HOW TO LIVE LIKE A CHRISTIAN IN AN UNCHRISTIAN WORLD: A FOCUSED BIBLE STUDY OF DANIEL CHAPTERS 1 & 3

All Scripture references will be taken from the NRSV.

Recent events have proven that the mainstream is moving farther and farther away from the timeless principles taught in the Bible.

Consequently, the dilemma of how to live like a Christian in an unchristian world unfortunately forces believers to choose between two options: assimilation or restoration.

Assimilation. The believer dissolves into the mainstream, adopting its ideologies, standards and morality. In this process, there is a loss of distinct identity. This produces a benign form of Christianity that allows subscribers to navigate the modern world with relative ease because values are malleable. The truth is inoffensive, pluralistic, and is open to continual re-interpretation. This is the past of least resistance.

Restoration. Here, the believer continuously looks at the unchanging Word of God as the final and ultimate source of truth. The obedient cling to God’s Word and pursue it with a committed zeal regardless of the cost, sacrifices, or pains endured. This maintains an identity separate and distinct from the mainstream. The person in a restorative posture recognizes that changeless Biblical principles derive their power from their objectivity. This is the path of greatest resistance.

The choice should not be a choice at all, but the fact that many believers are struggling with these questions serves to highlight the troubling reality that Christianity is not under “attack” by a violent, direct assault. Rather, it is under “attack” by craftiness, persuasion, and familiarity. Assimilation therefore becomes the most “popular” choice because it carries the least risk and the highest degree of certainty. After all, why fight for an “invisible” and distant God when I can choose to live a conflict-free life in my very tangible day-to-day experiences?

How to live like a Christian in an unchristian world is an old question, and the Bible contains many narratives that provide an answer. Specifically, the book of Daniel provides powerful life lessons that anyone in the modern world can follow.

One of the main theological themes of the book of Daniel is the sovereignty of God: “The Most High God has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and sets over it whomever he will” (Daniel 5:21). Subsequently, all of Daniel’s visions reveal The Lord as triumphant (7:11, 26-27; 8:25; 9:27; 11:45; 12:13), and the ultimate climax of God’s sovereignty is revealed in Revelation (11:15; c.f. Daniel 2:44, 7:27). This sovereignty, however, is a characteristic appreciated only by those who serve Yahweh—hence gentiles and gentile rulers are oblivious to this actuality and perceive their triumphs to be the result of “inherent worthiness” and “diligent effort.” A dilemma subsequently presents itself: How ought those faithful to The Lord navigate treacherous environments that often act against God by denying His existence and minimizing His power, thus requiring allegiance to some other form of supremacy?

In the book of Daniel, the main character and his fellow Jews encountered such a hostile environment and were forced to answer how they were to best sustain their distinctive identities as Jews in the midst of an antagonistic colonial power. For them, the question thus became not how to rebel and takeover, but how to survive in the midst of adversity. Walter Brueggemann says, “Daniel is a representative Jew who has learned to sustain and enact his distinctive Jewish identity in the presence of indifferent or hostile imperial power, a task required of every serious Jew in the Persian and Hellenistic periods … Nebuchadnezzar now functions in the narratives as a metaphorical foil for Jewish faith and for the Jewish community, and as a enemy of the God of Israel who is ‘the Most High,’ Creator of heaven and earth.”[1] Nebuchadnezzar thus becomes an archetype before whom the Jewish faith must be executed with purposeful bravery and liberty.

The answer to this difficult question of identity has much theological significance for us in 2015 as Christians attempt to sustain their distinctiveness in an American religious landscape where pluralism is rising and Christianity is on the decline.[2],[3] In this focused Bible study guide, I will attempt to extract meaning on how Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were able to maintain their unique God-centered identities when it would have been so much easier to waver between opinions, acquiesce, and commit idolatry. First, I will briefly describe events recorded in Daniel chapters 1 and 3. Second, I will sequentially analyze the context and theological meaning behind Daniel and his companion’s actions. Finally, in the conclusion, I will analyze the implications and lessons for contemporary Christians.

After the siege of Jerusalem, we find an exiled Daniel “competent to serve in [Nebuchadnezzar’s] palace” (1:4). As a result, Daniel, along with other young men deemed “competent,” were to be educated for three years, during which time they were assigned a daily portion of the king’s royal rations—food and wine. It is here that Daniel resolved “not [to] defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine” (1:8). As a result of this action, God “allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master” (1:9), and the vegetables he and his three companions chose to eat instead of the royal rations produced young men that “appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations” (1:15). Furthermore, “in every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (1:20).

In Daniel chapter 2, king Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a magnificent statue of which he is the head. The statue falls. The king subsequently proceeds to build a magnificent, massive golden statue in the province of Babylon. The king then sends for the “satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces” (3:2) and assembles them. When they hear a musical ensemble, they are commanded to bow down and worship the statue. Certain Chaldeans then report to the king that upon hearing the musical ensemble Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (the renamed Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, respectively) do not fall down and worship the statue. When confronted with this accusation, all three men do not deny the truth, and under the threat of death in a fiery furnace they say, “O Nebuchadnezzar we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (3:16-18). The three men are thrown into the furnace, yet they are not harmed by the fire and were seen with a fourth figure “walking in the midst of the fire, and they [were] not hurt; and the fourth [had] the appearance of a god” (3:25).

The recognition of this awesome event had a dramatic effect on the king. In verses 28-30, Nebuchadnezzar says, “‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.”

In Daniel chapter 1, we have a man of the Jewish faith with a traditional Jewish identity who has now been moved from his native home into the midst of a foreign power. Not only that, but he is transported into the entourage of the king of that foreign power who not only has no need for Judaism, but who also took the vessels from the house of God and placed them into in the treasury of Babylonian gods (Daniel 1:2). Resultantly, when asked to consume royal rations, Daniel resolved not to do so. Whether the rations were defiled by it being royal or characteristic of royalty becomes dissolved into the larger matter of identity preservation. As Newsom says, “eating at the same table … or providing food from one’s own portion signifies both an honor conferred and an expectation of loyalty.”[4] Daniel, being very wise (1:4), was keenly aware that accepting the king’s food also meant accepting the king’s commands; therefore, eating the king’s food meant much, much more than “eating the king’s food.” Implicit in the Biblical text is the idea that Daniel and his companions were identified as Israelites (1:3) first and foremost and knew Yahweh was always watching. In fact, before the writer identifies any of the men by name, we know them as “Israelites” first.

This is just the first chapter of Daniel, and already we see a man who executes a form of subversive resistance in the midst of the Babylonian empire. Daniel does not gather arms and lead a rebellion, nor does he openly and forcefully fight against the king. We are introduced to a man who is very wise (1:4), and this wisdom guides him to work against the Babylonian regime in the midst of the Babylonian regime. Daniel leverages his wisdom with those immediately above him against the king without the king even knowing it: “The palace master said to Daniel, ‘“I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king’ … [Daniel then said,] ‘Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations’ … At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter … So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables” (1:10-16). But the text is silent about taking action in other matters. For example, the Babylonian regime attempted to install new identities upon the four men—which is typified perfectly by the renaming of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectively. This equates to identity reassignment by assimilation of the Israelites into a foreign culture with a foreign king and foreign gods.

Ironically, the king is grossly unaware of what goes on with the dietary habits of those men under his “control,” yet when Nebuchadnezzar comes face to face with the four men, the king could presume Daniel and his colleagues were “better and fatter” because of the king’s rations. Yet, in reality, it is their obedience to The Lord that grants them favor while Nebuchadnezzar takes the credit for “his” rations. The text says: “At the end of the time that the king had set for them to be brought in, the palace master brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, and the king spoke with them. And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they were stationed in the king’s court. In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (1:18-20). This clever subtlety establishing divine sovereignty over secular authority sets the tone for things to come.

As with any other lens of Biblical understanding, an important theological perspective from Daniel 1 highlights not so much Daniel’s resolve to refuse food—rather, what is even more powerful: the hesed, or grace, of God that “allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master” (1:9). It is only by God’s grace that anyone is given favor, and if Daniel’s refusal resulted in a predictable granting of favor, then safety by divine intervention could be perceived as an act of self-preservation. It is simply because God’s grace is unpredictable and not inevitable that keeps men like Daniel focused on The Lord. It is thus the principle of faith and not the end result that makes this narrative powerful. After all, “Jews were obedient and refused to defile themselves at Auschwitz, too, but they still went to the gas chambers, even though God was sovereign in that place as well.”[5] Whatever Daniel’s true reason was for avoiding the “defilement,” we are sure that he negotiated an alternative, and in that alternative, food that was suitable for a king was deemed unsuitable for one who serves the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Had Daniel not refused, he would have been another member of a foreign nation lured by the awe and power of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar. Had he eaten the king’s foods, his identity would have dissolved into the uniform Babylonian ethos. But because Daniel didn’t eat the king’s food, his saying “‘[No!]’ lay on his sharp focus, his own clear identity, and, as events proved, the key to Israel’s identity as a special and divinely elect people.”[6] Daniel’s message is thus very clear: you may go into Babylon, O Israel, but going in to Babylon does not mean becoming like Babylon. You must say “No” to their “defiling” invitations no matter how subtle, and say “Yes” to God. The principle thus trumps the result, and the principle is sustaining a Yahweh-focused identity. Whether the results in this life are good or bad, all faithful servants will end up in the same place in eternity (c.f. Daniel 2:44; 7:27).

In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar’s impetus in making a golden statue is illuminated by what he orders them do: “fall down and worship” (3:5). There is no need for a prolonged theological analysis here. Literally, Nebuchadnezzar fashions an idol and then commands others to worship the statue. The king, representative of state power, is openly sanctioning idolatry and mandates that all those in authority follow the supreme autocrat’s commands. The breadth of individuals mentioned underscores the might of the empire and its broad influence, perhaps a mechanism of propaganda in antiquity. Accordingly, Daniel 3:2 says, “Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.”

The subject matter of the image thus becomes irrelevant because the king is the one who made it and he is the one who orders other to bow down before it. “God” thus becomes something Nebuchadnezzar has made, and he has complete control over those who will bow down and when. His real-life statue now cannot be torn down by the power of ideology, and the spectacle of the entire scene would have certainly inspired awe in all observers. In fact, Nebuchadnezzar’s mandate actually does not preclude worship of other gods it only demands worship of the statue. Daniel 3:4-7 says, “the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.’ Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.”

Hence, the accusation brought up against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was not that they worshipped Yahweh. The accusation was only that they did not worship the statue. Daniel 4:8, 12 says, “Certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews … [and said] ‘there are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’” In other words, it is not personal devotion to The Lord that Nebuchadnezzar penalized. It was the lack of devotion to the statue, and therefore the state.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr alludes to the perverse power of idolatry fashioned under the guise of political allegiance and “nationalism,” a paradigm unfortunately executed with precision by the Nazi regime. In the contemporary era, Niebuhr says, the state remains as the sole entity that solicits idolatry for its own glory. What the state ends up doing is using fear as a tool to coerce obedience. Power, thus, is either predicated on fear or the genuine reverence of those who voluntarily submit to the awe of spectacle inherent in demonstrations of power through ostentation. Hence, from the display of majesty comes idolatry, and from this idolatry comes the moral and legal ideology that the state’s interests reign supreme over all else. The nation pretends to be God, so lack of dedication to the state becomes heresy and any person or group that stands against the state becomes a threat to this “god.”

Newsom touches upon the power of spectacle and its subsequent ability to formalize idolatry: “From antiquity to the present, royal and state power has advertised itself through public spectacle … What makes public spectacle a powerful instrument of propaganda is its combination of spectatorship and choreographed participation.”[7]

In referencing John Calvin, Newsom says, “Political rulers primarily look out for their own interests and thus use religion for their own purposes. As [Calvin] writes in his comments on Dan 3: ‘[Political rulers] traffic in the name of God to attract greater reverence toward themselves … Religion, then, is to the kings of the earth nothing but a pretext.’”[8]

As was the case in Daniel 1, God did not act and save the men from the fiery furnace because of their trust in Him. If this was the case, then deliverance would reflexively follow obedience, and real life is the best antidote to this delusion. The three men “disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God” (v. 28), and hoped against hope that God would deliver them (v. 17). Verses 16-18 highlight an important crux of chapter three: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us … let him deliver us.” Yahweh is sovereign, so of course He is able, but only if His will is for us to be delivered. In the midst of death, the principle remains firm regardless of the consequences. Towner says, “From the human point of view, therefore, this chapter is a story about faithfulness carried out for its own sake, about martyrdom by those willing to make sacrifice for principle, confident that in some way this sacrifice will be vindicated, even though how that way might come to pass is left entirely in God’s hands.”[9] Jews are placed in jeopardy by the secular leader, but are saved by the hidden, miraculous power of Elohim, before whom Nebuchadnezzar is completely helpless.

Jesus would eventually say that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to compromise on both because worship of the idol would violate the First Commandment and it would also validate the regime that seeks to destroy human life for the sake of its own glory. What Daniel chapter 3 reveals to us, then, is that our task of faithfulness has as much to do with our agreeableness with basic obedience as it does with our great refusals. Although we may not be the ones actively engaging in sin, our passive acceptance of a regime that engages in destructive tendencies dissolves our true identity into the nebulous void of empire where everything exists to serve the state. True disciples may remain in, but distinct from, the rest of the empire, and they are unafraid to stand against towering authorities that require allegiance to idols and demonic forces. A price most certainly will be paid for this stand, and the result may not be pleasant, but it is the principle behind the action nonetheless that endures forever. As Austin Farrer has written, “the ultimate vindication and enthronement of the Saints over the whole world [c.f. Dan 7:27] is prefigured in the miraculous deliverance of the three children from the furnace, in the king’s recognition of their God, and in his promotion of them over the affairs of Babylon.”[10] We can follow the example of these three men, endure, and boldly go into the furnace on principle in defiance of the alleged authority of this world that entices us to violate God’s Law and deflect us from a path of righteousness.

Walter Brueggemann writes, “Thus Daniel, as the key character and as the representative Jew, is a model for Jewish truth in the midst of Gentile power, a truth that is deeply and passionately fixed on the God of Israel, who is said to be shown to be reliable in every circumstance of risk or threat.”[11] The path of least resistance for an exiled Israelite in Babylon in antiquity would have been to submit to imperial power and abandon the God of Abraham altogether or to maintain a relationship that subordinates Yahweh to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Such a course of action not only runs antithetical to the Bible but is a violation of the commandment that the Lord Himself wrote with His own finger on stone tablets (Exodus 31:18). As Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah have shown us, the path of obedience does not necessarily run against the empire but through it, while the faithful are constantly negotiating their peripheral posture and at the same time never wavering in their internal convictions. Of course, Nebuchadnezzar is labeled the “servant” of the Most High God[12] and it is through The Lord’s sovereignty that this gentile king is allowed to have such power. It was for apostasy that the Jews were exiled from the Promised Land. This does not negate God’s promises but merely changes the scene in which obedience is to be enacted. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah executing subversive resistance thus becomes analogous to Moses demanding that Israel be set free from Egyptian bondage or Elijah asking the people atop Mount Carmel, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” (I Kings 18:21). The question is always basically the same: “God or something else?” Unfortunately, the answer frequently changes.

Humphreys says, “A close intermixing with foreign cultural forces on all levels of life and full interaction with one’s pagan environment could result in hostility directed toward individual Jews—and rarely, toward Jews in general—and the point of contention could in part be one’s Jewishness. However, such adversity could be met and overcome through this same interaction. One could, as a Jew, overcome adversity and find a life both rewarding and creative within the pagan setting as a part of this foreign world; one need not cut himself off from that world or seek hope for its destruction.”[13]

The lessons for the modern Christian thus become evident: the communal body of Christ, the church, cannot retreat into a “safer” or “more tolerable” sectarian mode of life. We ought to be present in public reality, in the midst of society-at-large. The lesson from the book of Daniel is that it is next to and amongst that secular authority that the most efficacious and subversive means of existence can be executed. The selected narratives from Daniel suggest a pre-decided yet negotiating presence that interlaces itself into our world through the demand of God’s truth and in the face of overwhelming power. This negotiated presence remains unseen and foreign to non-believers, who believe the ultimate barometer of reality is the material present.

“Human despair can be obviated only by a renewal of genuine hope, and repressed human despair can be prepared to hope again only if it is first enabled to admit itself and to face the impossibility of the artifice by which it thinks to survive the consequences of its loss of meaning … only a new system of meaning can provide the permission that repressed despair needs if it is to name and attempt to replace the bogus goals of cheap hopes that are the residue of modern Prometheanism … Meaning has departed, the system remains. The questions for serious Christians is this: Can Christian faith, especially in the Protestant mode, sufficiently extricate itself from modernity to enucleate such an alternative system of meaning? Can the Christian movement distinguish itself from Christendom with enough imagination and daring to help humanity find a way into the future beyond the demise of the modern vision and spent imperialism of the ‘Christian’ West?”[14]

Despair results when there is no hope, no longer any search for new meaning, and no vision for new possibilities. Yet, the narrative of the Bible teaches us that our existence is never limited by anything created, because Yahweh is sovereign. Limits and barriers become formless and void because we always end up with something more than what we start with. And our expectations may not always be met, but the main character of the Holy Scriptures is, and has always been, God. If there is one lesson that the Bible teaches us, it is that the steadfast love of God endures forever and He is the One who injects new meaning when all hope is lost. It is that new meaning and genuine re-interpretation of life, authored by the Author of all things, in which our hope is grounded, because the “God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). For the Christian in 2015, we ought never to compromise on God’s principles despite the fact that this undoubtedly will be the path of greatest resistance. We ought to worship The Lord and The Lord alone with all (not some of) our strength, heart, and might, regardless of what our modern-day Nebuchadnezzars say. The God of the Bible teaches us that out of nothing, He made everything. Where there is no hope, He is the light of the world. And just when we think all that is left is death and no reason to hope, He raises us to new life through the power of the resurrection.

Amen.

 

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2012), 385.

[2] In fact, the Pew Research Center (see Footnote 3) reports that the share of adults in the United States who label themselves Christian has declined since 2007 from 78.4% to 70.6%. This represents a decline of about 5 million adults and affects nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations. At the same time, the amount of those “unaffiliated” with any religion has increased nearly 7% since 2007 to number a total of 56 million people. This figure represents roughly 23% of adults. In other words, in 2015 in America, roughly 1 out of every 4 adults is either an atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”

[3] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life, last modified May 12, 2015, accessed June 22, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.

[4] Carol A Newsom, Daniel: A Commentary (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2014) Loc 4073, Kindle.

[5] W. Sibley Towner, Daniel: Interpretation (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), 27.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Carol A Newsom, Daniel: A Commentary (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2014), Loc 3729, Kindle.

[8] Ibid., Loc 4074, Kindle.

[9] W. Sibley Towner, Daniel: Interpretation (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), 58.

[10] Austin Farrer, A Study in Saint Mark (London: Dacre, 1951), 253.

[11] Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2012), 386.

[12] Jeremiah 27:6, 43:10

[13] Lee W. Humphreys “Life-Style for Diaspora: A Study of the Tales of Esther and Daniel” in Journal of Biblical Literature 92, no. 2 (February 1973): 222–223.

[14] Douglas John Hall, “Despair as Pervasive Ailment,” in Hope for the World: Mission in a Global Context: papers from the Campbell Seminar, ed. Walter Brueggemann (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2001), 83-93.

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