The Daniel Challenge: “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” – Daniel 1-3

dark-girl in fieldOur generation has been granted by God a unique opportunity – to lead in a culture that is dark, drifting and largely directionless. It is in that state because it has severed its moorings from the dock of absolute truth, and embraced moral relativism and a story of origins wrapped in Godless naturalism. We can lament that it has done so, and some tears may be warranted, but that won’t change where we are… and we CAN change where we are! There are many ways we can have a direct impact on the future of our country – some want to do it through political process. Others want education reform. All that is well and good, but the Bible posits that none of those will have their due impact if they do not also include doing so with a deep and personal walk with God. Commitment to a cause will eventually tire, but commitment to the relationship with a Living Savior will be renewed and energized as we meet with Him, focus on His voice and follow His bidding. We need personal transformation before we can push a cultural reformation. To do that, we cannot curse the darkness, nor fear it – we must challenge it with light…starting one candle at a time.

A great example of this idea is found in the writings of Daniel the prophet. The prophet and his three friends – Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah – offer us a good look at believers successfully negotiating life and rising to a position of influence over their own people and others – even after being forcibly plunged into a spiritually dark world against their own choosing.

Our lesson today encompasses three stories from Daniel 1-3 that are quite well known. Each is important, even if we only touch them lightly.

Let’s set the whole book, then the three stories. Daniel can easily be divided into two parts: the first six chapters concerning Daniel and his friends lighting up a spiritually dark place, and the last six chapters speaking about specifics of prophecy concerning God’s people, Israel. The book is built on a premise, and that will be our central truth for this lesson:

Key Principle: Either darkness will be a debilitating problem for you, or an opportunity for you to serve God and stand out.

The first three chapters tell three very familiar stories that feed information on how to stand with courage in darkness, and make a difference when the world around desperately needs what you have, but doesn’t know it.

• The first story explained how Daniel navigated holding to purity in diet, when the king assigned the menu of the boys of Judah.

• The second story recalled how God gave the king a dream, and how He used Daniel to make clear both the dream and interpretation – which elevated Daniel in the eyes of the king.

• The third story recounted the king setting up a statue to himself and his expectation of being worshiped by all – with a lion’s den penalty for dissenters.

Each story is familiar, but each offers a strand in a strong cord that reminds us that our commitment precedes our usefulness – and our commitment will be tested.

Chapter One

The first story makes clear that it isn’t circumstance that makes you successful in a walk with God – it is your choice to focus on intimacy with God and show it to people around you who need to meet God.

The storyline is simple to recall. Men of Judah were plucked from home and placed in Pagan U with a diet of un-kosher food. They had to find a way to walk with God in an undefiled way and yet have an influence on the lost people around them… Look at chapter one for a moment. There are a few observations that I believe will effectively explain what to look at to keep from sliding into the darkness around us:

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. 2 The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along 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 he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god.

First, look at how clearly Daniel demonstrated that he knew he was in God’s hand! His focus was in God’s control, even amidst evil’s victory. Note: “The Lord gave Jehoiakim…” (1:1-2). He recognized when his king was taken into captivity, God was at work (1:2). You don’t hear resignation, but rather recognition. The simple fact is that life is out of our control, but never out of God’s control. That is the beginning of finding a firm footing in dark places.

Second, don’t miss that Daniel focused on building positive relationships with those around him, both believers and non-believers. He didn’t find the problems with his fellows, nor did he fight the circumstances and disrespect the pagans around him. He tried to discern what God wanted him to do, step by step, and how he could build ties to people. Daniel 1:3-5 explained how the king ordered a certain “Ashpenaz” to select some of the best of the sons of Israel, and teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king provisioned a daily menu for the students as they prepared to enter the king’s personal service. These young men listened and learned the ropes, making respectful relationships in the system rather than fighting in unending protest. If we focus on making relationships in spite of the changes, we will have more opportunities to live a testimony.

Third, the young men learned to walk with God without depending on the public symbols they once had. Daniel 1:6-7 tell us that at the beginning of the training, the boys – Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah had their names changed: Daniel to Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach and to Azariah Abed-nego.

When Judah’s king had fallen and the Temple’s God appeared to be defeated by a pagan deity, the natural symbols of power and prestige were taken from their hands…and yet the men kept focus to navigate without compromising truth. It is critical to remember in times like these that our identity as children of God isn’t found in your outward public symbols but rather an intimate relationship with the Lord – and they cannot take that away! Note verse six:

Daniel 1:6 “Among these were some from Judah: Daniel – (name meaning ‘God is my judge’, Hananiah, (the Lord has been gracious), Mishael, (The one who comes form God), and Azariah (The Lord is my helper). The chief official gave them Babylonian names: to Daniel, Belteshazzar (the secret of their God Bel), to Hananiah, Shadrach (“the inspiration of the sun god”) To Mishael, Meshach (he who belongs to the goddess Sheshach.) and to Azariah, Abednego (servant of Nebo – the morning star).

Their names were changed – an outward thing – but not their hearts! Why is that important? To have a testimony, the men didn’t focus on the outward symbols but rather inward faithfulness.

Fourth, if you took the time to read Daniel 1:8-16, you would recognize how Daniel focused on what was negotiable and what was NOT. Look at 1:8:

Daniel 1:8 But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself.

Daniel’s personal choice was to stand before God in purity and that was a non-negotiable. That was the platform God used in his life. Yet, the second half of the verse showed the “HOW” is not the same as the “WHAT”. You can stand in purity, but find a way to meet people half-way without personally violating yourself. It takes work. It takes patience. It takes listening to the man on the other side of the desk with respect. Daniel was able to be sympathetic to Ashpenaz without giving in on his truth commitment. (1:10). He was able to meet the man half way and be a testimony without being a protestor (1:11-16).

Fifth, Daniel focused on being used of God where God led him – and staying with that task. He chose time with positive people and doing positive “God things”. People that are engaged in growth and life are invigorating and get better opportunities to be used of God (1:17-19). He worked out his gifted-ness and stayed at his post for God (1:20-21). Though he was taken to Babylon in 606 BCE, but stayed in the work until 537 BCE – nearly 70 years later!

I hate dieting, and yet it seems this is something I will need to continuously address in my life. It is probably unrealistic, but I imagine that every time I walk past a dessert buffet and choose discipline, it seems like I should instantaneously lose a pound. That seems fair to me… but life doesn’t work that way. The only way I can have a healthy and fit body is doing right over the LONG HAUL.

Daniel got that. He didn’t expect an instant positive because of an instant commitment. He worked for many years. We read a few chapters of what God did in his life, but do not read of the decades of doing right in between. Don’t be misled… a testimony is a long term build.

Chapter Two

The second story introduced the place where a testimony shines brilliantly – in times of trouble. The curtain opened with a king’s insomnia, and a cranky cynicism exposing his previously secret beliefs about his untrustworthy advisors. He commanded the men to BOTH tell him his dream, and interpret its meaning. It is as though God awakened the man to bring a problem that would show the underlying system of the Empire was built on false ideas and people.

Chapter two teaches that it isn’t in problem free living that a successful walk develops best. Some problems can be God’s way of uncovering deception and clearly revealing the place of truth. What looks like LIFE driving forces isn’t just a series of coincidental events – it is the work of a Providential God! In this case, it was a dream that left the king grumpy (2:1).

Look at the progression of the testimony in the chapter:

First, the king was forced to use the system he created without God (2:2). His payroll was loaded with “helpers” called the “magicians” (khar-tome’: a horoscope reader who typically believed “the universe knows”. If they couldn’t help, there were the “conjurers” (ash-shawf’: necromancers or exorcists). These claimed to breach at will the veil between the physical and spiritual world and speak to the dead. Still without direction? There were also the “sorcerers” (Hebrew “mekhashphim”: literally mutterers) who could whisper a spell of witchcraft. If nothing else worked, there were the “Chaldeans” (kas-dee’: inhabitants of Chaldea), the imported experts from think tanks with interesting pedigrees. Sadly, none of them could both tell the king his dream and interpret the meaning reliably.

Second, the problems revealed the hopeless cynicism that lurked beneath the surface of the unbelieving world (2:3-9). The king looked for help in the systems he built, but didn’t really even trust them. The intractable problem highlighted the need for power beyond MAN. Look carefully at verse ten. Isn’t that a great set up for God to work among men? Complex problems often reveal the limits of life without the Creator God

Daniel 2:10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who could declare the matter for the king, inasmuch as no great king or ruler has ever asked anything like this of any magician, conjurer or Chaldean.

Third, the problems offered a platform for the clear presentation of God’s ability to fix life (2:12-16). Daniel heard about the problem (2:12-15). In response, Daniel shared with the lost king that God COULD fill the need, and asked for time to see if God WOULD fill it (2:16).

Fourth, Daniel let the problem be an opportunity to believers together and into worship and seek God (2:17-23)! He gathered praying friends to seek God (2:17-18). God answered the request (2:19) and Daniel worshiped and praised (2:20-23).

Finally, the entire second half of chapter two unfolded the story of how God revealed the future to Daniel, and he, in turn, explained it to the king. Look at the king’s response:

Daniel 2:46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face and did homage to Daniel, and gave orders to present to him an offering and fragrant incense. 47 The king answered Daniel and said, “Surely your God is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery.” 48 Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. 49 And Daniel made request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego over the administration of the province of Babylon, while Daniel was at the king’s court.

The chapter left us with this: our problems can be our best opportunities to become the showcase of God’s power. Now the final story…

Chapter Three

The third chapter opened with two recognizable problems.

• The king had selective hearing from the vision Daniel explained. He got more caught up on the BIG STATUE of the dream and lost the significance of the meanings of each part of it. So often, people hear what they want to hear.

• Daniel’s elevation made the other advisers jealous. The whole academy of men in chapter two retained both heads and positions, but weren’t grateful to God or to Daniel.

Let’s break the “fiery furnace” story into three parts.

• First, the great statue and command for people to bow and worship it at the appointed musical prompting (Daniel 3:1-7).

• Second, jealous Chaldeans accuse the Judean boys to attempt to eliminate them (3:8-18).

• Third, the three men were cast into a fiery furnace, and had a meeting with their Savior (3:19-30).

Daniel isn’t relating his own experience, but rather the experience of three contemporary friends in Babylon.

Don’t forget – the passage isn’t about the problem – it NEVER is. It is about the POWER of God and the platform rising problems afford us to show His power!

Chapter three ties together the lessons of the first two chapters into one overriding idea: the greatest problem most of us have is the way we VIEW our problems. Drop into the story of this ancient king who has been reading the mail of sycophants and flatterers and decided on a building project that he thought was a suitable self-tribute:

Daniel 3:1 Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, the height of which [was] sixty cubits (ninety feet tall) [and] its width six cubits (nine feet wide); he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.

First, note the Set up: The enemy of God used a familiar cocktail recipe:

He misdirected a man of power and influence –Satan’s most effective work begins with the soft blowing of subtle influence pushing along a fragile ego. Nebuchadnezzar was the undisputed king of perhaps the world’s most elegant city and most powerful government – and yet his most pressing issue wasn’t health care, not education, not immigration, not civil rights – he concluded his biggest problem that needed the most serious investment – was his image sculpting and legacy.

The enemy confused the king with religious symbolism – from the image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream from chapter two, the king got the idea to build a likeness of himself. As always, bad theology leads to bad action, but is most often driven by good impulse. How many times has a social program been started by a leader who wanted to help – but their solution actually added many unintended consequences that hurt more than were aided.

Godless people in social causes often create a brand of enforced paganism… but that doesn’t change the people of God and their mission…

Note the words in Daniel 3:2 “Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent [word] … to come to the dedication of the image …3 Then … they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed: “To you the command is given, O peoples, nations and [men of every] language, 5 that at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe and all kinds of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up. 6 “But whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire.”

Don’t stop reading at the details of the gathering – or you are left with only the problem. That is what the NEWS MEDIA does. It leads you to the intractable issues of our day, and offers the blur of contradictory opinions of pundits from opposite sides of the aisle.

God’s Word isn’t about the problem – He is about the platform the problem affords the believer to shine a light that pierces the darkness.

Break down the verses, and three ideas emerge.

• First, there was a command (3:2-3): Someone takes the lead in sponsoring darkness. In this case, word was spread and the powerful came to dedication. False ideas when presented with the power and symbolism of official channels often gains traction quickly.

• Second, there were conditions (3:4-6): The announcement set clear expectation. A surge like this asserts MIND CONTROL. The king didn’t want allegiance – he wanted worship. He wanted surrender to his will. Evil men cannot tolerate opposition, despite their claim that they are the tolerant ones among us. They don’t want pagan ideas merely installed in our education system – they want unqualified control of our society’s world view. We resist because we know what they want. It isn’t the freedom to live the way they choose – it is the right to force me to agree with them or be removed from the public square. We must seek to be peaceable and kind, but never passive in defense of truth.

• Third, there was almost uniform conformity: People fell down in obedience with practically no resistance (3:7). We must remember that the moral system of most people allows them to compromise anything to get ahead with those in power. Believers don’t have that luxury, because we serve the King above the king. That truth is not a reason for despair – it is a reason for us to live with CLARITY the principles of our Father in Heaven. Consider how profound it will look to have a deeply committed and happy marriage (as defined in the Bible) in the average workplace. These dark days offer us real OPPORTUNITY!

As you keep looking, you will notice how believers got squeezed by the rising tide (3:8-12): Anger and rage will be vented on any who question the rising evil.

The enemy quickly seized the opportunity to use the dark days to wipe out God’s message and messengers (3:8-12). He may even use those who were respectful and helpful just a short time before.

• The believers were not trying to be in the way, but they attracted the jealousy of the Chaldeans (3:8). They hadn’t done anything wrong. God wasn’t punishing them. Yet, they spent no time trying to discern who was to blame – that wasn’t the issue.

• Notice how the unbelieving leaders set up persecution as cloaked but necessary nationalism and public good. (3:9-12). You are going to see that one again in the coming days. They framed the intent of the believers as hostile to the power of the state. (3:12). Rather than be appalled, we need to both be prepared to stand up to false worship, as well as be prepared to address positively why we do what we do.

The king had the offenders dragged in to stand face to face before him in Daniel 3:13-15. They faced a choice from which there was clearly no escape – and the faith of three men became crystal clear to anyone watching. Here was the point of the problem – God wanted to show something to the king, and he chose to do it through the lives of these three men by allowing the enemy to create a problem for the believers.

These men faced the same challenge we all do – put God above self so that God can tell His story. (3:13-15).

Look at the king’s question! But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?”

He had no idea there is an affirmative answer to the idea that there was a God that could save them from his authority… and he was completely WRONG! Believer, don’t confuse confident assertion with certain truth. The king may have believed he was in charge of all things, but that only lasted until the truth came out in the FIRE of a difficult circumstance.

God may decide to offer YOU or ME – our lives – to win another to Himself. Ask our missionaries if that is easy – if they are honest they will tell you it is not. God has the right, and God knows the plan. Is it not a deep privilege to be used by the Creator to bring salvation to others? The contest is within the believer, but the conditions that make it clear are often in the world around him or her.

I love the confidence of these young men in Daniel 3:16-18: They didn’t need to rethink the issue because they knew the king’s King!

Don’t forget: The enemy has every interest in dragging out and dramatizing his power – the power over your body. It is a temporal power, but it is all that he has to work with! The king offered another opportunity for the men to “bail” – a dragging out of the decision process, but the men would have no part in that. Daniel 3:16 “Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 “If it be [so], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18″But [even] if [He does] not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.

Can you pick out the confidence in these men? When we truly encounter God, we aren’t nearly as impressed with human power, accomplishment and ability! Temporal power pales before eternal. That is why a Biblical world view is so critical… it will provide a foundation under the choices of our lives. If God is really in control, the enemy has a limitation on him. Whatever passes into my life passes the approval of God’s hand before it arrives to me.

Consider this: A submarine has enormous pressure on the hull as it sinks deeply in the ocean. It is only the inner counter pressure of the air that stops the outer pressure from collapsing the vessel into itself. By the same token – The world is trying to shape you into its image … shape you into its mold. We aren’t to be shaped by OUTSIDE forces … BUT … by the INSIDE strength and domination of the Holy Spirit. When you surrender to God’s power and allow the work of the Spirit to take over within, you protect against collapse to the outer pressure to conform!

You know the end. The three men were hurled into a fiery furnace, but One was already in the fire waiting for them to arrive. The powerful men of the world stood outside in awe, while the King of the Ages had a little “pep talk” time with His faithful friends. In time, the men walked out of that furnace and showed the power of the God they served. All this happened because they completely understood, and lived out one essential truth: Their lives were not their own. Their troubles were nothing less than God’s platform to use each of them to speak to others. Every believer must face that difficult lesson… We aren’t always going to be protected from troubles, but we do get two opportunities.

• We can fuss about the menu offered us while we compromise private purity – or we can match our public protest with a consistent to love and follow God and His Word.

• We can see each government move against us as a threat and respond in fear, or we can seek God and use the darkness as a backdrop to light a candle of testimony.

• We can feel continuously victimized by evil’s approach, or we can recognize troubles are often the great platform of God to show men He is there and He is not impotent, but patient.

These three lessons remind us of one truth necessary to face our time…

Either darkness will be a problem for us, or an opportunity for us to serve God and stand out. The difference is in our choices, not in our environment.