While in Europe a few years back, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit a former Nazi concentration camp. Dachau was the first “test case” of the Nazi camp system. We walked slowly through, following the footsteps of the poor souls that entered there some 75 years prior. Our guide described their experience. Wagon loads of Jews, Poles and political prisoners were offloaded from the train station and then marched through the streets to the camp which was located some 8 km away. Upon entering the main gate, they were lined up and forced to listen to a long tirade by a Nazi officer that they were worthless scum, that all commands must be obeyed unquestionably, and insubordination of any kind would be met with a bullet to the head. This was followed by camp registration. All personal belongings (personal ID, photographs and documents) were handed over and in return you were given a number. This was your new identity. You were then shaved, showered and handed prison clothes. This would be your new life. Few survived and those that did lived with the scars.
This was the kind of experience (with a lesser level of brutality and cruelty), that Daniel and his three friends would have endured when their homeland was invaded, and they were hauled off to become subjects in a foreign land.
Their captor was king Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was proud, ambitious and in the year 605 BC he was building one of the greatest empires of the age. In the spring of that year he defeated the Egyptian army at the Battle of Carchemish. Then he turned on the kingdom of Judah and invaded the city of Jerusalem. He took captive many of Jerusalem’s choicest young men and women and marched them off to Babylon, to the house of his god (Daniel 1:2) and he put the vessels from the temple of Jerusalem in the treasury of his god.
Babylon was the capital of the empire and the greatest city of that age. Everything about it spoke of Gentile power and glory. The city was the largest of its time, covering 850 hectares (over 2000 acres). Herodotus, a Greek historian in 450 BC, said “Babylon surpasses in splendour any city in the known world.” Its outer walls were 100 metres high and ran over 80 km in length. They were wide enough, that if you went on top of them two four-horse chariots could ride side by side.
Daniel and his fellow exiles would have been led through the Gate of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war and then down the famous procession way. All around them were magnificent buildings, palaces and temples (53 in total). And towering above them all, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It was the Paris and New York of the ancient world and would leave any one of us dazzled at the sight. But there was nothing about it that was dazzling to these captives. It filled them only with sorrow and despair. We get a sense of that sorrow from Psalm 137 with the song of the captives:
“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)
It is the last line of this song that becomes the central issue of the book of Daniel: how can Daniel and his fellow captives sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? And it becomes the central issue for us as well. Because this land that we live in, that was once permeated with Christian thinking, that held to moral values the Western world was once founded on, now appears to be very strange to us. Our universities are influenced by liberal agendas, our politics dominated by a secular worldview, and our nation is devoid of Christian thought. This is modern Babylon. The question Daniel and his captives faced is the same question we face: how are we to sing the songs of the Lord in this strange land? The book of Daniel gives us the answer. The first clue is given to us in opening verses. We read,
“In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God…” (Daniel 1:1–2)
It is right here, at this juncture, that we find the main lesson of the chapter, which is also the lesson of the entire book: no matter what earthy kingdom is strutting its power, God is in charge and he will enable his people to stand.
Daniel knew there was nothing accidental in the lives of God’s people. He was there for a purpose. God was at work behind the scenes. God was in full control. And it was precisely that he was convinced that God was in control that enabled him to make the stand that he did and become salt and light in a hostile environment. As a result, Nebuchadnezzar – as well as countless other men and women in the Babylonian court, heard about the God of Israel and witnessed his saving power.
Babylon was to be the scene of Daniel’s lifelong service to the kingdom of God while living in a foreign land. He would demonstrate, along with his three friends, what it means to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
In my next post, we are going to see something of the strategy Nebuchadnezzar used to accomplish complete global dominance. It’s called operation assimilation. And we are going to see how Daniel and his three friends, trusting that God was in full control, use courage, wisdom and faith to evade it.
This post was based on a sermon called A Tale of Two Kingdoms. It is the first of a series at our church on the book of Daniel. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.