Monday, January 9, 2017

Living Lives Of Purpose: Lessons From The Book Of Daniel. Day 2, By The Rivers Of Babylon

Living Lives Of Purpose:
Lessons From The Book Of Daniel
Day 2
By The Rivers Of Babylon

"In the third year of the reign of Jehoiachim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it." (Daniel 1:1) Daniel gives us a pretty precise date for the first campaign of Nebuchadnezzar in Judah. Some critics have found fault with his dating, pointing out that the prophet Jeremiah says Nebuchadnezzar's campaign, which he began by fighting against Egypt and Assyria at Carchemish before moving down into Judah, occurred during the fourth year of Jehoiachim's reign. (Jeremiah 46:2) But the reckoning of reignal years differed between the Hebrews and the Babylonians. The Hebrews counted any part of a year as a year, so as soon as Jehoiachim was crowned this would have been counted as "year one" of his reign. In Babylon, where Daniel lived the majority of his life, reignal years were counted at the completion of each full year on the anniversary of the coronation. So both Jeremiah and Daniel are correct; they are simply looking at the event from a different cultural perspective.

"And the Lord delivered Jehoiachim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles of the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure of the house of his god." (Daniel 1:2) If God had not allowed it, the land of Judah could not have been plundered, but Daniel makes it clear that the Lord delivered the king into Nebuchadnezzar's hand. In his first siege against Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar did not destroy the city, but was intent only on subduing Jehoiachim's rebellion against paying tribute to him. He wanted the king of Judah to know, on no uncertain terms, that he was now a vassal of Babylon and must behave as such. To further demoralize the people, Nebuchadnezzar took some articles from the Lord's temple and placed them in the temple of his own god in Babylon, thereby making the statement, "My god is better than your God. Your God did not deliver you, either because He could not or He would not. My god is supreme over Him. I now offer articles from your God's temple to my god in his temple."

Jehoiachim was formerly a vassal of Egypt but the fortunes of Egypt were on the downswing. They were losing their hold over the region. Soundly defeated at the battle of Carchemish when Pharaoh Necho marched out with his troops to help Assyria defend herself against Babylon, the Egyptians retreated to their own land. Now Nebuchadnezzar considers Pharaoh a defeated foe, with his vassals now belonging to Babylon. Jehoiachim does not want to submit to this new master, but submit he will.

At the same time he took these first articles from the Lord's temple, Nebuchadnezzar also took a group of young men back to Babylon to serve him in his court. "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. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service." (Daniel 1:3-5) Nebuchadnezzar instructs his official to bring the best and brightest of the young men of Judah back to Babylon. Lest the king and citizens of Judah decide to rise up against his authority, Nebuchadnezzar now has hostages. He has taken the very best of the royal and noble families to Babylon. He is sending a clear message to the Hebrews that a revolt against him could very easily mean the death of these beloved young men. We don't know how many of these fellows Nebuchadnezzar took captive; Daniel will only say that that he and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abenego were "among those chosen". I would assume this was a fairly large group.

We don't know how the other young men fared in Babylon. It's thought by many scholars that, out of the whole group, only Daniel and his friends remained faithful to God, and that this is why Daniel never mentions the names of any of the others. The others likely fully assimilated into Babylonian culture. And although we find Daniel and his friends dressing according to the culture, speaking the language of the culture, and receiving an education of the culture, we never find them conforming to the culture. Their faith was so strong when they went into captivity that nothing could shake it. They purposed in their hearts to serve the Lord no matter where He put them, an attitude I believe Daniel demonstrates when he states that he and the other young men were "chosen". He does not say they were seized or taken captive or taken prisoner or held against their will. He says they were chosen. And in order to perform the work of God they are meant to do in Babylon, they must learn everything they can about this foreign land and its customs and religion. As the saying goes, it's important to "know thy enemy". Without the years of Babylonian education, and if they had not excelled in learning, Daniel and his friends would not have risen to such high positions in the kingdom and they would not have been in a position to be a godly influence to the king and the citizens of this foreign land. 

It does not profit us to be willfully ignorant of our culture. Refusing to understand the times in which we live is to risk becoming irrelevant in our times. Sure, we could hide in our houses and keep the news turned off and resist learning anything new or using the internet or having any idea what's going on around us. We could immerse ourselves only in what makes us comfortable and only in what conforms to our own beliefs. But how can we launch an effective argument against the false beliefs of the world if we don't understand them? How can we renounce the sins of modern culture if we don't even know what they are? How can we be a light in a dark world if we withdraw into ourselves and recoil from a majority of society and shrink back from associating with our fellow citizens because they don't live like we do? Did Jesus behave like this? Well, if He had, He could have spared Himself the accusation of being a "friend of sinners", but a friend of sinners is what He came to be. Jesus was always out in public, teaching anyone willing to hear Him, and in doing so He changed hearts and lives. If we don't interact with our fellow man and show them love, how will we ever share with them the gospel message? Jesus fully knew and understood His culture and the times in which He lived. He knew the beliefs of His own people and the beliefs of the Romans who ruled over them. He didn't decide to remain hidden in the obscure town of Nazareth and spend His life reading the Scriptures and putting together end-tables in the carpentry shop of His step-father Joseph. If He had, how would He have changed the world? Like Daniel and his friends and like the Lord Jesus, we need to know and understand the times in which we live. And like Daniel and his companions and the Lord Jesus, we need to possess such strong convictions and such a sure sense of purpose that we can live in a fallen world without conforming to the sins of the world.

We see how thoroughly Nebuchadnezzar attempted to assimilate these young men into the Babylonian way of living. Like many other conquerors, tomorrow we find him renaming these captives, stripping them of their national and religious identity by taking away their Hebrew names and replacing them with Babylonian names. But as Shakespeare mused in Romeo And Juliet, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". The lives of Daniel and his friends will smell just as sweet under these new names because they intend to bloom where they are planted. And this got me to thinking: suppose whenever we meet with difficulty in our lives we consider ourselves "chosen" for it, as Daniel considered himself and these other young men "chosen". How might this attitude change the way we feel about our circumstances? I'm going through a difficult season right now in my life and, I don't know about you, but I could sure use a better sense of purpose as I go about my days. I could certainly stand to view my current discouragement and depression from another angle. We so often think of our difficulties as being taken captive and held prisoner by circumstances we would far rather avoid. And Daniel could have thought of his circumstances in the same way. But instead he decided to consider himself chosen. The Lord chose him to be a light in a dark land, to remain true to his faith and his morals no matter what came against him, and in so doing he was able to influence a pagan ruler to declare the God of Israel "the Most High" and to say of the Lord, "I honored and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; His kingdom endures from generation to generation". (Daniel 4:34) 

After one of Nebuchadnezzar's campaigns in Judah, during which he took a multitude captive back to Babylon, we find some of the captives saying, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137:1-4) We don't know which captives spoke these mournful words, but we can be confident none of them were Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These four young men did know how to sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land. Psalm 137 was voiced by a group filled with despair, who absolutely did not consider themselves chosen, who referred to the Babylonians as their captors and tormentors, and who could find nothing joyful except the thought of their conqueror's eventual downfall and the death of even the small children of Babylon. This particular group did not know how to bloom where they were planted. They didn't understand that a rose by any other name could smell as sweet. With this attitude, we can only assume they did not accomplish anything for the Lord in Babylon as Daniel and his friends did. Daniel and his friends understood they had a mission there. They knew that seventy years of captivity lay before them and that they would never see their homeland again. But they purposed in their hearts to serve the Lord wherever they found themselves. With this attitude they accomplished a great deal for the kingdom of God. It wouldn't surprise me to know that there are citizens of ancient Babylon in heaven right now because they learned of the God of Israel from these young Hebrew men and were influenced by how they lived out their faith. What better thing could be said of Daniel and his companions? What better thing could be said of any of us?

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