Before we get stuck into the story of Daniel it would help if we remember where this book comes in the story of Israel. Back in Genesis 12 God appeared to a man called Abraham and told him to leave his home and move to a place called Canaan .
God promised Abraham that one day his children would become a great nation, that he would give them the land of Canaan, and that he would be their God. Abraham's great grandchildren moved down to Egypt for 400 years where they grew into a great nation (600,000). Under the leadership of Moses the people of Israel left Egypt and in the Wilderness God appeared to them and gave them the Law, he told them how they should live. 40 years later it was Joshua who led the people into the Canaan, the Promised Land, and once they had driven out the people who lived there and made Jerusalem their capital, God gave them a king.
There was King Saul and then King David and then King Solomon.
But after Solomon died his sons fought over the Kingdom and divided the country into two. The North became the kingdom of Israel and the South became the kingdom of Judah. In the North things went from bad to worse and eventually the Assyrian Empire came and wiped them out entirely. In the South things were a little better, but not for long. If you remember back in the autumn we were finishing off the book of 2 Kings. And that book ended with the Southern Kingdom being attacked by the new superpower of the day, Babylon.
And that's where we pick up the story.
The first time Babylon, and their king Nebuchadnezzar, attacked Judah they didn't destroy it. Instead they made a treaty with Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, and as part of the treaty they took the finest things they could find in Judah. They took some of the gold and silver from the temple in Jerusalem, and they also took the most important people from the most important families in Judah.
And one of the people they took was called Daniel.
The book of Daniel is really the story of how Daniel and his friends survived in the hostile world of Babylon. And, most importantly, how Daniel's faith survived in that hostile world.
And I would encourage each of you to try to find time this week to read through the whole of this book. It's not very long, it takes about an hour to read. And if you read through the book then one of the first things you'll notice is that the second half is very different from the first half.
The first half is full of amazing stories like Daniel in the lion's den and the writing on the wall. But the second half is totally different. The second half is full of the visions that God gave to Daniel about what would happen in the rest of human history.
But even thought the two halves are very different, the theme is the same all the way through, the whole book is about how to survive as a follower of God in a hostile world. And that's why I think this is such an important book for us to study today.
Because if you want to follow the God of the Bible today you will face hostility. You will face ridicule and mockery. The people who live around us, the media, what we see on TV, the world around us is so often anti-Christian. And we may not face death for our faith or be thrown to the lions for what we believe in this country, but there are many countries around the world where people still are. And perhaps one day we will face that kind of opposition here in the UK as well, and we need to be ready for that.
So, how do you survive in a hostile world? That's what we're going to be looking at in the book of Daniea
This was my Christmas reading this year. It's the autobiography of a guy called Ray Mears. Now Ray Mears, for those of you who don't know, is an expert in survival. He's travelled all around the world learning how to survive in some of the harshest environments on earth. And he learns how to survive by copying what the locals do. He survives by becoming like the natives. And if you think about it, we all do that.
How do you learn to survive at school? By copying what the other kids do or don't do.
How do you learn to survive in your new job? By watching the other people in the office and doing the same thing.
How do you survive in Asda when you're trying to use one of those self-service machines?! You copy what the people around you are doing.
Usually we learn to survive by becoming like everyone else around us. But what if you don't want to become like everyone else? What if you're Daniel and you're trying to live your life following the God of the Bible but you live in the land of Babylon? How do you survive in a hostile world?
Well the first answer that we find in Daniel 1 is that we must.
1) Remember that God is over all
Look at v.1-2
Imagine how it must have felt like to be an Israelite. Nebuchadnezzar arrives at Jerusalem with the Babylonian army. They camp outside and stop anyone from going out and anything from going in. It's not long before the king, Jehoiakim, has no choice but to beg for mercy.
And now Babylon rules over Judah, and just to show who's boss, they take the best of the temple treasure, and the best of the people away with them to Babylon. They were supposed to be God's chosen people. God had promised to Abraham that he would make them a great nation and give them the land of Canaan. And that he would be their God. And now…
Now they're just a puny little nation, this close to being wiped off the map entirely. And look at what Nebuchadnezzar does with the treasures from the temple, v 2b. The gold shields and the silver chalices that used to bring glory to Yahweh the God of Israel, now bring glory to Marduk the god of the Babylonians! Do you see? The Promised Land is almost nothing, the people have been scattered and God…well the temptation was to think that even God has failed; that the Lord had abandoned his people or perhaps…just perhaps he wasn't God at all?!
But the author doesn't let us think that does he?
As Jerusalem is plundered, and Nebuchadnezzar carts off the best and the brightest, what are we told at the beginning of v 2?
And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand…
It is the Lord who rules over all.
When we look at the world around us, when we see rulers and regimes who seem utterly godless flourishing; When we see other religions that seem to be growing; When we see natural disasters that seem unstoppable, or violence that seems out of control, or materialism that seems insatiable. When we are surrounded by a world that seems to have no care of God and no need of him. When Christianity is mocked in the media, and the only time churches ever seem to get a mention is when they are involved in scandal or disgrace. When all of that is going on all around us…
How do you survive? How does your faith survive? By remembering that God is over all.
What was happening to God's people back then is exactly what God had said would happen. It's what he prophesied and promised would happen to them if they continued to disobey him. And what is happening in our world today is also just what God said would happen. In Mark 13 v. 7-8 Jesus is talking about the last days and he says this…
When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.
When the world around us is hostile, we need to remember that it is just as God said it would be. He is still in control, and we need to remember that God is over all. Look at v.3-6
For three years Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were to go to Babylon school. They learned Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic, they were taught all the philosophy and theology and science and literature and wisdom of an utterly pagan nation. They were taught to think new things and act in new ways and believe new truths that utterly deny the God of Israel. They seem to be utterly under Babylonian control, don't they? So much so that in v.6-7 their old names which all declare that Yahweh is God, are swapped for new names which all praise the Babylonian gods.
How do you survive as a follower of God in such a hostile world? How do you hold onto your beliefs in the God of the Bible who appeared to Abraham and who gave the law to Moses, when you live in a world that laughs at such ideas and teaches you an entirely different way to think?
By reminding yourself that God is over all. Look at v.8.
When Daniel has resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine (which we'll come back to) what are we told in v.9? God is the one who is in control.
In many ways each one of us goes through a similar experience to Daniel. We grow up learning the language and the literature of a world that denies God. We go to school where we're told how the world was made…with no mention of God. We are taught how to worship money and success and sex and power and influence and happiness and comfort. We are bombarded every day with images of different idols to worship, and surrounded by a world that laughs at the God of the Bible and tries to dazzles us with its sophistication and technology. It whispers in our ears that we don't need God and it tells us that our identity is found in satisfying ourselves.
How can we survive in such a hostile world? Only if we keep on reminding ourselves and each other day after day, that it is God who is over all. After this three years of training we read this in v.18-20
The slaves from Judah are brilliant, A* students. They graduate top of their class. They are poster boys for the Babylonian regime. They seem to be perfect examples of how the mighty nation of Babylon can take rough nomads from obscure little nations and turn teach them to be the most brilliant and learned wise men. But once again the author doesn't let us forget who is in control. Look at v.17
Why is it that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were so gifted and brilliant? Was it because Babylon was so mighty and Nebuchadnezzar was so wise? Or was it because they studied and practiced and revised harder than anyone else in their class? No.
It was because the God who is over all, gave them knowledge and understanding. What the author wants us to remember, and what Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah had to remember is that God is over all, and everything they have is a gift from Him. THAT is how to survive in a hostile world.
Do we do that? Do we acknowledge God when we succeed? Do we insist on giving God the credit when the world wants to give us the praise? If we don't, we'll struggle to survive. Ask yourself this. How do we react when other people achieve great things? When other people win? Or succeed above us? If we are jealous, or envious or resentful, then you can be sure we've forgotten that God is over all, he gives the gifts.
Or think about how you give. You see if you know that everything you have has been given to you as a gift from God who is over all, well then you will also be free in your giving to others. But if you think that you have achieved your gifts, or that you have earned your money or your free time, then you won't be so free to give it away. If you're faith is going to survive in this hostile world then you need to remember that God is over all. But secondly you need to…
2) Resolve to put God above all
Now we come to Daniel's decision in v.8. As we read through this chapter v.8 seems a little strange doesn't it? After all that Daniel and the others seem willing to do in v.3-5, and after they even seem to accept their new names without a fuss in v.6-7, why does Daniel decided to take a stand over the royal food and wine in v.8?
Some people have thought that the problem was that the food would have included some foods which were not allowed for Jews to eat, like pork. But that wouldn't explain why Daniel refuses to drink the royal wine. Others have suggested that the food and meat and wine would have been offered to the Babylonian gods before it was served to Daniel and his friends.
That's possible and even likely, but there is no reason why that wouldn't also have been true of the vegetables, so I'm not convinced by that argument either. So why did Daniel decide to draw the line here? Why does he take this stand?I think the answer is that Daniel was determined to put God above all.
Some of you, like me, may be fans of The Hunger Games trilogy. In the first book the main characters, Katniss and Peter, are forced to enter a competition which is broadcast live on TV, 24 hours a day. And they know that if they're going to survive they'll have to win the favour of the audience. I won't tell you what happens, but the night before they enter this reality TV show neither of them can sleep. And when Katniss asks Peter what's wrong he says this… "I just don't want them to change me." v.8a
I think Daniel made that decision because he didn't want them to change him. He was happy to change the language that he spoke, the books that he read, even the name that he answered to, to fit into his new Babylonian home. But he didn't want them to change who he was. He wanted to remind himself every day that they didn't own him. He chose to eat only vegetables and drink only water to remind himself that in his life God is above all.
Do you see, this wasn't an issue of sin. I wouldn't have been a sin for Daniel to eat the food that he was being offered from the king's table. No, Daniel wasn't resolving not to sin, he was resolving to put God first. Daniel chose to stand out and be different here, to show the world around him and to remind himself that he was different to them because God was number one in his life.
That is how Daniel survived in a hostile world.
And as we finish this evening I want us to ask, would we be willing to do that? Should we do he same? You see I think we're used to the idea of not doing some things because we know that they would be sinful. And that's right. But we mustn't be naïve. We live in a world that is every bit as hostile to Christianity as Daniel did. We grow up learning the language and literature of a world that hates God and denies God. We are surrounded by people who worship the gods of money and success and health and happiness, who think that sin is normal and righteousness is strange.
And I think that there are times when we need to remind ourselves that we are different. And resolve to not follow the crowd. To remind ourselves and others that we don't worship the things that they worship, or chase after the things that they chase after, or love the things they love, or live for the things that they live for. Let me give you just one example.
Maybe you could resolve not to drink alcohol. Not because it is a sin to drink alcohol, I don't think the Bible teaches us that, but because your friends find their comfort and their pleasure in drink. And you want to show them and remind yourself that your comfort and your pleasure come from God.
Maybe it's footie. Maybe you're a mad keen NUFC fan, every week you're either at St. James' or watching the match on TV with your mates. Well maybe once a month you should resolve to miss the match. Not because it's a sin to watch footie, or because there's something else you need to do, but simply to remind yourself that it's not number 1 in your life, God is.
The whole book of Daniel is really exploring the question of who will win? Who is in control? Is it the God of the Bible, or the gods of this world? Will Israel survive or will Babylon take over? Will Nebuchadnezzar win, or will Daniel and the people of God win?
And chapter 1 is really an introduction to the rest of the book. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah are like tiny pin-pricks of light in a vast, oppressive world of darkness. They are like little boats being tossed around by a mighty ocean. And the question is, will they survive, or will they be snuffed out? As the world around them worships their own abilities and their own strength and their own gods… Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah cling onto their faith in the God of Israel. The question is, who will win? Now look at v.21
King Cyrus was not a king of Babylon, he was the future King of Persia. And Persia was the empire that wiped out the Babylonians! Do you see?! Here in v.21 we are told that Daniel and his friends not only outlasted Nebuchadnezzar, or his son, but they outlasted the entire Babylonian Empire! How do you survive in a hostile world?
How do you keep going as a Christian when you live in a world that does everything it can to beat the truth out of you? By following Daniel's example. By reminding yourself and remembering every day that God is over all, and by resolving in your life to take a stand, and be different and to put God above all.
And if you and I do that, if we live our lives that that, then we too will not only survive in our world, we will outlast it. And in 100, thousand, million years from now, when Gateshead, and England and Europe and all the things of this world are but a distant memory of our mortal lives… We will still be singing in Heaven and praising the God who is over all and above all.