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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Learn to be a Daniel” (Doug Bond book chapter)

(Note: This is a chapter in Doug Bond’s book Hold Fast, 2008)
Dear Son
I am writing this letter to you to put into words, lest I forget, the importance of claiming the world of ideas as your own. It is your inheritance as a Christian young man. The foremost example I can think of is Daniel, the young Jewish lad who lived around 600 BC in a culture that was at least indifferent and even hostile to his deepest-held convictions.

Now, we have read of Daniel in the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. But I want to emphasize what these four young Hebrew lads were doing at the Babylonian court of Nebuchadnezzar in the first place: they were there to study at the royal academy of Babylon.

They were, in effect, young college students, probably teenagers like you, Son.

The experience of Daniel will be remarkably parallel to your experience as a young college student. You will probably find yourself to be an exile in a strange and hostile land, just as Daniel was, because we live in a post-Christian society. And yet Daniel I suggests that it is good for you as a Christian to profit from the secular knowledge of the day. Daniel I points out the trials, temptations, and pressures that you may face, but it also suggests how you are to deal with these trials, temptations, and pressures. Young Daniel was able to learn the knowledge of the Babylonians without compromising the least doctrinal or moral point. In fact, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were able to excel at the University of Babylon, their faith actually enabling them to outperform their pagan counterparts on Babylonian terms. Let me explain my take on this chapter.

Recruiting the Best

The first two verses of the book of Daniel record how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar waged war against Jerusalem, took its leading citizens and the king (Jehoiakim) into captivity in 605 BC, and then desecrated the holy temple, blasphemously offering the holy vessels of the sanctuary to the service of the chief Babylonian god, Marduk (Dan. 1:l-2; 4:8). Nebuchadnezzar was oppressive, ruthless, and cruel. Babylon was at such enmity with God that it became a type and a foreshadowing of the reign of Antichrist in Revelation 18. And yet we read this in Daniel 1:3-4:

“Then [Nebuchadnezzar] ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in 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.”

Apparently, Nebuchadnezzar chose only people with specific physical and intellectual gifts. Although he wanted “young men” to be “without any physical defect” and “handsome” and from the upper class (“royal family,” “nobility”), the rest of his list sums up the intellectual prerequisites for receiving a successful Babylonian education twenty-five hundred years ago.

Note that these Jewish students were to be “young,” so that they might be teachable and wooed away from their religious heritage and families to become Babylonians in spirit and in thought. In fact, we will see that their very names were changed to help implement this personal, cultural, and worldview transformation. Nebuchadnezzar found Jewish believers with intellectual and leadership gifts and gave these four Hebrew teenagers full economic support—a full-ride scholarship—and commanded that “they were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service” (1:5).

This was a purposeful recruiting expedition into the Jewish subculture to get their best and brightest. Not unlike the activities of our culture and the challenge facing Christian families today.

What were those characteristics which the hostile culture was looking for?

One Must Be “Showing Aptitude for Every Kind of Learning”

That is, one must have the academic skills and techniques that are necessary for advanced vocational and abstract learning. Becoming educated means mastering processes as well as accumulating facts and theories. Having the right appreciation for redeeming the mind is essential for the Christian life.

Embracing skills such as reading, writing, managing, manual dexterity, teaching, and problem-solving involving highly specific mental gymnastics is the first step toward a life of stewardship of the gifts God has given one.

One Must Be “Well Informed”

That is, one must already have a fund of sound knowledge that may be built upon with further studies.
 Foundational knowledge is a base, a sure footing to which other knowledge can be added. Many modern scholars reject the knowledge of the past, thus consigning themselves to repeat the same intellectual mistakes as others before them have done. They willingly restrict their understanding to their own narrow perspectives, making themselves artificially primitive. A well-informed person knows what has been thought before him and is committed to adding to that fund of knowledge.

One Must Be “Quick to Understand”

That is, one must be mentally agile. This person must be able to quickly assimilate and synthesize material that is presented. Understanding material means that one is able to evaluate a given situation and its attendant problems, come up with workable solutions and be able to execute those solutions.

“Quick to understand” means that one is able to connect the dots of life’s situations in order to draw recognizable and satisfying pictures of reality (cf. Dan. 5:17).

One Must Be “Qualified to Serve”

That is, one must understand that the ultimate goal of education is always service. There is no such thing as education for education’s sake. The king was looking specifically for people with intellectual and social abilities that could fit them for influential roles in the Babylonian government and culture as a whole. Jeremiah 29:4-9 records a similar exhortation from the Lord to the exiles. A proper education is critical for opening up spheres of service for the Christian who wants to fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord.

Your Gifts

Nebuchadnezzar was not looking for pointy-headed academics, but men who could lead and shape the Babylonian culture. This Daniel passage shows the value of being qualified to serve from a position of influence.

Son, we see Daniel and the boys put in a position to influence Nebuchadnezzar only because they showed “wisdom and understanding [in every matter] about which the king questioned them” (Dan. 1:20).

These young men had studied and learned Babylonian science (astrology, etc.), technology, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, and literature. And because of this, they were prepared to serve when the occasion presented itself. It is too late to prepare when the call comes.

Son, you, too, need to be ready to answer the call.

These qualities of skill, knowledge, understanding, and service, then, are not universal or natural, but some Israelites had these gifts—just as today some Christians have these qualities. Not every Christian is intellectually gifted for the heavy lifting, but some are (as Paul told the Greek believers at Corinth).

Son, you will come to understand your gifts and talents more in the next few years. While not every Christian is gifted like Daniel, all Christians are called to redeem their minds and bodies by developing their gifts and talents to the fullest extent and then using that redemption to serve others.

It seems clear to me that this three-year Babylonian educational program was the will of God. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had received their academic talents from God, after all, and his providence had brought them to this place of learning. Thus, there can be nothing intrinsically wrong with God’s children learning “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (v. 4).

Son, I suggest that even though modern American universities and colleges are non-Christian, they would be bastions of Christian fundamentalism compared to the University of Babylon.

Modern Western thought has its origins in a biblical worldview, despite its current departures from and corruption of that grand heritage. Daniel, though, could hardly have read a cuneiform tablet without some reference to pagan deities and mythology. The Babylonians were masters of mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and administration, but their very real discoveries in these fields were thoroughly mythologized in the way they were understood; therefore, their learning was false.

Thus, if Scripture indicates that Babylonian “language and literature” were nevertheless worthy of study, there can be nothing objectionable in a Christian’s studying any legitimate field of contemporary thought or trade. For all its problems, it is still probably less infused with error than that of the Babylonians.

Go Pearl-Hunting

Son, the world of ideas is your oyster; go find the pearl.

God’s children certainly faced problems, however, in such a Babylonian environment. No sooner had the four Hebrews arrived at court than they encountered a problem that seemed to jeopardize their whole educational opportunity. I find it fascinating that the conflict Scripture records is neither over great worldview issues (such as the merits of the Babylonian creation myth versus the Genesis account of creation, or the existence of the one true God versus the many false gods) nor over important moral issues. Rather, the issue in contention was one that must have seemed to both sides so technical, so minor, and so hard to explain.

The king was honoring these young superstar scholars with a “daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table” (v. 5)—lavish, exquisite food for these poverty-stricken student exiles, a generous, even kindhearted gesture on the part of Nebuchadnezzar. Yet that food would not have been in accordance with the Mosaic dietary laws. Not only could the Hebrews not eat certain animals, but even an acceptable animal had to be slaughtered in a certain way. Such rules were absolutely binding on God’s people at that time, designed in part to stress God’s claim on every single part of life (even cooking and eating), and to ensure that the people of God were measurably different from those people who were not God’s possession. How could Daniel explain to the Babylonians this cultural separation, this Hebrew tribal peculiarity? He would seem not only absurdly scrupulous, but—what is worse—arrogant, insulting, ungrateful, and intolerant of local customs.

Son, he wouldn’t be politically correct.

It might be similar to our being scrupulous about a biblical view of the Lord’s Day concerning work and personal amusements. Nevertheless, Daniel adopted a principle that is absolutely essential for those Christian students trying to follow God in a hostile or indifferent academic environment.

Choose Your Battles

Son, the young Daniel would not compromise God’s Word. And please notice that the four young men were scrupulous, but not fundamentalistic.

They knew the liberty they had through faith in the one true God. For instance, they were willing to adopt Babylonian names whose meanings alluded to pagan deities (Dan. 1:7). Wasn’t this name-taking a rather liberal compromise on their part? Scripture doesn’t seem to think so. These Hebrew youths knew that the false Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo did not exist, so they would not be harmed by a mere name.
In our time, we have midweek church services on Wednesday, “the day of Wodan” (a Norse god). And are we enmeshed in a satanic web at church when we worship on Sunday, the day set aside for worship of the sun? We can think of other cultural examples of using culturally acceptable but disagreeable language that cannot deter the fundamental issues of right and wrong.

Even so, the dietary laws were different. These practices set God’s people apart and gave them identity as people of God. These faithful lads had to ask themselves what would govern their obedience and self-definition: the “king’s table” with its luxury and prestige and social acceptance, or the law of Moses with its austere and strange demands in a foreign culture. They had to make a choice—to be assimilated into the dominant pagan culture by conformity to the pagan cultural orthodoxy, or to remain distinctively different, exiles and outcasts, “aliens and strangers” (Heb. 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11) in and to their surrounding society. They resolved not to defile themselves by capitulation to the Babylonian cultural pieties. A young Christian scholar, like Daniel, must be very hesitant to adjust the faith in even the smallest doctrinal or moral principle. Our Babylonian watching world is quick to notice our smallest compromise.

Leaders Win Followers

And yet Daniel was able to resolve the dilemma in a winsome way without compromising his principles.

Son, notice that the four did not tip over the “king’s table”: they didn’t stand up and condemn the Babylonians for eating pork.

Rather, with courtesy and respect, Daniel went to the proper authority to ask permission to keep God’s law (Dan. 1:8). And this is what you will be increasingly asked to do in our own Babylonian culture.

As important as it was to avoid unclean food, Daniel understood the biblical principle that he must respect all human authorities, even pagan ones (Rom. 13:1-7), and that to avoid one sin (ritual defilement) by committing another sin (rebellion) is to gain nothing.

Son, biblical submission is a radical spiritual discipline. It embodies self-denial and bold faith in the sovereignty of God. To see God’s authority looming behind all human authority (Dan. 4:34-35; 5:21-28; 6:26) and to see how God employs secular authority for our good is to acknowledge God’s providence reigning over every part of life.

So Daniel addressed these pagan administrators with courtesy and humility: he referred to himself and his buddies as “your servants” (1:12). And, as a result of his humility and his openness to pagan authority, the Babylonian leaders positively responded to him. Moreover, Daniel was being aided by the living God (1:9). The most hostile individual can be softened by the action of God.

God Is Sovereign

But, Son, worldly acceptance might not happen in every case. Hebrews 11:32-38 alludes to Daniel’s earthly victory, and then gives examples of earthly defeats (but heavenly victories). So we act like Christians, and leave the consequences up to a sovereign God.

And even in Daniel’s situation, despite this God-given sympathy for their plight (Dan. 1:9), the chief officer at first turned them down. The officer had an understandable concern: if the four Hebrew students did not seem as healthy as their Babylonian peers, the king would assume that the officer was not taking care of them as well as he should (1:10). Nebuchadnezzar’s management style was not to fire ineffective employees but to cut off their heads (jet. 22:25; Dan. 3:6).

Still, despite this initial setback, Daniel did not give up. He went to the next administrator in the chain of command, the “guard,” and he proposed a creative alternative (Dan. 1:12-16).

Daniel’s proposal addressed both sides of the stalemate. The Babylonian university authorities were concerned with the boys’ health—that point must be preserved. And the Hebrew teenagers were concerned about the dietary laws—that point must be preserved. But were God’s people forbidden to eat everything from a Babylonian kitchen? If not, what could they eat? Daniel realized that the meat might not be kosher, but there was no reason why they could not eat the vegetables, which were not covered by the Mosaic code. They could thus still eat from the king’s bounty, thereby avoiding giving offense, without violating their Mosaic-instructed consciences. As for the matter of their health, Daniel proposed a test, a sort of controlled experiment, to determine objectively whether or not the officer’s fear was well founded.

Whether God was working a special miracle to sustain their health or whether Scripture is simply recognizing that a vitamin-rich diet of vegetables is healthier than ten days of gourmet meat is not the point—Daniel was vindicated, and the university was pleased.

Son, it was a win-win solution. The legitimate political interests of the pagan university were maintained, and the legitimate religious interests of the four believing students were maintained.

Behave Like Daniel

Daniel’s behavior is a model for the interaction between the Christian and his non-Christian culture: understand the problem, form an alternative solution, and be willing to test the solution.

Daniel 1:17 states that academic pursuits and accomplishments not only are pleasing to God, but are gifts that he bestows. All knowledge and understanding come under the sovereignty and the gift of God, thereby sanctioning the whole range of human learning—vocational and academic. Such all-inclusiveness gains even more force when one remembers that the Scripture is referring to the knowledge of Babylonian, a culture surely more ignorant of God, more immoral and more evil, than is any modern secular culture.

Son, the Jewish lads’ knowledge of God’s Word gave the four boys an enormous advantage over the Babylonian intellectual establishment (1:18-21). In the final examination, God granted them success. Specifically, God’s children, reared in the sophisticated intellectual climate of Babylon, and at the same time saturated with the truth of God’s Word, proved themselves “ten times better” than their peers.

Son, what an advantage you should have, being freed from the credulities or beliefs of secular humanism and the stifling limitations of scientific materialism. Modern Christian teen scholars, like Daniel and his colleagues, can strive to meet modern thought on its own terms and to succeed and to exert their influence, even in the modern-day University of Babylon.

Son, I pray that our God may grant you the ability and humility to use your intellectual gifts and training (and therefore advantages) for the service of humankind and the glory of Christ.
Prayer Resolves

*To be a good steward of the intellectual and physical gifts that God has given me

*To be opportunistic in using those gifts in whatever circumstances I find myself

*Always to respect and honor the human authorities placed over me

Scripture Memory
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5)

For Discussion
*Can you exercise your intellectual gifts more faithfully at a Christian college than at a state or private non-Christian college? Explain.
*Is it more appropriate for a Christian student to major in a social science or in business? Explain.
*Just because you have intellectual gifts, must you go to college? Why or why not?

“Take My Life, and Let It Be”
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of thy love. Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for thee.
(Frances Havergal 1874)

For Further Study
Genesis 37:36; 39-41; Colossians 1 and 2; Postmodern Times, by Gene Edward Veith

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