For Christians, Daniel’s obedience points ahead to Jesus’s perfect obedience. As Daniel resisted Nebuchadnezzar’s food and devotion to Babylonian deities, Christians see in this a small foreshadowing of Jesus resisting the temptation to bow to Satan but one time in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world (cf. Matthew 4:1-11). As God gave Daniel and his companions over to Nebuchadnezzar for as yet unseen redemptive historical purposes, so too God gave his own beloved Son Jesus over to the Romans, who crucified him so that we might be forgiven of our sins. And just as God raised Daniel to a position of respect and honor in the Babylonian and Persian courts, so too God raised Jesus from the dead and then placed him at the position of highest honor.
Perhaps you heard the same sorts of sermons on Daniel I did growing up. As Daniel resisted the temptation to embrace worldly ways, keeping his faith under pressure to conform, so we too should resist “worldliness” and stand strong in our beliefs in the face of those who reject them. The application we were to draw from this was not to smoke, drink, date non-Christians, lie, steal, and so on, when non–Christians tell us these things are okay.
While there is some truth in this, when we read of Daniel being forced to resist the pressure to compromise his faith we are tempted to read Daniel’s struggle in light of our own struggles to live godly lives and progress in our sanctification. But, as I will suggest throughout this series, we should understand Daniel’s situation as much more like that in which a Christian in modern Syria and Iraq endured when their community was overrun by a terrorist regime like ISIS or Hamas, or even in light of what the Chinese Communist Party has sought to do with the Uyghurs—a Muslim population in western China. Daniel faced a constant, coercive, and humiliating pressure to reject his religion and his national citizenship, to embrace foreign gods, serve foreign rulers, and adopt a way of life completely alien to the faith of Israel’s patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Daniel faced intense pressure to conform at a level difficult for us to imagine, especially when we consider that he was still a youth serving in the royal court and therefore in the presence of the very king (Nebuchadnezzar) who was attempting to subjugate Daniel’s people and nation through the most diabolical of means. Throughout his struggle to not compromise his fundamental beliefs, YHWH is with him every step of the way, all the while directing the affairs of kings and nations to their divinely-appointed ends.
As we begin to dig into the Book of Daniel, we will consider two related themes which we find in the opening chapter of Daniel. Last time we covered introductory and background matters, and established the fact that in the prophecy of Daniel two elements unfold simultaneously throughout the book. One element is Daniel’s stress upon God’s sovereign control over all of history, as YHWH brings Israel through a period of judgment (exile) and restoration (a new Exodus) leading up to the coming of the Messiah, and then on to the end of the age. The second element is God’s providential care for Daniel and his three friends while they struggle to remain faithful to YHWH while in Babylon, serving in the royal court of a pagan king. It is this second element of Daniel’s prophecy we will consider in this exposition as two related sub-themes appear–Nebuchadnezzar’s coercive attempts to turn young Hebrew royals into pagan Babylonians, and Daniel’s resistance to this intense pressure to conform to the king’s scheme to weaken, if not destroy, the people of Israel through Babylonian domination.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Manner of Conquest–Cruel Subjugation
The opening verses of Daniel reveal the details of Nebuchadnezzar’s efforts to cripple the nation of Israel, as well as explaining the circumstances which led to Daniel’s captivity and exile in Babylon in 605 BC. We read in verses 1-2, “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 gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god.” We can date this to precisely 605 BC when Nebuchadnezzar (who is still crown prince and not yet king) led the Babylonians to victory over an Egyptian army led by Pharaoh Neco at Carchemish (modern Syria). Pursuing the routed Egyptians, Nebuchadnezzar went south to Jerusalem, laying siege to the city. That is when word came to him that his father had died. Nebuchadnezzar returned to Babylon for coronation as his father’s successor.
With Palestine firmly under Babylonian control, Nebuchadnezzar returned later that year to carry the spoils of his victory back to Babylon–a sign of his power and success as newly crowned king. The evidence from ancient sources (i.e., Josephus, and the Babylonian Chronicle) indicates that Jerusalem was besieged at this time, but not conquered. Daniel tells us that “the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God.” Jehoiakim was taken in shackles to Babylon (he was later released and returned to Judah) along with a number of the vessels (implements) used for the worship of YHWH in the Jerusalem temple. Jehoiakim was now the vassal (subject) of Nebuchanezzar, and paid tribute to his new Babylonian suzerain. Eventually the relationship between the Babylonians and Judah became strained, Judah allying with Egypt, whose armies later defeated Nebuchadnezzar, prompting Nebuchadnezzar to return in 587 BC and destroy both Jerusalem and the temple.
The Desecration of the Temple–A Sign of Nebuchadnezzar’s Dominance
Daniel is clear that YHWH “gave over” Israel’s king (Jehoiakim) to Nebuchadnezzar, along with vessels from the temple. No doubt, the reason was that Israel had become unfaithful to YHWH. His chosen people were embracing the pagan gods of their Canaanite neighbors. The temple vessels may have been a form of tribute which the weak and cowed Jehoiakim offered to his Babylonian suzerains. But let us not miss the symbolism behind this as well as the intentions of the Babylonians. Perhaps the vessels were selected by the Babylonians–“we’ll take these and spare the city.” But it is possible that the temple vessels were freely given up by Jehoiakim as tribute to Nebuchadnezzar. If this is the case, and it may very well be, then his act reveals that saving his own hide was more important to Judah’s humiliated king than YHWH’s honor. We know from Daniel 5:2-4, that these same vessels will be used by King Belshazzer to honor the “gods” of gold, silver, iron, bronze, and wood, an act which prompts YHWH’s judgment.
Regardless of how these vessels ended up in Babylonian hands, Daniel describes them as being taken to “Shinar,” the ancient name for the location of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). The use of the name “Shinar” instead of Babylon is surely intentional on Daniel’s part, because he sees Babylon as a place of sin and rebellion against God just as Babel had been (cf. Zechariah 5:11). The fact that these vessels were placed in the treasury of Nebuchadnezzar’s god [Marduk, perhaps?] tells us that not only were these vessels a valuable spoil of war added to the royal treasury, but that this was an act of a pagan king showing utter contempt for YHWH, the weak “god” of the humiliated Jews.
The very act of taking the vessels used for the worship of YHWH and then placing them in the temple of pagan “gods” demonstrates to the demoralized citizens of Judah and Jerusalem the total dominance of Babylon. Israel’s king is in shackles, and items used for the worship of YHWH are now dedicated to pagan deities. It is not the value of the vessels which matters to Daniel (although they were worth a great deal). What matters is the symbolism of dedicating these vessels to Babylonian gods. Nebuchadnezzar is sending a symbolic message (as we will see throughout the coming chapters) that his kingdom is superior to Judah, that his gods are superior to YHWH, and that he has no intention of allowing Judah and Jerusalem to continue on as anything more than a weakened client state of Babylon. In fact, he will take a number of actions to ensure that Judah and Jerusalem never do return to the power and prestige they possessed in the days of David and Solomon. Jerusalem and its temple can stand for now, but they must serve Nebuchanezzar’s kingdom, not YHWH’s.
Conquest by Birth–Pagan Children
We also see the first act of defiance and resistance from Daniel in this recounting of events, identifying the city of Babylon as “Shinar,” thereby reminding his readers from the opening verses that Babylon and its king are no match for YHWH who brought a quick and final end to Babel and its Ziggarut (tower) built as a symbol of human power and defiance against the true and living God, YHWH. From the opening verses of Daniel’s prophecy, the prophet speaks of a battle shaping up between YHWH and his servants, and Nebuchadnezzar and his empire. As Daniel will make plain, this is a battle Nebuchadnezzar cannot win. If YHWH gave these vessels over to Nebuchadnezzar (as a form of judgment upon Israel), then YHWH will take them back (as judgment upon Babylon) when the Jews bring these vessels back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple during the Exodus from Babylon to Jerusalem as recounted in Ezra-Nehemiah.
Throughout what follows in verses 3-7, we get a sense of Nebuchadnezzar’s diabolical plan to weaken, if not eliminate, the Jews as a threat to his kingdom. We in the modern world forget the lengths to which the ancients would go to eliminate their enemies from the face of the earth. Unlike us, they thought of long term consequences. DNA testing shows that nearly 8% of all men living in Central Asia today are descendants of Genghis Khan (so are .05% of all men living today). Khan impregnated as many women as possible because any children born to his conquered subjects would be loyal to him, fight in his successor’s armies, and lose all attachments to their original tribal group–the tribal identity of the father determined the child’s identity and loyalties.
For the same reason, Alexander the Great ordered his Greek soldiers to impregnate as many women as possible wherever his army went (not just as the spoils of war) but because he knew these children would be Greek, regardless of their previous national identity. This baby boom would overwhelm defeated enemies for generations to come by replacing their depleted populations with the biological children of the victors. This is one reason why both Ezra and Nehemiah so strongly opposed Israelites intermarrying with Canaanite pagans–the children of such a union were far more likely to be pagans than Hebrews. Islam has learned this lesson, and spreads rapidly in the modern world–not by conversion or conquest–but by live births of children born to Muslim fathers, in many cases, to non-Muslim women.