Daniel 1:3-8: Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 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, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. 8 But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.
As Christians we have a dual citizenship. By nature we are citizens of an earthly society: we belong to a family, a town or city, a state, and a country. By grace we are citizens of a heavenly society: we belong to the church and kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. One of the greatest challenges of discipleship is faithfully navigating this dual citizenship. How can we honor both God and country, church and family, heaven and earth? Most often faithfulness to God directs us to faithfulness to our earthly citizenship as well. God’s general will is that we would submit to the ruling authorities, for he has established authority for the good of humankind (Rom. 13:1-7, 1 Pet. 2:13-17). However, this is not always the case. There are times when our allegiance to Christ and our loyalty to our country will come into tension and conflict. What should we do then?
The book of Daniel gives us a tremendous amount of insight and wisdom in answer to this question. Daniel and his friends (v. 6) were among those young men who were deported from Judah to Babylon by king Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BC (v. 3-4). Suddenly these four youths found themselves thrust into an entirely new situation which brought their loyalty to God and their circumstances and responsibilities in a foreign land into sharp conflict. Nebuchadnezzar’s goal was that these young men would be thoroughly assimilated into Babylonian culture and become his loyal servants. They were to be educated for three years in the language and literature of the Babylonians (v 4-5). They were to eat the king’s food and drink the king’s wine (v. 5). They were also given new names, and this was the clearest marker that they were no longer to be Jewish, but rather Babylonian (v. 7). Their Hebrew names reflected their relationship to the God of Israel. The NET Bible says, “In Hebrew Daniel means “God is my judge”; Hananiah means “the Lord is gracious”; Mishael means “who is what God is?”; Azariah means “the Lord has helped.” It is less clear exactly what their new Babylonians names meant, but they certainly weren’t connected to the God of Israel, and it is likely that each of the names had meaning in relation to one of the Babylonian gods.
How could Daniel and his friends resist this assimilation? How could they remain faithful to God under such intense pressure to conform to an idolatrous society? It is helpful first to observe what they did not do. They did not refuse to serve the king of Babylon. Instead, by God’s grace they became better and wiser than any of the king’s pagan advisers (Dn. 1:18-20), and the rest of the book shows us that they served the kings of Babylon and Persia well by pointing them to the fact that the God of heaven ruled over all the kings and kingdoms of the earth, including their own. Second, they did not denigrate their new host culture. Although they had been brought to Babylon by force, and although the Babylonians had inflicted great suffering on the people of Judah, there is no evidence in the book of Daniel that these men despised and mocked Babylonian culture. Certainly, there was much in that culture which they found objectionable, but rather than focusing on what was negative they diligently worked at cultivating their faithfulness to the Lord and being his servants in this strange place.
So, what did Daniel and his friends do? They looked for ways to maintain their distinct Jewish identity even while they were being trained to serve the king of Babylon. This began with the matter of what food they would eat. Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank” (v. 8). As prisoners Daniel and his friends had very little control over their circumstances. So, they did what they could do. The instructions about clean and unclean foods in the Law of Moses were meant as a kind of boundary which separated Israel from the nations around them. Observing these laws was one way in which they were to be holy (set apart) to the Lord (Lev. 11). Some of the king’s foods (such as wine) would probably not have violated the Law of Moses, while others would have. Daniel’s resolve not to eat the king’s food and drink the king’s wine was a way to distance himself from the king dictating every aspect of his life, and a way to assert his dependence on and obedience to God. It was a way for Daniel and his friends to continue to say, “We are Jews who worship the true God, and not Babylonians who worship idols.”
As we consider Daniel’s example it is important for us to ask ourselves: In what ways are we to cultivate and maintain a distinct identity as followers of Jesus? What attitudes and actions do we need to abstain from because they would compromise our faithfulness to Jesus? What attitudes and actions must we remain committed to, no matter what, because they are essential for our faithfulness to Jesus? How can we serve our host culture and governing authorities well? In what ways can we point them to the fact that the crucified and risen Jesus reigns over all?
Probably no book in the NT is more important for answering these questions than 1st Peter. It is a book which identifies followers of Jesus with Old Testament saints such as Daniel and his friends. They were exiles, and so are we. The opening words of Peter’s letter are: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
My invitation to you as we conclude our 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting over the course of the next week is: read and study 1st Peter. Pay close attention to the text and look for the instructions it gives for how we as are to cultivate and maintain our distinct identity as Christians while we remain good citizens of the earthly kingdom to which we belong until Christ returns.
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer can help you get started: “Heavenly Father, thank you for the example of Daniel and his friends. Thank you for how you were with them, and how you helped them as they were determined to remain faithful to you in Babylon. Lord, help me to have that same determination. Help me to be resolved not to defile myself with the things of this world. Grant me wisdom as I study your word, that I would know how to remain distinct as a disciple of Jesus. In His name I pray, Amen.”