The Christian life is like a boat drifting in the sea of this world. It is often difficult to weather the storms. In Daniel 1:1-2, Daniel and his companions are snatched from their home to Babylon, an alien faraway place around the time of 606 BC. The Babylonians deliberately and slowly uproot their captives so that they can completely wipe out the culture of the captives while making the best use of the captured human resources. Not only does Daniel not shipwreck his faith, but he is quite able to live in peace in spite of his situation. We first notice the huge obstacles Daniel and his friends have to face in Daniel 1:1-7.
The Plight (Daniel 1:1-7)
Disappearance of God’s power: The first obstacle they have to face is found in Daniel 1:2. “And the delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the Temple of God. These he carries off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and puts in the treasure house of his god.” We notice the second part of Daniel 1:2 where even articles from the Temple are captured. These items in the Temple symbolize the core of Israel’s worship. Not only are they captured, they are now in the temple of the Babylonian god!! How can idol worshippers take the items of the Temple for their own god? Where is God in all this? Is He real? From the world’s perspective, sometimes our God seems powerless. Here is such a case.
Disappearance of God’s protection: The second obstacle they have to face is found in Daniel 1:3. “The king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and nobility.” We can see here that Daniel and his friends come out of noble families. Such families are very nurturing. Members of such families are used to a warm and protective environment. However, here, all of the protection and nurture quickly disappear, as the king Nebuchadnezzar transplants them to a foreign land. God’s protection through the families of Daniel and his friends is gone. When we see suffering and persecution of our world, we too sometimes ask “Where is God in all this?”
Waste of God-given talents: The third obstacle they have to face is in Daniel 1:4 where the Bible says that these youths are to learn “the language, and literature of Babylonians.” We notice the elite status and the youthfulness of Daniel and their friends in Daniel 1:4. We also notice their intellectual aptitude in Daniel 1:4. Their god-given gifts seem to be wasted in the learning of the language and literature of Babylon. From what we know, Babylonian literature has at least two general themes: religion and military conquest. The purpose of this educational process is so that Babylon can shame Israel’s culture as well as using the Jews to rule over others of the same ethnicity. In particular, is it convenient to use the elites of the captured country to integrate into the Babylonian system? That way, these remarkable captives can use their talents for their captors.
Challenge of disobedience: The fourth obstacle they have to face is found in Daniel 1:5. “The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years and after that they were to enter the king’s service.” Daniel 1:5 does not seem to be a problem until we read Daniel 1:8 which states, “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.” The word “defile” in the Old Testament frequently deals with religious matters. In Babylon, the best food is usually first given to idols and then offered to the king. If Daniel and his friends take the food and wine, they will be participating in Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatry. In rejecting the good, they prioritize obedience to God over pleasure.
Change of identity: The fifth obstacle they have to face is in Daniel 1:6-7. “The chief official gave them new names.” Names are meaningful in many cultures. The names in the Bible frequently have the function of giving an identity to the person being named. Daniel and his friends possess names that have meanings tied to their faith. Knowing the meaning of names, Nebuchadnezzar changes these names to give them pagan meanings to mock the attributes and authority of God and His people. The name change shows the utter helplessness of these “so-called” worshippers of the “true” God.
We must now turn our attention to the secrets as to their strength. The story especially highlights Daniel. There are three secrets to Daniel’s solution.
The Solution (Daniel 1:8-14)
Knowledge: The first secret Daniel possesses is found in Daniel 1:8. Daniel resolves not to defile himself because he has already internalized what he studied in the past. Daniel has learned about God and has made a detailed study of God’s word. True knowledge is important. Without knowledge, Daniel has no means to make decision. Obviously, Daniel has thought through God’s principles before he has to make his hard decisions. If we become good stewards of God’s word, we will stand like Daniel in times of crisis.
Determination: The second secret Daniel possesses is also found in Daniel 1:8. “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.” As stated already, the term “defile” has to do with worship or obedience. The issue is not merely a matter of “do’s and don’ts.” It is a matter of making determined choices based on sound principles. Daniel determines to never allow anything to come between himself and God. He determines that his relationship with God is the most important priority in life. Daniel and his friends have a supreme resolve not to give into the temptation of food before them. According to Daniel 1:5 and Daniel 1:18, they do it for three years. To be a witness means to endure hardship. I suspect that they have to do it for the rest of their living days. If we want to obey, we have to expect sacrifice.
Resourcefulness: The third secret Daniel possesses is found in Daniel 1:9-12. “Now God has caused the official to show favor to Daniel but the official told Daniel, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king …’ Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed …, ‘Please test your servants for ten days.’” We find that even when God causes the official to show favor, Daniel is not quite able to get his way. So he goes to the next person who is the guard whom the chief official appointed. Instead of making excuses, Daniel put his wit and his faith into action. He makes no excuse to disobey God.
Armed with these three secrets, we must now turn out attention to the three wonderful benefits Daniel and his friends reap due to his obedience.
The Results (Daniel 1:15-21)
Power to witness: The first benefit of obedience is found in Daniel 1:15. “At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.” Here we have two kinds of people: the ones who eat and the ones who abstain. Yet, the ones who abstain surpass the ones who eat. I do not think that the other exiles do not know God’s principles, but only a few obey. What is the difference? I would venture a guess that the first kinds of people, which may be the majority of exiles, see the circumstances as they are. The second kind of people, such as Daniel and his friends, sees the God above the circumstances. In their obedience, God allows the second kind of people to be witnesses in a foreign land.
Chance to succeed: The second benefit of obedience is found in Daniel 1:19. The king has a chance to compare Daniel and his friends along with their fellow captives. Those who disobey God are much inferior to those who are obedient. Here the king seems to be in charge, but God is the one truly in charge. Daniel and his friends are successful not because of their compromise to the king’s standards. These youths receive their well-deserved favor because they invest in God. God uses them to accomplish His purpose in Babylon. Sometimes, God may allow for storms to stir the believers’ lives a little so that they can rise to a greater place.
Wisdom to cope: The third benefit of obedience is found in Daniel 1:20. Quite amazingly, for a person who is used to the nutrients of a meat diet, Daniel and his friends adjust well and thrive. Daniel 1:20 tells us that the wisdom of Daniel and his friends are “ten times better” than the king’s men. In Daniel 1:4, these youths learn all the “language and literature of the Babylonians” for three years. By Daniel 1:20, they surpass their captors. The students become the masters. Even though Babylon is one of the most advanced nations of the ancient world at this time, God’s wisdom in these youths far exceeds that of the Babylonians wise men.
In Daniel 1, we see the different phases of Daniel life from his youth to his old age. We see him at his youth where he puts his trust in God. At first, he and his friends trust God for 10 days in Daniel 1:15, and then they do it for three years according to Daniel 1:5-19. Finally, we have Daniel’s continuous obedience till his old age in Daniel 1:21 around 539 BC. Between Daniel 1:1 and time of Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon, more than 60 years have passed. Whether for 10 days, three years or perhaps all the years of Daniel’s life, God is in control. Daniel 1:1 is a mini-portrait of Daniel life. The mark of Daniel’s life is persevering obedience. The worth of a believer is found in endurance.
Sam Tsang is an elder at the Church of the Chimes in San Jose, CA, and has taught New Testament at the Overseas Theological Seminary.