Daniel: Prophet of Purity

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Daniel 1:3-5, 8-16

The prophet Daniel is famous for his courage in the lions’ den, but the faith he displayed there was the result of years of spiritual training. In fact, it started when he was a very young man in a very difficult situation.

“Just say no.”

That slogan is at the center of a campaign attempting to stem the tide of social problems that threaten to engulf today’s youth. Illegitimate births, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, drugs, alcohol and tobacco abuse – the list goes on and on. And all these moral and social ills are, in one way or another, the result of our failure to curb potentially self-destructive desires. One of the most important virtues in the ancient world, esteemed alike in both the biblical and classical traditions, was temperance. The New Testament refers to it as self-control, which the apostle Paul called a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:23). Paul was also talking about temperance when he wrote to his friend Titus that the grace of God “teaches us to say ‘no’ to godless ways and sinful longings” and to “control ourselves . . . do what is right [and] lead godly lives in today’s world” (Titus 2:12, NIrV).

Temperance means to develop the habit of appropriately controlling our basic desires. It is to discipline our cravings for pleasure. Activities that bring us sensual pleasure – eating and drinking, sex, play, relaxation – are, like all of God’s gifts, good in and of themselves. But we can become addicted to any of these things by overindulging in them, and we can spoil our pleasure and hurt ourselves by using them in the wrong way. Self-control or temperance is the power to say no to ourselves so that we use the things God created for our pleasure only in the ways he intended, because we believe that the God who designed us knows how we best should live.

The important thing is that we say no to ourselves because we are really saying yes to the Lord. The best kind of self-discipline is that which is undertaken out of love for God. Many people have the strength to deny themselves, but they do so from self-centeredness – like the miser who doesn’t drink because he’s too cheap to spend his money, or the woman who never overeats because she’s obsessed with her looks. The kind of self-control that comes from the Holy Spirit is motivated by love for God. We undertake to discipline our desires in order to obey God and bring him glory, not because we’re simply trying to improve our health or our appearance.

Living as we do in an age marked by intemperance and out-of-control behavior, how do we “just say no”? One way is by looking at the example of the young prophet Daniel. His life of purity and self-control is one of the best models for learning how to say no to bodily appetites in order to say yes to God.

LEARNING WHEN TO SAY NO

The book of Daniel opens in the year 605 b.c. Following the death of King Josiah, the kingdom of Judah soon came under attack by Nebuchadnezzar and the armies of Babylon. Eventually, Jerusalem fell to the invaders and the city was destroyed in 586 b.c. But that destruction was only the final stage of a conquest that actually took place in three separate phases. Ten years earlier the Babylonians had stripped Jerusalem bare and installed a puppet king, and ten years before that (in 606 b.c.) they had raided the city and taken some hostages back to Babylon.

Those captives were the cream of Jewish society, the best boys drawn from the best families. They were brought to Babylon for a special reason (Daniel 1:3-5). These able and attractive young men had been taken there to be trained so that one day they could serve the Babylonian empire. They would be assimilated into Babylonian culture by being taught their captors’ language and customs – including their religion – so that later in life they would naturally feel an attachment to Babylon and serve her purposes. And among those young captives were Daniel and his friends.

In a way, it was a great honor and privilege to be chosen for the Babylonian training program. But it also presented a threat to Daniel’s faith. The first challenge to Daniel and his friends came, of all places, in the royal dining hall. The king of Babylon provided food and drink for the trainees from his own table. Coming from the king’s table, it would have been rich and elegant fare, the choicest of everything. These special provisions were a mark of royal interest and favor. They were designed to both entice and reward and strengthen the young men.

But for the Jewish youths, the food presented a temptation. It wasn’t kosher. If they ate it they would break the Old Testament dietary laws. The danger represented by this food was that Daniel and his friends would become so assimilated to Babylonian culture they would lose their own spiritual identity – and their faith.

These young men cooperated as far as they could, without compromising any essential beliefs. They participated in the royal training program, even accepting new Babylonian names. (Daniel’s Babylonian name was Belteshazzar, while his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah became Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.) But when it came to the royal food, they just said no. The book of Daniel describes how they did it.

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. . . . but the 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.”

Daniel then said to the guard . . . “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food . . . “ So he agreed . . .

Daniel 1:8-14, niv

The issue of food and drink may seem trivial to us. Christians do not follow special diets for religious reasons because Jesus declared that all foods are permissible to eat. But for these young Jewish men in Babylon, it was a different story. Before the coming of Christ, obedience to the Old Testament law – the whole law, including the dietary restrictions – defined who it was that belonged to the people of God. So for these young men the food test in the royal palace raised the question of their identity and most basic loyalty. Who were they; whose were they? Did they belong to the emperor of Babylon or to the Lord God of Israel?

Daniel and his three friends would not rationalize or make excuses for disobeying God’s law. But neither did they become martyrs for their faith. Daniel, demonstrating the wisdom for which he would become justly famous, suggested a way to compromise appropriately. In that way they could acknowledge their ultimate allegiance without needlessly making themselves offensive to the authorities. “We are not our own,” their action said; “we belong to the Lord. But we will serve Babylon to the best of our ability. We will not, however, betray our God. We will not give up our faith or stop serving God first of all.”

LEARNING HOW TO SAY NO

Now recognizing the threat to their faith and their need to stand firm was one thing, but finding the strength to say no to the court officials was another. That must have been hard for Daniel and his friends. To stand up, all alone, and refuse the privileges being extended to the rest of the group; to be obviously and intentionally different; to risk losing their special place, perhaps risk the alternative of imprisonment or slavery or even death – that didn’t just take self-control. It took real courage and faith. How did they do it? Well, Daniel’s obedience began with an inward decision. “Daniel resolved not to defile himself,” says the Bible (v. 8). He was clear in his own mind and heart what he must do ahead of time.

The time to determine what you will and won’t do is right at the beginning, early in your life and in your walk with God. You need to decide what your principles for living will be. Are you going to identity yourself as a Christian and be a witness for Christ? Are you going to live a distinctively Christian life? Will you commit yourself to sexual purity? Will you abstain from drugs or other injurious practices? Will you be a person of honesty and integrity? Will you keep your promises? Will you be faithful to your spouse? Will you tell the truth? Those are the things you have to be clear about in your own mind right from the start. So resolve to be and to do all of that before you have to face the first test or temptation.

There was no wavering with Daniel. He had already settled the issue within himself, and was determined to live according to his principles. So when the test came in the first seemingly small matter, Daniel didn’t rationalize. “After all,” he might have thought, “it’s just food . . . everyone else is eating it . . . I don’t want to stick out . . . it’s not like I’m being asked to bow down to an idol . . . it’s important for me to keep my place in this prestigious royal program. . . .” No, Daniel didn’t have to debate the issue. His decision had already been made. We learn purity and discipline and strength of character through obedience in the everyday acts of life. Principles are like money: if you start to throw them away on little things, pretty soon you discover you don’t have any left. But if you choose to obey God in those little things, you will discover that you grow rich in character.

In addition to his principles, Daniel had one other thing that helped give him the strength to stand up and say no. He had friends who believed as he did. Daniel wasn’t alone. His companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shared his resolve and joined him in his stand of faith. We are much stronger when we’re not alone, when we are part of a community of other believers. Even if we have just one other believing friend, that’s a great help for our own obedience. Daniel and his friends found strength to maintain their witness by being together. They lived together, ate together, talked together, and prayed together (see 2:17ff).

It’s been demonstrated again and again: alone we may be too weak to stand against sin, but together we lend one another strength. One of the most powerful illustrations of that truth comes from the life of Bill Wilson, the New York stockbroker who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s. Based on his own Christian conversion and subsequent victory over alcohol with the help of a small group of fellow alcoholics, Wilson developed the “Twelve Steps,” the principles that are still used by numerous recovery groups. The first step is to acknowledge God and admit that you are helpless on your own. Then you go on to accept the help of others to do that which you are not strong enough to do by yourself. These simple steps, followed by small groups of mutually dependent people, have helped millions break the chains of addictive or sinful kinds of behavior.

Do you have Christian friends with whom you can talk and pray honestly? You need at least one! Do you have someone who can help you – and be helped by you – as you strive toward real growth in self-control and purity? If not, why not? Are you stronger than Daniel?