Reflections of a Broken Man

On Daniel – A Political Thought Experiment by StephenMac
August 28, 2011, 1:32 am
Filed under: Reflections

The experiment

The Book of Daniel is one of my favourite books. As a kid, I loved (and still do) the stories of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. But last year, as I studied the book a bit more in depth, I realised that there’s quite a bit of political content there. Daniel and his friends are very much actors in the political sphere of Babylonian and Persian politics, and Daniel’s visions in 7-12 are not merely about world history, but since they deal with kings, kingdoms and international relations, they are very much political. What might we understand about politics if we did a political reading of Daniel (read Daniel and look specifically for the political transactions that are taking place)?

Some preliminaries

First, to what extent can Daniel be a model for political action today? We must take into account the fact that we live this side of the cross. Jesus, in the cross, has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 1:15). He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Pet. 1:22). So whereas Daniel looked forward to the subjection of political authority under one “like a Son of Man” (c.f. Dan. 7:13-14), we know that this has been accomplished by Christ (although this subjection won’t be fully complete until the day he returns). What was a shadow to Daniel, we have the details now in Christ. So this is the first point to remember.

Second, some people take Daniel, not as historical fact, but rather a story (like an extended parable). I disagree, but even if this were the case, I don’t think it would affect the way that we read the political actions in Daniel – Jesus referred to him (and the author of the Hebrews too in an oblique manner) in a way where his words can be taken as having meaning today.

Daniel 1

In Daniel 1, Daniel and his friends are brought into the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. They are to be trained to be leaders, and since they will be in the court of the king, they must look presentable. The king has ordered that they eat the choicest food – from his own table. And yet, to do so, they would break the Law of the Jews – they would eat food that is unclean. In short, Daniel 1 is about the pressure to conform in the face of political action.

The response of Daniel and his friends is notable: rather than obeying the letter of the law (which would cause them to break their own Law), they choose to not eat the food. But they see the problem of breaking the law – they will look unpresentable in court, and bring dishonour to the king. So, since they know that God is in control (three times in Dan. 1, God is mentioned giving, and thus being in control of the whole situation), they trust that God will provide for them. In the end, they look more presentable than those who are following the letter of the law by eating the king’s food.

Here, we see that Daniel and friends act, not according to the letter of the intended law, but to the spirit of the law, and do so in a way that does not compromise their Jewish identity. They remain distinctly Jewish, and in doing so, show a better way to achieve the spirit of the law – looking presentable. They embody the Jewish way of life, and in doing so, they subvert their surrounding culture.

Daniel 2

In Daniel 2, the King has a dream, which no-one can interpret for him. Enter Daniel, who after praying to God, is able to interpret its meaning. OK, there may be something there, in Daniel speaking to authority. Maybe. But I actually think the main political action happens in the vision itself. In short, Daniel is able to show the king that what political manoeuvrings will happen in the future. Kingdoms will rise and fall. In other words, earthly political power is fleeting. In this vision we begin to understand the limits of human politics, and God’s sovereignty over it.

The vision is of four kingdoms, which are destroyed by a tiny kingdom that grows to eclipse the size and power of its predecessors. Here, we see that God through Daniel is able to declare to the king what will happen to the subsequent kingdoms. How is this possible? Only because God is in control of political happenings – God is the one orchestrating the rise and fall of these kingdoms. It is especially important to note that the final kingdom – the tiny kingdom the destroys and eclipses the other four – is God’s own kingdom. Thus, Daniel is highlighting to the king that earthly political authority is limited – it will eventually be replaced by God’s kingdom.

Here in Daniel 2, we see Daniel speaking to the king, reminding him of the place of politics in God’s created order. Daniel speaks to authority, and places it in the correct, godly, context. Daniel shows that politics is not under the king’s control but under God’s, and the king’s rule is limited since it will one day be replaced by God’s rule. In other words, Daniel exposes the correct political order, and advocates to restore it.

Daniel 3

Daniel 3 is the story of a law, to which Daniel’s three friends are passively resistant. Daniel’s friends are told that by law, they must bow down to an idol, which for a Jew is a definite no-no. As a result, they are condemned to death by burning squad. I think the political action here speaks for itself. Rather than acquiescing to the pressure to conform, they quite simply refuse. They don’t rebel. They don’t hold a coup. They simply say no and leave it at that. I doff my cap in tremendous respect:

3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

In short, they remind the king why they can’t obey the law, and are willing to live with the consequences. They expose the law for its injustice, and embody the right way to live.

Daniel 4 and 5

Daniel 4 is a bit of a strange chapter – it breaks with the narrative flow since it is a letter from the king to the kingdom highlight a strange event. The king, in calling himself a god, is punished by God by going mad and living in the wilderness like an animal.

Similarly, Daniel 5 is another story of God acting to visibly punish kings who dishonour him. King Belshazzar has a feast, and mockingly uses the ceremonial tableware from God’s Temple. He sees the literal writing on the wall (side note: for those who think that the Bible has no relevance today, I say – BAM! You’re using the Bible every time you use this phrase!) and calls in Daniel to reveal its meaning. The king’s days are numbered and he is murdered that very night (OK, so by numbered, I mean one).

I think these two chapters show that God is active in politics, even today. ‘The Most High rules over the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will’ (4:25). Kings, the most powerful of men, are held accountable by God, and even they come under his judgement.

Daniel’s role is again that of reminding the king of the political order of things. The king forgets his place, and Daniel is there as the wise one who speaks prophetically to the king, holding the king accountable. In short, Daniel exposes the king’s misdeeds, and advocates a restoration of the correct political order by highlighting God’s judgement on the king.

Daniel 6

Daniel 6 is quite similar to Daniel 3, and so not much comment will be given here. However, I think it’s worth noting that Daniel’s office here is political, and he is such a good politician, that his enemies have to construct an elaborate plan just to be able to accuse him.

Daniel’s political conduct, and at the same time his religious conduct, is above reproach – the epitome of integrity.

So often, politics includes the pressure to be corrupt. But Daniel (again) highlights his refusal to compromise his ethics, and places his trust in God in order to escape the situation (certain death).

Daniel 7

Daniel 7, similar to Daniel 2, zooms back out to see the flow of history, and again highlight the sovereignty of God – even over politics. Here, we see the eschatological end of earthly politics as one like the Son of Man comes and is given eternal political power.

13 I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

Daniel’s vision therefore is an act of exposure – showing that earthly political power is limited, since there will come a time when this Son of Man character will come and end earthly politics. At the same time, it is an act of restoration since it speaks to authority and calls it to remember its place.

Daniel 8

Daniel 8 is another vision. Of particular note in this passage is the way that one of the future kings (well… now past king – Antiochus IV Epiphanes to be exact I think…) persecutes God’s people by perverting their religious practices, and by killing the Jews. But by virtue of it being a vision, we see that even this is part of God’s plan: we should not be surprised to see anti-Christian laws, and yet, even this is under God’s control.

Daniel 9

Daniel 9 is Daniel’s reflection on the exile. He prays, regarding the 70 years punishment mentioned in Jeremiah (Jer. 25:12), and wonders what God is going to do. He receives the reply that it will be seventy weeks (or rather, seventy “weeks” of years, so in other words, 490 years) until the Exile is finished proper.

Here, I think it is possible to see that even when injustice happens, or even great evil, God is in control. Importantly, God will use earthly politics to achieve His purposes. It was his will that Israel/Judah be punished for disobeying him. God uses the political manoeuvrings of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians to achieve this purpose. Earthly politics may be the way that God chooses to bring about his plans and purposes.

Daniel 10-12

In the final section of Daniel, there is a long description of the rise and fall of kingdoms and kings again. Here, however, we have a specific note to those who are suffering: persevere. In the face of suffering and persecution, God’s people are called to patiently persevere. Why? Why not rebel? Why not violently resist? Because political vindication will come with the resurrection.

12:1 And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.

Some Final Thoughts

Reading through Daniel, there seem to be a few political strategies in the face of non-Christian politics.

  1. Subverting: By this, I mean that Christians deliberately pick out counter-cultural values that subvert the political culture around them
  2. Exposing: Christians speak to authority, highlighting where politics has overstepped the mark, and has forgotten its place
  3. Embodying: Christians live out the counter-cultural politics.
  4. Restoring: Seeking to guide political rulers back to the God-created political order.