Dare to be a Daniel
November 14, 1999
The key to this passage is found in the very first verse: “But Daniel resolved …” The King James Version says, “But Daniel purposed in his heart.” Another translation says he “made up his mind.” Everything else flows from this.
Life is a series of choices. As mighty oaks from small acorns grow, we make our decisions and our decisions turn around and make us. You are who you are today because of decisions and choices you made years ago. Most of the time we don’t realize how important small choices can be. That’s especially true when we are young. Many of life’s most important decisions are made during our teenage years: Where will I go to college? What will I major in? Should I get married? And if so, who will I marry, and how will I meet my future mate, and when will it happen? What career will I choose? Who will be my best friends? What music will I listen to? What movies will I watch? Will I drink? Will I take drugs? How far will I go? Will I keep myself pure?
And sooner or later we face the most important decision of all: Will I decide to follow Jesus? This question is crucial because surveys repeatedly show that 90% of all those who come to Christ do so by the age of 18.
Choices! Decisions! Which way to go? Two roads diverge in the yellow woods. Which one will I follow? I cannot take them both.
As we come to our text we find Daniel the teenager facing a crisis in Babylon. The decision he is about to make will radically change his whole life. And when you read about it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But it turns out to be very big indeed.
Daniel and his friends are in Babylon, having been torn away from their families in Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army. Because these young men come from noble backgrounds, the king orders them trained to enter his service. These are God-fearing Jewish teenagers, ripped out of everything they have known, now being trained to work for a pagan king.
Thus begins Operation: Assimilation. The king makes sure they get the best education Babylon can offer. For three years they will be immersed in Babylonian knowledge, culture, history, language, and religion. Their Jewish names are changed in favor of new Babylonian names. At the end of that time they will enter the king’s service and be assured of high-level government positions. It was a sophisticated form of brainwashing aimed at making them forget their past and form a new allegiance to the king and his pagan way of life.
I. Daniel Tested
Everything appears to be going smoothly until one teenager decides he’s not going to go along with the program. God bless the young. Sometimes they have more courage than common sense. And sometimes God speaks to us through them. The first part of verse 8 tells us what we need to know: “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”
Thus begins Operation: Assimilation
This is the crucial event of his life. Although it might not have appeared important at the time, what Daniel did shaped the next 60 years. I think it’s fair to say that looking back from our perspective, Daniel’s decision appears odd to us. We aren’t Jews living in captivity in Babylon, so it’s hard for us to understand what was the big fuss about eating the king’s food at the king’s table. After all, as far as we can tell, Daniel accepted the bondage, he accepted the pagan education, and he evidently even accepted a new pagan name. If you’re going to go along with all of that, why worry about the food? What’s the big deal here?
Someone has pointed out that Daniel had to make three important decisions every day. First, he had to take part in pagan education. But he could disregard those things he knew to be wrong or untrue. Second, he had to put up with being called a pagan name. But he knew that a name alone couldn’t define who he really was. Third, he had to eat pagan food. And at that point, he couldn’t escape what it represented.
I find it fascinating that what seems to us to be the least important issue was the most important to Daniel. But this young man had a proper sense of priorities. He knew that eventually you’ve got to draw a line in the sand and say, “No farther will I go.”
Why Daniel Refused
There were at least three problems with the food served at the king’s table. First, it certainly would not have been prepared according to the kosher laws of the Old Testament. Much of it would be ritually unclean. Second, all the wine and most of the meat would have been previously offered to pagan gods. To eat that food in that situation would be to give tacit endorsement to paganism. Third, Daniel knew that sharing a meal at the king’s table represented sharing the king’s values. Even today sharing a meal with someone has huge symbolic meaning. To eat together implies friendship, support, endorsement, and shared values. In the end Daniel could obey the king and even serve in his government, but he could not pretend to be his friend. To eat that food in that situation represented a moral compromise of everything Daniel believed. Therefore, he made up his mind he would not do it.
This is hugely important because it teaches us that you can’t corrupt a man from the outside. You can change a culture but not a character. You can change his name but not his nature. Daniel may have looked like a pagan but on the inside he was a servant of the living God. Even the mighty Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t do a thing about that.
I think we should pause at this point and think about what Daniel was risking. Certainly he risked angering the king, who wouldn’t appreciate hearing that some teenage kid from Israel didn’t want to eat at his table. No way could that be made to sound good. In fact, it would probably sound rebellious and we know how ancient kings dealt with rebellion. So Daniel was putting his life on the line. He was also spoiling his own chances for advancement. We all know the saying about going along to get along. You can’t climb the ladder while you’re rocking the boat. Look what happens to whistleblowers in any big company. Even when they are right, they end up in big trouble. If this blows up in Daniel’s face, he can kiss his future goodbye.
Excuses Daniel Didn’t Use
Let’s flip this around and ask why he might have eaten the king’s food even though he didn’t like it. After all, he was far from home and no one back in Jerusalem would know about it. Almost everyone else was eating the food with no complaint. “We’re already in captivity,” he might have said. “What difference does it make?” “God understands it’s only food. We can eat it with our fingers crossed. I need to do this to get ahead. People will think I’m a narrow-minded legalist if I make a fuss about this.”
You can always find an excuse when you don’t want to do right. But Daniel didn’t need an excuse. He had already decided to do right no matter what happened.
Verse 8 says that he “purposed in his heart” (KJV). That is, he made up his own mind. He couldn’t decide for anyone else, but he decided for himself what he would and would not do. And that changed everything. I don’t know if he tried to convince anyone else or not. It doesn’t matter. Daniel made up his mind, and his three closest friends decided to join him.
And that leads me to repeat a point made earlier. The Babylonians could change everything—his diet, his location, his education, his language, even his name—but they couldn’t change his heart. Why? It belonged to God. When your heart truly belongs to God, you can go anywhere and face any situation and you’ll be okay. You can even live in Babylon and do just fine because your body is in Babylon but your heart is in heaven. So the question for all of us is, Where is your heart? Does it truly belong to God? Or is your heart fixed on the things of this earth?
Daniel’s Ten-Day Miracle Diet
Verse 9 adds a crucial fact when it says “Now God.” Suddenly God enters the picture. He caused Ashpenaz to look with favor upon Daniel and his three friends. But that happened after Daniel’s decision, not before. Does God bless those who honor him? Yes he does, but you generally don’t experience that blessing until you stand up for what you believe. There is a blessing reserved for the bold that the timid never experience.
Daniel’s proposal was very simple. He asked that he and his three friends be taken off the rich diet and be served only vegetables and water for ten days. At the end of that time the guard could make his own comparison and draw his own conclusions.
There are several attractive features in the way Daniel made his proposal. First, he was tactful in the way he spoke. He didn’t demand anything, he simply made a request. Second, he was obedient in following the chain of command. Third, his request was reasonable. The test would be over in ten days and didn’t require the preparation of unusual food. Fourth, it was easy to evaluate. The guard simply eyeballed the four versus the others and drew his own conclusions.
By the way, the food he offered to eat is called “pulse’ in the King James. It’s a word that can refer to vegetables in general but is often used of cereal. So perhaps we should think of ten days of water and Shredded Wheat. You wouldn’t think that such a diet would work. In fact, it sounds like one of the miracle diets you read about in the supermarket tabloids that promises you will lose 30 pounds in 30 days. But even if you lose all that weight, you end up looking bad and feeling worse.
Verses 15-16 tell us that at the end of the ten days the four teens looked better on their cereal and water diet than the fellows who had been eating T-bone steak at the king’s table. They looked so good that the guard let them continue with their strange diet indefinitely.
Thus does God bless those who make up their minds to honor him.
II. Daniel Rewarded
This story comes to an end on a very positive note. We discover in these verses that God always honors those who honor him. In this case the reward came very quickly. Often it takes much longer than that. And sometimes when we are faithful, our reward doesn’t come until we get to heaven.
I mention the timing because it’s possible to read this story and get the idea that every time we stand up for our convictions, we will be immediately rewarded. This passage proves that sometimes it does happen that way, but on this Sunday when we honor the Persecuted Church around the world, we ought to remember that God’s timing and ours are often quite different. In many parts of the world, our brothers and sisters are paying with blood for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
Therefore, I think it appropriate that we marvel at Daniel’s reward and also remember that God deals with us as individuals. Our call is to be faithful, knowing that in the end, whether on earth or in heaven, no one will ever regret standing up for Jesus.
Verse 17 informs us that God gave these four young men wisdom and understanding. That guaranteed they would stand out above their Jewish contemporaries and far above the Babylonians. Since cream rises, these four young men will soon find themselves in positions of enormous influence in a pagan government.
By the way, it’s important that we notice the order. First, the decision is made to stand up for what they believed. Second, God honored that decision. Third, God gave them wisdom and understanding. You can hardly ask God for wisdom while you are living in a state of spiritual compromise. Again, God honors those who honor him.
The last part of verse 17 tells us that God gave Daniel the unique ability to interpret dreams. We’ll see how that saved his life in the very next chapter.
Verse 18 skips to the end of the three years of education. Now King Nebuchadnezzar will examine all the young men himself. This is the ultimate oral exam. They would be questioned on history, science, economics, the Babylonian language, and presumably also on details of Babylonian religion, including (I would assume) questions about astrology and witchcraft. These young men had to know everything the other young leaders had to know. The result is astounding. The king found them ten times smarter than the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom. Talk about going to the head of the class! They immediately entered the king’s service. Verse 21 adds that Daniel remained in the court of Babylon until the first year of Cyrus, 539 BC That means he served as an advisor to a whole series of Babylonian kings for at least 60 more years.
All this because Daniel said No!
Lessons For Today
Before we leave this marvelous first chapter of Daniel, let’s stop to draw some of the more important lessons for today.
1) The world continually tries to reprogram us into a different way of thinking.
God gave Daniel the unique ability to interpret dreams
It happened to Daniel and his three friends through a course of systematic brainwashing aimed at separating these young men from their past. It involved a new location, a new education, a new diet, a new culture, a new language, and ultimately, new names.
Twenty-five centuries have come and gone and nothing has changed. The world still attempts to separate us from our spiritual heritage. Obviously, our young people are most at risk, but the attack comes to all of us in subtle ways everyday. We are promised promotions that will take us away from our families and from our church fellowship. We are offered educational opportunities that fill our minds with godless falsehood. We are told to keep quiet about our faith until we get to the top and then we can speak out. And all of us are bombarded with anti-God input from the media every day. Make no mistake. There is a battle for your mind, a battle being fought every day. Some of us are losing the battle because we don’t even know there is a battle going on. We just go with the flow and then wonder why we end up looking and sounding just like the Babylonians.
2) We must make up our minds in advance we will be loyal to God.
The key phrase here is “in advance.” Some decisions can’t be made on the spur of the moment. You have to decide that you will not compromise in the things that matter. For Daniel, that meant not eating the king’s food at the king’s table. It doesn’t matter that we today don’t fully understand his decision. What’s important is that Daniel drew a line in the sand and said, “This far, and no farther.” Your line may be different from mine and mine from yours. But if you don’t draw a line somewhere, sometime, you end up being just like the Babylonians all around you. At that point your Christian testimony is worse than useless.
So you’ve got to be smart. Think ahead. Decide what you won’t do. Then don’t do it! Folks, I’m not talking brain surgery here. I’m talking about common sense thinking about your Christian values. Not every hill is worth dying on, but some are, and it’s better to die on those hills than to slink off in shameful compromise because you didn’t have any courage.
3) We must know our own limits and must not do what we know is wrong.
This follows logically from what I have just said. Daniel knew his limits. When they enrolled him at Babylon State University, he didn’t object. When they taught him the Babylonian language, he learned it just like everyone else. When they taught him a new culture, he did not rebel. And even when they changed his name, he apparently did not speak out.
But when they said, “You have to eat the king’s food at the king’s table,” he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that.” And he didn’t. He was courteous in the way he said it and he was creative in the solution he proposed. But make no mistake. By standing his ground, he was risking everything over an issue that made sense to no one but him and his three friends. To the Babylonians it was just nutty. But Daniel saw through the food to the bigger issues underneath and he knew that for him to eat that food at that table would be an act of disloyalty to God, and that was a line he would not cross.
“It’s such a small area,” you say. True and not true. Yes, it seemed small, but as we have seen, the outcome of Daniel’s act of courage was huge. It changed his whole life. In the end it wasn’t small at all. My Christian friend, I tell you in Jesus’ name, there are no small areas. If our God is the Lord of all, then every square inch of your life must be yielded to him. He has left nothing for you play with on your own.
Teenagers today face so many pressures. Sex is being pushed on our kids in elementary school. So is drinking. So are drugs. So is joining a gang. So are filthy language, pornography, and homosexuality. More than ever before, we need a generation of children and teenagers with the courage to say No and to say it in a loud voice.
To say No to sex and Yes to abstinence.
To say No to alcohol and Yes to sobriety.
To say No to drugs and Yes to clean living.
To say No to gangs and Yes to healthy friendships.
To say No to moral filth and Yes to the Word of God.
To say No to sin and Yes to Jesus Christ.
To say No to going along with the crowd and Yes to standing alone.
To say No to temptation and Yes to God.
To say No to cowardice and Yes to bold witness for Christ.
To say No to sexual compromise and Yes to waiting until marriage.
To say No to rebellion and Yes to obedience.
To say No to the chains of sin and Yes to freedom in Christ.
How will any of us find the courage to say No when we need to? Like Daniel, you will find yourself from time to time in a moral crisis. How will you know it’s a crisis? You’ll know it when you get there, and often you won’t see it coming in advance. So make up your mind right now that by God’s grace, when those moments come, you will purpose in your heart not to defile yourself.
Make up your mind now! Years ago, I heard a little phrase that has helped me more than once. When faced with a hard moral choice, say these words: “Others may, I cannot.” You don’t have to decide for anyone else, but you do have to decide for you.
This week I read about a 400-year-old redwood that suddenly and without warning toppled to the forest floor. What caused the death of such a majestic giant? Was it fire? Lightning? A strong wind? A post-mortem examination revealed a startling cause. Tiny beetles had crawled under the bark and literally eaten the fibers away from the inside. Although it looked healthy on the outside, on the inside it was virtually hollow and one day finally collapsed.
The same thing happens when we refuse to stand our ground for Christ. Every time we compromise something bad happens in our soul. Eventually the little decisions add up and we become hollow on the inside even though we may look great on the outside.
Don’t let that happen to you.
4) Godly convictions yield God-given rewards.
Here is the final lesson. What starts with Daniel ends with God. What starts with courage ends with a lifetime of blessing. Look what God did for this courageous teenager:
God protected Daniel (when he proposed the test)
God prospered Daniel (during the test and afterward)
God promoted Daniel (in the eyes of the King)
I cannot read this story without thinking of the words of God to Eli in 1 Samuel 2:30b, “Those who honor me I will honor.” I told you in the beginning that this was the crucial event of Daniel’s life. It may not have seemed important at the time, but his decision not to eat the King’s food shaped the next 60 years. We talk about Daniel 2500 years later precisely because of his decision. If he doesn’t make the right choice, the rest of the book never gets written, and he becomes a forgotten Jew in Babylon who looked and acted just like everyone else.
I know that in terms of scientific progress, the world has changed since Daniel’s day, but God has not changed. God’s Word has not changed. And the world still tries to seduce us. The good news from Daniel 1 is that it is possible to live for God in high school, in college, at work, and in your career. Daniel has shown us the way.
In 1873, P.P. Bliss wrote a gospel song about this story that became very popular but has in our day become virtually unknown. It is called “Dare to be a Daniel.”
Standing by a purpose true,
Heeding God’s command,
Honor them, the faithful few!
All hail to Daniel’s band!
Many mighty men are lost
Daring not to stand,
Who for God had been a host
By joining Daniel’s band.
Many giants, great and tall
Stalking through the land,
Headlong to the earth would fall,
If met by Daniel’s band.
Hold the gospel banner high!
On to victory grand!
Satan and his hosts defy,
And shout for Daniel’s band.
Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.
The application of my sermon is very simple. I dare you. Be a Daniel this week.