June 19, 2019
The first half of the book of Daniel recounts the stories of Daniel and his compatriots as they find themselves taken into a foreign land during what would be called the Babylonian Captivity. It is a fascinating series of stories that seem designed to establish what it means to remain faithful in a foreign land: Daniel, like Joseph in Genesis, is a model for faithfulness in the face of a radical shift in fortunes.
by Charles Ensminger
As such, there are things to ponder as we consider this opening story of Daniel. To begin with, notice that Daniel and his friends lose their names: Daniel becomes Belteshazzar, “Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.” (verse 7). Not only did Daniel and the three young men lose their home and country, they lose their names.
I would guess that most of us have almost always known the three young men by their Babylonian names, not their given names. It should remind us that who we are can quickly be redefined by the powers that be.
This, of course, is the whole backdrop against which the strength of character that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah will shine forth. They may have lost all that defined them culturally and socially, but they do not allow themselves to be lost. Nor do they allow this situation to become an opportunity for amorality or abandonment of character. Daniel and his friends seek to remain faithful, knowing full well that this would put them at odds with their captors and possibly be the choice that leads to their execution.
However, without being difficult, without objurgation, without being obstinate or giving in to excessive hubris, these four take a stand and bear witness to their faith in God. They are, as the story in Daniel continues to demonstrate, willing to live among the Babylonians. They are not, however, willing to cease being devoted to God.
In fact, later on in the book of Daniel is one of the great testimonies to faithfulness when Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah tell Nebuchadnezzar, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods.” The point? They believe God can deliver them, but even if God does not, they will not give up their faith.
In the story from Daniel 1, though, the point is more sublime. These four will cooperate with Babylon to a degree. And even in their discussion with the chief of the eunuchs, they are willing to offer a compromise: allow us our faith. Should it not prove to be effective or best, we will then submit to your judgment (though not submit to the Babylonian gods).
The narrative concludes by saying that they were brought before Nebuchadnezzar, the person who was most emblematic of the captivity in the book of Daniel. Notice that their faithfulness, while initially putting them at odds with the powers that be, comes to be that which endears them to their captors. The King seeks out their council and allows them to be who they are even among the Babylonians.
What I find this story to tell is that faithfulness comes with cost, or at least the possibility of cost. In being faithful, we remember who we are and to whom we belong. In so doing we bear witness to our faith. And while it may be an avenue for contentiousness or derision for those around us, it need not and should not be because of us. As Paul writes in Romans, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18). The responsibility for level headedness rests on you. You can hope it will be reciprocated, but you are the only one capable of defining your own actions. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah represent their faith and God well. How others react is not up to them. They only need be faithful.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in his poem Who Am I? “Am I then really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself? […] Who am I? This or the Other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling? […] Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”
In the end, the faithfulness of Daniel and the three becomes the avenue through which their lives and the lives of the Babylonians, certainly Nebuchadnezzar, are changed. In the end, the King of the conquestors comes to respect and seek the council of these faithful four. Why? Because they were who they were – they remained faithful without animosity and as such, hearts were changed. How? Because in the end, as Bonhoeffer would have said, they remembered that ultimately, they belonged to God.
Prayer: Almighty God, we pray that even in our darkest moments, we may hold on to our faith in a way that is becoming of your mercy. Enable us to bear witness to all we meet in such a way that they find within us the resonating company of the Holy Spirit. Carry us through our difficulties and in those difficulties, may we find strength in your consistent presence. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.