Cleaning Up Daniel kept himself undefiled, and reaped the reward
When I think of keeping clean in a dirty place the image that pops into my head is that of James Bond as played by Roger Moore. His suit is always in immaculate condition even if he’s just had a deadly fight with baddies or rolled out of the back of a moving van. Keeping clean in a dirty place might seem to be the stuff of fiction. But it is not. Daniel and his three Jewish friends provide us with models of people who manage to keep their morals and faith clean amid the filth of a world that was devoted to magic, idolatry and boot-scraping subservience to powerful pagan rulers.
In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Assyrians at Carchemish. The Assyrians had vainly tried to protect Egypt. Now Nebuchadnezzar was assured of being able to control access to the Mediterranean Sea with all the massive economic benefits this involved. As far as Nebuchadnezzar was concerned, Jerusalem was little more than a speed bump on his march to the Mediterranean. The northern kingdom, Israel, had already been utterly destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. All that was left was the southern kingdom, Judah.
You can hear the swish of the broom as Nebuchadnezzar sweeps away Jehoiakim, the king of Judah and desecrates the temple. There seemed to be nothing left for Daniel and his friends to stand on.
Upon migrating to Australia, many people from other cultural backgrounds feel like they are in very deep waters. They may cling to their own traditions and culture as to a life raft. However, Daniel and his friends were severely limited in their ability to cling to their own cultural heritage. Nebuchadnezzar sought to enforce a thorough assimilation policy. He was determined to sweep away from their lives everything that made them distinctive as God’s people.
Daniel's impressive character is grounded in a fundamental decision he made while still a teenager. He “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way” (1:8). The same Hebrew word is used to make a classic pun. It is immediately after the chief official “set for” them Babylonian names, that Daniel “set” upon his heart (“resolved”) that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or drink. It is the assignment of a new identity which spurs Daniel to resist Nebuchadnezzar’s indoctrination process.
Nebuchadnezzar was trying to make Daniel his puppet. He determined Daniel’s hairstyle and clothes. He made him learn the Chaldean language (v4). He mapped out the future for Daniel — a future of serving himself (v5). He even gave them new names (v7).
In the ancient world a name was not just a label. The new broom tried to completely change the essential identity of Daniel and his friends. He called Daniel “Belteshazzar” which means “Bel protect his life!” Nebuchadnezzar is saying that if Daniel is going to survive in Babylon it will be because his god, Bel, has protected him. The last verse of the chapter reads: “And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.” Daniel is still in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar is dead and gone. Daniel is a better survivor than Nebuchadnezzar. But as Daniel 1 teaches, this is not because Nebuchadnezzar’s god, Bel, protects Daniel, but because God Himself protects Daniel.
G.K. Chesterton quipped, “I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.” Daniel deliberately stepped into political hot water when he asked not to be given the royal food and wine. As Ashpenaz explained with fear, none other than king Nebuchadnezzar himself had assigned Daniel’s food and drink.
But Daniel had set his heart on remaining pure. Repeatedly in the book of Daniel we see that the refusal of Daniel and his friends to avoid political hot water is what keeps them clean. These men refused to compromise their standards even when by standing their ground they signed their own death warrants. In Daniel 3 Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego refuse to defile themselves with idolatry and are thrown into the fiery furnace. In Daniel 6 Daniel refuses to defile himself with the idolatry of replacing the worship of Yahweh with the worship of king Cyrus and he is thrown into the lion’s den.
Daniel and his friends were “Israelites from the royal family and the nobility” who “showed aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand”. But no matter what academic qualifications they had earned at the University of Judah, no cross-crediting was allowed. Nebuchadnezzar was determined to thoroughly indoctrinate Daniel and his three friends. We are told they “were to be trained for three years”. King Nebuchadnezzar insisted that they do the standard, full three-year Babylonian degree course.
In Australia doctors do an MBBS course — Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree. Nebuchadnezzar set an MBBS course for Daniel and his friends: Bachelor of Magic, Bachelor of Service degree. This degree program was intended to produce wise men described as “magicians and enchanters”. Ashpenaz was the Dean of Studies and his job was “to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians”. Babylonian literature included omens, magic spells, prayers, hymns, myths, legends, “scientific” formulae for skills such as glass-making, mathematics and astrology, and law code. But the very nature of ancient thought prevented any field of study being separated from religious and magical conceptions. Consequently, Daniel and his friends were forced to study literature which was full of idolatrous and occult talk.
I once taught a course on biblical ethics to students in Pakistan, many of whom were serving as pastors. Then I listed on the board about 20 different areas of ethical concern: embezzlement, church leaders acting like politicians, sexual immorality, etc. I asked them to select the one issue which particularly troubled them. Do you know what they chose? Magic! Many people come from cultures in which people take magic very seriously. There are many people now living in Sydney who believe strongly in the power of the evil eye. In Pakistan I learnt never to say, “What a beautiful child!” I learnt it was appropriate to say instead, “What a dear or precious child!” It is not only Muslims and people from certain other non-English speaking cultures who practise various forms of magic, but there are many Anglo-Celtic Australians in Sydney who are heavily into New Age magical practices, into astrology, tarot cards, fortune telling, psychic powers and the occult.
God enabled Daniel and his friends to graduate as Nebuchadnezzar’s top students: “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.” They so thoroughly understood and mastered Babylonian literature that in verses 18-20 we read,
“At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them 10 times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.”
Astonishingly, though immersed in literature which was dripping wet with idolatry and magic, Daniel and his friends came out perfectly dry. In the Book of Daniel God twice delivers His faithful servants out of situations of certain destruction. In Daniel 3 Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego are thrown into the fiery furnace. But an angel is with them in the fire and when they come out of that fire, all of the important political figures in Babylon crowd around them and “they saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them” (3:27).
Similarly in Daniel 6 Daniel spends a whole night in the lions’ den. But when Daniel was lifted out of the den, we are told, “no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God” (v23). These are not just accurate records of God’s saving power. They are also parables which explain how it was that Daniel and his friends could be immersed in a situation which from a human point of view was certain to destroy their faith in God, and yet emerge morally blameless, morally clean and pure, without any hint of compromise or disloyalty to God. And it all goes back to that fundamental resolve on Daniel’s part.
This is the challenge which faces us as God’s people. Not to be ships in dry dock. We need to be like ships that sail in the water, but we also need to keep the water out of our ships; to be in the world without being of the world. We are constantly pressured to conform to this world. Our minds are constantly assailed by images and ways of thinking that threaten to compromise our relationship with God. At the foundational level our integrity depends not so much upon our ability to think our way through this or that difficult situation. Rather, it is rooted in a fundamental resolve made within the depths of our hearts to remain true to our Lord. May the Lord help each of us to set our heart against defilement and keep clean in a dirty world.