I like to think of myself as the Domestic Empress of my home. Seven of us live here, but deep down I know this old place never truly lights up and sings unless I’m here. This house is my kingdom, and I preside with varying degrees of justice, mercy, and basil-scented floor cleaner. We each feel like we are the center of our own world, and I’m sure my husband has some equally-exalted secret title for himself.
It’s like the children’s game “King of the Mountain”—each child clamors and grasps to be the one at the top of the heap. We want to build our tower to heaven to prove that we are the best, and we’ve been doing it for all of human history.
Long ago, before the flood, before Joseph’s coat, and before Abraham’s covenant, Nimrod— “the first powerful man on earth”— established Babel (Genesis 10:8-10). “Now the whole earth had one language and one speech… and they found a plain in the land of Shinar” (Genesis 11:1-2). There they built a tower, a stairway to heaven, but God confused their languages and they scattered before it could be completed. The Tower of Babel fell into ruins until many years later, when King Nebuchadnezzar used that very place to build his city of Babylon, symbolically putting on the old tyrannical culture of Nimrod: whatever they saw, they took (Genesis 6:2).
Babylon was founded amidst this culture of usurpation. Even their mythology relied on one god usurping another god in a fruitless chain of hostile takeovers. The Mesopotamian culture promised no hope of an afterlife, so their only consolation lay in achieving lasting fame through conquest and exploit.
God’s chosen people, Judah, found themselves a tiny pawn in this Mesopotamian world of usurpation. In 606 BC, the Babylonians captured Judah, and Daniel was included in this first captivity. Afterward, the Medo-Persians toppled the Babylonians, but they were later destroyed by the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Finally, the Greek empire fizzled out and gave way to Rome.
God’s people were tossed back and forth under enemy rulers and in camps of exile. They struggled to obey God’s laws and maintain their Jewish heritage while living like strangers in strange lands. Obedience and preservation of culture in exile are the big themes for the book of Daniel.
As we dig into this book and read familiar stories (Daniel in the Lion’s Den! I’m so excited!) and strange unfamiliar passages (What in the world are the seventy sevens?), bear in mind that these people were struggling to hold on to their identity in a world where the rulers seemed both petty and all-powerful. Reading scripture on our smartphones in coffee shops, it’s possible to overlook our connection with the people of Israel in the 6th century BC. But the lion’s dens of the 21st century are very real.
The reality is that you and I are exiles too. Even though we know who wins all the wars and who triumphs over all the kingdoms, the here and now can get pretty hairy. We live in a climate that is hostile to the culture of the Gospel (1 Peter 1:1). The reason Daniel is so remarkable is that he held firm and didn’t give way to eating the king’s food and submitting to the ban on prayer. He is remarkable because his heart, like ours, was naturally hostile to the way of the Gospel. It is easy to give way to pagan culture when we are at war within our own selves, and our sinful nature loves to let the difficult work of following God slip away.
When we are faithful and when we are faithless, our God reigns. Whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in, He is the one true King. “For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34b).
As we study this book, may we, like Daniel, yield our hearts to God’s Word instead of giving way to the temptation and persecution of our world.