When I was a kid I heard this story repeatedly in Sunday School. I don’t exactly remember how my teachers taught it to me, so the fault may be entirely my own, but I came away from those lessons thinking that this story was about how we should all eat our vegetables. And, just to reveal further the depths of my sin, though that was what I thought this story taught, my vegetable consumption never increased as a result of hearing this story.
Now don’t misunderstand me: vegetables are good for you, but that is not the point of this story. This story is about faithfulness in a foreign land. Four Judean boys—Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah—are taken from Jerusalem to Babylon, where they are confronted with the choice of conforming themselves to the Babylonian way of life (and possibly getting ahead as a result) or of remaining faithful to their covenantal obligations to the God of Israel, in spite of what it may cost them in Babylon. We too are confronted with that choice. Peter addresses New Testament believers as “exiles” in 1 Peter 1:1, an indication that we are living in a world that is not our home. We are, so to speak, living in our own Babylon.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a missions conference in Nashville, and one of the breakout sessions was led by Dr. Albert Mohler. It was on the subject of God’s mission and our culture. One of the points Dr. Mohler made is that previous generations didn’t face the question of God’s mission and our culture head on because they didn’t have to. The church and the wider culture of the West for much of the 20th century shared so many assumptions in common that there was no need to think deeply about the mission God had given us in our own setting. But over time, Western culture has changed dramatically and rapidly. Think about this: in 2008 candidate Barack Obama publicly opposed gay marriage because he knew the voting public was not ready to embrace a candidate who supported it. In 2012 support for gay marriage was not only tolerated in the political arena, it became part of the platform of the Democratic Party. Now less than three years later, the Supreme Court has declared homosexual marriage a Constitutional right and has imposed it on all fifty states, leaving us wondering what the ramifications will ultimately be for the protection of the religious liberty of those who dissent. In a very short amount of time, Christians who cannot affirm sin in good conscience have found themselves pushed outside of the mainstream on a fundamental question of human nature, our identity as male and female. We are becoming, more and more, the exiles of our culture. That is but one example of many.
What does faithfulness look like for exiles in Babylon? No book is better than Daniel at addressing that question. In Daniel we hear one message proclaimed from beginning to end: God is sovereign, and in his sovereignty he will topple the kingdoms of this world and establish his own everlasting kingdom. Faithfulness means living for that kingdom, not for the kingdoms of this age, even if we have to maintain exile status for a long while as we wait for the kingdom.
History is full of examples of Christians and churches who failed in some way to maintain a faithful witness to the gospel in their exile status. I pray it will not be so for us. In calling us to faithfulness today as we live in our own Babylon, I want to walk us through the text, noting three things we should not do, with the hope of making clear along the way what we should do to remain faithful as exiles.
I. Don’t Panic at Babylon’s Triumph (vv. 1-7).
This story begins with the first siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, in the year 605 B.C. Jehoiakim, a descendant of David, was the king reigning over Judah at this time. The book of 2 Kings tells us that Jehoiakim was a wicked king who paid tribute to Babylon for three years. But then he rebelled against Babylon, which prompted Nebuchadnezzar to come and lay siege to the city, starving out its residents. The siege was too much for King Jehoiakim, who surrendered and suffered the humiliating defeat of the Babylonian army plundering the temple and taking its sacred vessels to the temple of their god, Marduk. Not only that, the Babylonians also plundered the city of Jerusalem of its best and brightest young men, teenage boys of the royal family and nobility. They were taken to Babylon, where they were enrolled in an educational program to teach them the language and literature of the Chaldeans (the noble class of Babylon) in order to make these young Judean men into good Babylonians, fit for service in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court.
Two indications that Nebuchadnezzar’s aim was to transform the identity of these Jewish boys of the royal family are shown in verses 5 and 7. In verse 5, we see that they were assigned a daily portion of the king’s food and wine. Obviously, this would have been the best food and wine available in all of Babylon, so it would sound like quite a perk. But as we will see later, for Jewish boys living under the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses, the food you eat is a major aspect of your identity. More on that later. In verse 7 we see that Daniel and his three friends—Hananiah, Mishael, and Azaraiah—all have their names changed to Babylonian names: Daniel becomes Belteshazzar, Hananiah becomes Shadrach, Mishael becomes Meshach, and Azariah becomes Abednego. While their Hebrew names all include some kind of reference to the God of Israel, their Babylonian names all include references to Babylonian gods.
So let’s note what has happened: Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has defeated Judah’s king, plundered the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, placed the holy vessels from there in the temple of his own god, and taken the best young men in Jerusalem to his kingdom to make them into good Babylonians who will become officials in his kingdom. The average person watching these events unfold at the time would assume that the god of the Babylonians was stronger than the God of Israel, that Marduk had triumphed over Yahweh. But that is the farthest thing from the truth. Notice verse 2: “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God.” The God of Israel himself was the one responsible for Nebuchadnezzar’s victory. God was punishing his own people for their sin. Even such a terrible event as the siege of Jerusalem, the looting of the temple, and the first wave of exiles to Babylon was an event that occurred by the sovereign decree of Almighty God. Nebuchadnezzar did not lay a single finger on anything that Israel’s God did not give to him.
What we see here is another example of the pervasive biblical teaching that we can speak of God’s will in different ways. In one sense, we could speak of God’s will as that which he approves and thus commands. Speaking this way, we could say Nebuchadnezzar violated God’s will by plundering his temple and blaspheming his name by taking what belonged to Israel’s God and dedicating it to a false god. But in another sense, we can speak of God’s will as his plan, which he decreed before the world began and is now bringing to pass in all that occurs. In this sense, Nebuchadnezzar fulfilled the will of God by laying siege to Jerusalem and plundering the temple. In the very act of defiance against Israel’s God, Nebuchadnezzar brings the plan of Israel’s God to pass. He is like a child who wants to slap his father, but the only way he can do so is if his father allows him to stand on his lap to reach his face.
And so it is for us in this godless age. Babylon has the upper hand, but only because God has granted it. Larry Osborne put it well when he said, “Sometimes short-term success of the wicked is God’s will.” So when you hear about a Christian college in Boston facing the threat of losing their accreditation because they maintain a Christian understanding of sexuality, when you hear about a Christian couple in Oregon losing their business and facing a fine of $135,000 because they refused to use their artistry to celebrate a lesbian wedding, when you hear reports of the Islamic State bragging about how they led a group of Egyptian Christians to a beach and filmed themselves cutting off their heads, remember that the powers of this age can accomplish nothing that is not given to them by God. Martin Luther rightly said that even the devil is God’s devil. The short-term triumph of the wicked is no indication that God’s plan has failed or his lordship has been compromised. He works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). From him, through him, and to him are all things (Rom. 11:36). His counsel will stand, and he will accomplish all his purpose (Isa. 46:10). Don’t panic at the triumph of wickedness. God has not lost control, and the kingdom he inaugurated when he raised Jesus Christ from the dead will arrive right on schedule.
The truth of the sovereign lordship of God over all should keep us from panicking. But it should also lead us not to do something else. Second,
II. Don’t Compromise with Babylon’s Demands (vv. 8-16).
After verses 1-7 set the stage, these verses give us the main conflict of the story. Daniel and his friends have been enrolled in the Babylonian Exile Academy, but there is a problem. Verse 8 reads, “But 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 [Ashpenaz] to allow him not to defile himself.” The issue here is not about Daniel and his companions wanting to eat healthy vegetables. It’s about them wanting to avoid eating foods that would defile them according to the Law of God given through Moses. The primary point here is not about taking good care of their bodies; it’s about faithfulness to God.
According to the Law of God given through Moses (the Mosaic Covenant), the Israelites were permitted to eat only clean foods. Any animal with a split hoof and that chewed the cud was fair game, as were certain kinds of poultry and fish. But every other kind of meat was off-limits. To eat unclean food is to defile oneself before God. But another issue on the table goes beyond what kind of meat they were being served by the king. We also have to think about what had been done with the meats and the wines before they came to Daniel and his companions. Most likely, the animals slaughtered for this meat had been sacrificed to Babylonian gods, and the wine had been used as an offering to these gods, thus defiling even the food that would have otherwise been clean under the Mosaic Covenant.
Try to put yourself in Daniel’s sandals. Here was a young man living in a foreign land, and he has been chosen to receive a free education at the Babylonian Exile Academy with the possibility of attaining a high position at the end of his studies. It is very likely that there were other Jewish young men there who did eat the king’s food. I can imagine conversations between Daniel and some of these young men. They probably pressured him to give in, saying something like this: “Oh, don’t get so hung up on the Law! After all, we’re in a new place now. You have the chance to be a real success here, to get an appointment to a high position. Do you want to risk all of that over some food? Besides, Moses wrote the Law so long ago. So many things have changed since then. Don’t you think God will understand if we change with the times and eat this food along with everyone else?”
Compromise can take many forms. At the level of public confession, compromise involves changing what we stand for publicly in order to accommodate the preferences of the wider culture. Many churches have already done this on same-sex marriage, and many more will continue to do so. Make no mistake: we will be tested here with respect to our public confession. And the consequences of nonconformity may be severe. When we reach that point of testing, will we have to think about what we should do? I certainly hope not. I hope that, should the day ever come that the government demands that we affirm their position on gender and sexuality or face the possibility of financial ruin, our decision will have already been made. Like Daniel, let us resolve in our hearts now that we will not defile ourselves through the compromise of biblical convictions, no matter what the cost may be.
But compromise can also occur at the level of our behavior. While you may never stand up and declare publicly that pornography is a good thing that ought to be celebrated, have you let its effects creep into your life? You know that viewing it is wrong, but have you come to tolerate it, thinking it can’t be a very big deal if so many people view it (and they do)? Or have you compromised on the issue of truth? Jesus said to let your yes be yes and your no, no, but do you have a habit of telling little white lies to make yourself look better? If you work a job where you receive tips, and nobody else who works with you reports their tips accurately as required by law, have you become okay with the idea of living deceptively along with them? Or have you compromised by placing yourself in situations where drugs or alcohol could very easily master you and lead you to do things you would never do if not for their influence? There is more than one way to compromise with Babylon.
Once more, the text highlights the sovereignty of God, which is our primary motive for refusing to compromise. Notice how the story proceeds. After Daniel has decided in his heart not to defile himself with the king’s food, he approaches Ashpenaz, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s chief officials. We read in verse 9, “And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs.” Just as God gave King Jehoiakim into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (v. 2), so he gave Daniel favor in the eyes of Ashpenaz when Daniel asked that he be allowed to abstain from the king’s food. This is important, because Daniel took a risky move by making this request. Ashpenaz could have interpreted Daniel’s request as a sign of insubordination, leading to expulsion from the academy (and thus loss of opportunity), or possibly even some form of punishment. But God, who is Lord of our circumstances, ensured Daniel’s favor before Ashpenaz.
But that doesn’t mean Ashpenaz immediately granted Daniel’s request. His response was instead, “Look, if you don’t eat well, you won’t be healthy when you appear before the king, and my head is on the line here.” That was not an outright refusal. It was a statement about an obstacle that stood in the way of Daniel’s request. Ashpenaz left it to Daniel to come up with a way of getting around it. So Daniel went to the steward who was immediately responsible for his food and that of his three friends and made a request: “Give us nothing to eat but vegetables and nothing to drink but water for ten days. After that, you can test us to see if we are as healthy as we need to be. If we are, then make a permanent change to our food service.”
The point here is not that vegetables are good for you, though they are. The point is that you would not expect young men who eat only vegetables to be as healthy as other young men who have a wider range of nutrients in their diet. So, if we were looking at this situation merely from a natural perspective, we would actually expect Daniel and his three friends to be less healthy after ten days. We would expect them to be thinner (which is not a sign of health in this setting, though it often is to us) and weaker than the others. But just the opposite happened: after ten days, Daniel and his companions were healthier looking (i.e., “fatter in flesh”) than all the others who had eaten the king’s food. That was all the proof their steward needed, so he never asked them to defile themselves with the king’s food again. The point here is that God, not the vegetables, is the one responsible for the good health of these young men. God honored their faithfulness and ensured that they were able to continue in their obedience to him by abstaining from food that would defile them.
In the year 1660, John Bunyan, one of our Baptist forebears and the author of the second most widely read book in the world, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was arrested by English authorities for his participation in a worship gathering outside of the established church, the Church of England. His sentence for this offense was three months in jail, after which he could have been released if he had agreed to give up preaching without a license from the state. But he refused to promise that he would stop preaching, for he believed that God had called him to preach the gospel, and the state did not have the authority to determine who is and is not called to this ministry. At the time his wife was raising four children at home, one of them blind. Day after day, John Bunyan remained in jail, and what began as a three-month sentence turned into twelve years. Can you imagine the agony of a man knowing the suffering of his wife and children, knowing that at any moment he could be released, if only he would agree to compromise and thus disobey Christ? But in his mind, there really was no decision to be made: obedience to Christ matters more than anything else. Does God still expect obedience even when the circumstances of obedience are unimaginably difficult? Yes. He is lord of our circumstances. Even if the possible consequences of obedience shake you to your core, let that be a source of comfort to you, and decide right now that obedience to Christ will be something you never have to think about.
God is sovereign. So don’t panic, and don’t compromise. Third,
III. Don’t Neglect Babylon’s Good (vv. 17-21).
This one may seem out of sync with the other points I have made. Babylon is a wicked, godless empire. And yet, Jeremiah 29 records a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the exiles who had been taken to Babylon a few years after this account in Daniel. Jeremiah told the exiles to settle down, build houses, plant gardens, and get used to life in exile. Then Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This appears to line up with what Daniel and his three friends did. They did not compromise biblical convictions for Babylon’s sake, but neither did they refuse to participate in Babylonian society.
Again, note how the story unfolds. So far, God has been the subject of a sentence two times: in verse 2 the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, and in verse 9 God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs. Now in verse 17 we read, “As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.” Every time God acts, he gives something from his sovereign hand. On this occasion he gives his faithful servants extraordinary abilities to master the curriculum at the Babylonian Exile Academy. In particular, he gives Daniel the extraordinary ability to interpret dreams and visions, which will be important later in the book. And then, after three years of education, potential graduates are brought before Nebuchadnezzar himself for their final exams. As Nebuchadnezzar questions them and listens to their answers, he notices that four young men in particular distinguish themselves as head-and-shoulders above the rest. So he gave them prominent positions in his court (that is what “they stood before the king” means in v. 19), where they outshined all of his Babylonian magicians and enchanters. The last verse of this chapter also notes that Daniel remained in his position until the first year of King Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon almost 70 years later. The point is that Daniel had a very long career of service in the court of the Babylonian king.
These four young men did not let Babylon determine their identity, but they did use their extraordinary God-given abilities to seek the welfare of Babylon by serving faithfully in the king’s service. In other words, they loved their neighbors. I have already mentioned that compromise is a danger to faithfulness. But we must beware the opposite error: disengagement. Many churches, desiring to keep themselves from compromising biblical convictions, have withdrawn themselves from the world into Christian subcultures, refusing to engage the wider culture around them. It is tempting, when faced with a culture that has changed as quickly as ours has, to huddle together and focus all of our energy on keeping ourselves faithful to Jesus. This is what I think of as a “fundamentalist” mentality. The problem with that approach is that it does not represent faithfulness to Jesus. On the one hand, it would not be faithful because Jesus has sent us into the world to seek the good of our neighbors. He told us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Salt is noticeable. Light is noticeable. Our lives should stand out in such a way that people see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in Heaven. In thousands of different vocations and in thousands of different networks of relationships, Christ has sent us into the world to love our neighbors. So go serve in crisis pregnancy centers, in school mentor programs, in soup kitchens. Go to the voting booth to cast an informed vote for the good of our city, state, and nation. Go to your job every morning with the goal of contributing to society and supporting those who work with you. Go across the street to visit with your neighbor who needs a relational connection with another human being. Jesus has called us to be salt and light, so huddling into our own ghetto would not represent faithfulness. Another reason it would not represent faithfulness is because Jesus left us with the marching orders to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded us. This is our task until he comes again. There is no way we will reach people in a culture with which we refuse to engage. Faithfulness to Jesus demands, not only that we avoid compromising our faith, but also that we avoid isolating ourselves from the world that desperately needs our message.
These are the things we must not do: panic when evil triumphs, compromise with an ungodly world’s demands, and neglect the good of our earthly city by withdrawing ourselves from it. If this is what we should not do, what should we do? We should trust in the sovereign God whose kingdom will have no end by holding fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is simply the good news of what God has done to establish his coming kingdom through his Son. Because of our sin, we have no hope of dwelling with God under his blessing on our own, but God loved us while we were rebels against him. He loved us with a depth of love that moved him to send his own Son to take on a human nature and live the life that we should have lived: a life without sin, totally devoted to God. So without any reason to face God’s judgment against himself, Jesus, in fulfillment of the Father’s will, faced God’s judgment in our place. He was nailed to a Roman cross, where he slowly suffocated to death under a sky that darkened in the middle of the day, symbolizing that God’s final judgment against us had been pronounced. He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, but on the third day, a Sunday like today, God raised him from the dead, removing the curse of death forever from him and from all who would be united to him. He ascended into Heaven, enthroned as the promised King, awaiting the day when the Father sends him again to earth to exercise his reign over his kingdom.
You and I do not deserve to enter that kingdom when it comes. We deserve the judgment that will come against Christ’s enemies when he topples the kingdoms of this world. But thanks be to God that he does not give us what we deserve! If you recognize that your sin has merited only death, and if you turn from it now and rest in Jesus Christ alone, calling upon him to save you from the coming judgment, he will do so. I call upon you to go to Christ in faith and to express your faith by baptism to declare to the world that you have died with Christ to sin and will be raised with him one day to enter his kingdom.
To those who are baptized believers in good standing with a church that believes and proclaims that gospel, I invite you to declare your faith in the gospel once more by eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper with us. One day, at the Messianic banquet, we will eat and drink with Jesus. We will be served not just the King’s food, but we will eat with him at his table. Until then, let us eat and drink this meal fit for exiles in a foreign land.1