Daniel in the Lion’s Den

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Daniel 6
September 26, 2021

Sermon as recorded on Friday, September 24, 2021 at Bluemont Church

Introduction at the Beginning of Worship:

The late Eugene Peterson wrote a book on the Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) titled A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.[1] I read it back in the 90s and have long since lost my copy. But I still remember how Peterson opened the Psalms for my understanding. I also like his title. Peterson was a Biblical scholar, but first and foremost, he was a pastor. And he realized that much of what’s done in the church is tiring. Often, you don’t see results from your work. But the important thing is obedience and faithfulness. How do we continue to be faithful and obedient over a lifetime?

Daniel, as we’ve seen over the past weeks, provides an example of an obedient and faithful life. A young man in chapter one, he’s probably in his late teens.[2] He spends the rest of his life in Babylon. He serves several kings. This morning, we’ll look at our last of the court stories of Daniel. The sixth chapter, known as Daniel in the lion’s den, is a favorite for kids in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School. But as we’ll see, there is a much deeper meaning in this chapter than just God saving Daniel from the lions. 

By this point in his life, Daniel is an old man. The Babylonian state that exiled the Judeans has fallen. Another new king is in town. Like Nebuchadnezzar, he too sees value in Daniel. Faithfulness has its rewards, but as we’ll see, can also cause difficulties. Today, ponder what faithfulness requires of us. 

Before reading the Scripture: Context

Before reading the scripture, I want to place the setting in context. Like the last chapter, there are some historical problems with this text. No one is sure about the identity of Darius the Mede.[3] The Mede empire was conquered by the Persians before Babylon fell. Darius, a common Persian name, may have been a puppet king who ruled over the province of Babylon. If so, he reported to Cyrus. But again, the book of Daniel doesn’t appear to be interested in history, at least not as we define it. Instead, each of these court-tales shows how we should live our lives. In this way, these stories read more like a parable than a history text. 

Setting the trap. The opening of chapter six

Chapter six begins with the information that Darius has set up an extensive bureaucracy to care for the affairs of state. Directly under Darius are three presidents, one of whom is Daniel. Everyone else in the system reports to one of these three individuals. Because Daniel has done good job of taking care of business, collecting taxes and so forth, Darius considers making him in charge of it all.  

We’d think this would be all well and good for Daniel. But it ain’t. The others in the bureaucracy are jealous. Knowing they can’t find any legitimate reason to condemn Daniel, they set a trap. They encourage the king sign a new law, saying that for 30 days, all prayers must be made to the king. For some reason, Darius doesn’t question this. Maybe the idea boosts his ego. He signs the law. There’s a tradition that such laws can’t be changed.[4] Daniel’s enemies, knowing his habit, now wait for him to break the decree. This is where our reading begins.

Read Daniel 6:10-28. 

After the reading of scripture: 

Daniel is devoted to God. He prays three times a day. There is nothing in scripture about praying so many times a day. Paul tells us to pray continually, but that has to do with our lives becoming a prayer.[5] I think we’re told the frequency of Daniel’s prayers to impress us with his piety.[6] Furthermore, Daniel prays toward Jerusalem. Again, this is not a requirement, but it informs us that Daniel doesn’t want to forget from where he came. Even though by this point in his life, Jerusalem has been destroyed and is desolate, Daniel remembers it fondly. Like all the Hebrews, he admires the temple that is no more. It had been the place where he learned to love God. 

We all may have such places in our memory. The old whitewashed wooden church where my family attended when I was very young. It was torn down when I was five, after the congregation built a new brick church that still stands… Behind it sat an old block Sunday School building where I attended Christmas programs put on my grandmother. It, too, no longer exists except in my memory. While such memories are valuable, what’s important is the lessons we’ve learned at such places about God.

Culdee Presbyterian, 1962
the old and new (photo from the internet)

But Daniel’s prayers also cause him into trouble. Prayer goes against a new edict by the king and Daniel finds himself bound to the lion’s den. 

Lessons from the text

There are four lessons I want us to draw from this story. The first is about God. The theme throughout the book is that even though we can’t see or understand, God is in control.[7] And this God saves and judges. Next, there is something we can learn for our own use here. I want us to see how Daniel is an example of how we should live out our faith under duress. And then, there are some lessons here for how we Christians should engage with the world. And finally, Daniel serves as a prototype for Jesus’ suffering and delivery. 

1. God saves and judges

The first lesson is that God saves and judges. Darius is a complicated figure in this story. A nearly all-power king finds his own hands cuffed by his own decree. He’s disturbed over the sentence he must pass upon Daniel. Yet hopes Daniel’s God, the one according to the edict shouldn’t be prayed to, will deliver him. And that’s what happens. God saves Daniel by sending an angel. The angel shut the mouths of the lions. 

But there is also judgment in this passage. For God doesn’t save Daniel’s enemies and their families from their fate in the lion’s den. While the king makes this judgment, God doesn’t intervene. Daniel’s enemies are consumed by the lions before they even touch the floor of the den. It’s as if the one telling this story wants us to understand that Daniel wasn’t tossed down into the den of well-fed lions. These beasts are hungry. God saves Daniel but allows the guilty and their families to suffer. God’s ways are often beyond our understanding, but when we experience grace, like Daniel, we should rejoice.

2. Faith under duress

Daniel becomes for us an example of faith under duress. Daniel trust God, not his own abilities. He sees what’s important and continues doing it. Daniel doesn’t deny his faith or even attempts an escape. He accepts the king’s sentence and trusts God. We must remember, as we learned with the three friends in the furnace, we never know when God might show up. Martyrdom happens. Whether we are saved or perish in the present, we should remain faithful. God’s steadfast love endures forever.[8]

3. Private faith in a public world

Daniel also provides us an image of how to live our private faith in a public world. Daniel does everything required of him by the king except that which goes against his God. He knows there is a higher authority to whom we all are accountable. So, while he is a model employee, he won’t do that which violates his most fundamental beliefs. Notice, however, that Daniel doesn’t make a big deal out of such things. He doesn’t go out to become the all-American martyr. As it was with the avoiding the king’s food in chapter 1, Daniel doesn’t publicly flaunt his disobedience of the king’s decree. It’s all private. Believe me, there is a lot to be said about quiet private piety!

Daniel carefully does what is expected of him. This makes it harder for this enemies to get at him. If Daniel had been sloppy, say in collecting taxes, they would have had an easier time. Instead, they must change the law. There is something so dishonest when laws are changed for the purpose of promoting one group over another. Such attempts need to be brought before the light of day and exposed for what they are.

Prayer in school

Interestingly, two of the four commentaries that I read on this passage, responds to the debate on prayer in school. One, probably the most conservative commentary I read, notes this passage has been used by many to argue for school prayer. He doesn’t think it fits. The prohibition is against the school leadership providing prayer. It doesn’t say that one can’t pray, just that it can’t be done publicly. 

In Daniel’s case, even private prayer was forbidden. If that was the case today, then this text could be used to encourage faithfulness and even civil disobedience. But private prayer has never been questioned.[9]Lots of us have prayed in school. Some of these prayers, at least in my case, were inappropriate. These were generally offered right before a test for which I had not prepared. 

Another commentator questions whether the debate over prayer in school is more of a smokescreen. “If I can make a fuss about the lack of prayer over there, I can forget about the lack of prayer in my own life…” he writes.[10]

He may be on to something. When I was in Hastings, Michigan, we had a mayor who bragged that the last time he’d been in church was for his wedding. He’d been married over 50 years. Yet, he made a big fuss about keeping the town’s nativity scene on public property. He even asked me if the church would buy the corner by the courthouse so that they could legally keep the scene on site. I was skeptical and didn’t pursue the matter because it seems to me his piety had more to do with votes than with his faith.

Pleasing God more important than pleasing the king

Daniel shows us that is possible to live and to be faithful even in a world that is contradicts our beliefs. Sometimes it might get us in hot water but pleasing God should always be most important. 

4. Daniel as a Christ-figure

Finally, let me say one more thing about this passage. Early Christian art often depicted Daniel in the lion’s den. These artists saw Daniel as a type of Christ figure.[11] If you remember, Jesus had been praying in the garden when the soldiers approached him. And he dies and is sealed in a tomb, like Daniel facing death and being sealed in what could become his tomb. But because of God’s faithfulness, both are released and there is much joy. This chapter ends with Darius, like Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4, praising God. Jesus returns from the grave and Mary, who’s been crying, when she recognizes Jesus, shouts out in joyous devotion, Rabbi.[12]

God’s grace elicits our gratitude

Daniel and Jesus remind us of God’s grace and faithfulness. And both stories, show us how to respond to such grace when we experience it in our lives. Amen. 

[1] I was reminded of this book by Alistair Begg, Brave by Faith: God-sized Confidence in a Post-Christian World (The Good Book Company, 2021), 91. 

[2] https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/08/daniels-god-provides-growth-and-strength/

[3] Josephus, writing 500 years later, suggests Darius was Cyrus son-in-law, but no other support can be found for this. See Robert A. Anderson, Daniel: Signs and Wonders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 64-66.

[4] This law doesn’t make sense to us, but it appears to be the tradition of the Persians. See Esther 8:8, “an edit written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s rings cannot be revoked.” 

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

[6][6] There is not prescription for three times a day prayer in the Old Testament, but perhaps Daniel was following the example set in Psalm 55:16-17. The Psalm, attributed to David, recalls praying “evening, morning, and at noon.’ 

[7] Tremper Longman III., Daniel: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 158. 

[8] We hear this refrain throughout scripture, but especially in the Psalms. See Psalm 118:1.

[9] Longman III, 170. 

[10] Begg, 98. 

[11] Longman III, 172. 

[12] John 20:16. 

7 Replies to “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”

  1. I see that you are back inside again and now I recall you mentioning the much cooler weather out there. We woke up to rain and 40 degrees this morning so I don’t blame you for staying indoors. Take care.

  2. I loved the story of Daniel and the Lions when I was a child. I see it through more experienced eyes now, less as a tale about terrifying lions and more about faith under great stress. I’m thinking of Job and Abraham and Jesus as well. I wonder what it would be like to have such unwavering faith. I worry that the lions would have gobbled me up. Nevertheless, it is an inspiring and hopeful story. Thanks for illuminating it!

  3. “If I can make a fuss about the lack of prayer over there, I can forget about the lack of prayer in my own life…” I like that. So many people focus on the wrong things, and they actively use arguments/debates like this to continue to focus on the wrong things, or…more accurately, use them to ignore other (usually more important) things.

    Great post.

  4. Good lessons I need to learn from God. One more: Change is king. If I am patient, all will work out as God plans.

    But I am not patient… Sigh.

  5. I was skeptical and didn’t pursue the matter because it seems to me his piety had more to do with votes than with his faith.

    That seems to be the case not just in religious settings. Caught a few minutes of some secular-based event this weekend to “save the planet” and “end poverty.” I admit, I don’t know all the behind the scenes details and its overall organization but it seems like just another over-hyped, feel good glamour spectacle.

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