NEBUCHADNEZZAR. THE BATTLE FOR A YOUNG MAN
The first four chapters of Daniel describe four vivid incidents which took place during the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar. How this teenager, Daniel, came to be living so far from home, over 500 miles east of Jerusalem across the Syrian Desert in Babylon, is explained to us in the opening verses of the book: “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand,” (Daniel 1:1&2). That unforgettable year for the people of God was 605 BC. Nebuchadnezzar had besieged Jerusalem and had conquered it. God delivered his own rebellious and idol-loving people into exile and slavery. The Israelites had resisted all his entreaties spoken through many of his prophets, and so the Lord lifted his own rod of judgment which was Nebuchadnezzar and his army, and smote Jerusalem. The vessels of the temple were taken to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar’s god and Nebuchadnezzar’s temple. That is how conquerors acted. They took possession of sacred artefacts and of people too.
What is chronicled in the remainder of the book of Daniel is a 70-year long campaign, a war between Jerusalem and Babylon, between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of darkness, between harmony and chaos. You find this same conflict in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. These two are there locked in combat – Babylon and the Jerusalem that descends from heaven, and that struggle goes on even today. It never ends between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan, between the church and the world, between the Lord and antichrist. Christians are at war, and this Old Testament book, and the life of Daniel is inspirational and exemplary in helping us in that strife.
DANIEL DRAWS A LINE. Daniel Chapter 1
When you read the first chapter one fact leaps out at you, that it was a struggle for young people. Daniel and his friends are in their early teens, and they have to bear the brunt of the onslaught. The attack is very cunning. There is here no siege with an entrenched army, embankments, battering rams and catapults. Babylon already has their bodies captive and now wants their minds too. Nebuchadnezzar desires their young but eternal souls, their whole personalities, their wills, their affections. He wants them to dress as they dress in Babylon, and speak as they speak in Babylon, and behave as they behave in Babylon, and even eat what they eat in Babylon. He wants them to feel and think and enthuse about what they feel and think and enthuse about in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar wants conformity throughout his dominion. He wants to Babylonize everyone, and his approach is very subtle and very determined. “We’ll get the children,” Nebuchadnezzar says, “we’ll get them when they are young, and then in their whole lives they will serve us”.
So Nebuchadnezzar sends Ashpenaz the chief of his court officials on a mission. He is to bring the cream of the young men of Israel, the smartest boys, all the future leaders of the Lord’s people, to the royal palace. Imagine it! Not having to live any longer with the slave peoples in the ghettos of Babylon but in the royal palace itself That is where you are going to find the future leaders of the people of God, and what can the church accomplish without leaders? Here are these vulnerable young men, away from their parents, impressionable boys, their convictions not settled, and not in a concentration camp – not in the Gulag where a rod of steel would be put in their backbones and not only survival but revolution plotted in the dark nights. You find them in the palace – intelligent boys, given books and teachers, promised vocations and job satisfaction, careers and leadership, and an escape from this slave status – treated like aristocrats in the Eton of Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar wanted them Babylonians in heart and spirit, body and soul. He wanted them alienated from the Lord, and utterly marinated in Babylonian ideals, assimilating the culture’s whole way of life and values, forgetting all their past. What they laughed about, and what they would lay down their lives for would henceforth be Babylonian. To see the world just as Babylonians saw it was the king’s aim, and his people-control touched the smallest areas of their lives, even their diets. How important is food ? When we go to a foreign country we are struck by the language, the dress, the climate, the vegetation – and the food. “They don’t eat proper food,” we think. What we eat is a form of self-expression. So we are told (v. 5) that “The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table.” It was not a luxurious diet but the food was a Babylonian menu, with Babylonian herbs and spices flavouring it, prepared and set on the tables by Babylonian hands. It did not taste like Jerusalem food. Everything about these boys had to change. And the old-fashioned approach to eating and drinking which they had received from their parents had to go. All the threads tying them to the past had to be broken. That life back in Israel and the values of God’s people, which they had brought to the Babylonian ghetto, were all to be annihilated one by one.
It was at this issue of the food that Daniel drew a line. When he was being trained in “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (v.4), he didn’t protest. And when they were given new names (v.7) he didn’t protest. But when Daniel was put on a new diet (v.8) he would not conform. Christians are going to meet many things in state schools and universities which they do not agree with. But we are not a people who want a reputation at protesting at every single thing we disagree with, are we? Not every issue is a “no surrender” issue is it ? We are not putting our hands up in classes to draw the teachers’ eyes to our protests at everything we think might be against what our parents and church have taught us. Our teachers know far more than we know, and young people have to pray to God for wisdom to know the issues over which they are going to take a stand. Daniel didn’t protest when they called him ‘Belteshazzar’ even though it was a name of a Babylonian idol. “If they want to call me that, well, they can call me that. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but nicknames never hurt me,” he could have said to his sore friends when they raised their eyebrows at these ugly foreign names. They will call us names too, won’t they? “God-squad,” “the squeaky-clean brigade,” “fundies,” “Holy Joe,” “the Wee Frees,” “the Preacher Boy,” “the Bishop.” We keep smiling. A mother might say to a pastor, “They call my son names in school and laugh at him because he is a Christian.” The pastor will tell her that it is a very sad life if a Christian is never laughed at. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you” (Matthew 5:11). So Daniel kept sweet, and yet he carefully drew the line at the imposed food and resolved he would not indulge.
It is important to draw the line at the crucial issue, and then not to give way. A story is told of a Territorial Army group which went on manoeuvres every six months over a weekend, They stayed in barracks and always one of the men would come back from the village pub half drunk on the Saturday night. He would stagger into the dormitory towards midnight and would stand in the middle of the room and he draw a line across the floor and shout to the men, “I challenge any of you to cross this line.” He did this every six months for a few years and the men would groan and turn over and try to get back to sleep. But one of the newer men had had enough of this. He got out of bed, walked up to the line and crossed it. The drunk looked at him: he was a big mean-looking fellow. The drunk hesitated, and then he took the piece of chalk and drew another line further down. We have all seen Christian organisations, agencies and denominations who have said that they’ve drawn a line, and they don’t intend to cross it. The issue has been some so-called nonnegotiable point of Christian teaching, or some Christian ethic. Then some big man, with charm, or qualifications, or a following has come and he’s defiantly crossed that line, and they have capitulated and moved the line, with lame excuses.
Young Daniel wasn’t in the business of moving the line, and he drew the line at food. We might think that God isn’t interested in food and water and soup and meat and vegetables. “Come on now Daniel, don’t be awkward. Your attitude is a bit offensive. You know the Pharisees would also be fussy about food, ceremonially washing their hands before eating, and refusing to enter Pilate’s court on a certain day in the week, and yet all the time the great sin was in their hearts of plotting murder against the Messiah.” But Daniel was not a Pharisee. He is filled with the Spirit of the Messiah. He saw the food as simply an outward sign of an anti-Jehovahist system, and that his whole way of life was being radically transformed and replaced. The menu wasn’t accidental. People say to us today that they admire our religion and they are glad that has worked for us, but that it’s a private matter. King Nebuchadnezzar would laugh if he heard that, because all of life for him was permeated by religion. Every meal in the royal palace was a holy meal. Everything was a gift of Nebuchadnezzar’s gods. Like the victory over Israel and its God which his gods had secured, so they continued to provide for him length of life and daily food. The meals were presided over by the priests of Babylon and whenever you had a meal thanks was given to the gods who provided this food. You might sprinkle some pepper or spices as a thanksgiving to the gods before you ate. Young Daniel recognised the challenge, “What fellowship do we have with Belial? What agreement is there between the temple of Jehovah and idols ?” So Daniel defined it. There was danger in that dining hall. Of course, there is danger in the lions’ den, but there’s danger too in restaurants. Being bought by expense account meals and clinking glasses, and someone else paying the bill, and your stomach becoming Satan’s ally – is that not a danger ? Daniel drew the line at the food. It was as if he saw the lions in the king’s banqueting hall. If Daniel hadn’t been faithful there he would not have survived the lions’ den. Few will. If you eat with Belial then the lions are going to eat you. Young Christians sometimes think, “How could I cope with martyrdom? How could I cope with wild beasts in the arena. Would I stand ?” The answer to such questions is, how are you managing today ? How do you behave at the end of term dinner, or the office party at Christmas ? How do you manage at school ? On the football field ? In the changing rooms ? Why do you torment yourselves about lions’ dens in distant places when you are failing in the dining room today?
Daniel 1 is a sad chapter. How many hundreds of young men came from Jerusalem to Babylon ? How many had discernment? How many took their stand? Just four. A mere four. And if Daniel hadn’t articulated the danger would the other three have done so? Hasn’t the church been blessed because a man has seen the issue? C.H.Spurgeon saw a down-grade amongst English Baptists in the 1880’s. In 1893 two Highland ministers, Donald Macfarlane and Donald Macdonald saw the theological decline in the Church of Scotland. Gresham Machen defined and fought error in Princeton Seminary in the opening decades of the century. In a local congregation things may be slipping and one man has gathered the deacons around him and explained to them the issues. One man has seen the consequences of what is being said and done. There in Babylon is this crowd of teenagers and they are all professing Old Testament Messiahists – and they all have fallen into line and tuck into Babylonian food: “You’ve got to give and take, haven’t you ?” they say. “Why be awkward ? Don’t rock the boat Daniel. Do you want to be back to the ghetto ? We can accomplish so much more by a little flexibility.” So they all agree – except these four boys. They were convinced of the impossibility of what they were being asked to do: partake in that meal, with its false sacramentalism and idolatry.
What did Daniel do? He certainly didn’t have a martyr’s complex. He wasn’t pigheaded or surly. He simply asked permission not to eat, so graciously. Daniel went to see the proper man. He took his courage into his hands and as a 14-year old boy he asked if they might be excused from partaking in the appointed food. The chief official’s initial response was that it would cost him his life. “If you look pale and emaciated and the king discovers you have not been eating this food … it will be curtains for me.” But Daniel wouldn’t be put off, and he said, “Just give us a trial for ten days. See how we’ll be in that time.” The man thought, “Well, there’s no harm in that. They are going to be here three years. I can give them ten days.” “All right,” he says. It was just as easy as that. With Daniel and the others fearing the worst, this Babylonian turned out to be as pleasant as could be. The boys discovered they had the boss on their side. What sort of God was theirs ? Even the heart of king Nebuchadnezzar was in their Lord’s hands. It was a great discovery for young men to make in Babylon.
So we are saying be wise over what issues you are going to draw a line, and always ask the Lord for help, and then to be as courteous and as gracious as you can be in approaching people. I would even encourage you not to write letters but rather, if it is possible, to see someone and talk to them. There’s a lot of power in a stammering tongue. Consider the result here, that the chief official was won over and at the end of ten days there was a glow of health on Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. God blesses those who obey, and he promises to spread a table before us in the presence of our enemies. Daniel chapter one is urging is to remember the very simple rules for Christian living: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Do it ! More, “Love God with all your heart.! Do it. “Be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.” Do it. Don’t admire these precepts. Do them. And the chapter ends with the words, “And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus” (v. 21). Satan’s plan was that Daniel wouldn’t stay the course, that he wouldn’t be God’s great prophet speaking up in Babylon. Satan’s plan was to assist Nebuchadnezzar so that everything about the Lord disappeared – his name, his law, his covenant, the record of his mighty works, and his people all gone. But God’s plan was different, it was that this young boy Daniel who was taken as a slave and a refugee to Babylon should have an extraordinary influence in that empire. The last verse of this chapter says he was there until the first year of King Cyrus. Do you understand that ? 75 years later and he’s there ! Nebuchadnezzar is forgotten, Daniel is still there. Kings coming and kings going, world empires rising and falling, but Daniel still there until the first year of King Cyrus. What an unforgettable year that first year of Cyrus was, when an edict was passed that God’s people could return to Jerusalem, and the people could take down their harps from the willows and sing because they were going home. The greatest single reason why in 70 years’ time God’s people still existed as an entity in Babylon was because Daniel had refused to eat the king’s food. Through the grace of God this boy knew some things better than the greatest men in all the world.