The fall of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon assaulted Daniel’s very sense of identity and place in the world. He had been brought up believing that God Himself had called Abraham and promised to Israel the land that they lived on. He would have been taught that God laid down His holy law through Moses. The Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem was at the centre of the worship of Yahweh. The land, the law and the temple’s priesthood and sacrifices were at the centre of a nation built on the worship of the one true God.
So the desolation of Jerusalem and the nation, and the mass deportation of exiles to Babylon was not just a matter of going to live in a strange and foreign land. Without the Temple, without its priests and sacrifices, with the nation scattered, without Jerusalem, the people seemed to have lost their spiritual core. The exile shattered the very foundations of how a devout Jew like Daniel saw himself and the values by which he would live.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!” Psalm 137:4,5
The dilemma for Daniel would have been what to hang on to – his core – amidst so much that he had lost. Daniel and his friends did not stand against the tide on everything. If that were so, they would not have even stayed on in the palace to serve a pagan empire and king who considered himself equal to God. They might have even tried to escape back to Jerusalem. Instead, they subjected themselves to the purposes of Babylon, and Persia later. They were part of the exploited en masse “brain drain” and “foreign talent” policy of pagan powers, and served faithfully and with distinction in the courts of their kings.
But they stood firm on their core amidst this tide – their identity, their values, which was centred on the one true God they knew sat above all kingdoms and all of history. They were given Babylonian names not just to blend in, but to signal their change of allegiance from Yahweh to Babylonian gods. (Their Jewish names were Daniel: “God is my judge”, Hananiah: “Jehovah is gracious”, Mishael: “who is like God?”, and Azariah: “Jehovah helps”). But they hung on to their Jewish names because it was who they were. Their very names proclaimed how they saw themselves, with God at the centre of who they were. This core gave them perspective and orientation amidst turmoil.
Their values flowed from this God-centred core identity. The nation and the temple may be gone, but they found their anchor in their inner faith in a sovereign God. It was as if they would not only hold on to the law, but would set up temples to God in their bodies and minds. So Daniel and his friends negotiated so they could observe the dietary laws God had laid out.
It would not seem like much to others, but they would observe the law of Moses as much as they could. The three friends refused to worship the image the king erected. And Daniel continued to pray with his windows open to Jerusalem even when it would threaten his life. Daniel himself pronounced God’s judgments on Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, speaking truth to power when he knew that they could very well have punished him over a message that challenged their self-conceptions of absolute supremacy. These were not deliberate public displays just to show defiance and accentuate differences, because they knew and heeded the advice of Jeremiah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
Instead, their actions were an outworking of the core of their values and their identity. And what sustained them would also have been the living hope of a greater promise that they held within each of them:
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope… I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
May we too find our core of identity and values in our God when things seem to change around us. And as we seek the welfare of the places that God has placed us, may we also find hope in knowing that God has His plans and a future for us. There will be a time too when God will gather us home from the nations. May He find us faithful.
By Joseph Leong (YCKC Bulletin 26&27 September 2015)