Daniel 1: How to Live Godly in Godless Times

How good are you at handling a crisis? When you find yourself in a tight spot, inundated with problems, and no resources to meet the need, how do you respond? Do you look beyond the circumstances to the answer in God? Or are you ready to give up in discouragement and defeat? Consider this parable.

two12-12-10frogsTwo frogs fell into a can of cream, or so I’ve heard it told. The sides of the can were shiny and steep; the cream was deep and cold. “Oh, what’s the use?” croaked number one. “Tis fate, no help’s around!” “Goodbye, my friends. Goodbye, sad world!” And weeping still he drowned.

But number two, of sterner stuff, dogpaddled in surprise. The while he wiped his creamy face, and dried his creamy eyes. “I’ll swim awhile at least,” he said, or so I’ve heard it said. “It really wouldn’t help the world, if one more frog were dead.”

An hour or two he kicked and swam, not once he stopped to mutter. But kicked and swam and swam and kicked, then hopped out via butter.

Cute story, but it really isn’t about frogs. It’s about you and me and the trials we face as followers of Christ. The question is: Will we give up in discouragement and defeat? Or will we press on in faith believing in the providence of God? The truth is: Life is hard and it isn’t about to get easier. The government that’s supposed to serve us is drowning in debt and in shutdown mode the past two weeks. Healthcare costs are skyrocketing. The plan we were told we could keep has just been terminated, so that what we’re looking at now is a 50% increase in January for a worse plan with a $10,000 a year deductible. So what do we do? Stay healthy. Add to that the godless culture we live in that is becoming ever more hostile to Bible-believing Christians, and it makes you wonder: What kind of trials are we going to face 5 or 10 years from now?

4Apart from the grace of God, this would be a terrifying time in which to live. But here’s the good news. You and I are not the first believers to face times like these. This evening I want to take you back 2600 years in time to one of my favorite passages in the Bible, where the Lord Himself shows us how to live godly in godless times. The passage is Daniel chapter 1 where those who loved the Lord faced a crisis of mammoth proportions. But what we’re going to see is that God meant it and sent it not to harm them but to bless them, empower them, and turn them into more than conquerors for their good and His glory. In particular, there are 3 lessons I want to highlight tonight.

1.  Trials are designed to showcase our distinctiveness as believers.

Let me say that again. Trials are meant and sent by God not to discourage or destroy us, but to bring out the best in us and showcase our distinctiveness as His children. Daniel 1:1 says, “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.”

Here we have a great crisis. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon and ruler of the world at this time lays siege to Jerusalem, starving the people into submission. The siege lasted 2 ½ years at the end of which time the armies of Babylon invaded the city, plundered the Temple, and carried off hundreds of Jews as captives to Babylon—the most terrifying experience you can imagine. And yet, notice what Daniel says about it. Rather than being a mistake on God’s part, which is how we often feel when things go awry, he says it happened according to the pre-determined plan of God, that it was the Lord who delivered them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.

2That’s something I can’t emphasize enough. In fact, it’s one of the major points Daniel makes throughout this book—no matter how intimidating the rulers of this world may be, God is still on the throne ruling and overruling everything that comes to pass. “This is my Father’s world. O, let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seem oft so strong, God is the ruler yet!”

Friends, the same thing is true of rulers today. Remember what Ben Franklin said as he and our founding fathers fought over the wording of our Constitution? He said, “Gentlemen, I have lived a long time and I’m convinced that God governs in the affairs of men. If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” So he suggested that prayer imploring God’s assistance be offered up every morning before they proceeded to business. All agreed, and the outcome was the greatest legislative document the world has ever seen.

But you say, “Why would God allow such a terrible thing to happen to His people?” The answer is because they weren’t acting like His people anymore! What was God’s reason for delivering the people of Israel out of Egypt and making them a great nation? Was it for their mere pleasure and enjoyment? No! He saved them for one purpose and one purpose only—to be a bright and shining city on a hill making it clear to the whole world that the one true God was living among them! Yet contrary to His calling, what did they do? They erected idols on every high hill in Israel including the Mount of Olives, which stands directly across from the Temple of God. They also broke every other law He gave them, including the commandment to let the land lie fallow every 7 years. Not once in all the 490 years since they came out of Egypt did they do that. So as Jeremiah had warned, they were evicted from the Land of Promise and made to live in Babylon for 70 years until the land received its Sabbath rests.

3All of which ought to be a sharp reminder to us, that God expects us to be different from the world around us. That isn’t just an Old Testament principle. That’s a principle that stretches all the way from Genesis to Revelation. Paul asks the question in 2 Corinthians 6, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

The point is this: God loves you so much that He is willing to accept you just the way that you are. But He also loves you too much to leave you that way. So He sends trials into our lives to kill our love for sin and reclaim us for Himself. And as in the case of Israel, sometimes those trials can be very severe.

“OK,” you say. “I can understand that. I can understand why God expelled His people from the Land of Promise. But what about Daniel and his friends! They hadn’t done anything deserving of judgment, had they?” You’re right! They hadn’t. But have you ever noticed that when it rains, it rains on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and that even when we’re innocent of wrongdoing, we can suffer because of someone else’s sin? That’s how Daniel and his friends wound up in Babylon.

And the moment they arrived, things immediately got worse. In fact, they got as bad as they could get. Verse 3 says, “Then the king instructed Ashpenaz, the master of his eunuchs, to bring some of the children of Israel and some of the king’s descendants and some of the nobles, young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans.” These boys were the cream of the crop, set apart for special training as servants and scholars in the king’s court.

4But you may not have realized this before, do you know what did Ashpenaz the chief eunuch did to help these boys concentrate on their studies? He made them eunuchs like himself. Talk about physical abuse! Isaiah 39:7 prophesied, “And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. That’s why you never read of Daniel or his friends having wives or children. And I understand the reasoning. I was an excellent student in high school but I pulled a “C” in biology? Why? Because of the five cheerleaders who were in that class. I never dated any of them, but they were still a great distraction from my studies—one of them sitting on each side of me. But you don’t turn us into eunuchs to solve the problem! Am I right, men? But in the case of Daniel Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, that’s exactly what they did.

Furthermore, verse 5 says, “The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.” So now they have to make a decision. They couldn’t prevent the destruction of their homes, their country, or the loss of their virility, but we do have control over what we eat! In fact, that’s one of the first ways a child exerts his independence. He refuses to eat what’s put on his plate. Why did the boys dare to do so in this case? Because the king’s food wasn’t kosher and in keeping with the dietary laws God has given them like abstaining from pork and shellfish. It would have also been offered to the king’s gods before it made it to the king’s table.

This was more than a new health regimen for those who wanted to serve in the king’s court. It was an overt attempt to brainwash these boys into accepting the pagan way of doing things. Phillips warns us about this in his paraphrase of Romans 12:1. “Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good.”

You can this brainwashing effort even more clearly in verse 7 where the king changes their names from Daniel, for example, which means “God is my Judge” to Belteshazzar which means “May Bel (the pagan god) protect your life.” So there’s no way they can eat this food. After all, what got them sent to Babylon in the first place? Their fellow countrymen bowing down to idols on every high hill in Israel! So there’s no way they’re going back to that. In fact, it may interest you to know that following the Babylonian captivity, the Jews never worshiped idols again. Before the captivity, all they did was worship idols. But never again since that time have the Jewish people worshiped idols again. God knows how to discipline His children. That too is a principle for life.

1 Peter 4:1 puts it like this: “Therefore, since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in the body is done with sin. As a result they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.” What is Peter saying? Is he saying those who’ve suffered no longer have a capacity to sin? No! He’s saying the more you suffer, the less you want to sin. Sin loses its appeal for you.

5In the case of Daniel and his friends, sin destroyed their homes, their country, their virility, and was now pressuring them to adopt the world’s way of doing things. But they wouldn’t give in. They knew this was God’s way of bringing out the best in them and showcasing their distinctiveness as believers. So they held firm. And I encourage you to do that as well, because I believe we may be about to face the same sort of troubles ourselves.

I don’t know how closely you follow the news, but we’re living at a time when in the space of a less than a month, the Pope has said that even atheists can go to heaven, as long as they follow their consciences, and when one of the leading voices of the evangelical church in America has said that God accepts everyone, even those who are practicing a homosexual lifestyle. And I’m sure it won’t be long until someone like me who dares to challenge those ideas is going to be charged with a hate crime just for saying so. But if we love God and want to take others to heaven with us, we need to let the chips fall where they may, believing in the second and even greater principle that is found in verse 8, and that’s this

2.  Trials turn to triumphs when we stand firm in our faith.

Verse 8 continues: “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”

“Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, ‘Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.’ So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.” Wasn’t that a gracious way for Daniel to respond to the king’s servant? “Please test your servants for ten days and treat us according to what you see.”

Take note. Righteous people are also very courteous and respectful people. And because of his courtesy and respect, the king’s servant honored Daniel’s request, and sure enough, at the end of ten days, Daniel and his friends proved to be healthier and better nourished than all the other boys who ate the king’s food.

But that begs the question: Where did Daniel and his friends suddenly get the courage to risk their lives by refusing to clean their plates? The answer is they didn’t suddenly get it. The fact is God had been preparing them for this moment all their lives up until now. For one thing, these were royal teenagers who grew up in the king’s court in Jerusalem and were well versed in royal etiquette.

And may I remind you the same thing ought to be true of us? The Holy Spirit has made us a royal priesthood “that we may declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.” And one of the evidences of our new nobility in Christ is treating others with the dignity and respect due to someone who has been made in the image of God. The truth is there are many Christians who have the attitude that “as long as I’m speaking the truth, it doesn’t matter how I say it. And if others don’t like it, if that offends them, then that’s their problem!” But I don’t buy that for a moment. The truth is Jesus Christ was both the most truthful and most winsome person who ever lived. Consequently, if we would be His servants, then we ought to be the most winsome people in the world today.

6Those of you who have read the biography of David Livingstone know that this was the secret of his success as a missionary. A friend from his youth said this of him: “There was truly an indescribable charm about him which, with all his rather ungainly ways and by no means winning face, attracted almost everyone to him and helped him so much during his wanderings in Africa. He won those who came near him by a kind of spell.” He then went on to say that Livingstone treated everyone—rich or poor, white or black, educated, or uneducated—with the same Christian courtesy and respect.

For example, whenever he found his treatment method in conflict with that of the native doctors, he made it his policy never to disagree with them in front of their patients, lest he embarrass them. Instead, he quietly took them aside and explained in private what he prescribed, and normally he said they were quite ready and thankful to try his methods. He wrote in his diary, “We have found that we gave the most satisfaction in our answers when we tried to fancy ourselves in the other person’s position and see him as a poor uneducated fellow-countryman in England. The polite, respectful way of speaking and behavior of what we call ‘a thorough gentleman’ almost always secures the friendship and goodwill of the Africans.” No wonder he was such a great servant of the Great King!

However, even more important is what happened in Jerusalem before these boys were exiled to Babylon. Even though there was many evil kings in Jerusalem, including Jehoiakim who was the last king before the exile, there was also one very good king in Judah named Josiah who faithfully ruled the kingdom for 31 years until just two years prior to the captivity. The Bible says he was a good king because of how he tore down the heathen idols, he paid for the repair of God’s Temple, and he commanded the priests to teach the people the Scriptures again leading to one of the greatest revivals in history! And who just so happened to be growing up in the king’s court at that time? Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. In other words, the reason these boys were ready to obey God’s call when it came to them in Babylon was because they’d already committed their lives to His service years before the trouble began.

Now the application for us: How many of you would like to serve the Lord in great ways? My guess is that almost every one of us would. But the truth is: To serve God in great ways, you have to serve Him in little ways first. Jesus said in Luke 16:10, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.” So I encourage you. Stop looking for great and dramatic ways to serve the Lord and start being faithful in those little things that only He may notice like giving, praying, resisting temptation, and treating others with courtesy and respect. That’s the only way to prepare for the greater tasks and temptations to come. Trials showcase our distinctiveness as believers, they turn to triumphs when we stand firm in our faith, and finally, lesson #3—

3.  Trials are God’s opportunities to prove His faithfulness.

The Bible says, “Where sin abounded, grace much more did abound.” My point is this: Though God wanted to discipline His people in Babylon, He didn’t want to destroy them. In fact, 2600 years later, despite their rejection of Jesus the Messiah, He’s still watching over His chosen people. In this case, notice what His gracious plan of salvation was. Just as he raised up Joseph to protect and provide for His people in Egypt 850 years before, and then raised up Moses to lead them out of Egypt 400 years before, now He raises up Daniel and his friends to protect and provide for them while living in Babylon.

7Verse 18 says, “At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.” God was faithful to these boys, wasn’t He? In fact, if I were to produce a trailer for this story, you know the tagline would be? When we’re faithful to God’s call and commandments, He rewards us beyond anything we can ask or even think.

In fact, let’s take a final moment to zero in on that final sentence before we finish. Do you see it in verse 20? It says, “Daniel remained (that means he remained in power) until the first year of King Cyrus.” That is to say, Daniel continued in a position of influence protecting and providing for God’s people throughout the entire Babylonian captivity! For who was Cyrus the Great? He was the King of Persia who conquered the Kingdom of Babylon and then decreed, exactly 70 years after their captivity began, that the Jews could now return home and rebuild the city of Jerusalem!

And you know why he did that, according to Josephus the Roman historian? It’s because of what he read about himself in the book of Isaiah, written 200 years before he came to power! Speaking for the Lord, Isaiah 44:28 says, “I say of Cyrus, he is My shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the Temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’” I wonder. How did Cyrus know to read about himself in the book of Isaiah? Daniel showed it to him to convince him that it was now time to let his people go home! Isn’t that an amazing testimony to the greatness of God? No matter who the ruler is or how hopeless the circumstances seem, God is at work behind the scenes orchestrating all things together for your good and mine. Do you believe that? I’ve gotta believe it. My life is committed to it.

8In closing, notice with me the Mandarin symbol for “crisis,” because that’s what this study has been about. Mandarin Chinese is not only the most frequently spoken language on earth; it’s also one of the oldest. I can’t read it but I do know this about it. The Mandarin word for “crisis” is made up of two symbols, one meaning danger and the other meaning opportunity because that’s what every crisis presents. It presents God with the opportunity to prove His faithfulness to us and it presents us with the opportunity to trust Him. But to do that well, we need to resolve, like Daniel and his friends, to do that before crisis begins.

So that’s my invitation to you as I bring this message to a close. Join me in praying, and as we pray, tell the Lord right now that you’re committed to trusting Him no matter what the future holds and that you’re going to keep on trusting Him until the blessing comes.

(To read or download the written version of this message, click Written. To listen to or download the audio version of this message, click Audio.)

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