is in a heroic fight with cancer. I talked to his wife on the telephone the other night, and she told me about how he came to view the awful menace facing him. When the doctor broke the news of an inoperable cancer, in a way it was like Jerusalem falling; it was like being led away to Babylon. She said that at the moment he came to understand what he was facing, it was as if God put His arm around her husband, and from that time on, the man of God she had known showed a depth of discipleship that she could never have imagined. I have talked to this man and prayed with him. His wife is not exaggerating. His faith is amazing. And hers is as well.
I cannot tell you why Jerusalem fell and captivity came to a faithful man like Daniel except that there was evil in the land. I cannot tell you why good men of God like my friend, and some of you, get cancer except that there is evil in this world. But this I know: in Babylon Daniel’s faith led others to trust in God. And I have seen how others are affected by the suffering of a Spirit-controlled saint of God.
We don’t want to go to Babylon and we don’t pray for anyone to go to Babylon but Babylons happen in this life. The question is, Where is the power for you to go through Babylon? The answer is in the one who came from heaven to His Babylon-the manger, the cross, the tomb were Babylon. Jesus Christ identified with us in the hardest places of life-in fact, in places we will never go. He took upon Himself shame and the condemnation of the cross that He might identify with us, that we may know that He is with us in Babylon.
Babylon is not where we want to be. But sometimes in life it is where we end up.
The last time I saw Billy at Leavenworth was on one of the final pastoral rounds I made there. I will never forget it. I was drawn to whistling coming from one of the cellblocks You have heard about a caged bird singing, but this was too bizarre to be real. Whistling in Leavenworth is like giggling in Dante’s Inferno and is not something you hear everyday. But there he was. It was Billy, the young Navy lad I had interviewed when he first came. He was happier than I was. In fact he almost glowed with joy. Billy had a broom and was sweeping the hall just outside his cell and he was whistling as he swept. I was inspired by his cheerfulness myself.
He was so into his sweeping and whistling that I startled him when I approached and asked, “Billy, how’s it going?” “Well, Chaplain, I am doing just fine!” He was smiling ear to ear. “Billy, it looks like you have learned how to live in this place.” “Chaplain, what I have found is that Jesus can live this for me. And Jesus is here in this cell. And I am going to learn more about Him and learn to follow Him like never before. This is not a cell; this is my school of faith. Come look at the picture of my wife and daughter, Chaplain . . . “
You see, the truth of the Book of Daniel is that the love of a sovereign God knows no boundaries. He is the God named Jesus who comes to our Babylon and turns a place of exile into a sanctuary. Jesus comes to our Babylon in a manger, on a cross, through an empty tomb, through the Holy Spirit. And He lives in our hearts wherever we are.
Where is your Babylon? And how are you doing there? Complaining? Giving in? Or trusting? And where is your power coming from? Do I again hear whistling in the cell? Or is it the quiet voice of a gentle Savior saying, “I am here.”
I was so taken by this book as your pastor and your lives testifying to me, that I wrote a song:
And He was there in the fire
He was there in the Lion’s den
He was there working all things together
For good to those who love Him
And are called by Him
And that gives me hope
For my life
For he is there in my sorrow
He is there in my physical pain
He is there in the sunshine of life
And He’s there in the seasons of rain
He is there
1. Gleason Archer, “Daniel” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol 7 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 8.
2. James Montgomery Boice, Daniel: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1989), 21.
3. Bryan Chapell, Standing Your Ground: A Call to Courage in an Age of Compromise: Messages from Daniel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989), 37.