Some Sunday school stories linger long in our minds, especially those with animals in them, like Daniel in the lion’s den and Jonah and the whale. The impossibilities of the Daniel-story and fable-like characteristics of the Jonah-story make a big impression. Our imaginations are engaged, which is a good thing after all. My sons listened wide-eyed as they could sense that I was a little more serious about these than all the other stories I told them, sometimes just random stories. I would think of anything to make them be still for a while!
The lion’s den story is well-known. Daniel is taken as a prisoner to Babylon after a cruel siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, which lasts for over a year. He is part of the southern kingdom of Israel named Judah, which comprised the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. We don’t know whether he was in Jerusalem while the siege was going on, but we meet him in the palace of the mighty Babylonian emperor, Nebuchadnezzar. It was customary that the conquering king took the smartest and most talented people and forced them into service for the victor.
Daniel was probably around sixteen of seventeen years old when he started out in service of Babylon. At that age he would have been well-schooled in the customs of his Hebrew traditions, attending the three main feasts in Jerusalem at the Temple of Solomon with all the other males from around the city. His faith was the firm foundation throughout his life that kept him strong in a brutal, foreign, pagan environment.
He is promoted to a high position in the court of Babylon after his supernatural knowledge of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the interpretation thereof. Honestly, sometimes the Bible stories outsmarts any fable out there.
Nebuchadnezzar dreams and calls all his magicians and sorcerers to not only interpret the dream, but also, somehow figure out what the dream was in the first place. He threatens them with death – they will all be hacked to pieces. They complain heavily, having no way of doing something so impossible. They are taken into custody. Daniel hears of this matter and subtly enquires from the captain of the king’s guard. Daniel asks for an extension of time and a stay on the executions for him to pray. God reveals the dream to him and he boldly declares the source of his knowledge in the King’s presence (Daniel 2:28) There is a God in heaven who reveals secrets…
Nebuchadnezzar rules for more than forty years in Babylon. He conquers Jerusalem more or less halfway through his reign. Somewhere in the last twenty years of his reign he meets Daniel and gives him an honorary place in the palace. During this time, he falls into the arrogance and pride so typical of an ancient pagan ruler, and is humiliated to a condition of mental illness that makes him to behave like an animal, eating grass. He is healed and restored while acknowledging the greatness of the one true God.
Daniel survives the changes in the top job of Babylon with miraculous honour throughout. Mostly one ruler got rid of the previous ruler’s advisers to ensure unwavering loyalty.
Belshazzar, a crown prince of Babylon, rules in the place of his father, who is absent from the city in a sort of self-imposed exile. During a palace feast lasting several days, he calls for the golden chalices and serving plates of the Temple of Solomon of which he probably heard when his forefathers recounted the victory over Judah and the magnificence of the Temple which they destroyed. The raucous party is silenced when a magical hand appears to write words upon the wall. The words were known, it was not illegible, but none of the court’s wise men had the guts to tell the king what it really meant. (Daniel 5:9)
Daniel, being used to answer to a higher power, fearlessly spell out the meaning of the words to the highly upset king, all the while refusing the promises of riches and gifts. (Daniel 5:17) In the process the whole story of Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation is told. Belshazzar dies that same night (Daniel 5:30)
Darius, the Mede rules in Babylon after Babylon is conquered by the Persians. Daniel rules as one of three ministers over one hundred and twenty governors to administrate the rule of Persia. He excels in everything he does and enjoys the favour of the king. That makes him the target of a treacherous, jealous conspiracy. Certain officers of the court suggest a needless decree to supposedly honour king Darius. Only for thirty days, the people of Persia would not be allowed to worship any other than the king himself. Disobedience would be punishable by death. Darius falls for their false tribute and makes a decree that cannot be reversed, according to the custom in Persia at the time. The conspirators knew they would be able to accuse Daniel, as they were well aware of his public prayer three times a day. It was, after all, the only way to get rid of his influence in court to make way for their own.
Darius quickly realizes that the whole thing is targeting Daniel and not his own honour. He spends a sleepless night to think of something to save Daniel, but has to execute the sentencing the next day. He has to act according to the conniving scheming of his court officials. Daniel is thrown into a den of hungry lions.
He seals the den himself with prophetic words over Daniel.
But the king spoke, saying to Daniel, “Your God, whom you serve continually, He will deliver you.” (Daniel 6:16)
It is a painful, unfair situation with open discrimination and persecution for something that would not benefit Babylon in any way. It was contrary to any advantage for Babylon as Daniel excelled as a ruler in favour of the king and his interests. The king, the political power, has no solution, no way out of the death-plans of jealousy and resentment.
Another sleepless night for Darius, until he could visit the den with words that reverberate over centuries:
“Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” (Daniel 6:20)
Was your God able?
Daniel walks out of the lion’s den without a shadow of hurt that could have come from a struggle against his circumstances for the many hours of a dark night.
So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no injury whatever was found on him, because he believed in his God. (Daniel 6:23)
His guiltless righteousness shines like the noonday (Psalms 37:6) as he meets Darius outside the den with a big smile, declaring his God able.
Ancient legal process is swift and vindictive. His accusers meet that fate they had planned for him. The hungry lions – the tribulation of Daniel – rids him of his enemies. The situation is turned around. The evil plot is punished – there and then.
In the West we live in a very sensitive society where some of the unrighteousness of the past is selectively and hysterically hoisted to a burning political, economic and social priority in an effort to soften the pain of failure and economic inequality. So much unfair discrimination is still so evident in our societies. Frenzied protestors line the streets, shouting demands from anyone with power and money so that the media stays focussed on the crimes of past generations. Just a superficial investigation of history will reveal that the perpetrators were also victims at some stage in the past. The feudal system in Europe and Russia reduced the peasants to slave-like conditions in an entrenched class-system with no hope of individual advancement.
The bitter, angry voices of inequality and discrimination thunders in our streets and halls of power. There is a deep discontent in communities accompanied by an active search for group guilt who might offer some sort of compensation.
There is however, only one solution. Our lion’s den of hatred and oppression is God’s opportunity for miracles and supernatural provision to change our society on a deeper level than economic reparations could ever achieve. How else would our world change into the forgiving and loving community that God made possible through the Cross of Jesus?
This is our survival of the lion’s den of racism and hate. May God, who was able to save Daniel from the den of unfairness and unrighteousness without injury, enable us to love unconditionally with unconquerable goodwill, to change our society on a deeper level than any political, economic or social reforms can ever hope to achieve.