“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it…. Then [Nebuchadnezzar] commanded his chief to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace…” - Daniel 1:1, 3, 4a
Of the royal family and nobility… of good appearance… extremely smart… competent in political maneuvering. In today’s terms, Daniel was a member of “the 1%.” As a member of the nobility, Daniel was in a position of privilege in Judah. He had access to power. In an age where most people could not read, and were generally uneducated, Daniel was educated. Imagine him as living in a mansion in a gated community. It is very unlikely that he experienced need or hardship in his life.
That is, until he was carried off to Babylon as an exile. But wait! Even there, he is given a position of power and privilege within the king’s court. Daniel’s position of privilege continued, even as a captive in a foreign land! Did this guy ever catch a bad break?
What is amazing to me is that Daniel’s extreme privilege did not affect his devotion to God, and it did not affect his determination to live a life pleasing to God. Daniel could have sat back, and lived a life of relative ease in Babylon as a highly placed government official, with all the comforts and access that provided. I know I would have been tempted to! But he didn’t. Again and again, we see Daniel and his friends standing up for what is right, even when it would have been far easier (and less life threatening) to go along or back down. And in his devotion to God, Daniel was able to bring the worship of God to a new people, to show the power of God to a new land, and even get a glimpse of God’s ultimate plan for the whole world. All because he never put his privilege before his love of God.
In what ways are you privileged?
In what ways have you let your privilege get in the way of showing God to the world?
How can you use the privileges you have to better serve God’s purposes in the world?
A bit of trivia:
Since Daniel was of the royal line of the tribe of Judah, he was an ancestor of Jesus.
Some scholars think that the wise men who visited Jesus at his birth (Matthew 2) were following a prophecy left by Daniel, or one of the other Jews from the time of exile.
Daniel lived in a tumultuous time in Israel’s history. The people of Israel had split into two kingdoms: the North (Israel), and South (Judah). Not only that, but the northern kingdom of Israel had been taken captive by Assyria. Judah remained, but only for a little while; Babylon was coming. But first, let’s back up, all the way to the beginning.
The story of the Bible begins in Genesis 1 with two people who are chosen to bear God’s image to the world. Sadly, these two people fail at that task, and are exiled from the garden (Genesis 1:27; 3:23-24). This first story arc continues through the beginning of Genesis as humans grow more evil, and ends in Genesis 6-8. God again chooses people to bear his image - this time Noah’s family, and God restates his command to fill the earth as His image bearers in Genesis 9:1-7. Again, man fails to worship God; this time the story arc ends in Babel (Babylon) with humans setting up a structure to their own greatness. Again, the people are exiled - scattered.
A new, similar story arc begins again in Genesis 12, with God choosing Abraham to be his representative, and is promised a land for his descendants. Within this now-familiar narrative, we see God once again choosing people to “bear His name” at Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt.*
The storyline is familiar. Once again, the people chosen by God to bear his image (or his name) to the world fail, though this time on a much longer trajectory. Over and over again, from Exodus 32 on, we see the Isrealites setting up idols (or “images”) of other gods, and worshiping them, instead of themselves being the image of God to the world.
God is not surprised by this (see Deuteronomy 31:14-29). Even so, for roughly 800 years, God is patient with his people, constantly calling them back to himself, but the Isrealites continue to worship idols, at times completely forgetting the covenant that God had made with them (2 Kings 22:8-11). Finally, like Adam and Eve before them, God’s intended image bearers are exiled from their land. In BC 597-587, Babylon captured and destroyed Jerusalem. Anyone who was skilled was carried away to Babylon, leaving only the poorest people behind in a completely destroyed Jerusalem.
It is in this time of exile that we find the story of Daniel, one who is meant to bear God’s name to the world, but exiled in a culture that worships things other than his God. By some accounts, the Jewish exiles in Babylon were treated well - it was the Babylonian policy to integrate captured people into their culture, rather than to completely crush and exterminate. We see this, not only in the story of Daniel, but also by the fact that the Jewish people were allowed to settle along Babylon’s Chebar river (Ezekiel 1:1), and even in an inscription on Babylon’s Ishtar gate that refers to Jehoiachin as the “king of Judah.”
You may think it would be difficult to put yourself into the shoes of a Judean in this time, because so much time and distance separates us. And, truly, in some ways we simply can’t comprehend what it would have been like. But in other ways, we can - we can imagine living in a culture that regards our belief in God as “quaint” or “foreign” or even hostile. A culture that hopes to wipe out any trace of what sets us apart, and a culture that seeks to eliminate us when we dare to stand against the “modern wisdom of the day.” In some ways, this story is very familiar.
Read: Psalm 137; 2 Kings 23:36-25:30
In Psalm 137, 2 Kings 24 & 25, and Daniel 1 & 3, we see several Jewish reactions to being “exiles” in a culture that is foreign. In these passages, what were some of the different ways the Jews reacted to being exiles?
In 1 Peter 2:9-12, Christians are named as God’s image bearers, and also as “exiles” (or “strangers”) in a foreign culture. We are called to follow God in a culture that stands against God. We are called to live God’s way in a culture which finds that silly, or even threatening. We are not called out of the culture, but rather to be different while living in the culture (v. 12). However, as the Jews in Babylon discovered, living as an exile can often be very difficult. Which of the Jewish reactions to exile do you most relate to in your own life as an exile?
A bit of trivia:
About half of Daniel (chapters 2-7) were written in Aramaic, the language of Babylon. This means that the life and lessons of Daniel were accessible to Babylonians as well as the Jews living in Babylon. The rest of the book was written in Hebrew.
*We may miss the name-bearing command in Exodus 20:7, because the Hebrew word that is traditionally translated “take” is more accurately “carry” or “wear.” For example, this same Hebrew word is also found in Exodus 28:12, 29, where the high priest literally wears the names of the tribes of Israel on his garments. In Exodus 28:36-37, we see that the high priest is also to wear a seal on his forehead with God’s name on it.
Daniel was in a somewhat unique position. He was a captive, but given a high ranking job in the government of his captors. If I were him, I know I would have had some questions about how I should act in my position. Should I be subversive? Start a rebellion from the inside? Speak out against all the things Babylon was doing wrong? When the culture is actively trying to get me to worship idols (the very thing the Jews were sent into exile for!), how should I stand against that?
Today, we are going to read a letter that was sent by the prophet Jeremiah to the captives in Babylon, including Daniel. It is found in Jeremiah 29. Some of the verses may be familiar to you, but it is possible you have not read them in their full context - as a letter to people exiled far from their homes, and captives to a foreign nation.
Jeremiah 29:1-7, 10-14 (NLT)
Jeremiah wrote a letter from Jerusalem to the elders, priests, prophets, and all the people who had been exiled to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. This was after King Jehoiachin, the queen mother, the court officials, the other officials of Judah, and all the craftsmen and artisans had been deported from Jerusalem. He sent the letter with Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah when they went to Babylon as King Zedekiah’s ambassadors to Nebuchadnezzar. This is what Jeremiah’s letter said:
This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”
…This is what the LORD says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the LORD. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.”
Do you find the content of that letter surprising? Work for the peace and prosperity of the pagan culture? Seek its good? Pray for its welfare?
And yet, that is exactly what we see Daniel doing. While he still longed for his home (Daniel 9), he also did his job, and did it well. He wasn’t an “inside double agent,” or a government resistor. He sought the good of Babylon, even though it was the very culture that had destroyed his home. And because of his obedience, several times throughout the book we see the king of this pagan culture worshiping the God of Daniel. What a challenging example!
Make a list of some ways that you can seek the good of the culture around you, even when you feel that it stands firmly against God. Pray over the list and ask God to help you discern which one you should focus on today.
A bit of trivia:
Jeremiah was a prophet at the same time Daniel was alive, and was the prophet to the “remainder” who were left behind in the ruined Jerusalem. Ezekiel was also a prophet at the same time; he lived in Babylon with Daniel, prophesying to the exiles.
Read: Daniel 3
Yesterday, we considered the letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon. We reflected on his instructions to seek the welfare and prosperity of Babylon. Of course, that’s not the whole story. There are several key moments in the book of Daniel where we see Daniel and his friends take a firm stand against the culture they’re living in. While we should generally seek the good of the world around us, there will also be times when we need to stand up to the idols of this age and say, “No, I will not worship that.”
I know that sometimes I look at the Isrealites from the Bible, and think to myself, “Why did they worship idols? Wasn’t it obvious to them what they were doing?” The answer, I think, is “no, to some extent, they didn’t realize what they were doing.” In that time period, every neighboring culture (and even the one the Isrealites lived in) worshiped idols as a part of their daily rhythm. Much like when we wake up and grab our phone or some coffee (or whatever our morning ritual is) without really thinking about it, the people of that time might get up and burn incense and bow down to an idol in their house, and then go about their day. It was simply part of the culture. Everyone was doing it. In the words of a popular idiom, “How do you explain to a fish what water is?” Idols were everywhere.
In the story of the Fiery Furnace, notice that Nebuchadnezzar did not say that the Babylonians couldn’t worship other gods; he simply demanded that everyone bow down to this one, too. It must have seemed like a reasonable request - bow down to the idol in your household, and bow down to this one too. The exiled Israelites could have bowed down to the cultural god, and convinced themselves that they still worshiped the God of Israel. That option was on the table. It was an option that Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego did not take.
In the same way, we live in a culture that is mostly ok with us worshiping God, as long as that worship of God doesn’t interfere with the type of person the culture says we should be. As far as our culture is concerned, we are allowed to bow down to more than one god.
We need to realize that the human desire to worship things has not gone away. You may not think our culture worships anything, but it does. It’s just that, much like for the Isrealites, the worship of idols is such a part of our culture that we simply don’t notice the water we’re swimming in. The question is not, “Do you worship something?” but rather “What do you worship?”
Spend some time thinking about what the idols of our culture are. The three easiest ones are Sex, Power, and Money (although there are more). Use the following reflection questions to help guide you.
All throughout history in all different cultures, we find worship of the goddess of sex. It was common for human societies to set up temples and other holy sites to worship her.
- We live in a very digital society, where much idol worship is online, and in apps. What are some “digital temples” to the goddess of sex and sexuality that you can think of? Name at least three types.
- In what ways do your views of sex and sexuality align with those of the culture, and in what ways do they align with the Bible?
We live in a democratic society, where power is often expressed through political parties and politicians, rather than the kings and warlords of history.
- Who would you name as the current high priests of the god of political Power? Think of at least three.
- Where are the temples to the god of Power located?
- How do people in our society show that they have aligned themselves with (or worship) the god of political Power?
- Besides politics, what are some other ways that the worship of the god of Power is expressed in our culture?
We all use money; it’s necessary to function in our society. Sometimes, it’s hard to draw the line between using money as a tool, and worshiping money. However, as members of the wealthiest country in the history of the world, sometimes the water we swim in is the worship of Money.
- What image comes to your mind when you think of a wealthy person? What does our culture do to perpetuate that image? How is this tied to the worship of the god of Money?
- What is your first reaction to seeing someone who is outwardly wealthy? Why do you feel that way?
- If a perfect stranger saw your spending and giving habits without meeting you, would they conclude that you worship God or Money?
Spend some time in prayer today asking God to reveal to you some of your blind spots where you might be worshiping the gods of our culture. As you do, consider the following quotes:
“Focus is worship. What I choose to focus on, I worship.” -Mark Sayers
“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” -Mary Oliver
A bit of trivia:
The book of Daniel uses an ancient literary device called a “chiasm.” There is an intentional “mirroring” to the stories within the book. Notice that chapters 2 & 7 contain a vision of four kingdoms, chapters 3 & 6 contain a faithful few standing against the idols of culture, and are then rescued from death by God, and chapters 4 & 5 contain a warning against rulers lifting themselves above God.
Today, we’re going to watch a "Way of the Exile" video by The Bible Project that nicely sums up some of the themes from Daniel’s life that we’ve been thinking about this week.
“I can see how it worked for Daniel, but how do I live The Way of the Exile today?”
Here are a few further resources to help you begin to answer that question.
- Way of the Exile Bible Study
- This Cultural Moment is a short podcast series discussing how to follow Jesus in the current western secular culture. It will help you think about how to be a positive voice in the culture without bowing down to it.
If you only have time to listen to one episode, start here (30 min long): Progressives as The New Pharisees
If you want to listen to the whole series, use these links:
- Further reading on the gods of our culture:
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, by Timothy Keller
No Other Gods: Confronting Our Modern Day Idols, by Kelly Minter