Maintaining Faith In A Hostile Environment

Daniel 2.

The Book of Daniel is one of the exilic Biblical literature, including Esther, Ezekiel, and segments in both Jeremiah and the Minor Prophets. Together, they explored the Israelites’ challenging predicament during their exile, after King Nebuchadnezzar’s initial conquest of the Holy Land in 577 BC, when the King took with him 10,000 of Jewish society’s literati to forcibly acculturate them to Babylonian values. However, at the outset, the majority of the Jewish diaspora segregated themselves outside the city (Ezek 1:1), until Jeremiah’s letter encouraged them to be deeply engaged in the life of the city; to intercede and to seek her peace and wellbeing, as was intended by Yahweh. The one proviso was that they were to remain faithful to their spiritual identity (Jer 29:1-7); in other words, to be God’s salt in loving the pagan Babylonians. In an alien environment where her government, culture and religious institutions gravitated against God, how would the nominated Jewish civil servants survive and continue to bear testimony to their God? These historical narratives in Daniel hold some pertinent lessons for us too.

King Nebuchadnezzar

Although we are not told Daniel’s age when he was brought to Babylon, we know from the narrative that by the time he and his three friends were inducted into the Babylonian civil service, he was uncompromisingly committed to Yahweh and devoutly spiritual in his daily communion with God. However, it is pertinent to note that the king’s advisors, the ‘wise men’ who surrounded his throne, were the magicians, the conjurers, the sorcerers and the master astrologers of the nation (Dan 2:2; 12-13), and Daniel (in Hebrew meaning – God, my Judge), Hananiah (Yahweh is gracious), Mishael (Who is like God) and Azariah (Yahweh my Helper), were among them. In fact, their respective Hebrew names were effectively indigenized into Chaldean namesakes to Belteshazzar (Bel, my god), Shadrach (The command of Aku – the Moon-god), Meshach (Who is as great as Aku), and Abed-nego (The servant of Ishtar – the goddess of war and sex). How did Daniel and his companions handle these seemingly extreme dichotomies of name changes and learning ‘the dark arts’ of Babylon? Although their perspective of life in captivity was to honour Yahweh’s name and to glorify Him uncompromisingly (c.f., Dan 1:3-16), their rise to the pinnacle of power as advisors to the king, meant that they had submitted themselves to learning all there was to be studied in the polities of the Babylonian court, including her pagan rituals and highly unorthodox practices. They certainly knew where to draw their battle-lines!

In the ancient world, significant dreams were taken seriously. The focus and meaning of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream were not lost to the King himself, as it concerned his kingdom, the greatest in the world then, but it intensely shook him up and sent him into a rage. Suddenly, it was belittling for him to realise that his monumental project of building a colossal image of himself to be worshipped was judged to have ‘feet of clay.’ Furthermore, the foundations of his kingdom will one day crumble into dust, to say the least, was difficult to digest. The final indignity in his dream was to have a tiny stone destroy his legacy, his empire; it incensed him. This explained his impossible command to his wise men to ‘mindread’ what he had dreamt and to unravel its meaning! To anyone who is fixated on himself, building his world around himself, the message that confronted King Nebuchadnezzar is a warning – we are on very fragile ground. The meaning of the dream was simply that no kingdom will ever survive on a foundation that God had not initiated (1 Cor 3:10-11). Our motivations often underlie the foundations that we built for ourselves, and if we are honest with ourselves, we soon will discover their direction.

What is the meaning of ‘the rock?’ It is characterized as a humble, common element, unlike the fashioned gold, silver, iron and clay of the statue, and is supernaturally derived and empowered (c.f., 1 Cor 1:26-29). The kingdom of God, seemingly powerless and small, will eventually crush the kingdoms of this world, and will one day fill the whole earth. The lessons from Daniel are profoundly straightforward: as we engage the challenges for any group of people for Christ’s sake, a life of integrity and devotional singularity before God is essential. We need to know that our foundations are indisputably in Him and possess His compassion and love for people wherever He has placed us, understanding that the kingdom of God is among us, but it is not entirely here yet (c.f., Heb 11:8-10). The focus of our faith is in Jesus Christ, the stone which the builders rejected that became the chief cornerstone for humanity (Matt 21:42).