Daniel in Babylon

Part 2. The Land of Shinar

When, in later years, Daniel committed to writing his recollection of how the treasures of the House of God in Jerusalem had been carried into the land of Shinar and deposited in the treasure house of Babylon’s idol‑temple his heart must have been heavy with the recollection of that sad day. He began his narrative with that incident; it stood out to him as the commencement of a life spent away from Judah and all its hallowed memories, a life given to serving God in a strange land, yet, because he was serving God and because he had no other will in life but to serve God in his way and at his bidding, a life of supreme content. The golden vessels of the Lord were in pagan hands and defiled by their residence in a heathen temple, but he remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah and took comfort in the sure knowledge that one day those vessels would come forth again and be restored to their own place. "Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing" the elder prophet had cried in the ecstasy of his vision. "Go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD." (Isa.52:11) That had been nearly two hundred years before Daniel’s time, but the lad knew that the words would surely come to pass, and the bitterness of seeing the sacred vessels profaned by the sacrilegious touch of unbelievers was mitigated by his realisation that God had not cast off his people forever; He would surely come to deliver. And before Daniel died he was to see that faith vindicated.

It was probably not without design that Daniel used the ancient term "land of Shinar" to describe the country of his captors rather than "land of Babylon" by which it was more familiarly known in his own day. "Shinar" was the name it bore in those early days soon after the Flood when Nimrod established the first empire there, and impious men built a great tower "whose top may (should) reach unto heaven." (Gen.11:4) The tower was still there and Daniel probably saw it as he entered into the city. The name "Shinar" was associated in his mind with rebellion against God and apostasy from God and defiance of God, and in the book he was to write he would have all the world to know that this land and city which had been the scene of his life’s work was one that stood for everything that God hates. Neither its wealth nor its magnificence blinded him for one moment to the fact that it was under Divine condemnation—the city of God’s curse.

That thought might have been of some comfort to him as he watched the treasure‑waggons turn aside at their journey’s end and pass through the gateway into the courtyard of the great Temple in the treasury of which the sacred Temple vessels were to repose for seventy long years, until a then far‑off day when the impious Belshazzar was to lay careless hands upon them to grace his drunken revels, and so doing to lose his kingdom and his life. But Daniel could not foresee that at this time. Now he gazed from his chariot at the stately Temple of Marduk, the god of Babylon, set in the midst of wide gardens and paved terraces. He saw the four massive gateways, each flanked by two huge bronze dragon‑serpents gleaming red in the sunlight, and must have remembered how that it was by means of a serpent that sin came into the world and man apostatised from God, and that here he was in the very midst of a worship that perpetuated that apostasy. His eyes followed the tremendous seven‑staged building which towered into the heavens behind the Temple. He knew what that building was without being told. It was the famous Tower which men had commenced to build in the days when the world was young and the memory of the great Flood had scarcely faded from men’s minds. "Go to" they had said, "let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." (Gen.11.4). God had come down to see the city and tower which these men were building, and he had frustrated their design and scattered them abroad upon the face of the earth. But later generations had gone on building the city, and their kings had each added his contribution to the tower, and now as Daniel gazed upon it he saw it, soaring six hundred feet into the sky, the highest building men had ever built or would ever build until this modern day of skyscrapers. He saw the staircases hugging the sides of each successive stage and the terraces surrounding the top of each stage. The scintillating light at its summit held his attention and right up there he could see the solid gold sanctuary to Marduk, the god to whose honour this great tower was dedicated...The chariot rolled on and Daniel could see the Tower no more. "Etemenanki" the Babylonians called it, "The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth," and they claimed that it was going to stand as long as the world endures; but into the lad’s mind there must have come something of the words of Isaiah, "And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah...and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged." (Isa.13:19,22) He was travelling now along the royal road which led from the Temple and the Tower at Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, "Aa‑ibur‑sabu," it was called, a name meaning the "Processional Way" and along that road the idolatrous processions of the worship of Babylon’s false gods often passed. The lad looked down upon a gleaming white limestone road with pavements of white and red veined stone slabs on each side, flanked by high walls of glazed enamelled coloured bricks, sculptured in the form of lions, white lions with yellow manes and yellow lions with red manes, on alternate light and dark blue backgrounds, all seeming as if themselves marching toward the great palace which could be clearly seen in the distance. From his elevated position in the chariot Daniel could see over those ornate walls into the straight streets and small houses of Merkes, the artisans’ and industrial part of the city, and then, looking forward, the place which was to be his own home and that of his three companions, the palace of the great king himself.

Judged by modern standards, the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar was colossal. Only about one third of it has been excavated as yet, but enough is revealed to show that the building, or rather range of buildings, was something like a quarter of a mile square, flanked on one side by the river Euphrates and surrounded on the three other sides by wide canals so that it was virtually a fortress. Here lived the king and his family, the officers of his Court, many of the priests and wise men of Babylon, distinguished captives taken as hostages in similar fashion to Daniel and his companions, and a host of servants, guards and soldiers, anxious, in abject obedience, to carry out the wishes of this great king who was rapidly making himself master of the world.

The chariot rumbled over the bridge that spanned the Libilhigalla Canal, sped a hundred yards, turned left and passed through a lofty double archway into the East Court of the palace. The horses came to a standstill and a group of soldiers stepped briskly towards the travellers. Thus the four Hebrew captives reached the end of their journey.

It was the intention of the king that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah should receive three years’ schooling in the ways and the learning of the Babylonians and then become personal attendants on his wishes in his court. They were not the only ones to be thus treated; Nebuchadnezzar had taken lads from other conquered countries for a similar purpose, and therein lay the first trial of faith that was to befall the four Hebrews. Cast daily into the company of youths of their own age but brought up in different and idolatrous surroundings, their impressionable young minds could very easily be diverted from the faith and the code of conduct they had learned, sullied with the standards and the outlook of the pagans, and so spoiled in great degree for the life of usefulness for God which would in other circumstances be theirs.

It speaks well for the unknown teachers who instructed these four boys in their earlier years in Judah that they showed not the slightest trace of being influenced by their surroundings. It was the order of the king that they should be given the rich foods and wines habitually used at court; these doubtless included refinements and luxuries of all kinds normally enjoyed by those upon whom the king’s favours were bestowed. "But Daniel purposed in his heart (within himself) that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank." (Dan.1:8). So he made request, on behalf of his three companions beside himself, that they might be permitted to refuse these rich viands and subsist upon plain fare. Pulse and water is specified in verse 12, but this might very reasonably be extended to include any kind of vegetarian food and non‑intoxicating drinks. The principal thing in Daniel’s mind appears to be the fact that to partake of foods and drinks from the king’s table might well involve eating and drinking that which had been offered to idols, or poured out as a libation, or in some way associated with idolatrous ceremonies, and Daniel was determined to have nothing to do with such things.

The official to whose care the four lads had been entrusted was, not unnaturally, rather dubious about assenting to this request. If the thing became known, and the lads appeared to suffer in health in consequence of this rather Spartan diet of their own choosing, his own head would be endangered. Royal justice was administered in an arbitrary and summary fashion in the Court of King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel showed considerable tact in proposing a ten days’ trial on the understanding that he would abide by Melzar’s judgment of the results at the end of that time. The bargain was struck, and at the end of the ten days the four Hebrews were manifestly so superior in general health and appearance to their companions—who anyway had probably been making full and not too wise use of the royal favours so freely granted, with the obvious result that no further objection to their preferences in the matter of food was raised.

This was the first stand for principle and the first victory. It might seem to revolve around a comparatively trivial matter, and from one point of view so it did. But it was the starting point from which much greater things were to proceed. The lads who obeyed their consciences, not fearing the wrath of the king, in so trivial a thing as daily food, were as grown men to withstand a more vital assault upon their faith, to the extent of facing, without fear, what seemed to be the prospect of certain death in a fiery furnace.

So their education in the "learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans" (1:4) was commenced, a course of study that was to last three years. What that learning was has been revealed to us in these latter days by the multitudes of inscribed clay tablets, treating almost every conceivable subject, which is now in the possession of scholars and distributed through the world’s museums. The term "Chaldeans" in every book of the Bible except Daniel refers in a general sense to the people inhabiting Babylonia, but in the Book of Daniel it is used to denote a certain class of men within the nation, men who formed a kind of quasi‑religious society which preserved the ancient lore and traditions of the past. The priests, the historians, the archaeologists—for there were archaeologists even in Babylon, delving into the relics of civilisations as much older than their own as is theirs to ours—all were members of this caste of the Chaldeans. They held the highest positions in the land and wielded immense power. The priesthood’s possession of the national records, extending over many thousands of years, enabled them to construct an elaborate system of omens and portents by means of which they claimed the ability to forecast future events. The art of astrology played a large part in their practices, and their knowledge of astronomy was by no means inconsiderable. The Tower of Babel had been used as an observatory for thousands of years—when Alexander the Great captured Babylon in 324 B.C., the scientist Callisthenes, who was with him, found records of astronomical observations in the library of the Tower going back to the year 2200 B.C. During all those centuries the priests had kept watch on the stars and planets from the top of the six hundred foot high Tower, and recorded all that they had seen.

These were the men under whose supervision Daniel and his companions pursued their studies. One of the leading subjects was sure to be history and Daniel would have been taken back to the early days of the empire, long before Abram left Ur of the Chaldees. It is almost certain that he perused the Babylonian accounts of the Flood and Creation, and compared them with the more accurate accounts of the same events in the Book of Genesis. He must have spent much time learning the five hundred signs of the Babylonian alphabet, and gradually become expert at reading the literary treasures in the great library of the Temple of Marduk—a library which still lies sixty feet below the sand and has so far defied all the archaeologists’ efforts to penetrate into it. It is fascinating to reflect that he may have come across records which had been written by his own ancestors when they lived in this land, Abram, Terah, Nahor, Serug, Reu. More than one record from their days, though not from their hands, now reposes in one or another of the world’s museums.

Many of these tablets could be understood only by a few scholars among the Babylonians themselves. The spoken and written language of Babylon in Daniel’s day was not that of ancient Babylon; in saying that Daniel was to learn the "tongue" of the Chaldeans it is plain that he was to study the ancient languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, which were spoken in the days of Abram, and in the dim centuries before Abram’s day when the first descendants of the three sons of Noah were peopling this land, building its cities and creating the civilisation which endured for something like three thousand years. Probably no Hebrew since Moses had been able to read those ancient languages, the mother tongues of the sons of Ham and the sons of Shem, and in learning them Daniel probably found entry to a written revelation of the deeds of his nation’s remote ancestors which coloured his future outlook. Much of the later Jewish stories of early days, not derived from the historical books of the Bible, may have had their origin in Daniel’s researches in Babylon.

Daniel’s interest in the ancient history of this land which had been the birthplace of his own race would probably be equalled by that which he manifested in its religion. Not that Daniel was in the least degree likely to anticipate the example of some modern Christian leaders and proclaim that "there is good in all religions," and on that—measurably true— statement proceed to admit the world’s false gods to a place of equality with the only true God. Daniel knew that the gods of Babylon were sham, the creations of men’s minds, but he must nevertheless have reflected on the manner in which the originally pure faith possessed by Noah and his sons had become corrupted into an "image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four‑footed beasts and creeping things." (Rom.1:23) It is perfectly obvious to those who accept the Biblical story of the Flood that there was a clear and accurate knowledge of God amongst men immediately following that event, and that the faith which Daniel found when he came to Babylon must have been corrupted through the centuries from that one‑time pure faith. Joshua is authority for the statement that Israel’s fathers dwelt in old time beyond the flood (i.e. the river Euphrates) and served other gods (Josh.24:2) so that even at that early day the falling away had extended to the Abrahamic line. And we also know that the worship of the "Most High God" prevailed in Canaan at the same time, and evidence of this is to be found not only in the story of Melchizedek in Gen.14:18‑20, but in that of Abimelech king of Gerar, between Canaan and Egypt, who was also a true worshipper (Gen.20:1‑10) and in the discoveries made at Ras Shamra on the coast of Syria in 1930, when a whole library of tablets was found that gave testimony to this worship.

So, at the end of three years, their education was complete, and they were brought in before the king. But that education was not only, and not even principally, in the "learning and tongue of the Chaldeans." During those same three years, we are told in ch.1:17, "God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams." What a vivid picture that simple sentence paints for us; four earnest young men giving themselves in all sincerity to the reception, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of the wisdom that is from above. How God taught we are not told, but can there be much doubt that it was in the communing and reasoning together of four young hearts, poring over the sacred Scriptures which were to them the guide of life, the Old Testament as we have it as far as the Book of Isaiah and no farther, earnestly seeking enlightenment from above? In all their enforced studies in the ancient lore of Babylon they found time to devote to the wisdom from on high which is the noblest science and the best instruction. Now in their early twenties they stood forth equipped as few men ever have been equipped to spend a life in useful service for God at a time when the needs of the Divine Plan called for such consecrated service in the face of opposition and ruthless persecution.

So they stood before the king; "and in all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king enquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers that were in all his realm ." (v.20)

(To be continued)