Twenty some years ago I took my family (wife, toddler, and infant) to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. At one point I found myself alone, and I suddenly questioned my assumption that the toddler, my son, was with my wife, who also had the infant. As I stood in a gallery looking around for them, I saw a security guard framed in the door of an adjacent room. He was at first (as guards often are) as staid and unmoving as the statuary he was protecting. Suddenly he flinched, gasped, and pointed agitatedly, horror smearing across his face.
Suspecting the worst, I ran into the room and saw my son, who wasn’t with my wife, swinging on the frame of a huge painting.
I grabbed him, and, as the guard castigated me (“Keep your children with you at all times, please!”), we fled.
The painting that I had almost become the proud owner of was Peter Paul Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den. It depicts the Old Testament story of Daniel, a Hebrew captive in a foreign land, who was thrown to the lions because of his refusal to abide by the edict that no one was to pray to any “god or human” (Daniel 6:7, NIV)1 except the king.
Though some scholars have deemed this account and others in Daniel as nothing but “court tales,” the events in Daniel, together with the visions and dreams depicted in the book, contain a relevant message regarding the question of religious freedom clashing with regnant political and religious authorities. More important, Daniel gives powerful evidence for the sovereignty of God over and above a world immersed in political and religious turmoil.
The King’s Dream
Though the book of Daniel dates itself to the sixth century B.C., liberal scholarship—for reasons that are more and more dubious—puts it in the second century B.C., framing it in the context of the Maccabean struggle against a Seleucid ruler, King Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Recent studies, however, as well as the appearance of Daniel in the Dead Sea scrolls, have proved this later dating problematic, as does a careful reading of the texts themselves, which make the Antiochus interpretation, however firmly entrenched, highly suspect.
Whatever the dating issues, the book of Daniel unfolds against a background of war, empire, and political and religious intrigue. The opening verses of the first chapter set the stage: “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it” (Daniel 1:1, NIV). The small nation of Judah, caught between warring powers (think of, perhaps, Poland in the twentieth century), was besieged in 606 B.C. by the Babylonians, who, in various waves, brought captives from Judah to Babylon.
Among them were four young Hebrews, worshippers of the Lord, men who were swept up by geopolitical forces much greater than themselves and yet who, before long, found themselves as officials in the royal court. Through the stories of Daniel and his companions, the book that bears his name reveals a crucial theme: despite the interplay of nations and powers and leaders, which at times looks bad for the Lord’s faithful—human hubris will be humbled and God’s sovereignty revealed. In other words, no matter how bad things get (whether in sixth century B.C. or the twenty-first century today), God will triumph, and His kingdom will endure forever.
This theme is first expressed in Daniel 2. King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that he not only doesn’t understand but also can’t remember. He demands that the wise men of his court tell him the dream, and then interpret it. “Then the Chaldeans spoke to the king in Aramaic, ‘O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will give the interpretation’”(verse 4, NKJV).2 Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t an idiot; if they could tell him a dream that he himself didn’t remember, he could trust their interpretation. Otherwise, these charlatans could tell him anything and pass it off as inspired. Seeing their attempt to bamboozle him, he ordered all the wise men of Babylon killed—including Daniel and his three companions.
That night God revealed to Daniel not only the dream but also its interpretation (thus saving the “wise” men’s lives and his own as well). The king had seen a giant statue made of various metals, which symbolized successive world empires, starting with Babylon and ending (after Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome) with the nations of modern Europe. About 2,600 years ago, after predicting the breakup of the Roman Empire, out of which came the nations of Europe—Daniel described the European continent like this: “But while some parts of it will be as strong as iron, other parts will be as weak as clay. This mixture of iron and clay also shows that these kingdoms will try to strengthen themselves by forming alliances with each other through intermarriage. But they will not hold together, just as iron and clay do not mix” (verses 42, 43, NLT).3
If that isn’t a description of Europe, what is? Some nations strong (England, Germany, France), some nations weak (Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belgium)! And, despite all the talk about European unity, these countries don’t even use the same electrical sockets! Then, even with all their political and economic alliances, as well as intermarriage among European ruling houses—how many times have the Americans gone over in the past century to keep these people from killing each other?
Remember that a mere two years before the massive collapse of the Soviet Union the United States’ intelligence agencies had no inkling of weakness. It underscores Daniel’s perfect description of modern Europe as nothing short of stunning.
The chapter then mentions one final kingdom: “And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (verse 44, NKJV). Because we, from our perspective today (as opposed to someone living in Daniel’s Babylon), can see how right the Bible was on the first four empires, how foolish not to trust him on the final kingdom, the one that lasts forever?
Worshiping the Image
In Daniel 3 God’s sovereignty appears again, though contrasted (again) against a background of the powers that oppressed and dominated His people. King Nebuchadnezzar, perhaps in response to the dream of Daniel 2, which showed the temporality of his kingdom, created a giant statue, an image of gold that he wanted people to worship. “As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace” (Daniel 3:5, 6, NIV).
Three of Daniel’s Hebrew companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—refusing to worship according to the state religion—were cast into the furnace, only to be miraculously delivered, a deliverance that caused the pagan king to praise their Lord as “the Most High God” (verse 26, NIV). This was a startling admission for a ruler who had vanquished the nation that professed to worship and serve that God.
Centuries later the book of Revelation lifts language from this chapter in Daniel to foretell about a time that religious persecution will arise over the issue of worship. “The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed” (Revelation 13:15, NIV). This language, “worship the image,” is straight from Daniel 3, when obeying God’s law meant violating human law—a theme that Revelation picks up when, in contrast to those who do worship the image, God’s faithful people are described as those who “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12, NKJV).
Nevertheless, despite the religious persecution, both Daniel and Revelation depict the ultimate victory of God and His people at the end. “But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him” (Daniel 7:26, 27, NIV). And Revelation continues the theme: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever’” (Revelation 21:2-4, NLT).
In the Lions’ Den
Daniel 6, as well, picks up the theme of religious persecution. Under the reign of Darius the Mede, who overthrew Babylon, Daniel faced the threat of death for reasons not unlike what his three companions had faced under Nebuchadnezzar: refusal to worship anyone or anything other than the true God.
In this account, seeking a way to rid themselves of Daniel, who had high status in Darius’ government, some Median “administrators and the satraps” (verse 4, NIV) could find nothing against him unless, they said, “it has something to do with the law of his God” (verse 5, NIV). Playing on the king’s ego, they persuaded Darius to enact a decree (“in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed” [verse 8, NIV]) that anyone “who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den” (verse 7, NIV).
Daniel, when he heard about the decree, then “went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (verse l0, NIV). His actions have, over the centuries, challenged scholars: though the law of his God forbade the worship of anything other than the Lord, it said nothing about having to pray toward Him three times a day in an open window toward Jerusalem. Why didn’t Daniel, for 30 days, play it cool? Instead, in an overt in-your-face act of defiance, he kept doing what he had been doing all along, and for his trouble was thrown into the lions’ den.
As most students of the Bible know, the creatures left him alone—restrained by God’s power. In the morning King Darius, after finding him alive and well, had Daniel pulled from the den and—in a repetition of a theme that pervades the book—the king declared: “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end” (verse 26, NIV). Thus, another pagan king is moved to acknowledge the power and sovereignty of Daniel’s God.
Tale of Two Cities
Numerous themes and leitmotifs run through the book of Daniel, including the connection between supernatural powers and the powers of this world. Though earthly sovereigns can overthrow nations militarily, deport and enslave captives, decide on life or death for their subjects, and enforce a state religion—the only real sovereign is the Lord God. Babylon and then Media-Persia dominated the ancient world, but rulers from both empires were forced to acknowledge the power and everlasting dominion of Daniel’s God—even though these men dominated the land of Daniel’s people.
The immediate context of this book is battle between the Lord and these pagan “gods” and customs and powers. Yet it can be read as a microcosm of a cosmic conflict, a precursor to, Augustine’s The City of God versus The City of Man—symbolic embodiments of the struggle between light and darkness, truth and error, even Christ and Satan. However much, and often, it seems that darkness is winning, and that people of faith are persecuted, harassed, even killed, the book of Daniel reveals a view of the world and its history that, going beyond the past and the present, points to the future. It points to the supernatural denouement at the end of time when these bitter battles end, when evil is vanquished, and when God’s eternal kingdom is established: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14, NKJV).
Peter Paul Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den (which my son came close to modifying as only a toddler could) depicts a helpless Daniel looking up, hands clasped in prayer, seeking help from above, his only hope against eight large and mean-looking lions. His situation, in short, is so human: surrounded by earthly forces greater than himself, and before whom he was helpless, Daniel pleads for the intervention of the only God whose might is greater than anything earthly power could throw his way.
1 Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.
3 Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007. By Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.