Refusing to Assimilate Daniel 1:8-21


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Daniel 1:8-21

Last time we spoke of the opening paragraph of the book of Daniel as something of the thesis of the book: a book that describes the faithful people of God in the midst of a great trial that God himself had created for them. The Lord gave Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, with all that this was to mean for Daniel and his three friends. God was at work, God was working out his purposes, and, appearances to the contrary, God was as much the one living, true, and sovereign God in Babylon as he was in Jerusalem.

Now we move on to the other great emphasis of the book: the calling of God’s people to remain faithful to him in the thin as well as the thick, even when that faithfulness can be punishingly difficult and even when its outcome is and remains unknown. As we will read in the prophecy in chapter 11:32: “the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action,” or as the KJV had it: “shall be strong and do exploits.” That is the other part of the story of Daniel and that part begins as well here in chapter 1, as Daniel and his fellows separate themselves from the herd by a first act of outstanding faithfulness to God.

Text Comment

v.8       Up to this point we have heard nothing of Daniel’s own response to the Babylonian make-over that he was to be given: a new name, a new language, new manners, new clothing, new responsibilities, new colleagues, and, as we said last time, perhaps also being given what nowadays we would call a new gender. Ashpenaz was at work changing him from a Jew – at least in every recognizable way – into a Babylonian, and, possibly even a Babylonian eunuch!

But now we read that Daniel had decided to take a stand in regard to the matter of his diet, the food and wine they were providing him and his friends. And it wasn’t just Daniel, as we read in v. 12. The four were together in this rebellion against the palace table. That we read of Daniel’s resolve suggests, as does much else in the book, that Daniel was the natural leader of this small company of faithful young men.

The pressing question posed by this statement is: why? Why the food and the drink? Why not the change of names, or the education they were being given? Surprisingly perhaps, it is a question impossible to answer with certainty. We would naturally suppose that for some reason Daniel regarded the food as unclean, as not kosher. It didn’t meet the standard of ceremonial cleanliness imposed by the Law of Moses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. For example, the meat would not have been butchered in such a way as to remove the blood; some of the meat might have been of animals that were considered unclean, and so on. But wine is never unclean in the Bible and the drinking of wine is never forbidden in the laws governing clean and unclean food. What is more, even Israel’s prophets had warned that it would be impossible, by definition, to avoid ceremonial defilement from food in the land of captivity. [Hos. 9:3; Amos 7:17; Longman, 52] It has been thought by others that the food placed on the table before them had been first offered to the gods and that it was the association of this food with idolatry that made the young men unwilling to eat it. The problem is that there is nothing to suggest that the vegetables were not offered to the gods as well before being placed on the palace table. Others have suggested that the motive was to reject a position of dependence upon the Babylonian government, but whatever they ate or drank was going to be “government issue.” [Davis, 32] Other suggested explanations falter in similar ways. [cf. Goldingay’s seven possible explanations in WBC, 18-19] We’ll return to this question later.

v.10     Commentators wonder how to read Ashpenaz’ reply to Daniel’s request. The text, of course, does not communicate a speaker’s tone of voice or the look on his face as he spoke. It is feasible to read Ashpenaz’ reply as, in effect, “Yes, if it doesn’t involve me and if it doesn’t make the king ask questions.” [Goldingay, 19]

v.12     Ten days was a period “short enough not to arouse suspicion yet long enough for effects to be seen.” [Goldingay, 20]

v.17     Now what does that mean? Are we being told that the Babylonian methods they had learned enabled them to interpret dreams? Doubtfully. The next several chapters will pour scorn on the claims of Babylonian court magicians to interpret dreams. Once again the Lord was giving Daniel and his friends the ability to interpret dreams as he had given Joseph that same ability long before in Egypt. It is interesting, by the way, that the interpretation of dreams became once again in modern times a centerpiece of the powers claimed by mandarins who were supposed to be able to peer into the secrets of human life. But, as it turned out, Freud was no more successful at the art than the Chaldean magicians had been!

v.19     The blessing of God caused them to stand head and shoulders above all the other young men, perhaps some others from Judea and many others from other conquered countries.

v.20     Of course, not just their interpretation of dreams, but their skill and good sense, their mastery of Babylon’s language, and their grasp of the culture and its customs is all what is meant in the “ten times better than all the others.”

Whether or not you have ever thought about this in an organized way, there are and have always been very different opinions that Christians have held regarding how they are to relate to the surrounding culture, especially when they realize – as Christians have sometimes failed to do – that the culture is in many ways deeply and antithetically unchristian. Everything about it rests on a fundamentally unchristian foundation and thus poses a threat at every turn to faithful Christian thought and life.

By culture we mean the habits of thought and life natural to a people in a certain place and time. It includes the materials, the food, the language, the practices, the prejudices, the collective memories, the ceremonies, the aims, the standards of conduct, the worldview of a people and the way that worldview is expressed in laws, in loves and hatreds, and so on. All of that is what we mean by a culture. Of course, every culture has its subcultures, a great many of them – people relate to the dominant culture in many different ways. Think of public-schoolers vs. home-schoolers; of whites, blacks, and Hispanics; of urban and rural Americans; of the Northeast versus the deep South; of Christians and non-Christians; of Roman Catholics and Protestants. But all of them to a great degree still share the dominant culture. In some ways Daniel had it easier. Entering a new culture, so different from what he was used to, it was immediately obvious to him what characterized Babylonian culture and how it differed from the culture in which he had been raised. It was strange to him, foreign, each part stood out bold and clear. The Inhabitants of a culture – as we Americans today – rarely see nearly so clearly the ways in which we are shaped and mis-shaped by our culture. We Christians are often blind to the ways in which being an American makes it so much more difficult to be a really faithful Christian, though obviously American culture has precisely that effect in many ways.One of the values of traveling the world is that by getting away from your own culture and finding yourself in another, you become a more thoughtful observer of your own culture.

H. Richard Niebuhr published a famous book in 1951 entitled Christ and Culture in which he proposed five possible Christian viewpoints toward culture. They certainly could be organized in different ways and others have been added since, but Niebuhr’s taxonomy is good enough for our purposes this evening. At the two extremes there are, on the one hand, Christians who argue that Christians should oppose the culture root and branch (often by separating from it as much as possible; think of the Amish for example) and, on the other, Christians who argue that the church should assimilate itself to the culture in which it finds itself (as most mainline Protestant churches have done – it is hard to tell what difference there is between the received moral and spiritual position of American culture, especially its elite culture, and that of those churches – and, alas, as many evangelical churches have done as well in certain specific ways). Or, said Niebuhr, Christians can view the culture as something Christians are to work to redeem (think of the Kuyperians), or culture as requiring us to live in tension between our place in it and our loyalty to Christ, or to accept that what the culture seeks is really Christ and his kingdom even if it does not recognize that this is so. My point is not to describe these various approaches in detail but simply to remind you that Christians have long had to wrestle with the question: what are they to do when they find themselves in a culture that is, as all cultures will be in varying degrees, uncongenial if not hostile to their convictions and practices? Roman government was a feature of the culture of the Christian church in apostolic times, and the church accommodated herself as much as it could to the structures of Roman government. Read Romans Chapter 13, for example. But it also realized that at a certain point its loyalty to Roman government would have to be sacrificed to its loyalty to God.

Here you have some devout young men, against their will but without power to resist, placed in a profoundly different culture than that in which they were raised as believing Jews. What were they to do? They were captives. It wasn’t as if they could say, “You know, Ashpenaz, Babylon is not my cup of tea. I think I would prefer to be back in Jerusalem.” Well Jeremiah, in his famous letter to the captives in Babylon, this some twenty years or more after Daniel and his friends arrived in Babylon, would write words that must have stunned some of the Jewish exiles who read or heard them:

 “…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.” [29:7]

They wanted to get home, they didn’t want to build homes and settle down as Jeremiah told them to do. Still less did they want to help Babylon succeed! But that is what Daniel and his friends did. With whatever understanding or attitude they may have had, especially at the beginning, the four young men settled into life and work and an uncertain future in Babylon and studied and prepared to be useful to the Babylonian court. To be sure, they hardly had much of a choice. They could have refused to participate and would likely have been executed or put to slave labor. But it is perfectly clear in Daniel 1 that what they did was right; that it had the Lord’s approval. They were settling into a foreign and deeply idolatrous, unbelieving culture and yet they were planning to be part of that world and to work on its behalf.  Nehemiah, who would later serve in an important role in the Persian court, is likewise celebrated in the Bible as a faithful servant of the Lord though he too was also an able servant of the Persian court.

Fundamental to any right understanding of chapter 1 is the three-fold repetition of the verb “to give.” In each case God is the subject. We read last time that the Lord gave Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. But in the text we read this evening, we find such a statement twice more. First, in v. 9, we read that God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs. How was it possible for Daniel to arrange for himself and his three friends a different diet? Because the man who controlled their program liked and respected them! And then we read in v. 17 that God gave them learning and skill beyond that of everyone else in the program and, eventually, beyond even the senior counselors of the Babylonian court. In other words, it was God himself who blessed these men in their growing mastery of Babylonian language and culture and so made them really effective servants of the Babylonian Empire. And it was God who gave them their positions and their influence in their adopted country.

In the first place, God gave Daniel favor in the eyes of Ashpenaz. We don’t know precisely how but Ashpenaz saw quality in Daniel. He admired the young man. He was impressed with his abilities and with his character. All of that was key to what followed. God has often done this: given his children a good reputation with their enemies or made them to stand out in the crowd, to stand out in ways that others could not fail to notice.

The theologian Helmut Thielicke, in the post-war years sometimes known as the Billy Graham of Germany, recollected in his memoir, Notes from a Wayfarer, that when, because he was not supportive of the Nazi movement he had lost his position as a university professor, he went to what was called the Brown House, the Nazi headquarters in Munich to protest his dismissal. He was initially rebuffed, but then a young civil servant who had observed the conversation asked him if he could be of any help. Thielicke was so struck by the young man’s sincere interest that he found himself telling him the whole story. The fellow then arranged for Thielicke to see the man he needed to see. He never got his job back, but he couldn’t help but remember the kindness shown to him where he least expected to find it: in Nazi headquarters. [Cited in Davis, 34] Well, something like that happened here to Daniel. Ashpenaz was kind and helpful to him. And that was the Lord’s doing.

And then, after the ten-day vegetarian exercise was complete, we may assume that the author expects us to realize that it was God’s blessing that resulted in the four men looking so fit and even fatter than the others. I think that is obvious in the text, but I confess to a certain bias in favor of that interpretation, insofar as I certainly can’t believe that it was the vegetables themselves that produced the impressive results!

So God was at work preparing the way for these men both to succeed and to serve him in this foreign, idolatrous culture. God wanted them to serve in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. He wanted their influence to be exercised there. And as the book continues we will see what a fabulous difference that influence was to make.

But, at the same time, this result, this personal success and godly influence in the Babylonian court, also required real consecration on the part of Daniel and the others. Equal stress is laid upon Daniel’s resolve not to defile himself with the king’s food and drink. As I said, there is no simple explanation for Daniel’s decision to make an issue of the diet. As we noticed last time, the young men did not seem to make an issue of the change of their names, though, to be sure, they knew what their Jewish names were and, I suspect, continued to use them among themselves and with other Jews. But Daniel drew the line at the king’s table. What was going on there?

Well, the first thing to notice is that the diet of vegetables was temporary. Daniel did not eat this way for the rest of his life as if there were something wrong with meat and wine. He did this for a time only. We know that because later in the book we learn that Daniel ate the very food he here refused to eat. In 10:3 Daniel, now a much older man, tells us:

“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.”

In other words, his normal diet did include delicacies, meat, and wine. What that suggests is that what Daniel was proposing to Ashpenaz was for the purpose of spiritual exercise. It was a form of fasting. Ralph Davis, the PCA professor who has written such a fine commentary on Daniel, calls it a defensive expedient or strategy, and goes on to explain it in this way:

“Well, Babylon was simply smothering Daniel and his friends. [They were foreigners in a foreign land, being given foreign names, made to eat foreign food, speak a foreign language, and learn foreign customs, all with a view to making them useful in a foreign court! Cf. Goldingay, 22] Daniel may well have thought, ‘There is a real danger here; I could get sucked up into this and neutered by it all.’ He recognized that if Babylon gets into you, the show is over. Hence he had to draw the line at some point to preserve some distinctiveness, to keep from being totally squeezed into Babylon’s mold.

“‘It is not so much something in the food that defiles as much as it is the total program of assimilation.’ [Walton et al. cited in Davis, 32]

True enough, Davis goes on to say, the crisis wasn’t as acute as it would be at the fiery furnace in chapter 3 or the lion’s den in chapter 6, but, in some ways, it was more acute because if they didn’t take their stand now, at the outset of this process of assimilation, they would lose their spiritual edge, their fighting spirit, their understanding of what it would require to remain loyal to the Lord. They had to do it at the outset if it were to be done later on. Fasting, as you know, is a scheduled spiritual exercise that makes possible the resistance to powerful temptations when they arise all of a sudden, with no warning.

Another commentator puts it this way.

“[The purpose of this diet] was to keep the four pious Judeans from believing that their physical appearance (and by consequence, perhaps, their intellectual gifts) were the gift of Babylonian culture.” [Longman, 53]

That same commentator, by the way, reminds us that the impression of the text is that ten days on a vegetable diet should not have produced such robust health and appearance. That was the expected result of a diet of meat and wine – Babylonians weren’t stupid, they’d tested various diets, they knew what they produced which was precisely why that diet was ordered for these young men. [Ibid] Remember, the diet was private. They weren’t intending to make a point to othersthere was no food strike, they weren’t going to argue that everybody ought to eat vegetables and drink water they weren’t arguing that their diet was superior to that ordered by the court. The importance of the choice they had made was entirely for themselves.

“As the four stood before Nebuchadnezzar and were pronounced the best in the class, the king could take pride in the products of his largesse. [“See what I have made of these young men.”] Only the Judean youths knew the truth.” [Longman, 53]

In other words, Daniel and his friends took steps to ensure that they did not forget who they were, the God they served, or the fact that being in a foreign land altered not one whit their obligation to remain faithful to Yahweh. That what they did was pleasing to the Lord is proved by the fact that he so wonderfully honored their self-imposed discipline: not only by giving Daniel such favor with Ashpenaz that a request that might have been peremptorily refused was instead granted, but, even more, by blessing their diet with such outstanding results. God was pleased with the choice they had made to work into their lives a principle of resistance to the unbelieving culture into which they were being immersed.

Surely that is a lesson for us. Our difficulty is, however, more acute than that which Daniel and his three friends faced. They were unceremoniously dumped suddenly into a culture that was foreign to everything they knew. Everything about Babylon was different. No doubt it was overwhelming to these young men. People were speaking a different language, or, if they were speaking Aramaic, they spoke with a different accent and used many words that were unfamiliar to the Judean young men. They wore different clothes. They acted differently. They had no understanding of or sympathy with Judean customs, many of which were centuries old, rooted in the Jews long history as the chosen people of God. They practiced a religion that was inimical to Jewish conviction and that religion penetrated everything. In fact, much of what they were being educated to do had religious overtones, which, for a Jew meant idolatrous overtones. They couldn’t express their profound disagreement with what they saw and what people did, except perhaps among themselves.

American Christians too easily forget how often these have been the circumstances of God’s people. How quiet they had to be lest they offend their rulers; how private the practice of their own faith, lest they be identified as those who oppose the system and so pose a danger to it. Think of Obadiah, not the prophet, but the court official in the days of King Ahab. He was a man the Scripture says who feared the Lord greatly. And somehow he managed to keep his highpost in the most spiritually and morally corrupt court that Israel had ever had. Secretly he served the Lord, hiding the Lord’s prophets in a cave and providing them all with a continuous supply of food – a dangerous thing to do when the country was starving because of the drought – efforts that would surely have led to his arrest, if not execution, should he have been found out. Daniel himself, years later, when his enemies enacted a law forbidding prayer to any other god than the emperor himself, was arrested and an effort was made to execute him because he refused to alter his practice of daily prayer to God. Faithful Christians lie low when they can, they use every clever means to avoid confrontation with the government, but are always at risk that living in a hostile culture their loyalty to God will place them in a position where their love for God and loyalty to him must place them visibly at odds with the powers that be and cause them to suffer punishment.

On the other hand, times without number Christians have failed to do what Daniel did, failed to run their colors up the flagpole or nail them to the mast, failed to recognize the threat posed by the culture and to take steps to put themselves on guard against its influence, failed to realize how subtly they can be made to forget that friendship with the world is hatred toward God. Culture exercises a powerful influence precisely because its influences are unrelenting, come from every direction, and because all cultures reward conformity generously and punish nonconformity severely.

Our PCA churches are almost exclusively white. That is an artifact of a deeply sinful culture. We have lost entire churches from the PCA and are about to lose one from our presbytery for what I judge to be just another instance of this same complacency toward our culture. And we could go on and on. How easy it is for Christians to convince themselves that they can accommodate the culture’s orthodoxies – sexual or pluralistic or non-judgmental or whatever – without compromising their loyalty to God or the Bible. It has happened so many times before. The Bible, they find, can be understood in ways no Christian has ever understood the Bible before. The issue, they come to think, is not really as important as Christians had always thought it was. The culture itself has higher and purer motivations than Christians have given it credit for. And so it goes. And suddenly Christians are agreeing with the culture and even serving the culture in its rejection of biblical theology and ethics. And they are sure they are doing right.

But, as with Daniel’s experiment, the proof is in the pudding. The vegetables either make them healthy or they don’t. And accommodation to the culture either invigorates the church’s faith and life or it erodes them until a generation later there is nothing left that even resembles a Christian’s commitments and way of life. Alas, it is the latter that has happened times without number. Find me an example, any example, of a Christian church that has accommodated itself to its culture – all the more an outspokenly unchristian culture such as our own – yet then retained its passionate loyalty to God and to Christ and to the way of salvation and to a distinctively and radically Christian life. They all say that they will do precisely that. But give them enough time and none of them do.

Have you grappled with this young people? In order to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, you have to be strange, at least strange in the opinion of many of your peers; and you have to do strange things, things they neither understand nor admire. In many cases they will think less of you for just those things that identify you as a Christian. Are you willing to bear that cross?

But the message of Daniel is not only that you must preserve your loyalty to Jesus at any cost. It is that godly young people can, in fact, win the admiration of their unbelieving peers against all expectations, can, in fact, succeed in an openly hostile culture, and can, in fact, force your culture to accept that in certain ways you are better – even ten times better – than the rest. That is a goal to set for yourself and a reason to take steps to ensure your loyalty and your faithfulness to the Lord Christ. He can give you a position in life, even in a culture like ours, even in a workplace like yours, even in a neighborhood inhabited by the people that inhabit your neighborhood, that brings credit to him and forces the enemies of the gospel to think again.

But what for you would be the equivalent of Daniel’s vegetables? How is it possible for you to cultivate this “dual identity” [Duguid, REC, 10], as first a citizen of the kingdom of God and, at the same time, a useful participant and a successful servant in an ungodly culture? Well, there are many ways for you to take steps to fix in your mind and re-fix and then fix again your identity as a Christian. First among them is your willing and eager and intentional participation in the worship of the church on the Lord’s Day. Nothing is better suited to give you that sense of who and what you are than being with the people of God, in the presence of God, remembering who and what he is, what he has done, and what he has called us to be.

It is a phenomenon often commented on that people become more patriotic when they live out of their homelands. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with much greater enthusiasm in Boston and Chicago than it is in Dublin or Cork. Americans living elsewhere in the world often celebrate the fourth of July with a greater sense of its meaning than Americans living at home who simply enjoy the fairs and the fireworks. [Duguid, 11] I don’t know if Daniel ever prayed toward Jerusalem when he still lived in Judea as a boy and young man. But that is how he prayed in Babylon, as we learn in chapter 6. Well, brothers and sisters, we are not home. We are living in a foreign country. But at worship, in the ritual of Lord’s Day Christian worship, we have clearer glimpses of home, we see how beautiful the far country actually is, we feel a growing longing to be there, than we do when we are out and about in Babylon!

But there are other ways as well to fix our identity in Christ so that we never lose touch with who we really are. We can fast as Daniel did. We can choose our company. We can take pains to read and master the Word of God so that it is always speaking to us. We can make a practice of prayer so that we are never far removed from being with God himself. We can train ourselves in godliness by giving ourselves to the killing of some sin or the bringing to life of some fruit of the Spirit or some piece of Christian obedience. We can make a practice of serving others, especially those who do not believe or live as we do. And we can think, think hard about what precisely is American culture, in what ways is it anti-Christian, however familiar to us and however we have grown comfortable with it, and in what ways is it at work drawing us away from Christ and a genuinely faithful Christian life? But whatever, however, the point is, as Daniel before us, we must never let ourselves just drift into the culture and be overtaken by it unaware of what is happening.

God gave, Daniel resolved, and God gave some more. The blueprint of the Christian life!