Character and Conviction

When a parent holds their baby in their arms for the first time lots of things go through their mind. You wonder what the future holds. You may envision times together or accomplishments gained. You may even wonder whether you are truly up to the task of the responsibility before you. Followers of Christ often pray, “Lord, equip us to raise this child to know and follow you.” All of us want children who will be people of character and conviction who will live lives that honor God.

This morning we begin a study of just such a man (and his friends). The book of Daniel contains prophecy and it is often studied to gain insight into what the future holds. However this book is much more than a prophecy text. It is a book that illustrates God’s Sovereign power and what it means to live as a person of character and conviction in a changing world.

The main character, Daniel, was taken from his home when he was in his early or mid teens by the Hitler/Stalin/Hussein of his day, a man by the name of Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar ruled over the Babylonian empire.

For years the prophets had warned Israel that their idolatry and sin would be punished by God. Unfortunately, the Kings and people of Israel didn’t listen. The book of Daniel begins, “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God.” Nebuchadnezzar led the army but God determined the outcome.

The first time the Babylonians attacked Israel (605 B.C) (there were three different conquests) Nebuchadnezzar installed a puppet King and took the current King (Jehoiakim) and some of the brightest and most promising people from Israel back to Babylon. Daniel and his friends were part of that first group of exiles.

The book of Daniel is a record of the years Daniel spent with a front row seat of the work of God in and through the life of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was likely in his 80’s when this book ends. The book contains some visions that Daniel had of the future that were stunning in their accuracy.

Because of the accuracy of these visions, skeptics contend Daniel “must have been” written well after the things predicted took place because they start with the belief that the Supernatural does not exist. Consequently, the only explanation for these prophecies is that the book must have been deceptively written “after the fact” under a pseudonym. Let me share just one of the arguments for the book being authentic.  Archaeology shows that the book of Daniel was already known and accepted as part Scripture by the community of Qumran (the people who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls). This community is dated between 171 and 167 B.C. which is before the proposed date of authorship by the skeptics![1] Daniel wrote the book.

Training Camp

Nebuchadnezzar believed the best way to control your enemies was to get them to embrace the culture and ways of Babylon. So, when they conquered a country they took the leading people of the land to indoctrinate them in the ways of Babylon. This was an effective way of erasing their former culture.

Daniel and three of his friends: Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were part of this “accelerated learning program.” We are told these young men were selected because they were intelligent, handsome, and had great potential. This process of indoctrination involved several things.

They Were Given New Names Daniel and his friends all had names that referred to the God of Israel. The Babylonians immediately changed their names to refer to the gods of Babylon. We see from other texts in the Bible that changes in name signify a new direction or relationship with God. In this case, the idea was to turn the focus away from the Lord God Almighty to the gods of Babylon. Daniel’s new name was Belteshazzar. Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah we actually know better by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

I’m sure that the young men did not like getting new names but there really wasn’t much they could do about it. Think of a nickname. No one chooses to be known as “Stinky” or “Melon head” or any of the other nicknames that people get. The names are given and they stick . . . like it or not. David and his friends accepted the fact that there was nothing they could do about the names. I can’t help but wonder what they called each other.

They Were Taught A New Way of ThinkingThe men “were taught the language and literature of Babylon.” In other words they were taught a new language, the mythology of the many gods of the land, and were instructed in the customs of the Babylonians. This was not all bad. The Babylonians were known for their knowledge. They were the Oxford or Harvard of their day. Babylon possessed the finest library in the world.  Like Moses under Pharaoh, they were getting world class education.

As part of this education however, these young men would have been assaulted with the belief in other gods. They were also trained in the practices of the occult. They were taught the ways of discerning the will of the gods by reading the stars, interpreting dreams, and by examining the livers of sheep.

The best way to relate to this in our day is to compare it to the cultural assault a Christian young person gets when they go to a secular University. Though there are good things that come from the college education, there are also tests. The notion of a divine Creator and Judge is ridiculed in the classrooms. History is often subjected to revision. Tolerance, relativism and pragmatism are exalted over absolute truth. The holiness or “set-apartness” prescribed by God in the Scriptures is challenged by the rampant immorality, indulgence, and worldliness of the dorms. If a young person has not been prepared for college with deep spiritual roots, it is a very unsettling experience.

They were Given a New Diet. The Jews were raised with strict dietary laws. There were certain things they could eat and other things they could not eat. Food was to be prepared in a specific way. This was a change Daniel and his friends were unwilling to endure.

Courage of Conviction

We read in the text,

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.(1:9)

Changing Daniel’s name was insulting. Putting him through the Babylonian educational system was something that called for clear thinking. However, changing the diet would actually“ defile” Daniel. I believe this is why they chose to take a stand on the dietary issue.

Some suggest that the problem was that the food given to the King and his household (which would include Daniel) was first offered to the gods. However, if that was the objection, then Daniel and his friends would be defiled by any of the food that was given them (including the fruits and vegetables).

It is much more likely the meats were not kosher. They were not prepared in the right way and therefore defiled those who ate them. The only way to avoid that defilement was to maintain a vegetarian diet. Perhaps they refused to drink the wine because they realized that wine (and the threat of drunkenness) would make them more vulnerable to compromise, suggestion, and manipulation. They asked permission to eat only vegetables and water.

Some wrongly use this passage as an argument for Vegetarianism. Later in the book (in chapter 10 when Daniel was an old man and working in the administration of the Persians) Daniel wrote: “I mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.” (10:2-3). This shows that there was a time when Daniel did eat meat and drink wine. Apparently, when Daniel could control his own meal choices and how those meals were prepared he had no objection to eating meat or drinking wine.

Daniel and his friends took a bold stand but note how they took the stand. They did not go on a hunger strike. They didn’t make a scene. They approached the situation with wisdom. They went to the guard that was over them and politely asked for permission to eat an alternate menu. The guard was reluctant to grant the request but we are told the “God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel”. (1:9) The guard was concerned that Daniel and his friends would look malnourished and then he would be held responsible.

Daniel proposed a compromise. He suggested they be given the new diet for ten days (remember, the training was for three years). If they looked less healthy than the other men, the guard could call off the new diet. After the ten days they were far more healthy and alert than the others (God blessed their faithfulness). Daniel and his friends did not try to force the issue, they gave God the chance to work, and He did. The diet worked so well that everyone was put on the vegetarian diet!

When all the training was over, Daniel and his three friends graduated at the top of the class. The text tells us that they were ten times more astute than all the magicians and enchanters in the entire Kingdom. They were given high-ranking jobs.

Lessons

There are some valuable lessons for us to learn in this first chapter. The first and foremost lesson from this text (and the entire book) is the Power and Rule of God Over All things. Three times in the chapter we are told of God’s intervention (1:2, 1:9, 1:17). Nebuchadnezzar was not the reason Israel was conquered, it was because God “delivered them into his hands”. It was God who made the heart of the guard favorable to Daniel. And in verse 17 we are told that it was God who gave these men their mental aptitude. This book is not meant to be the story of Daniel . . .it is the story of God’s work in the world.

Don’t miss this. God has not created the world and left it to itself. Life is not out of control. God is on the throne. He changes hearts and He orchestrates circumstances. As we will see in this book that Daniel and his friends faced some times of severe testing. In these tests they put their trust in God and were not disappointed.

Second we see here a lesson here about Conviction. Remember, these were young men . . .teenagers! We look at them and we wonder, “Where did such great conviction and courage come from?”  How did they get to such maturity?

In addition to having a power from God there are three others factors that may be involved: First, they had the influence of a godly teacher. Around the time Daniel was born, a King by the name of Josiah found a copy of the book of Deuteronomy in the temple during a remodeling job. Apparently, the Law of God had been largely forgotten. When Josiah read the law he was filled with remorse for the way the nation had forgotten God. Josiah initiated a major spiritual revival. Idols were destroyed and changes were made. Daniel benefitted from the influence of this godly King. This is true for everyone who has an uncompromising faith: there were godly teachers in their life.

I am grateful that my Pastor and Youth Pastor were men who faithfully taught the whole counsel of God and took time to disciple me. I am grateful for Professors in College and Grad school who not only lectured, but spent hours with me in their office pouring their lives into me. I am grateful for friends who called me to a deeper commitment to Christ. I, like you, have benefited from God’s use of others in my life.

They had godly parents. We don’t know anything about the parents of these young men except that they gave names to their sons which pointed them to God. One writer says,

It was as if his parents said, “You will not always have to give an account to us. But one day you will give an account to our great God who made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them. He is watching over you always. He knows what you think, and he sees all you do. He is alone is your judge; so watch your life and doctrine closely.”[2]

The values and courage we see in these men is not something that just “happens”. As I look back on my life I am grateful that my parents took me to church every week. They didn’t invite me to attend church with them on Sunday, it was understood from the earliest days that this is what our family did on Sundays. My parents brought us to Sunday School and youth group. My parents didn’t have deep theological knowledge. We didn’t sit around and talk theology. We didn’t even have daily family devotions. However, they taught me that the way of God was superior to the way of the world.

Here is a penetrating question: Suppose an invading army came into our community this week, and suppose your 14 year old child was taken from you and made to live in the land of the enemy, how confident would you be that your child would be able to stand in the faith without being totally absorbed by the new culture? Understand that this is what happens as your child heads to high school, college, or the workforce. Have you prepared them to stand firm?

They possessed deep conviction. Spiritual conviction is something that must be decided before a crisis ever comes upon us. Taking a courageous stand happens because we have chosen to serve God in the little decisions we make every day. Jesus said, “He who is not faithful in the little things, will not be faithful in the big things.”(Luke 16:10)

So here is the question: Do you have this kind of conviction? Are you learning to follow Him in the daily choices of life so that you will be able to stand firm when:

  • You are asked to approve an inspection because it would be too costly to fix what was wrong?
  • You are told to adjust accounting figures to cover up mismanagement?
  • You are asked to lie to the parents of a friend?
  • Your peer group pressures you to engage in dangerous, foolish, or illegal behavior?
  • A leader tells you that you must skip church to be part of some activity on Sunday or be excluded? (2 Chronicles 36:21 says that ignoring the Sabbath was a primary reason for the seventy-year captivity that took Daniel and others to Babylon)
  • You can get out of a tough spot if you just lie “a little”?

We would all like to think we would have the character of Daniel. However, standing being able to stand in a crisis will not happen unless we have learned to stand with the Lord in the everyday decisions of life. Commitment is a pattern. We must have “fixed points” that serve as an anchor for our life and character.

One more lesson. We learn the value of wisdom. Proverbs 25:11 says that “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver”. Choosing our words and the timing of those words is an important part of wisdom. We must pick our battles and how we will fight them. Not every battle is worth fighting. We gain nothing by being antagonistic but can open many doors by being respectful and understanding.

The wise person declares their devotion to the Lord at the very beginning, We believe strongly that the first few weeks of High School or College will set the course for the rest of your years. You must choose to be aligned with the Lord from Day 1. When beginning a dating relationship it is essential that you state your spiritual convictions at the beginning before you become emotionally involved. In your first days on the job you need to demonstrate that you have a set of values which will guide your work.

The truth is: it is hard to be cool and faithful at the same time. Cool people generally have to “fit in” with the crowd. Usually the crowd is going in the wrong direction.

Our job is to state our convictions, live out those convictions, and then trust that God will honor our obedience. God will change the hearts of those who don’t agree with us. Though we should be prepared to express and explain our faith there is no reason for us to be contentious. We don’t bring change; God does.

Daniel and his friends are going to challenge us. They will show us that character and conviction cannot be ordered from Amazon. It is developed over time in the daily decisions of life. You can’t be a Daniel in a crisis if you are not willing to live like Daniel every day. It may be an old book but it proclaims a message we desperately need to hear.