Okay, folks. Let’s set the stage. King Nebuchadnezzar was King of Babylon in 605 A.D., and was a powerful ruler. Whenever he raided a country, he took the most talented and useful people back with him to Babylon. He ripped off the young, flawless, handsome, winsome, and well-informed. Then he gave them food and training and groomed them to enter the King’s service.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I saw my nation overtaken, was taken captive and held in a strange land, and had to watch the king’s court suck down wine in sacred goblets, my heart would burn with anger. I’d be like “no thanks for the astronomy lesson, my dear chaps” and develop an elaborate plan to escape, or try and overtake this evil reign of power, or maybe even drink too much wine and do something stupid and end up scrubbing toilets.
And yet when Daniel was offered royal food and drink that went against his own religious culture, he asked for permission to not partake. He didn’t hold his hands up in dramatic protest or throw himself on the ground in some religious frenzy. He simply asked if he could refrain. When the guard scratched his head about it, Daniel said to just observe him for ten days and see if he looked just as strong and healthy eating salads from Whole Foods. So the guard just shrugged it off, and Daniel and his companions were given knowledge and understanding and studied literature whilst eating healthy vegetarian meals from the royal kitchen. Daniel sounds remarkably calm and serene to me, like a true celebrity of the Bible with apparently good working kidneys.
So then there were the King’s dreams, which no one could interpret, and the King was so pissed off that he’d been training all these young handsome people, all the while giving them good food, providing them interesting scrolls to read, teaching them to recognize constellations, and speak in persuasive sentences, and when he has one freaking dream, no one can help. All he hears is scratching and burping in the distance. What’s the use of all these people, anyway?
Kill them all, he shouts.
I envision him retiring to his chambers with handmaidens and fans. So a decree was sent out for all the wise men to die, and people naturally looked for Daniel to help, and Daniel went to talk with the commander of the guard “with wisdom and tact.” He sought out his three best friends and started an all-night prayer vigil, basically saying “we best figure this out, dudes, or our heads will literally roll.” So Daniel praised God for a while and then asked if He could just please show them the dream of the king so we can all live to eat our spinach lasagna tomorrow?
And God did. And Daniel ran to the temple all sweaty and out of breath asked the King to give him a chance to interpret it, and he was spot on, and the king placed him in a high position and was impressed with this God that Daniel so often prayed to. And again if it were me, I’d be like “thanks a ton God – I owe you” and then just sit back and get fat in my purple robe and cheese nachos, backsliding in my newfound Kingdom love, but Daniel was always consistent in his praise to God and humility in all things, and his powerful witness changed the heart of the King himself.
So fast forward a few kings, more vision interpretations, a few more grey hairs, and we get to King Darius the Mede. Jealousy abounded in his kingdom due to Daniel’s position of power and he was envied, so the administrators set a trap for the King to kill any man who worshipped someone other than the King. And of course Daniel was a man of God, as we well know by now, and prayed three times a day on his arthritic knees, and was brought to this new King for violating the law. King Darius actually liked Daniel and tried to find a loophole to save him but was unsuccessful, so he begrudgingly threw him in a den of hungry lions. Why the King didn’t just hang him and thought having ferocious animals gnaw him to death like Sunday chicken is beyond me, but it makes for a great story so let’s just go with it.
I like what the King says next – he says “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you.” I got a sense that this King knew somewhere deep inside that the God of Daniel was true and powerful, and the next day the King ran to the den (that was sealed with a huge stone, because the Bible is so into foreshadowing) and called out in an anguished tone, as if there was hope Daniel might still be alive. And he was, probably wishing he could brush his dentures and have a pillow because this nasty smelly floor gives an old man a backache. Daniel told the King that God sent an angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions, and they did not hurt him because he was innocent and had done no wrong.
Let’s pause here. Why did God sent an angel to shut the lion’s mouths? If God is all powerful, which he is, and has dominion over all the earth, which he does, it seems to me he could have simply ordered the lions in whatever language lions speak to stay away from Daniel, and they would have purred like kitties and rolled their bodies down at Daniel’s feet for a belly scratch. I think there is a lesson in even this. I find God to be infinitely more creative than we can imagine and uses all forms and methods to fulfill His ultimate purpose. And what we ask for in prayer doesn’t always end up in the way we expect. I sat wondering if the lions were filled with hunger, and had angry faces, and wanted to devour Daniel but couldn’t because of their closed mouths, and this forced Daniel to continue and rely on God for his strength throughout the night. It reminds me of the verse in Matthew when the disciples were filled with fear during a raging storm at sea. I mean, they were there with Jesus, for goodness sakes, and they were still scared. “Save us, Lord; we are perishing,” they pled. And Jesus responded with, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”
But Daniel, oh Daniel. You and Job were kindred spirits and loved God through the hard nights.
So Daniel was steadfast, and sure, and took the sins of Jerusalem upon himself and begged for forgiveness, even though later when faced with an angel he admitted that his strength was gone and he could hardly breathe. And even after he saw the hand of God shut the mouths of the lions, Daniel was visited by the angel Gabriel himself, who said “as soon as you began to pray, an answer was given. . . for you are highly esteemed.”
The thing that strikes me most about the book of Daniel is the notion of steadfast allegiance. A determination to serve God at all costs, without a single doubt. I honestly don’t know if I would have the power to serve so blindly – so unequivocally – so assuredly, especially at such a young age away from the comfort and security of my family. I’d be sobbing and looking around for help and rocking back and forth. But maybe Daniel did some of that too? Maybe his young bravado spirit was also interlaced with shreds of doubt and fear? Maybe even decades later, Daniel sat there all night watching the fierce hungry eyes, shaking in his own sandals. Even if the beasts couldn’t rip his loins apart with their teeth, they might scratch out his eyes with their claws, no? And when he said the next morning, “they have not hurt me,” it might have followed a very long night of constant prayer just in case.
Let Daniel’s story be a reminder to us that if he could make it through dictators and death threats and drooling fierce lions, we can make it through cancer and death and divorce and all kinds of other modern-day peril. It’s okay to be scared, and the lions don’t magically disappear, but their jaws are clenched shut and we shall make it until dawn. The God of Daniel is the God of us, and He hears our very first plea-fueled prayer on the subject of what’s desperately plaguing our hearts. In the end, God reveals to Daniel that the wicked will always be wicked, and yet the wise will understand. And he was told to close up and seal the words of the scroll.
The time is coming near, my dear friends, that God will separate the weed from the wheat, and this story needs to be saved and sealed and retold to give us all hope. We need to be reminded that being steadfast and sure is the only way through a night of hungry eyes. God’s path will prevail, and His love will lead us through the dark night, and in the end all we can hope for is to rest, and rise, and be steadfast in the morning. For the Lord gives what we do not deserve, and loves when we have no reason to be lovable, and sends angels to protect us when we need protecting.
The story of Daniel is one of great hope and safety, even when we are standing, screaming, sobbing in a den thick as thieves, with claws and hungry eyes. But alas – an angel is with us, shutting mouths.