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 gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. . . .
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. (Dan. 1:1–2, 8–12)
There are two claims to power and authority in the story recounted in Daniel 1: the human claim of power and authority and the divine claim of power and authority.
First, there is Nebuchadnezzar’s claim to imperial power. He counts Judah as just another country in the long line of countries that he defeated due to his military prowess and his strategy of empire building. Nebuchadnezzar gleans the best and the brightest from the nations he defeats in order to develop a star chamber of advisers and intellectuals to serve his kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar himself chooses the royal diet and commands that his students eat the same so that they can grow strong and able like good Babylonians, lacking in nothing.
Second, there is the Lord’s claim to power. He is the One who gives Nebuchadnezzar the victory over Judah, not to increase the power of Babylon but in order to discipline His people (1:1–2). He always plans to restore them once they repent of their unfaithfulness. As Jeremiah writes to the exiles of his day, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). Babylon’s victory is just a side-effect of God’s work of sanctifying His people.
It is the Lord who turns the attention of the chief official to the Judahite boys, and it is the Lord who nourishes them and gives them physical and intellectual superiority over the rest of the captives.
These two competing claims serve as a backdrop to the trial to which Daniel and the others commit themselves; indeed, it is the backdrop to the problem of eating the Babylonian provisions that Daniel and his friends face.
Now we cannot know exactly why Daniel would not eat the meat and wine from the king’s table. It is possible that the food would not have passed the Pentateuchal laws about clean and unclean foods.
It is also possible that he thought the food was forbidden because it was first sacrificed to idols or used as part of some sort of pagan Babylonian ritual.
The fear of “defilement” might suggest one of these possibilities, but in any case, it seems that it was a temporary dilemma for Daniel. In a later passage, Daniel describes how he is fasting:
In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks. (Dan. 10:2–3)
In other words, if the food was not clean, Daniel had found a way to get around this problem later.
This leaves us with a final option. Perhaps Daniel chose to eat only vegetables and water in order to show the royal officials and the king himself that the Lord God of Israel is unlike any of the other gods of the world. He was showing what we already know to be the case, because we have been reading the book of Daniel. He was showing that the Lord God was the One working behind the scenes to show His faithfulness and to glorify His name.
God does this elsewhere in Scripture, showing His power in moments of apparent weakness or deprivation, whether in the person of David shirking off Saul’s armor to face the giant Goliath with only a staff and sling (1 Sam. 17:38–40); Jesus assuming His place on the cross in order to defeat the greater enemies of Satan, sin, and death; or the Apostle Paul claiming in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that the power of Christ is on display in our weakness. In a similar way, Daniel was inspired to put God’s glory on display by his dietary choice. He knew that the Lord had not forsaken Israel and that the Judahites were still, even in exile, a nation of priests, holy and set apart among the nations, and this truth was now made public to the glory of God.
We might also notice the irony of it. Babylon could take the young men out of Jerusalem. They could change their Hebrew names from Daniel (God is my judge), Hananiah (The Lord is gracious), Mishael (Who is what God is), and Azariah (The Lord helps) to the Babylonian names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (all of which glorify pagan Babylonian deities), but the Babylonians could not change the source of their hope.
You can take the boys out of the Promised Land, but you can’t take the promise out of the boys. Their success was wholly on account of the power and authority of the Lord God who orchestrates all things to His glory and to the honor of His name and His people.
Our Hope in Exile
This juxtaposition between apparent earthly power and overwhelming but behind-the-scenes heavenly power forms one of the great ironies of the story of salvation. At the darkest moments in human history, the glimmer of hope, the work of salvation, the faithfulness of God is also at play. The Lord is about a greater work, and His blessings will sometimes be seen in the immediate details, but they will always be seen in the eternal scheme of things.
Take, for instance, the heart of our gospel. The second person of the Trinity took on our humanity, suffered endless indignities by those He came to save, lived the perfectly faithful life, much more faithful than Daniel or his friends could have possible imagined. Did He earn the favor of the king? Did Caesar invite Him to join his Roman magisterium? Did the religious leaders of His day celebrate His incredible knowledge of the Scriptures?
Or did He reveal His power, His victory, on a Roman cross, a device of execution meant for humiliation and torture?
Yet in this dark hour of human history that was the crucifixion of Christ, we see that what was the greatest event of the wrongful suffering of a righteous man could also be the event through which the power of redemption was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.
We should rejoice and know that no power of man can wrestle away from God His divine purpose to redeem this world.