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Daniel 1:1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it

The prophet Daniel wrote around 530 BC, to Jews who were exiled in Babylon. He wanted them to know that God was in control, and had a future for them. Daniel himself served as a model of how to live faithfully in a pagan culture. 

The Babylonian exile began in 605 BC, when God sent the king of Babylon to take some of the Jews into captivity. This happened again in 597 BC, and again in 586 BC, when Jerusalem was destroyed (2 Chronicles 36:5-23). This fulfilled what God threatened through Moses many years before. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins (Leviticus 26:33). 

Daniel 1:3-4 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace

Nebuchadnezzar saw the wisdom of bringing the most promising young people into his government, even if they were Jewish captives. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were probably around fifteen years old when they were enrolled in the king’s academy. They were exiles in a foreign land, without rights or privileges, when they were suddenly selected for government service. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. 

Daniel 1:5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table

Their academic training would be rigorous, and would last for the next three years. They were to be well fed and assimilated into the Babylonian culture. To that end, their God-honoring names were replaced with names that honored the gods of Babylon: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego. This must have been a jolt to the godly young men who worshipped the God of Israel. 

Being drafted into the king’s service was becoming a mixed blessing, and raised an important question. How do God’s people live in a culture opposed to God? Do they rebel, or go along with it? Or do they find a middle way? Sometimes the devil attacks, other times he seduces, but his goal is always the same: to persuade God’s people to abandon their faith.

Daniel 1:8 Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine

The king’s food and wine were probably dedicated to idols, and this troubled Daniel’s conscience. We can imagine his struggle as he considered how far he would go to accommodate the pagan culture. He believed in the God of Abraham, but was no longer in the Promised Land. Since the Babylonians were treating him well, perhaps he should abandon his faith and go with the flow of his new situation. Otherwise, he could be expelled from the king’s academy, or even worse.

Daniel’s struggle is not unique. The ways of God are holy, and the ways of the world are not. As long as God’s people live in an unholy world, they have to consider how far they will go to get along. It is not an easy tension, and the stakes are often high. But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine

Daniel 1:8b [Daniel] asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way

Daniel displayed maturity beyond his teenage years. The zeal of youth may have led him to defy the king’s orders, but he asked for permission instead. He was determined not to receive the royal food and wine, but knew it was not wise to make demands when he could ask a favor. So that is what he did. 

Daniel 1:10 [T]he 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

The official was sympathetic toward Daniel, but he did not want to lose his head—a reasonable concern. So Daniel proposed a ten-day diet for himself and his three friends. Afterward, their appearance could be compared to the other students, and the official could do as he pleased. Perhaps Daniel reasoned that if they were doing the will of God, God could give them better health, even with less nutrition. 

Daniel 1:15-16 At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead

We should not assume what God will do in any situation. But in this case, God honored the noble desire of these young men by giving them excellent health, in spite of their meager diet. 

We should also notice the power of positive peer pressure. It is less likely Daniel’s friends would have had the courage of their convictions apart from Daniel. But when one person is willing to follow God, others may go along. It is important to walk with God, not only for ourselves, but for others who want to do the same.

We should also notice the power of faith in young people. Daniel’s faith gave him a level of maturity that many adults never attain. It also gave him the kind of character that avoids foolish mistakes. God can work deeply in the lives of young people, and distinguish them from their peers.

Daniel 1:17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning

Much of what they learned in the king’s academy was contrary to the Bible. But like good missionaries, they mastered the culture’s knowledge to better represent God. They did not suspend what they knew about God in order to learn new things. They used what they knew about God to distinguish truth from error.

This is important to Christians in academic settings, since in any field of study, there will be perspectives that challenge the Christian faith. Christians ought to be humble, since they often make mistakes, but God never makes a mistake, and he is a Christian. To the degree we understand and agree with God’s word we will be right—even if others disagree.

Daniel 1:18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar

Graduation included an examination by the king himself. Nebuchadnezzar found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. This must have been a great relief to them, and they quickly went to work for the Babylonian government. 

This was the same government that attacked the southern kingdom of Judah, so some of God’s people may have thought that Daniel and his friends were traitors. But their actions agreed with God’s word through the prophet Jeremiah. [S]eek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jeremiah 29:7). 

Christians do not serve God in the world by turning their backs on the world, but by making the world a better place. We are not to forsake the world into which God has called us, but to serve the world the best we can. This is implied in the command, Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39). Unless we do our best for the world, we are not loving our neighbors as we should.

Reflection and Review
Did Daniel and his friends compromise their faith by accepting pagan names?
Why is it usually better to ask a favor than to make a demand?
How should Christians serve God in the world?