Not Just a Flannelgraph

When you think of Daniel (the Bible character), what do you think? Lions? Handwriting on the wall? The fiery furnace? (Wait, that wasn’t Daniel—or was it? I just remember the three guys. But they were Daniel’s friends, right? Where was Daniel?) Yes, Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den, and yes, he read the handwriting on the wall. He wasn’t part of the fiery furnace trio, but he was their fourth amigo—who was apparently out of town for that episode. We love the book of Daniel (well, the first half anyway) because of the exciting narratives found in each of the first six chapters. Briefly, here’s how they go.

Chapter 1 tells of Daniel and his friends’ refusal to eat the king’s meat. They eat only vegetables and drink only water yet are found more hale and healthy than their indulgent cohorts. As a result, they’re rewarded by being put into the king’s service.

Chapter 2 finds Daniel in an impossible situation. King Nebuchadnezzar has had a dream that needs to be interpreted. However, he won’t tell anyone what the dream was! He has sworn to kill all the wise men of Babylon (of which Daniel and his friends were part) if they can’t tell him the dream and interpret it for him. Upon hearing this news, Daniel, Mishael, Hananiah, and Azariah (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) pray to the God of heaven who shows Daniel both pieces of the mystery. This amazes the king who in turn promotes the four Jewish boys.

Chapter 3 is the beloved tale of the fiery furnace. Daniel is not mentioned in the chapter, so it’s assumed that he was traveling for the king and not in Babylon. So Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are the only three who refuse to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s 90-foot golden statue. Consequently, they’re thrown into the blazing fire, only to be joined by a fourth person—the Son of God—and exit completely unharmed.

Chapter 4 is written not by Daniel but by King Nebuchadnezzar himself. He once again has had a dream (though this time he’s willing to describe it), and wants it interpreted. And, once again, Daniel is up to the task. The dream is a warning that the king will lose his mind if he doesn’t recognize the Most High God as the Giver of power. Nebuchadnezzar does not heed the warning and so spends seven years thinking he’s a beast and eating grass. Eventually his reason returns to him, and he is restored as king, at which time he (genuinely?) extols the Most High God.

Chapter 5 fast forwards to Belshazzar’s reign. At a decadent party, the royal family drinks from the temple vessels stolen from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. As soon as the blasphemous act is committed, a hand appears and writes a mysterious message on the wall. Once again, Daniel is the only one able to deduce its meaning. He delivers the bad news that Babylon will be overtaken by Persia. Daniel is promoted, but only briefly as the Persians invade and overthrow the Babylonian empire that very night.

Chapter 6 tells the tale of Daniel under the Medo-Persian regime. His colleagues are seething with jealousy at Daniel’s success and looking desperately for a way to bring him down. They’re able to find “fault” with him only in regard to his God, so they coax King Darius into making a decree that for one month prayers may be offered only to the king. All violators will spend the night in a den of hungry lions. Daniel learns of this decree and boldly prays as he always has and earns a sleepover with the lions, yet leaves in the morning completely untouched.

And that’s the end of the book, right? Actually no, it’s only half of it. The final six chapters enumerate prophetic visions of the rise and fall of kingdoms, the end times, and despicable rulers, all told through tricky-to-understand imagery—beasts and horns, rams, and goats. Not quite as simple to understand as the narrative portion, yet just as important. But we’ll save discussion on that for another time. Right now, I want to think about the book as a whole.

Did you realize that Daniel spent just over 70 years in exile and in service to eight different rulers (a few of whom ruled concurrently)? Have you ever stopped to wonder why he includes certain stories in his book? It’s clearly not just a memoir of his time in Babylon. And I have to think he had a better reason for writing than wanting to see his three buddies made into a flannelgraph or getting a diet named after himself. Of all the stories he must have been able to tell from his seven decades in the palace, why these six? And why are they included with the prophecies? Why didn’t he write two books? (One for kids and one for adults would have been a much more effective marketing strategy.)

I think the answer comes in chapters four and five. Four times in these two chapters, the same line is repeated: “The Most High is the ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (4: 17, 25, 32; 5:21). This makes up part of the warning issued to Nebuchadnezzar before his time with the royal livestock, but it also neatly expresses what Daniel wants to teach his audience and explains the inclusion of everything in the book. Every dream and every narrative points to this fact: The Most High God is the ruler over the realm of mankind. While Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus all may have enjoyed the moniker of “most powerful man in the world,” not one of them ruled outside of the purview of the one true God.

You see, the book of Daniel is all about God’s sovereignty in the midst of some pretty sketchy and immoral rulers. And it foretells God’s sovereignty in the midst of even more despotic and devilish leaders. Daniel assures us that God will never, not for one second, vacate His throne.

So here we are, a week into 2020—an Olympic year, a leap year, and an election year. Those first two events probably don’t worry you too much, but the third… Well, I don’t even pay much attention to the news, and I know that we’re in for a wild ride over the next ten months—and probably a lot longer. No, we’re not in exile from the Promised Land. No, we probably aren’t going to be asked to bow before a giant idol or be forbidden from praying to anyone but the king. However, we still very much need Daniel’s message. It’s as true today as it was the night the most powerful empire in the world fell: “The Most High is the ruler over the realm of mankind, and He bestows it on whomever He wishes.” I don’t know what the year, the month, or even the next five minutes will bring. But I do know that nothing will depose the true Ruler. The one who reveals mysteries, stops flames from burning, removes kings from palaces, and shuts the mouths of lions is the same who raises up kings, prime ministers, emperors, and presidents. We can—we must—trust Him.

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