11–17 November 2018.
The Book of Daniel is not an easy text. The second half of the book is full of mysterious prophecies that talk about the evil role that many empires played in the ancient world. But the first half is easier and also more familiar to us. In Daniel 1–6 we find a collection of interesting Jewish short stories that paint a picture of Jewish life in exile. These short stories draw on the feelings and concerns of the small Jewish minority living in Babylon. In these stories the Babylonian king is not really evil, just incompetent and misguided; and his empire is not evil either, but rather God’s instrument in the world. In this way the stories try to comfort and encourage their Jewish readers, assuring them that God is still in control of world, and for that reason there is still hope in life and in history. The stories also have a bit of fun picturing this small Jewish minority as smarter and better than the local Babylonians.
It’s not easy to live in a strange land far away from home. That’s especially true when this exile is the result of a failed war. But Daniel 1:2 comforts its readers by telling them it was God who let Jerusalem’s king be defeated. Daniel 2:21 also affirms again that it’s God who puts kings up on their thrones and who pulls them down again. The message is clear: Don’t worry, God is still in control.
But who is this God? In much of the Old Testament we hear about the “God of Israel”. But in Daniel 2:18 God is described in a different, universal way. He is the “God of Heaven”, a God not limited just to Israel, a God who cares for the whole world and all its people – even for the Babylonians. In some Old Testament texts there is a lot of hostility against non-Jews, and the Israelites treat them as evil enemies who worship false and foreign gods. But here the view is softer. In chapter 2:18, Daniel works hard (as the wisest of all the king’s advisors) not just to save the Jews, but to save even the lives of the Babylonian magicians, enchanters, and sorcerers. In an ancient world where many Jews wanted to kill those who had different religions, here we see impressive kindness and compassion from Daniel.
These two lessons are still important for us today. When things go wrong for us, we so quickly give up hope. But Daniel’s message to those of us suffering was to keep depending on God. Despite the disasters that surround us, God is still at work in history and he is still caring for us. Second, while it’s easy for us to also see people who are different as enemies, Daniel reminds us that all people belong to the God of Heaven, and all people deserve our care and compassion. In a world where life isn’t always easy, and in a world where others can seem frighteningly different from us, these are two important lessons for us to remember.
Pastor Stephen Lakkis