MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 15, 2006 FROM DANIEL 1:5-21

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"God Enabled Faithfullness"

MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 15, 2006 FROM DANIEL 1:5-21

 

            Daniel 1:5-21 (ESV)  

The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king.  6Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah.  7And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. 8But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.  9And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs,  10and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, "I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king."  11Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,  12"Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink.  13Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king's food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see."  14So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days.  15At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food.  16So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. 17As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.  18At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar.  19And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king.  20And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.  21And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus.

 

 

This morning, we hope to finish chapter one of the book of Daniel.  We move into the meat of the story of Daniel.  This teenager (probably 15-17 years old) and his three friends had been deported from Judah to Babylon.  As we saw last week, these four young men were Israel’s best and brightest—the nobility of the tribe of Judah.  They were soon placed in what one scholar has called Nebuchadnezzar’s “Royal Academy.”  They would be trained for three years in the wisdom and traditions of Babylon—the science, literature, history and religion of this people.  That—in addition to learning a new language, Sumerian, which was very different than their own Semitic tongue.  This was a very stiff academic regimen and these four Hebrew nobles were doubtless very intelligent and already highly educated for that day.  At the end of their training, the text says they would “stand before the king” which simply means that he would be present during their final oral exams.

            As we heard the narrative, we see that Daniel and his friends, at the very outset of their training are confronted with an ethical quandary.  For reasons we do not know for certain, the food and the wine that the King ate and that was to be given to these young scholars was not suitable.  Theories abound as to what was wrong with it—maybe it had been sacrificed to a Babylonian god or something of that nature. The problem seems to be related to the fact that it was the king’s food because that is the only detail mentioned here about it. Verse eight tells us that Daniel “resolved” not to eat it because it would in some way defile him.    Whatever the reason, Daniel knew that to eat this food would compromise his relationship with God and so he resolved not to eat it.  That is the problem at the center of the narrative. The remainder of the story spells out the solution to the problem and its consequences. 

            We will take a closer look at this fascinating account, but first I want to do something a bit different.  I want us to see how best to interpret Old Testament narratives like this one.  The goal today is not only to understand God’s intended message for us from this story, but to learn some crucial lessons in interpreting stories like this one in the Bible.   We’re going to compare two ways this text can be understood and explain why one way is much superior to the other.  As we look at the Bible through the lens God wants us to use, we can be assured that these narratives can work in us to honor God, strengthening our relationship with Christ.  Here’s one way to understand this text.  The introduction to this approach would sound something like this:

            “One of the great challenges for any sincere follower of Christ to learn is, as Jesus says in John 17, to be IN the world without being OF it.  At times, there seems to be a razor-thin line separating the difference between being faithful to God in the midst of a hostile culture, and compromising the truth.  What are the lines that separate, on the one hand, integrating into the world in a way that genuinely allows you to influence it for Christ, yet remaining undefiled by it, and on the other, integrating into the world in a way that brings compromise?  Evangelicals should be very concerned about that question.  The problem for many evangelicals is that in our attempt to integrate into the world, we can easily compromise the gospel and in so doing live as if we are OF the world.  Here in Daniel chapter one, we see an inspired example of how a young man, Daniel, managed, in an extraordinarily difficult situation to find the proper balance and live for God in the midst of a thoroughly pagan environment—graphically demonstrating for us a genuinely enlightened way to live IN the world without being OF the world.”

            That’s a typical introduction for a message of that nature.  That message would progress with a gradual unfolding of Daniel’s strategy, or aspects of his wisdom, or decisions he had to make in order to walk that razor thin line that separates healthy integration from personal defilement.  A three point outline for that message might be: Daniel’s Resolve, Daniel’s Request and Daniel’s Recommendation.  Under “Daniel’s Resolve,” we would speak to what it means when Daniel “resolved” that he would not defile himself with the king’s food and wine.  “Resolve” literally means, “to place or set your heart” to either do, or not do a certain thing.  We would speak to the absolute necessity for us who live in this world to have this internal resolve not to defile ourselves--you must have this—it must be in your heart—firmly owned, a product of genuine personal conviction.  We would point to Daniel’s excellent example of our need to “set our face like a flint” to do the right thing from the very beginning of a new job or new endeavor.  Many good texts could be used to buttress God’s desire for us to remain untainted from the world.

            Under the second point, “Daniel’s Request” (referring to Daniel’s initial request to not eat the food) we would point to the uncommon wisdom this remarkable teenager possessed in making his request to not eat the food.  When he approached the chief of the eunuchs with his request, he was not refused out right.  The chief eunuch essentially said to this likeable teenager, “Look, if you can figure out a way to make this work, that’s fine.  But it better be a good plan because if it backfires, it means my head on a platter.  I like ya’ kid, but I’m not gonna' die for you.”  So Daniel thinks the issue through and he makes this measured, respectful and incredibly wise recommendation. 

Under “Daniel’s Recommendation,” our third point, we would note that Daniel recommends an experiment be conducted.  Let him and his friends eat vegetarian for 10 days—long enough for the court officials to determine whether they are thriving, but not so long that any ill effects would be noticed by the King.  Brilliant!  What a great strategy. The application could be made from that point that when we interact with the world, we should not be rude or unnecessarily confrontational as some in the church are today.  Instead, we should be thoughtful and wise as Daniel was.  When placed in these kinds of situation, we should always BEGIN with a gracious request to be excluded from the defiling situation before we explicitly refuse to participate in something objectionable.  Try to find a compromise that will not leave you compromised.  The broad application to the story might be—as we act in faith, God will honor our efforts.

            That’s one way to approach this story.  There are some intensely practical lessons that come from that and there is much truth there.  I daresay that approach, or something much like it is the preferred way of preaching stories like this one in North American.  You hear that approach to these narratives all the time.   There is nothing wrong with drawing practical life lessons from the text. The Bible and theology are certainly intensely practical.  But there are many serious problems with looking at that story through that lens.  First, it reduces this section of the word of God to a crisis management handbook.  “If you have a question about how to walk the razor thin line in a world laden with compromising situation, Daniel shows us a winning strategy.”  Although the Bible DOES answer a host of eternally significant questions, it was not written fundamentally to be a spiritual information superhighway.  It was written to reveal God and his manifold wisdom and grace in redemptive history. 

The Bible is a book about God and that irrevocably means that the only right approach to studying the Bible is to look for God and HIS activity.  In our hypothetical approach, we weren’t doing that.  As a result, Daniel is mutated from being a fallen teenager who God miraculously delivers and powerfully uses, to being a problem solving icon—a child prodigy.  That is a horribly man-centered approach to the text and the worst implication of that is that Daniel, not God, is the hero of the story.  In the Bible, God is ALWAYS the hero!  Sure, God in that hypothetical approach is not detached from all that is happening—he is there, but that message ultimately portrays God as something of a cosmic gumball machine—you put in the right kind of faith or wisdom or strategy, and in response, he spits out his provision. 

That leads to another negative consequence to looking at the stories in the Bible through that man-centered lens.  That is--it places the ultimate problem-solving burden on you, not God.  You must act like Daniel and do what he did.  In that respect, this is inherently legalistic because the main message is—if you do what Daniel did, God will take care of you.  YOU are the initiator, YOU are the mover and shaker, YOU are the wise sage and God will honor what you do.  The unavoidable logical consequence of that approach to God is, you get the credit and God gets to fulfill his alleged mission which is--to help you succeed in life.  The message of the Bible is not primarily intended to help us succeed in life, but it is instead to bring God glory as he reveals himself to us, bringing us joy in Him.  As we seek HIM (not strategies or tactics or problem solving schemes) first, then whatever is necessary for our joy will be given to us.  That is an implication of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:33. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  

 The question at this point is—how do you understand this text in a way that keeps God at the center, not man—shows that God, not Daniel is the hero, and reflects God’s purpose for the story—to make much of God, not a gifted Hebrew teenager?  The first step is to show what the text clearly communicates.  That is--Daniel’s behavior in this narrative and the ultimate outcome were exclusively products of God’s grace and do not spring from anything inherent in Daniel.  Let’s think about that because the text clearly shows that this narrative is from beginning to end a story of God’s work of deliverance in a humanly impossible situation.  To see that, let’s look at this situation more closely.  Look at the context of Daniel’s request of the chief eunuch in verse eight.  Who is really behind our first hypothetical point, “Daniel’s Request?”  To see what Daniel was facing here, we must see the comprehensive and unbearable nature of the temptation Daniel faced to compromise the law of God. 

Remember the context.  Daniel and his friends are coming in as the new kids on the block—a new kid from a country the king had not only invaded but had made his vassal state.  Daniel was not in a strong bargaining position.  In fact, he had NO position—there was nothing in his favor for him to leverage.  He has NO cards to play in this game—not one.  He and the others were essentially part of the spoils of war—he was booty, plunder.  That’s the way we must see Daniel if we are to understand this story.  Babylon sailed along just swimmingly before he was in the palace and there would be very little tolerance of irregularity from a Jewish teenager who had yet even to prove himself as a scholar.  If he comes in and makes noises about the unsuitability of the food, that could very well be seen as a horrific display of ingratitude. Babylon owed these alien teens nothing.  They had killed countless others just like them in their quest for world domination.  Daniel’s request from a human point of view was extremely foolish. 

You remember what its like to be an unknown freshman or a new employee in your first week on the job.  You don’t make waves, you keep your mouth shut and you draw as little attention to yourself as possible.  If you make a fuss in the opening days of your term, people will tend not to make charitable judgments about you.  If Daniel blows it, that meant expulsion from the Royal Academy at the very least and perhaps even imprisonment or execution. The book of Daniel hardly reveals Nebuchadnezzar to be a man known for his tolerance and longsuffering.  Instead, he is pictured as an impulsive egomaniac.  It was his way or the highway and here comes this captive, this unproven teenager with a complaint about the food on his first day.  This was a very risky move on his part and the temptations for Daniel to keep his mouth shut must have seemed unbearable.

Think about it.  Daniel was living in or around the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.  These were nice digs and they were doubtless inconceivably more comfortable than the places other, not so fortunate deportees of this era had as their living quarters.  The desire for comfort was real.  Yet, a complaint from Daniel placed him in danger of exchanging the comfort of a cushy palace chamber for a prison cell.  Second, the food was probably the best available in the world at that time.  Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was marked by extravagant wealth and to eat with him was to dine on the finest food and the best wine in the world.  Remember, Daniel is a teenage boy.  Don’t make him more spiritual than he is—he was just like every other teenage boy which means--he is a bottomless pit.  Appetite is a temptation for all of us and that goes especially for this demographic group.  Yet, Daniel is willing to exchange a continual gourmet buffet for the lowly salad bar.  These temptations hit Daniel in the area John calls “the desires of the flesh.” [1 John 2:16]  Another lust of the flesh is an inordinate desire to be accepted and liked by others and all fallen humans struggle with that.

So, here’s Daniel who has been abruptly deprived of most of his important relationships—his family and many of his friends, teachers and mentors.  He is transported into this Babylonian context of nobility and he meets all these other young scholars like him in the academy.  How do you suppose the Babylonian teenagers responded when the Jews decide their king’s food wasn’t right for them?  At best, he faces possible ostracism from some people who could help fill the holes in his heart left by his separation from his loved ones.  To think that Daniel did not confront those realities is to make him superhuman and he’s not.

Second, there were those temptations that spring from what John calls the “desires of the eyes.  That is—a covetous desire for what we can see.  This part of Babylon was a stunning place.  Years later, Nebuchadnezzar had his gardeners construct what has become known as “the hanging gardens of Babylon” to encourage his homesick wife.  It was so architecturally brilliant and breath-takingly beautiful; it was dubbed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  That was later.  The point is—Nebuchadnezzar knew how to surround himself with the best.  These were not only “nice digs”—they were in the highest sense of the word, palatial.  If this Hebrew teenager’s request is frowned upon, this could all be lost to him.

There were also temptations in the area John calls “the pride of life” or, as the ESV translates it “the pride of possessions.”  Daniel was in an absolutely elite position.  As a Jewish deportee to a foreign country, he enjoyed a level of privilege that only a tiny percentage of the native Babylonians enjoyed.  He did not have to work his way up to the top as other immigrants do, he was placed at the very top as a teenager from the very beginning.  Today, a Rhodes Scholar is a college student who is given a two year full scholarship to Oxford.  That includes plane fair.  To say you are a Rhodes Scholar places you in an exquisitely elite class of people.  That honor does not hold a candle to what Daniel had.  He was in the court of the most powerful man on earth and was not only given a full academic scholarship, but was being offered much the same standard of living as the king himself.  That’s not bad for a spoil of war.  How hard would it be for a 15 year-old to place all that at risk?

There were dozens of reasons for Daniel to not rock the boat—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life were all knocking loudly at his fallen heart.  On a human level, he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by raising a concern about the finest menu on the planet.  But beyond those dynamics tempting him to cave in, other elements that could have encouraged him to stand firm were absent.  Most all of his support network is back in Judah.  His parents, the rabbis, his mentors, teachers, most of his fellow Jews were gone.  Gone too was the temple—a vitally important source of strength.  All his familiar surroundings—all those things we lean on when we are in placed in a crisis of conscience, were gone.  Those had been replaced by Babylonian wise men and the temple to the pagan god Marduk, none of whom would have encouraged him to follow Yahweh.

The reason we go into those dynamics is to communicate that this text, if we read it carefully, nowhere gives us permission to give this teenager credit for his “great faith.”  God is at work in his life to repel all those temptations and give him the grace to miraculously take this stand that from a worldly viewpoint was nothing less than idiotic.  We see this truth that God gives faith in texts like Romans 12:3.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself (or Daniel) more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”  Daniel had faith to hold his resolve and make his request and put forward his recommendation because GOD had given him miraculous levels of faith.  And if you are placed in a situation where you are beset with temptations to compromise the truth, and all your support networks have collapsed, the answer is not to work up more personal resolve.  You don’t have any!  The answer is to see Daniel as an example of God’s grace and say, “God did it for him, he will do it for me as well.”    Paul asks in Fist Corinthians chapter four, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”  Everything Daniel had he received from God.

Let’s see two other examples of God’s deliverance of Daniel from this story.  Remember the chief eunuch?  This man is essentially the chief of staff to the most powerful man on earth.  This deported Hebrew teenager comes up and asks him to change the menu so that he will not defile himself.  How likely is it that this chief of staff is going to grant this request?  The answer is—not likely.  The chief eunuch, Ashphenaz says in verse eight, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; (the king himself ordered this menu) for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age?  So you would endanger my head with the king.”  What Daniel is asking, according to this eunuch could cost him his head if it doesn’t work out. 

So why does he not immediately and flatly refuse this request made by this teen who, from his vantage point could add nothing to him personally?  This was a no-brainer decision. Why did this incredibly powerful man agree to leave the door open to doing a favor for an alien teenager that could place him in peril?  Verse nine gives us the answer.  It says, “And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs.”  That means that this guy not only liked Daniel, but he sympathized with his dilemma and verse nine says--GOD caused that.  The eunuch’s response wasn’t ultimately because Daniel was such a charmer, but because God gave him favor in this man’s eyes.  This is one of the crucial junctures in this story and the narrator assures us that God is working his plan in the midst of this comprehensively pagan environment.

            A second instance of God’s deliverance of Daniel is seen in the results of this experiment.  Verse 15 says, “At the end of ten days it was seen that they [the Jews] were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food.  16So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. 17As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.”  Again in verses 19-20, the author describes their final oral exams, “And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king.  20And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.”  That’s GOD’S doing!  How do people who three years earlier couldn’t even speak the language, end up not only besting but annihilating the choicest of Babylonian youth in the traditions and wisdom of Babylon?

The main message here is NOT—“as we act in faith, God will honor our efforts.”  That message crushes me because I know how much faith I can generate.  The main message is more like, “God is faithful to provide whatever is needed to enable us to be faithful to him.”   That message is stated explicitly over and over again in Scripture.  It’s seen in places like 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.  Paul says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  24He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

First Corinthians 1:9 says, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  God is faithful to deliver you from temptation.  First Corinthians 10:13 fits Daniel’s context like a glove.  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”   God is the hero in this story, not Daniel.  Daniel is merely a vessel through whom God encourages us as an example of what he can do through fallen creatures.  When you are in situations where the temptation to compromise—to buckle seems unbearable, don’t look to Daniel for a strategy—look to God for deliverance and victory!  May God give us grace to put him first, admire him best and receive his sufficient grace for any circumstance.

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