(40) They brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den – Daniel 6:16

Daniel was young when he was taken into exile and he served the Babylonian kings throughout the whole period of the exile into his old age.

After Nebuchadnezzar’s death his son Belshazzar became king and he held a great feast for a thousand of his lords. At the height of the festivities he ordered his servants to fetch the gold and silver goblets that his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and he and his fellow revellers drank wine from them and praised their gods. Suddenly, in a dramatic turn of events, the king saw “the fingers of a human hand” (Daniel 5:5) appear and write on the wall. This sobered him up and he called for his wise men but none could read what had been written. So Belshazzar summoned Daniel, now in his 80s, and offered him gifts and honour if he could interpret it.

Daniel refuses the gifts but tells Belshazzar about the way in which God humbled Nebuchadnezzar. He rebukes Belshazzar for not humbling himself and for dishonouring the true God and then translates the writing on the wall. There are just three words: numbered, weighed, and divided. God has weighed Belshazzar in the scales and found that he does not measure up to what is required. As a result his days are numbered and will be brought to an end and his kingdom will be divided between the Medes and Persians. Despite giving the king a prophecy of personal disaster, Daniel is rewarded by Belshazzar who makes him the third ruler in the kingdom, but his position is short lived as the Medes and Persians conquer the city and kill Belshazzar that very night.

The new king, Darius the Mede, keeps some of the Babylonian officials, including Daniel who is made one of the three leading satraps (regional rulers). Darius is so impressed by Daniel’s wisdom that he decides to set him over the whole kingdom. This leads to jealousy from the others satraps who, finding no legitimate complaint about Daniel’s conduct, decide to set a trap for him.

Playing on the vanity of the king they ask Darius to sign a decree that anyone who prays to any god other than him for thirty days will be killed. The king signs the decree which, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, cannot be revoked. It is in this episode from Daniel’s life that we discover where his strength and wisdom come from as we read that when Daniel heard about the decree he went to an upper chamber in his house which had windows open towards Jerusalem and “got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (Daniel 6:10). Daniel has been sustained in the most demanding of roles by daily communication with his God.

The satraps are delighted and go to Darius full of mock indignation on his behalf that his favourite official is flouting his decree. Darius is distraught but, unable to revoke his own law, has to carry out the punishment. The nature of the punishment is what Daniel is best known for: he is thrown into a den of lions. After a sleepless night Darius returns to the den and cries out to Daniel to see if his God has delivered him. He doesn’t expect an answer but to his surprise, Daniel is unharmed and emerges paying tribute to God who sent an angel to shut the lion’s mouths. Darius then makes sure that then lions don’t go hungry by feeding them with the officials who had tried to trap Daniel and issues a decree that people “must fear and reverence the God of Daniel” (Daniel 6:26).

In the reign of Darius, Daniel realises that the 70 years Jeremiah talked about as the length of the exile are almost up. (See Daniel 9:1-2 where Daniel refers to Jeremiah’s words, written in his lifetime, as “the Scriptures”, demonstrating that significant portions of the Biblical record were recognised as God’s word by contemporaries of the authors, not centuries later.) Rather than just noting this in passing, Daniel gives us a great example of how to pray in the light of prophecy. He fasted and prayed on behalf of his people, confessing their sins and asking God to act in line with his great mercy. God lets him know that his prayers have been heard and the stage is set for the return to the land.

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