“Gifts for the missionary” was the title of the message I shared at three churches in Illinois September 10th and 17th, 2017. Here is the message:
Daniel 1 (CSB17)
In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. 2 The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God. Nebuchadnezzar carried them to the land of Babylon, to the house of his god, and put the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility– 4 young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature. 5 The king assigned them daily provisions from the royal food and from the wine that he drank. They were to be trained for three years, and at the end of that time they were to attend the king. 6 Among them, from the Judahites, were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. 7 The chief eunuch gave them names; he gave the name Belteshazzar to Daniel, Shadrach to Hananiah, Meshach to Mishael, and Abednego to Azariah. 8 Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself. 9 God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, 10 yet he said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.” 11 So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.” 14 He agreed with them about this and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food. 16 So the guard continued to remove their food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables. 17 God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind. 18 At the end of the time that the king had said to present them, the chief eunuch presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king interviewed them, and among all of them, no one was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they began to attend the king. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king consulted them about, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and mediums in his entire kingdom. 21 Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Our text begins with a tragedy, but most of us skip right past it, only stopping to notice what we already know. So, allow me to share the background to the story. The first person listed in the text is king Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim was the puppet of two Gentile superpowers. He first surrendered the sovereignty of his nation to Egypt. Then, after Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem he switched sides and supported that superpower.
The author of 2 Kings tells us that all this “happened to Judah at the Lord ‘s command to remove them from his presence” (2Ki 24:3 CSB). The kings of Judah had been so rebellious and violent that they had “filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive” (2Ki 24:4 CSB).
The prophets had warned Judah for years that it had no immunity from being judged by God. But they always felt that they could handle whatever happened. Maybe they thought that their former and present kings had made mistakes, but they probably thought that the next generation would be different. Surely the next crop of the best and the brightest in Judah would turn things around. But then, Nebuchadnezzar rounds up the lot of these best and brightest Judahites and takes them away to Babylon to make Babylonians out of them!
The real tragedy in all this is not just the fact that tough times have come to God’s people. The real tragedy is that it is God who is behind all this. This dark story serves as the background to the amazing book of Daniel.
The book of Daniel is best categorized as an apocalyptic prophecy. But this first chapter in the book makes no predictions and describes no events or nations in symbol. The chapter simply sets the historical backdrop for the parts of the book which do predict the future.
When I recently asked the Lord to give me a text which I could use to preach on world missions, he gave me this text. I didn’t exactly know why. I thought it probably had to do with the extensive cross-cultural training that Daniel and his three friends experienced. They were taken out of their home culture and context and forced to adjust to a new political structure, a new economic life, a new religious world, a new social environment, a new intellectual grid, and even a new artistic arena.
They were each given new Aramaic Babylonian names.
You might have noticed that two of their original Hebrew names ended in EL (DaniEL, MishaEL). EL is short for Elohim, the Hebrew word for God.
- Daniel means “Elohim is my judge.”
- Mishael means “Who is like Elohim?”
The other two names ended in YAH (HananiYAH, AzariYAH). YAH is short for Yahveh, the covenant name for God.
- Hananiah means “Yahveh is gracious.”
- Azariah means “Yahveh is my helper.”
The chief eunuch gave these young men new, Aramaic Babylonian names that featured the names of the Babylonian gods Bel, Aku, Nebo or Nergal.
- Belteshazzar probably meant “Bel will protect him.”
- Shadrach probably meant “command of Aku.”
- Meshach probably meant “who is like Aku?”
- Abednego probably meant “servant of Nebo” or “servant of Nergal.”
This was only the first step in Nebuchadnezzar’s planned indoctrination of these young men. He would also make sure they became fluent in Aramaic, and skilled in the magic arts.
Part of the enticement for these young men to go along with the king’s plans was for them to be allowed a diet fit for the king himself – rich in meats, sweets and wine. It was this enticement that Daniel objected to most of all. He could treat all the other cultural immersion factors as academic. But if he got used to feasting like Nebuchadnezzar, he was sure that it would defile him.
Now, here is – I think – the theological focus of this chapter. Daniel, as an Israelite, has a commandment that guided his life. He had the Old Testament equivalent of the Great Commission. His ancestor, Abraham, was commanded to bless the nations.
“And I will make of you an influential nation, and I will bless you and make your name important, and be a blessing” (Gen 12:2 JDV).
Daniel felt personally responsible to be a positive influence upon the nation of Babylonia. But he knew that he could not make that influence if he entirely set aside his own identity as a Hebrew. They could take the Jew out of Jerusalem, but he would not allow them to take Jerusalem out of the Jew.
Herein is the missions challenge for all of us. We have each been called to serve God within a particular culture and ethno-linguistic people group. How do we bless that culture without losing our Christian identity within it? For Daniel, the question was how could he bless the Babylonians without totally becoming one. For Christians in 21st century anywhere, that is essentially the same challenge we face.
That was essentially the question I brought to this text as I stood with my Bible open a few days ago. I was looking for a clue as to the structure of the chapter. I found that the same Hebrew word is repeated three times. The word drives the narrative. That word is the verb נתן (natan). It means “to give.” It is translated with different words in English, but each time it appears, it categorizes the whole section it is in.
The first appearance of נתן is in verse 2:
“The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God.”
When the biblical author writes the story of this great tragedy, he is careful to maintain the complete sovereignty of God. Jehoiakim failed, Judah failed, but God did not fail. Jerusalem was overrun by Gentiles because God allowed it. The temple was robbed because God gave its treasures up. The Israelites were taken captive because God made it happen. Yahveh was not pacing up and down in heaven, wondering what he could do. History was still marching at his pace. The planet was still in his control. When Daniel and his friends left Jerusalem, it was because God had a mission for them in Babylon.
The second appearance of נתן is in verse 9:
“God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch.”
The same God who orchestrated the events that brought Daniel and his friends to Babylon also orchestrated the relationships he had with others. The key players who made it possible for the Hebrew men to restrict their diets ware the chief eunuch and the guard. It was not enough for Daniel and his friends to be in Babylon. They had to demonstrate the difference between the Babylonian gods and their God. They had to show their commitment to Yahveh. God allowed the chief eunuch and the guard to show them favor so that they could see the difference. They oversaw their training and it would be them who would decide whether they were worthy to be tested by the king.
The final appearance of נתן is in verse 17:
“God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom.”
Here again, we see God at work. Many of the Bibles and commentaries on this chapter emphasize the faithfulness of Daniel and his friends. They were found faithful. But the author of this book is not just emphasizing human faithfulness. He is demonstrating God’s involvement in the lives of these men. These young men were highly skilled and proved themselves better than all the other candidates – not just because they were faithful to God – but because God gave them the knowledge and wisdom and skills they needed. God had a vested interest in putting these young men in positions of leadership in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.
Daniel recognized that as a child of Abraham he had the responsibility – nay, the mission to be a blessing to the nation of Babylonia. God sovereignly orchestrated the details of world history to put him in Babylon. God arranged the necessary relationships that enabled Daniel to remain faithful and distinctive as an Israelite despite Nebuchadnezzar’s plan to turn him into a Babylonian. God also gave him the understanding and skills and resources he needed to succeed in his mission.
Fast forward a few thousand years. Now it is our turn. We also have a mission from God – a Great Commission from Christ. Christ has called us to make disciples of all nations. Some of those nations might be relatively easy to reach for Christ. But some – like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon – will require a tremendous cultural immersion.
The good news is that the same God who worked behind the scenes in Daniel’s life to make him successful in his mission is ready to help us too.
- He is sovereign, and he can change the course of world history if necessary to place you where he wants you.
- He knows just the right people who you need to befriend to open the doors for your discipling ministry.
- He stands ready to give you the knowledge, skills, and resources you need to get the job done.
Maybe you have never considered serving the Lord as a missionary. Lots of people don’t. Lots of people think that God cannot use them to reach others for Christ. The only thing you need to be successful as a missionary is the one thing Daniel had – the presence of God. So, I want to remind you of what Jesus said to his disciples right after he gave them his Great Commission. He said, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat 28:20 CSB17).