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"Daniel, The Overture"



This week, we begin our study of the Old Testament book of Daniel.  As is the case with many history books in the Bible, Daniel opens by giving us an historical context for when this particular story begins.  It says, “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah.”  For those who originally read this and for students of Old Testament history, that one brief statement brings dozens of other related historical events to mind.  It provides a very precise and historically rich context for the events in this book.  Because not everyone here is a student of Old Testament history and because the historical context of the book of Daniel is critical to understanding much of it, we must briefly provide a historical backdrop for this book.
          The year referred to as “the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim” is 606 B.C.  Let’s put that into perspective.   In 721, the Assyrians came and defeated the northern kingdom, Israel.  They then proceeded to drag them away from their homes and scatter them across the Assyrian empire, ruling their captives with an iron fist.  Several years later during the reign of King Hezekiah, Assyria also came against the southern kingdom of God’s people, Judah, but they did not exile them as they had the northern kingdom.  Instead, they made Judah a vassal state of theirs.  That enabled Judah to remain on the land, but they paid money to the Assyrians and were forced to in some sense recognize the Assyrian gods.  Assyria began to lose their grip on power about 100 years after they conquered the northern kingdom.  They labored to hang on to their dominance in the face of an ascending and increasingly powerful empire called Babylonia.  To strengthen their position in the region, Assyria formed an alliance with Egypt.  Babylon became allied with another major power in the Middle East, the Medes who you will hear of later in the book of Daniel. 

            In the year 612, the capital of Assyria, Nineveh (the same Nineveh mentioned about 150 years earlier in the book of Jonah) fell to the Medes and the Babylonians.  The Assyrians fell back and established another capital city in Haran but it too fell to these armies in 610.  At this time, King Josiah, the son of Hezekiah had been making tremendous reforms within Judah.  Josiah saw the increasingly weak Assyrians and fought to remove their influence.  The Bible tells us in 2 Kings 23 that as the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco was moving to help the Assyrians fight the Babylonians, Josiah attacked Egypt, but was killed in battle at Megiddo. It’s at that time that Neco placed Jehoiakim the son of Josiah on the throne of Judah. 

In the year 605, this same Egyptian army under Neco attempted to help Assyria in their fight against the Babylonian army as they met them at the third and final Assyrian capital, the city of Carchemish.  The Egyptians were delayed and arrived too late.  The Babylonian army, marching under their king named Nebuchadnezzar had surprised the Assyrians and had captured Carchemish.  Nebuchadnezzar then turned on the Egyptians and thoroughly defeated them. He pursued them and killed almost all of the Egyptian combatants.  The battle of Carchemish was very important because it spelled the end of the mighty Assyrian empire and Egypt was reduced to a second rate power. Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon had now become the established master of the Middle East.  The Babylonians were in firm control of the region, but their allies the Medes were also a significant power.  The Assyrians had been defeated and the Egyptians rendered irrelevant.  That’s the historical landscape around the time of Daniel.  That prepares us for verse one of Daniel chapter one, “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.” 

As Babylon was consolidating its power, there was Judah, ripe for the picking and Nebuchadnezzar comes against it. This is the first of three major invasions of Nebuchadnezzar’s army against Judah and this attack resulted in the deportation of Daniel and this first group of exiles.  This first Babylonian defeat of Judah in 606 is important because it is from this deportation that Daniel dates the beginning of the 70 years of exile that were to be fulfilled before God brought the Jews back to Israel in 536.  The second invasion occurred in 597 and is recorded in 2 Kings 24.  In that battle, Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim was forced to surrender Jerusalem and go into captivity with other high ranking officials.

The final Babylonian assault on Judah was in 586 when the temple was destroyed and most of the rest of the people were deported to Babylon. The Scriptures record that Daniel served the Lord from when we first meet him here in 606 until his death in about 530—approximately 75 years.  With that to serve as a context, let’s begin to unpack this story.  I want us to note three crucial developments here, and later we will discuss their significance to us.  The first two developments are revealed in verses one and two. 

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.  2And 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.”  Notice first that God gave Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand.  As we will see, the book of Daniel is chocked full of history. There are historical references to the past, present and even the future. But all those references to historical events that have happened, were happening or would be happening are all told through the filter of God’s absolute sovereign control.  Think about how important this was to the Jews at that time and now, to us. 

The Jews are in this 20 year-long process of being gradually plundered and deported by this great power of the north Jeremiah and other prophets had warned them about.  They are losing their homeland, their freedom—their families in many instances are being separated—it’s a disaster.  Their temple—the untouchable home of their Warrior King, Yahweh is being systematically pillaged.  These people, who presumptuously believed God would always protect them irrespective of their behavior, were finally receiving God’s judgment for their rebellion and all their self-constructed paradigms were crumbling.  On the broader scale, you have major military and political upheaval because the Assyrians, who have been the dominant regional power for about 140 years, have now been toppled—the entire region is now under new management.  This is a time of great geo-political uncertainty as the Middle East has experienced this violent, cataclysmic political changing of the guard.  Nebuchadnezzar, who has come to power very recently—is a largely unknown quantity and if ever there was a time for the people of God to become unglued it is now—this was a time of comprehensive chaos and uncertainty for the Jews from a human point of view.

Yet, the author of Daniel tells us what is occurring in the spiritual realm behind all the upheaval.  Through it all, God is in complete control.  In verse two we read, “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand.”  What had happened in Judah was nothing more than God’s sovereign judgment of his wayward children.  He said through Jeremiah in 25:9, “behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.”  To the people of Israel and the region, Nebuchadnezzar was the brilliant, arrogant and invincible new king of this military colossus, Babylon that had trounced the mighty Assyrians and Egyptians. 

God’s perspective is so different.  Nebuchadnezzar is God’s servant and his military victories were all designed by God.  In chapter 2:21 of this same book, we read of God, “he removes kings and sets up kings.” Babylon was only his chosen instrument of judgment.  This theme of God’s sovereignty over the nations is a theme running throughout Daniel and the author makes a point to introduce this main theme right here at the front of the book. 

A second crucial development is found in the second half of verse two where it says the Lord not only gave Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand but also, “some of the vessels of the house of his god, and [Nebuchadnezzar] placed the vessels in the treasury of his god.”   The second crucial development here is, God allowed his temple to be plundered.  That may not sound like a very important event, but in fact it would have been seen as perhaps the worst of all developments by the Jews of the day.  We need to understand the prevailing culture to see this.  When Nebuchadnezzar and his army barged into the temple and took from it the sacred articles for worship he desired, he was not simply engaging in an act of greed.  When an ancient near eastern ruler went to war in this pagan context, he did so in the name of his god(s).  The battle was not only--or even primarily between the physical combatants, but was believed to be between the god of one nation and the god of another.  In the eyes of those in the ancient near east, the victory on the battlefield was dictated by whoever had the stronger god. 

We see this in the Exodus from Egypt.  One reason God hardened pharaoh’s heart and forced the plagues was because he wanted the Egyptians to know that Yahweh was Lord.  God wanted to show the Egyptians his signs so that they would see his supremacy over their gods and he wanted his own people to see them so that they would be a lasting testimony that HE, not other gods is the LORD.  David knew this truth.  That is why he—a man after God’s own heart, when he heard Goliath was terrorizing the Hebrew army, he immediately knew the battle had very little to do with how big Goliath was.

          He says in First Samuel 17:26, “…who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”  David was not nearly as impressed with the giant Goliath as he was with the fact that he was trifling with an army representing the living God—the God of Israel.  When he was given permission to fight the giant, he went out to meet him and told him that he would defeat him, [v.46] “that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear.  For the battle is the LORD’S, and he will give you into our hand.  The reason David was able to stand against Goliath was that his combat theology was better than the other Jewish soldiers and the truth of the supremacy of God gave birth to great faith in him.  David knew that the gods of the Philistines were dead, and that the living God, Yahweh, was infinitely stronger than any pagan demon god. 

          What that worldview means in the case of Nebuchadnezzar is when he marched into the temple of Yahweh, he was not simply collecting war plunder.  He, as the victorious pagan king, arrogantly strode into the sacred temple of God and in so doing, symbolically portrayed what he believed was the victory of his pagan god over the God of Israel.  He removed the choicest implements that had been used to serve Yahweh and took them back to the temple of his “victorious” pagan god to be used in his service.  This act is an in-your-face declaration that the gods of Babylon had defeated Yahweh and as a result had now earned the right to take what was his and give it as plunder for their pagan worship.  This act would have been seen as the quintessential train wreck by the Jews.  If your God is defeated, all is lost.

The author tells us he took them back to the land of Shinar.  Shinar is in what is today southeastern Iran and in the Old Testament it was virtually equated with (in the words of one scholar) “false religion, self-will, and self aggrandizement.”  Shinar was the site of the tower of Babel—that great expression of self-worship and arrogant independence from God.  In Zechariah chapter five, an angel brings to Zechariah in a prophetic vision a basket with a woman in it who represents all the wickedness in the land. The angel directs that this highly concentrated expression of evil be taken to Shinar.  Shinar was a fitting place for this kind of evil.  Shinar was an abomination, and that is where these sacred, consecrated vessels of Yahweh were taken—to be used in the service of these demon pagan gods of Babylon.

          A third development that is important for us to know is found in verse three.  Then the king commanded Ashphenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans.”

The third development is: God delivered the best of his people to Babylon.  The text does not specifically credit this to God, but it was clearly under his control.  Here, Nebuchadnezzar takes the best and brightest of Hebrew youth and makes them his servants.  These were not simply bright teenagers; these were the cream of the cream.  These were those who scored 36 on their ACT tests.  These were born to the most respected families.  These were from the tribe of Judah and many were members of the royal family. 

          This transfer of brainpower and talent was done for many reasons.  First, it was a way of further intimidating the conquered people.  Nebuchadnezzar was probably communicating something like, “I have taken the very best Jews you have and there is nothing you can do about it and I am going to turn them into my servants—they will have new names—Chaldean names that speak of my gods, not yours. (Their Hebrew names all spoke of Yahweh in some way whereas their new names all in some way referred to the pagan gods of Babylon.)  I am going to take this marvelous collection of human resources—your future kings and princes—that you have had such high hopes for—and I am going to turn them into Babylonians.”   This tactic was also a good way to prevent future rebellions.  If the Jews knew Babylon possessed their best and brightest, they would think twice before doing anything to put them in peril.  Finally, this was just good management.  You can’t have too many gifted, wise, educated people in governmental leadership.  Nebuchadnezzar was smart enough to know that Babylon did not have a corner on talent.  Why not use other non-Babylonian brilliant people to advance your kingdom?

          As we read through the book of Daniel, it becomes clear why God allowed Daniel in particular to be delivered into Nebuchadnezzar’s service.  For the rest of his life, Daniel serves as a glaring light, magnifying the glory of the God of Israel.  In truth, Daniel was not stolen away from Judah; God strategically placed him in Nebuchadnezzar’s high court.  As we’ll see, in the midst of this context (that seemingly points to the defeat of Yahweh,) Daniel repeatedly shows the supremacy of God even in this midst of the dispersion of his people.  He shows the supremacy of God’s wisdom again and again as Daniel is able, by God’s grace to interpret dreams and give visions of the future—none of which the pagan wise men could do.  When Nebuchadnezzar in chapter four turns into this senseless creature, Daniel is the one to interpret this and God brings the most powerful man in the world to his knees in homage to the God of all gods—the living God of Israel.  In the midst of this apparent defeat of Yahweh, God still shows his supremacy through Daniel.  God reveals himself to pagans in a graphic way.

          Beyond the glorious lessons this text (and the rest of Daniel) teaches us about God’s sovereign power, what else can we learn from these historical developments?  Several answers are related to one reason we gave a few weeks ago as to why we should study the Old Testament. That is—the Old Testament points to Jesus Christ in ways that are especially appropriate today in light of the Lord’s Supper.  These opening verses—in an uncanny way point straight to Jesus.  Maybe you missed it, but in a few moments it will be as clear as crystal and the reason is because these opening verses of Daniel lay out for us the judgment of God on Israel for their rebellion.  In that sense, they (and all Old Testament texts picturing the judgment of rebellious Israel) serve to foreshadow the judgment of God on our sin in the person of Christ as he hung on the cross.  In the judgment seen in Daniel chapter one, we witness the beginning of the curse of the covenant being executed on the rebellious people of God—as promised in Deuteronomy 28.  In Christ and the cross, we see the curse of sin being taken for us so that we will not have to face its eternal consequences.

          Let me point out four ways this text sets the stage for the judgment of our sin in Christ.  First: Just as God sovereignly gave King Jehoiakim into the hands of pagans for judgment, he also gave King Jesus into the hand of pagans for judgment.  The great difference between Jehoiakim and Jesus is that Jehoiakim was a rebel and was therefore deserving of judgment for his sin and the sin of his people.  Jesus was sinless and was delivered into the hands of pagans NOT for his own sin—he had none--but he willingly chose to represent us as he took upon himself our sin and became a substitute payment for the penalty our sins deserve in order to satisfy God’s just judgment upon sin.  Just as Jehoiakim’s capture and deportment were sovereignly ordained by God, so too was the passion of Christ.  Peter says in Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”  In both instances, we see the glory of God in that he is uses the hands of lawless, arrogant human authorities to accomplish his sovereign plan.

          Another way this text points to Christ is:  In sending Jesus to earth and then to the cross, God delivered his best to sinful people.  Part of the penalty for Judah’s sin against God was that it cost them their best and brightest.  Those who were without blemish, from the royal line of David.  The ultimate penalty for our sin is far more costly.  It cost God his one and only Son, born in Judah, without blemish and of the royal line of David—the Lion of the tribe of Judah.  It cost God the Son who is greater in wisdom than Solomon, much less Daniel and the other Hebrew nobles.  Jesus is the nobility of God (!) yet he hung on that cross for our sins--delivered there by God.

          Third, Nebuchadnezzar’s plundering of the temple of God points to Jesus.  Christ’s suffering and death on the cross were the ultimate plundering and destroying of God’s temple.  As Jesus was cleansing the temple in John chapter two, he tells those who challenged his authority in verse 19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."   Just as the Old Testament temple was first raided, defiled, plundered and finally destroyed, Jesus, the ultimate temple of God—was defiled with spittle, beatings and mockings and finally was killed by pagans who, like those Babylonians who marched into the temple of the living God and stole his sacred articles, had no idea the gravity of what they were doing.

          Finally, this story points to Christ in at least one more way:  In the death of Christ, what appeared to be utter defeat for God became his greatest victory.  The Old Testament Jews were exiled into the hands of pagans as God’s judgment for their sin.  Yet, God sovereignly uses that “defeat” to not only discipline his wayward people, but also to show his supremacy to the nations.  How else are the pagan nations going to see the supremacy of God unless God’s people live among them?  Daniel was a missionary!  In Daniel, God is able to show the pagans—even their arrogant pagan King that HE is the LORD!  God causes his apparent defeat to show the most powerful nation on earth and the most powerful man on earth, that God is the Lord.  

Likewise in Jesus, the cross appeared initially to be a tremendous defeat for God as his Son was stuck to a cross.  The disciples and all sincere followers of Christ could not comprehend what was in their eyes a terrible spiritual setback for God. Yet, God in his supreme wisdom used the death of Christ to liberate countless people from the power of sin, Satan and death and to reach beyond national Israel to the nations with a gospel that would eventually gather people from every tribe and tongue and nation around his glorious throne for all eternity.  Christ didn’t stay dead but was raised above every power and dominion and given the name that is above every other name—the name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

          If you are here today and have never accepted Christ’s death on the cross as the payment for your sins, do that today.  He took the punishment for sin on the cross so you would not have to take it yourself in hell.  By faith, come to him and accept what he has done for you.  Confess your sin, agree to turn from it and receive Christ. 

If you are a believer in Christ, allow this story and the Lord’s Supper that we celebrate to impress you with the massive price God paid for your forgiveness and exult in his sovereign plan of salvation where he turned apparent defeat into his greatest triumph.  May God give us the grace to do that today.


Page last modified on 10/15/2006

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