Daniel In Babylon

Part 4. Master of the Magicians

Something like twenty years elapsed between the respective events of the second and third chapters of Daniel, the king’s dream of the image and the casting of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah into the fiery furnace, twenty years of which the Book of Daniel says not a word, but a period crowded with important happenings and incidents in the story of Israel. During that time Judah became finally free from the dominion of Egypt and subject to Babylon, Jehoiakim king of Judah died and after the short three months’ reign of Jehoiachin was replaced by Zedekiah. The king of Babylon besieged and captured Jerusalem, laid the land desolate and took the bulk of the people captive, thus completing the "carrying away into Babylon" which marked the end of the Jewish monarchy. Ezekiel the priestly prophet commenced his ministry amongst the exiles and saw the first of those glorious visions which culminated many years later in his wonderful fore view of the Millennial Temple that is yet to be. Obadiah and Habakkuk both gave voice to their prophecies in Judea. Jeremiah continued his work and was finally taken into Egypt after the fall of Jerusalem and died there. Cyrus the Persian, before whom the might of Babylon was eventually to crumble away, was born. All these things happened during this twenty years which lie between Chap.2, and Chap.3, and Daniel does not so much as mention any one of them.

He was about twenty‑one years of age when he stood before King Nebuchadnezzar and interpreted the dream of the image. At the time of the burning fiery furnace incident, he was probably just entering his forties. During the interim he steadily advanced in favour with the king and in power, honour, and influence. According to Dan.2:48, in consequence of his interpreting the king’s dream, "the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon." Later on, in chapter 4:9, Daniel is referred to by the title "Master of the Magicians." These expressions indicate that the Jewish youth had become, next to the king himself, the most important and influential person in the land. Such sudden accession to a position of power from a humble origin may appear strange and improbable to our Western minds but it was by no means an uncommon thing in the court of an Eastern King. Joseph was summarily exalted by the Pharoah of Egypt in just the same way; Haman was deposed and Mordecai raised to take his place by Ahasuerus of Persia, as related in the Book of Esther. Classical historians record plenty of similar instances in ancient times, and there is no reason to question the integrity of the story on this account.

The titles used make it clear that Daniel had been elevated to the position of what we would call Prime Minister of the land, and in addition constituted titular head of all the Babylonian priesthoods and learned men. It is as though he combined the offices of Prime Minister, Archbishop of Canterbury, and President of the Royal Society all in his own person. At twenty‑one years of age it was a situation calling for a most unusual degree of wisdom and discretion. The sequel to the story shows that Daniel possessed both in ample measure.

This is an aspect of the Babylonian captivity which is not always appreciated. It is customary to think of the hapless Jews going to servitude and slavery in a strange land, at the mercy of ruthless captors and bereft of the consolations of their own religion. "By the rivers (waters) of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’s songs (songs of Zion) in a strange land?" (Psalm 137:1,4) That may well have been the heart attitude of those to whom Jerusalem and Judea and the worship which could only be offered in the hallowed land meant more than anything else in the world. But it is not likely that the captive Jews were badly treated. The story before us shows that God, although He had fulfilled His word and removed them from their own land in punishment for their apostasy, nevertheless marvellously provided for their wellbeing in the land of their captivity. Daniel was virtual ruler over all domestic concerns in the whole realm, and he had as his lieutenants three others of his own countrymen. Surely this quartet, able to decree more or less as they pleased, saw to it that their own people were at least fairly treated compared with the rest of the population. The term "province" in Dan.2:48 means "realm" or "empire;" the "whole province of Babylon" denotes the entire realm over which King Nebuchadnezzar had control, and the fact that during the major part of his reign he personally led his armies in the field and was necessarily absent from his capital city for long periods makes it fairly certain that Daniel was to administer on his behalf and watch for his interests in his absence.

The first use that Daniel made of his new appointment was to urge upon the king the advisability of some delegation of authority. The import of v.49 is that his three friends, now known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abed‑nego, were put in charge of the detailed administration of day‑by‑day matters, "set...over the affairs of the province of Babylon," whilst Daniel himself remained in daily attendance on the king himself for the discussion of important matters. "Daniel sat in the gate of the king." (v.49)

So for a span—probably for a large part of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign—the empire was ruled by a "cabinet" of which at least the four leading members were Jews. It was during these forty years that the empire expanded to its greatest extent and its wealth and magnificence reached their peak. Secular historians ascribe the honours for this to King Nebuchadnezzar, on the strength of his many inscriptions, in which he takes all the credit to himself. One wonders how much of this prosperity was in fact due to the wise and just administration of the four Jews who must of necessity have borne a large share of the responsibility for what was achieved.

That fact poses a question. What were these men doing, helping to build up a system which God had already condemned and against which the prophet Jeremiah, still in the homeland of Judea, was pouring forth his most passionate denunciations? What kind of service to God was this which resulted in the establishment, more firmly than ever before, of an utterly idolatrous and corrupt system which God intended to destroy?

Was it, that like Jonah at Nineveh, God gave Babylon a last chance to repent? True enough it is that Babylon became a means in the Lord’s hand for the chastisement of Israel but Babylonians as well as Israelites were the creation of God’s hands and even with that debased nation it must have been true that God has "no pleasure in the death of him that dieth;...wherefore turn yourselves [from your evil ways], and live ye." (Ezek.18:32) Nineveh had forty days grace by the preaching of Jonah—and by reason of her repentance earned a remission of the threatened overthrow for something like two hundred and fifty years, for Jonah preached about B.C.850 and Nineveh was not overthrown until B.C.612. So in Daniel’s day Babylon had forty years’ opportunity to profit by the righteous administration of men of God, and mend its ways. There is a cryptic word in Jeremiah’s prophecy which can only be understood if something like this was indeed the case. "We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed: forsake her, and let us go every one into his own country: for her judgment reacheth unto heaven." (Jer.51:9) It is a historical fact that during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, when according to the Bible Daniel and his friends administered affairs of state, Babylon prospered and ruled the nations unchallenged. It is also a historical fact that directly Nebuchadnezzar was dead, and they were ousted from their positions, the decline and fall of Babylon set in. A succession of five kings over a period of only twenty‑three years, the Persian enemy hammering at the gates; then the dramatic fall of Babylon so eloquently portrayed by Jeremiah fifty years before and Isaiah nearly two centuries before. These are facts of history which cannot be disputed, and the logical conclusion is that Daniel and his friends were in the positions they occupied by the will and providence of God. Having been thus appointed they did right in exercising to the fullest extent, in harmony with the principles of Divine law, the earthly powers with which they had been entrusted. The fact that they served a pagan king and ruled an idolatrous people made no difference to that. They let their personal light shine, they did not at any time compromise their own principles or beliefs, and they did with their might what their hands found to do.

In all that there may well be a lesson for us today. All too often the argument is advanced that because of the inherent corruption of the world around us, Christians should withdraw from all participation in its affairs, especially in regard to the occupation of positions of influence or authority. It does not always follow; it may be that the inscrutable decrees of God require that we or at least some amongst us, take up some such position and administer it as did Daniel in his time, and Joseph before him. "Ye are the salt of the earth," said Jesus, (Matt.5:13) but He surely never intended us to assume the salt was not to be used. We can only be the salt of the earth if we are fulfilling, in society, the function which salt fulfils in food. "In the world, but not of it," says the Apostle. Some Christians are neither of the world nor in it, and that fact is not likely to stand them in good stead when the time comes for our Lord to determine who, by intimate acquaintance and experience with the needs and failings of fallen humanity are to be appointed to the work of leading men back to God.

As "chief of the governors over all of the wise men" (Ch.2:48) and "master of the magicians" (Ch.4:9) Daniel became the official head of the entire Babylonian priestly system, which itself controlled every branch of knowledge and learning practised in the land. He was supreme High Priest of the nation. Religious worship, education, the compilation and care of the national records, were all under his control. The temples, the schools, the libraries, all were his responsibility. All this, too, whilst he was still in his twenties. It was in the third year of Jehoiakim that he was taken to Babylon at probably about eighteen or nineteen years of age. He received three years’ training before appearing before the king early in the sixth year. Nebuchadnezzar’s father died at the time of the Battle of Carchemish, which was in Jehoiakim’s fourth year, and this was the commencement of Nebuchadnezzar’s sole reign. (Jer.25:1) That must have been towards the end of Jehoiakim’s fourth year so that Nebuchadnezzar’s "second year" (Dan.2:1) in which he dreamed of the image, would extend nearly to the end of Jehoiakim’s sixth year. Hence there is time for Daniel’s three years training to have been completed and several more months to elapse before he again stood before the king and interpreted the dream. There is no need to imagine, as some do, that "second year" in Dan.2:1 is an error and casts doubts upon the accuracy of Daniel’s account. (Some commentators on this account suggest that Ch.2:1 is a copyists error for "twelfth year" but there is no evidence whatever for this). The incidents of Daniel’s life and all the events connected therewith can only be made to fit together on the basis that, as the Book of Daniel indicates, he attained his eminent position before the king thus early in life.

Daniel was now Supreme Pontiff—official Babylonian title "Rab‑Mag"—of all the religious systems of Babylon. This is the title which was afterwards taken over by the Popes of Rome and Latinised into "Pontifex Maximus." As such he controlled the magicians, sorcerers, soothsayers, astrologers, wise men and Chaldeans, in addition to the priests of the various and many gods of Babylon. Each of these orders had distinct and separate functions; thanks to modern research and the discovery of abundant written records it is possible today to form a tolerably correct picture of what these men were and what they professed to accomplish.

The "magicians" (khartumin) were men whose office was to repulse and exorcise demons and evil spirits by means of spells and incantations. They carried wands of office and were popularly supposed to have the power of working miracles. If the crops failed, a man’s cattle died, or a whirlwind blew a house down, the magician was called in to exorcise the demon who was thus venting his spite against the unfortunate family concerned.

Closely allied to these were the sorcerers (kashaphim) who were utterers of magic words having the mystic power of persuading the gods to grant favours to their devotees. The man who desired some natural advantage, such as the gift of children, or the removal of an offending neighbour, sought the services of the sorcerer, who would know just what secret magical words to utter to constrain the appropriate god to perform the required service.

The "soothsayers" (gazrim) of Dan.2:27 were diviners who professed ability to pronounce upon the probable outcome of any human circumstance by the aid of laws which they alone understood. If a new venture was to be undertaken or the king proposed to launch a new war, the soothsayer was consulted in much the same way as some people go to fortune‑tellers today. The selected dignitary had several means of arriving at his conclusions, a favourite one being the inspection of the liver of an animal sacrificed for the purpose. (An example of one of these soothsayer’s "stock‑in‑trade" is now in the British Museum. It is a baked clay model of a sheep’s liver marked out in fifty squares. In each square is inscribed the portent for that particular spot). In the divining ceremony, the liver from the sacrificed animal was examined and if any spot was diseased or showed some abnormality the portent for that particular spot was pronounced as an omen for the venture or project under review. Reference to this form of soothsaying in Daniel’s own time is made in Ezek.21:21, where we are told that the king of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar) uncertain which of two ways to take, "looked in the liver."

Next come avowed occultists, the "astrologers" (assaphim) of Dan.1:20. The term is a mistranslation. These men held communion with evil spirits with the object of gaining information not obtainable in any other way. Their methods and practices were the same as those of spiritists in every age.

The "wise men" (khakamin) of Dan.2:18 and elsewhere were really the medical fraternity. Disease and sickness was popularly considered to be the work of demons and hence magical practices to drive out the evil spirit responsible was a large part of a physician’s stock‑in‑trade. Prayers and incantations to the gods also came in for attention. Nevertheless true medical knowledge was not altogether lacking, and the medical works which have survived show that a very fair understanding of many diseases was the rule; the names of over five hundred medicinal drugs have been identified in the Babylonian pharmacopeia. Their more intimate contact with the common people brought them into more immediate touch with many everyday problems and hence, as is often the case with medical men today, the local medical man was considered an important and knowledgeable member of the community whose standing and authority in any matter of civic or social interest was undisputed.

Chaldeans (kasdim) was the name originally given to the primitive people of the land and in any other part of the Bible preserves this sense. In the Book of Daniel, however it is limited to a certain class of men within the nation; men who formed a kind of quasi‑secret society which preserved the lore and traditions of the past, and exercised power and influence behind the scenes—a kind of "Hidden Hand." This caste of Chaldeans was the senior of all the orders of society which have just been described.

On the purely religious side Daniel must have had a bewildering array of gods and goddesses, each with their temples and priests, with which to contend. First of all came the Babylonian trinity, Ea, god of the sea and supreme god; Anu, god of heaven; Bel or Marduk (one is the Semitic and one the Sumerian name for the same god) god of the earth. Marduk was the son of Ea, was known as the "Wisdom of Ea," and was supposed to have created the earth and man upon it—a notable anticipation of the later Scriptural presentation of the Son of God Who is also the Word or Wisdom of God and by Whom all things were made. The chief goddess was Ishtar, Queen of Heaven (Ashtaroth to the Syrians and Venus in classical mythology). Another important deity was Sin the Moon‑god, patron deity of Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, and incidentally the source of the name Mount Sinai and the Wilderness of Sin through which Israel travelled at the time of the Exodus. Both mountain and wilderness were named in honour of the Moon‑god.

Then came a number of lesser gods, seven messenger‑gods or "archangels," an indeterminate number of "Watchers," three hundred spirits of the heavens, three hundred spirits of the earth, then angels and demons, good and evil, innumerable. One can imagine Daniel at times in earnest conversation with King Nebuchadnezzar, telling him of the hollowness and falsity of all this mass of superstition and corruption, and endeavouring to turn his mind to the glory of the one incorruptible God, in whom all men live, and move, and have their being. (Acts 17:28).

Why did Daniel accept such a position, when every instinct of his being must have risen in protest at the sights he would inevitably witness and the ceremonies he must needs allow. The answer is simple. God had called him to this position, and he was able to discern enough of God’s purpose to know that God is all‑wise and that some definite reason lay behind that call.

The very fact of this high position was sufficient to release him from any necessity to condone or attend the idolatrous ceremonies. There were many faiths in Babylon—one for every god—but Daniel, as chief, was above them all. Who can doubt that, in all the majesty and dignity of his exalted position, he prayed with his windows open towards Jerusalem daily, as is recorded of him at a later time in his life. (Dan.6:10). Who can doubt that he assembled for worship with his fellow‑countrymen of like faith in some plain, dignified building where God was worshipped in spirit and in truth. The known character of Daniel is sufficient guarantee to us that his official position only served to show up the more prominently to all men the faith that was in him and to give glory to the God he served.

Nebuchadnezzar had already admitted Daniel’s God to a place among the gods of Babylon. Moreover, he later on publicly proclaimed Him as being the greatest and most powerful of all gods (Dan.3:29 and 4:34‑35). Hence Daniel could with perfect propriety profess the worship of the God of heaven just as other notables might select Bel, or Nebo, or Nergal, as their own deity. The officials of the court, and the common people too, would not be likely to quarrel with the personal views of a man so high in favour with the king as was Daniel; and neither would the priests of the various temples, while the king lived. They would of course bide their time until a king more favourable to the native priesthood should ascend the throne.

It might have been, then, for twenty years or more, that the lad, now grown to middle age, administered his charge with loyalty both to his God and to his king. Beholding, as he did, every day, the sensuousness and idolatry of the God‑dishonouring system in which his life was being spent, he must often have cried out in his heart "How long, O Lord, how long?"

But the ways of God require slow ages for their full accomplishment, and it must needs be that for many weary years more the mystery of iniquity would and still continues to work, until in God’s own time comes the day when "out of Zions hall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem" (Isa.2:3) and the Lord as it were arousing Himself at long last, shall take away "the vail that is spread over all nations." (Isa.25:7)

(To be continued)