Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Flyover Country: Daniel

Lately, when I get feeling a bit melancholic and don’t have time for a full-length tour through Hebrews or John’s gospel, I read a chapter of Daniel. That’ll set me straight every time.

Other Old Testament prophets are primarily concerned with nations long gone or dispersed and judgments that for the most part have already taken place, and often with exhorting God’s people to acts of repentance that sadly never happened. There are important lessons to be learned from them, as with all books of the Bible, but these are frequently either allegorical or second-hand.

Daniel is way, way bigger than that. It has the whole world and much of human history in view, and it even gives us fleeting, suggestive glimpses what’s going on behind the scenes in the heavens as well.

Lessons at the Heart

When I encountered the prophet Daniel as a boy, I assumed he was the central character of his own book. Today, he seems to me more like a solid character actor playing a recurring role in what is really the story arc of King Nebuchadnezzar, the last great Chaldean monarch in a world empire on the edge of dissolution.

Don’t get me wrong, Daniel is one of the most admirable men in all scripture, but there is nothing moving or relatable to me about his personal trajectory. He begins as a young man full of integrity — godly, intractable and wise — and he ends up exactly the same way, except a whole lot older. That is not the story of my life, though I always appreciate men who can pull off that sort of unblemished spiritual track record. No, it is Nebuchadnezzar who finds himself transformed by a series of events which Daniel at best facilitates. The lessons he learns are the book’s heart.

One Sentence Summary: The heavens rule.

I would have gone with “the everlasting kingdom”, but the lesson Nebuchadnezzar learns is broader than just that Christ is coming one day in the future to establish the final, transcendent kingdom on earth, an empire that will never end. No, what the Babylonian king found out is that the heavens rule right here and right now. God is not waiting for Christ’s return to show that he is in charge. Satan may be the god of this world, but he never, ever, has the final say. And certainly no human being does. God is running the show right this moment, from behind the scenes, as throughout all human history. Nobody ever gets the better of him.


The book of Daniel covers a period from two decades prior to Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC through to the first year of the reign of Cyrus king of Persia. The prophet lived and prospered in two different world empires and during the reigns of four different monarchs, and spent the vast majority of his life outside his home country of Judah serving in high-level positions of trust for nations that had dispersed and/or oppressed his native people.

Chapter 1 begins with Daniel, a young member of the Jewish elite, being chosen by Nebuchadnezzar’s chief eunuch to stand before the king, which seems to have involved offering information and advice when called upon. To ensure he was up to the job, he and the other Judeans forcibly taken to Babylon were to be educated for three years in the literature and language of the Chaldeans. This was common practice in ancient empires: to cannibalize and repurpose the intellectual capital of the nations they overwhelmed and destroyed. Babylon the city had been around for a millennium, but the Neo-Babylonian Empire over which Nebuchadnezzar presided was a relatively recent entity that dominated the world of its day for only slightly over a century. Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar sensed his kingdom was at the tail end of its life cycle; perhaps not. In any case, the king’s goal was to make Babylon the very best it could be, and he wasn’t overly concerned about genetics: better a Hebrew super-intellect in his service than a sub-par Chaldean. As we will discover, he was deeply concerned about his empire enduring after he passed into the annals of history.

In order to secure the loyalty of his trainees and to impress upon them the superiority of his kingdom and the value of their service, Nebuchadnezzar treated them superbly. They ate the same food he did and drank the same wine, both of which were likely offered to the gods of the Chaldeans prior to being consumed. In any case, Daniel considered these delicacies a source of spiritual defilement. Unlike the rest of his “university class”, Daniel and three of his friends declined to participate in this honor, and God honored them in return. They prospered above their peers. The historical chapters of Daniel recount how his elevation to the highest place in the kingdom of the Chaldeans served God’s purposes and glorified his name repeatedly.


There are many different ways of viewing the themes in the book of Daniel. I believe its most prominent theme is God’s sovereignty in the unlikeliest of circumstances. But if its writer intended it to serve as proof of God’s determination to miraculously preserve his people Israel even while judging them for their sins, it serves that purpose admirably. Nobody who has read Daniel has any logical or scriptural grounds to believe God is done with the Jews today.

On the other hand, if Daniel was intended to give us a prophetic overview of the ancient world and a glimpse into the future, it does that as well. The inclusion of Daniel’s prayer for his nation also demonstrates the necessity for corporate as well as individual repentance and reminds us we do not live to ourselves.

Further, if the book was meant to show us the complicated relationship between angelic powers and earthly nations, it succeeds in a way no other OT book does. And if Daniel was intended to school the Christian as to when he must obey God rather than men, it even does that for us. The book accomplishes all these things and more, and I am disinclined to try to attempt to nail down its intended purposes and goals too narrowly.

Organization and Content

In our Protestant English Bibles, Daniel is made up of six chapters of history and six chapters of prophetic visions and their interpretations. The chapter divisions are relatively recent but quite logical, especially in the historical chapters. There are six distinct historical accounts, each of which involves God’s direct and miraculous involvement, and each of which demonstrates that the heavens do indeed rule. In the six prophetic chapters things are a little more nebulous. Daniel has three visions, one each during the reigns of Belshazzar, Darius and Cyrus. Their interpretations are also given to us, insofar as we are able to grasp them from our limited knowledge of ancient history. All these revelations have consequences for the Jewish people, and some reach to the very end of world history, providing the basis for much of the prophetic language of subsequent OT prophetic books and especially the book of Revelation.

Certain Christian denominations favor translations of the Bible that add apocryphal content to Daniel. These intrusions emphatically do not belong, as any careful reader will instantly recognize when he lays them alongside the alternative. To demonstrate this beyond reasonable doubt exceeds the scope of this post, but you can find my somewhat-intolerant analyses of these three commonly-accepted apocryphal sections of Daniel here, here and here.

Value to Modern Readers

Nebuchadnezzar’s story arc is magnificent. In chapter 1, the king tries to suborn Daniel and his friends and is thwarted by faithfulness and the hand of God, who prospers his servants against all expectation. Heavens 1, Nebuchadnezzar 0.

In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue representing his kingdom and those to come. Of all his magicians and advisors, only the Hebrew servant of Jehovah is able to interpret it. The interpretation is that his kingdom will end, and that God’s will endure forever. Heavens 2, Nebuchadnezzar 0.

In chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar decides his kingdom might be more enduring if he could get all its subjects on the same page. After all, a statue will not cohere when made up of different substances, including precious metals, iron and clay, but a gold statue symbolizes unending power, purity and consistency. So the king commissions a statue ninety feet high and commands it be worshiped by all. Daniel’s three friends decline, and God miraculously embarrasses Nebuchadnezzar. Heavens 3, Babylon 0.

Daniel 4 is written by Nebuchadnezzar himself, one of the few Aramaic chapters in our Old Testament. In it he experiences miraculous humbling, wandering mindless and wild for seven years until God restores his sanity and kingdom. His conclusion? “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever.” Guess what? The heavens rule. Heavens 4, Nebuchadnezzar 0. But by humbling himself before God, this time Nebuchadnezzar wins too.

By chapter 5 Nebuchadnezzar has passed from the scene. His son Belshazzar has failed to learn the lessons taught to his father, and makes sport of the holy things taken from Jerusalem during a drunken banquet. The hand of God writes his fate on the wall, and again, only Daniel can interpret it. Heavens 5, Babylon 0.

Oh, and that very night, the Medes and Persians put an end to his reign.

God rules. There is no question of that. The prophetic portions of Daniel are the subject of much dispute. I find them tremendously valuable and confirming of the teaching of other passages of scripture; other Christians basically write certain aspects of them off entirely, particularly those that suggest God is still working to fulfill his promises to Abraham concerning his literal descendants.

So then, maybe the value of Daniel to modern readers is most obvious in the historical passages, which demonstrate unequivocally that our God is able to deliver us anytime, anywhere.

The heavens really do rule.

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