Dare to be different Daniel 1:1-21

After the time of Great King David a thousand years before Christ, the history of God’s chosen people is a story of gradual decline. Early on the nation split into two and by 722 BC the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen under God’s judgment and been overrun by the Assyrians. Successive kings rebelled against God and led the people into worshipping the false gods of the surrounding nations. At the beginning of the sixth century BC God brought judgment on the remaining Southern Kingdom of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and took King Jehoiachin into captivity.
This is where the story of Daniel begins. Daniel was a young man when Nebuchadnezzar took him to Babylon along with King Jehoiakim and the others. 10 years later in 587 BC the Babylonians overran Jerusalem, destroyed the city and the Temple, and took the remaining survivors into exile as well. The Book of Daniel is God’s answer to the simple question posed in Psalm 137:4, ‘How can we sing the song of the LORD while in a foreign land?’
Before we get into the story, we need to address the elephant in the room. We need to recognize that there are two different views about Daniel. A theory first suggested in the third century has become popular over the last hundred years. People suggest that the Book of Daniel was not actually written until the second century BC. That was a time when the Jewish people in Judah were experiencing fierce persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes, King of the Seleucid Empire in Western Asia. Some interpreters think that the Book of Daniel was written specifically to encourage the Jews in those times of trouble. They think that Daniel was not a historical figure but instead a creation of fiction or maybe an inspiring legend. These interpreters think the stories of Daniel and his companions were simply made up to encourage and inspire Jews to stand firm in their faith. Many people now understand Daniel that way.
On the other hand, the traditional view is that Daniel was a historical person in the time of the Exile. The events in the Book of Daniel actually happened as they are described, and this was all written down in the Sixth Century BC in Babylon to encourage the Jews in Exile in that generation. The Jewish Bible includes Daniel alongside other histories in the books called the Writings, even though our English tradition puts Daniel among the Prophets. The New Testament treats the Book of Daniel as history. Hebrews 11 includes closing the mouth of lions and surviving through flames in its list of Old Testament historical events even though these only appear in the Book of Daniel. The mainstream church has always understood Daniel as a historical record. More than that, it is very hard to see how the stories of Daniel would have encouraged Jews in the Second Century BC if everybody knew they were just fiction and had only just been written. So I am saying up front that I am convinced by the traditional understanding of the first half of the Book of Daniel as a historical narrative. This assumption will underly the early sermons in this series. I will have much more to say about the different kind of literature we find in later chapters of the Book of Daniel when we get to them. But for now, let’s see what we can learn from the example of Daniel.
Psalm 137:4, ‘How can we sing the song of the LORD while in a foreign land?’
How could the Exiles who found themselves forcibly spread out across Babylonia grieve for all they had lost when Jerusalem was destroyed. How could they stay close to God so far from home in a foreign land? And following on from that, how should we live as Christians who are “in the world but not of the world.”?
The prophet Jeremiah gives us one answer to these questions in a letter he sent to the exiles.
Jeremiah 29 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
The example of Daniel shows us how this advice from Jeremiah can work out in practice. Settling down, seeking the peace and prosperity of the city and praying for it. It all came about like this. Many times in the Old Testament God worked behind the scenes to bring chosen individuals into the places he wanted them to be. Joseph through Potiphar’s house into Pharoah’s court in Egypt. Moses the Hebrew baby brought up into the Pharoah’s family. David the shepherd boy who became King of all Israel. In the same way, God was working in the background to bring his servant Daniel into a place of great influence and power in the Babylonian Empire.
3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 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.
Nebuchadnezzar chief of staff selected a number of talented teenagers to be trained to work in his palace, ready to become anything from attendants, scribes and advisors, to diplomats or even provincial governors. They were individuals who were most likely to be natural leaders, because they came from the royal family and the nobility. They had the intellectual abilities necessary to master the language and literature of the Babylonians. By treating them royally, the King was turning these potential enemies into his allies. It was a very shrewd process of assimilation. To reinforce their new allegiance, they were given new Babylonian names. Three of those Israelites are remembered by their new names Shadrach; Meshach; Abednego. The fourth kept his Jewish name, Daniel.
Daniel and his companions were perfectly happy to be recruited into this process. It was an excellent expression of the principle seeking the peace and prosperity of the city. There is nothing at all wrong with Christians using their natural abilities, working hard and pursuing careers. Although Christians are aliens and strangers in this world, we also should be seeking the peace and prosperity of the city, praying for the community and the society God has placed us in because if it prospers, we too will prosper.
It is generally right and good for God’s people to get stuck into their communities and work at their careers. But Daniel chapter 1 gives us an inspiring example of one individual who recognized that there should be limits on the ways we fit in to the world around. Daniel stood up against the process of assimilation. He dared to be different. In the first place, he was given the new name of Belteshazzar, which means “a prince favoured by Bel”. But Bel was the name of a Babylonian god so it is understandable that as far as he could Daniel insisted on keeping his Jewish name, which means “God is my judge”. And then Daniel took a stand on another issue.
8 But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself in this way. 9 Now God had caused the official to show favour and compassion to Daniel, 10 but the official told Daniel, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men of your age? The king would then have my head because of you.’
Daniel felt it would be inappropriate for him as a Jew to enjoy the fine dining of the royal food and wine. It is not that there was anything bad in those foods in themselves. This was nothing to do with the matter of ritually clean and unclean foods set out in the Law of Moses. Daniel could easily have been selective about only eating the foods which Jews were allowed to eat and rejecting the others. We should also not read into this the kind of issues of eating meat which had been offered to idols which the apostle Paul addresses in Romans and 1 Corinthians. In addition, there is also no implication here that drinking wine or other alcoholic drinks would be in itself wrong.
But Daniel wanted to make a stand. He wanted to show his loyalty to God and to his own people. He chose to do this by refusing the royal Babylonian food and instead eating very simply. Daniel chose to demonstrate that he was different. There are times when God calls us to stand out as different in all kinds of ways. For me one such time was when I was representing my university at my chosen sport. There were parts of the after-match activities which the team indulged in where I refused to take part. Most Christians would put limits on the kinds of things they might be expected to do to further their careers. God’s people should always show the difference Jesus makes to our lives. We should always refuse to compromise. We should always follow our conscience, even if that sometimes means abstaining from things which are not in themselves wrong. Daniel knew that God wanted him to take a stand over the foods he ate. He followed his conscience – and God blessed Daniel and his companions in that.
11 Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 ‘Please test your servants for ten days: give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.’ 14 So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.
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. 16 So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.
The four dared to be different and God blessed his servants for taking this stand. Essentially they adopted a vegetarian diet, or possibly even Vegan, which is becoming a very popular approach to eating today. The Daniel Diet is probably healthier than the eating patterns of many rich Western Christians. The periods of lockdown have shown very many people that they actually don’t need business lunches or evenings in the pub. Healthy eating habits are good for our bodies and good for the planet and the ancient principle of “moderation in all things” is a wise approach to a Christian lifestyle.
Some Christians go further in adopting Daniel’s practices in their own lives. This was not the only occasion when Daniel adopted a simple diet.
Daniel 10:1 In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, a revelation was given to Daniel (who was called Belteshazzar). Its message was true and it concerned a great war. The understanding of the message came to him in a vision.
2 At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. 3 I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.
“Just vegetables to eat and water to drink,” in chapter 1. “No choice food, no meat or wine” in chapter 10. Many people have picked up on these passages and developed the idea of the “Daniel Fast”. Eating very simply for a period, often of three weeks. Many authors and websites see the “Daniel Fast” as a secret way to spiritual growth and blessing. Personally it seems to me that such a practice would bring far less blessing than a proper fast, abstaining completely from food for a shorter period. The Daniel Fast is only really on the level of giving up chocolate for Lent – changing your diet for a while to help you focus on God. But if you think the Daniel Fast might help you, give it a try.
17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
These young men had natural abilities and God also blessed Daniel with prophetic gifts to understand dreams and visions.
18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.
Daniel took a stand – and God blessed him for it. There are times when Christians should refuse to blend in with the world around. And if we stand up to be counted as Christians, God will be glorified in our witness. Dare to be different!

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