Written by Pastor Ed
Faith Under Fire
May 10, 2015
Books of the Bible series – Daniel
The story is told of a man who was concerned about starting a new job because he knew that many of the people in his new place of employment were rather rough characters and he was afraid they might make fun of his Christian beliefs. Asked some time later if his fears had been born out he said it really hadn’t been a problem, because they hadn’t found out he was a Christian.
Such was not the case for the main characters of the stories we know so well from the book of Daniel. Their Jewish faith was clearly evident to those around them, and it is what put them into the precarious positions that make these stories so compelling, and favourites of every bible story book. We probably all know the story of Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace or of Daniel and the lion’s den. The story from Chapter 1 that we read is perhaps less well known, but has undoubtedly been used many times to get children to eat their vegetables.
And you may know that Daniel interpreted dreams and had visions, but for the most part we only know Daniel because of the Bible stories we learn in Sunday School. Unless of course, you are into apocalyptic literature or end-times prophecy, and then you can spend a great deal of time trying to decipher the visions and trying to get them to fit with the book of Revelation. Again you can find charts and many interpretations, including the ones of the Millerites who predicted the end of times according to Daniel as happening in 1844.
The book of Daniel itself is a bit of a puzzle. It is neatly divided into two parts, the first part being 6 stories, told in the third person, showing the faithfulness and wisdom of Daniel, the main character in the stories, except for Chapter 3, the story of the fiery furnace where Daniel is not mentioned at all. Chapter 6 ends with the curious line, “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”
And then the last half of the book being Daniel’s visions, told primarily in the first person. There are three other pieces that are included in the Greek version of the book, and can be found in the Apocrypha of English Bibles. These include The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Children which is inserted in in chapter 3 as the song that the three sang while in the fiery furnace; the story of Suzanna, the beautiful wife of Joakim who was accosted by two elders and when she refused to give in to their sexual overtures that accused her of adultery with another man whom they had been unable to catch. But Daniel saves her by showing up their complicity in the case. It is a story I often use in my training with pastors on misconduct.
And finally there is the story of Bel and the Dragon, two stories really again of how Daniel remained faithful and in one case showed up the priests of Bel and in the second again survived being thrown in the lion’s den after killing the revered dragon.
Another curious feature of the book of Daniel is that it was originally written in two languages. Part of it was written in Hebrew, as was most of the Old Testament, but the central part of it was written in Aramaic, a related Semitic language. We should also note that while it is among the prophetic books in our current Bibles, in the Hebrew Bible it is not included in the Prophets scroll or section, but rather in the Writings section. There is also the issue of the dates given and the historical inaccuracies of Daniel, which I won’t go into, you can look those things up if you’re interested.
All of that has led most scholars to conclude that the book of Daniel was written, not in the 6th century B.C. as it purports, but rather in the 2nd century B.C. around the year 165, during the reign of Antioches Epiphanies. Drawing on more ancient stories of what we today might call a “super-hero” named Daniel, the author speaks a word to his fellow Jews about the situation they found themselves in, much as other authors throughout the ages have used stories set in another time to speak to their current situation.
Antioches Epiphanies was a particularly ruthless Seleucid ruler whom you can read about in the book of Maccabees. He was determined to make his entire kingdom one and so set about to outlaw any other than the Greek religion of Zeus. He was particularly incensed by the Jews and sought to wipe out their religion. Thus he outlawed kosher foods and as a test required Jews to eat pork. He set up an altar in the temple and an idol which everyone was required to bow down to on pain of death for refusal. He declared himself divine and thought of himself as a god, while other were quite certain he was mad.
All of these have parallels in the stories of Daniel. And it is not hard to recognize those parallels, while still being able to say, “No, these aren’t about you. They happened a long time ago when the children of Israel were in exile in Babylon.” And the visions fill in the gaps between the 6th century and the 2nd, albeit with some confusion as to actual people and times.
So what was the message of these stories and visions for the people living under the oppression of Antioches IV? Well, in many ways it is the same message as the book of Revelation, written during another period of persecution. Indeed, it is during such times that the apocalyptic literature emerged. And the basic message was, and still is, to remain faithful.
In each of the stories, even as we learned them in Sunday School, the lesson is that no matter what the cost, it is important to remain faithful. While these stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all have happy endings, as any good story should, the three Hebrews answer to the king is even bolder. When asked if they will bow down and worship the golden image, they reply,
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.[b] 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
That is, even if you are not delivered in a miraculous way, you must still stand firm in your faith.
Not only is it important to remain faithful to God, says the writer of Daniel, but it is also important to recognize that ultimately history is in God’s hands. Kingdoms will rise and fall, governments will come and go, but God is still God and even the times of persecution are limited. And if life is difficult here, we know that God has a better future in store for those who remain faithful.
So what can we take from the book of Daniel?
Well, despite the outcries of some, we have to admit that we are not being persecuted or under an oppressive regime, either in the US or Canada. No one is saying we can’t practice our religion as we see fit, just as others are free to practice theirs. Granted, there are places in the world, even today, where the stories of Daniel and the call to faithfulness will still ring true.
We hear reports of Christians in Syria or Vietnam who are given a choice between renouncing their faith or death, just as early Christians, or many of our forebears were. For them the stories of the faithfulness of a Daniel or of the three Hebrews serves as an encouragement to remain true to what they believe.
And for us perhaps it is a question worth pondering. I’ve heard it posed this way. What do you believe strongly enough that you would be willing to die for, or face a fiery furnace or a den of lions? Is your faith strong enough that you could say with Shadrach, “If God can save me, that’s fine but even if God doesn’t, I still won’t change my faith.”
Let me suggest, however, that perhaps the second part of Daniel may have a more relevant lesson for us here in our situation. And I don’t mean in trying to figure out all the symbols, because that’s all they are, symbols. Rather it’s the overall message that the writer is conveying.
Over the past several weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, we heard a lot of rhetoric about the terrible consequences of electing the wrong party – and you can put whichever party you want in that space. With the election over, we immediately began hearing those who were crying doom for Alberta, and even for Canada.
We also hear on a national level the importance of maintaining a strong military and fears of what would happen if the country should somehow be taken over by the wrong kind of government. South of the border the rhetoric is even louder, with some even claiming recently that the Obama administration is about to invade Texas and create a dictatorship. (none of which is true.)
But even if the most ridiculous of conspiracy theories were true, the truth is that it should make no difference to our faith as Christians or our trust in the Lord of history. Kingdoms and governments have risen and fallen throughout history and Christianity has survived all of them. Might it be more difficult in some situations? Certainly, as I said we know that to be true in some countries today.
But as Christians, our first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God which is not dependant on any kingdom of this world or any particular kind of government. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.” Rather he warned the people to fear God who has power beyond the grave.
Unlike the man in the story I began with, Daniel and his friends, whether during the exile or during the reign of Antioches IV, were clearly set apart by their actions of faith. The early Christians were likewise recognizable because of their actions and faced persecution. In much the same way many of our forebearers were singled out and faced imprisonment and even death because their actions clashed with the society around them.
I don’t know if we will even be faced with a reality like that. But even if we aren’t faced with those life or death questions in maintaining our faith, we are called to stand firm and recognize that the Kingdom of God has remained through all the ages, under all kinds of circumstances, because people of faith have stood firm, even in the face of fire.