the Den of Lions, and Christians of Any Era
children have long known that their faith immerses them in a world that
is both turbulent and treacherous. God’s
children are painfully aware that the world-at-large resents any and all
who are the sign of God’s presence and purpose.
Daniel of old was no different: he learnt quickly that the
world’s hatred gathers itself around the person whom God has appointed
to be a beacon, a witness, salt, light, unmistakable as a city set on a
hill. At the same time
Daniel knew that God has promised never to fail or forsake those whom he
appoints but always and everywhere to protect them.
The story begins with King Darius of old.
Darius (approximately 540 BCE) was a gifted ruler and
administrator. He divided
his kingdom into 120 provinces and set a premier over each province.
Above these 120 premiers he set three presidents, Daniel being
one of the three.
Daniel happened to be the most talented of the three, and King
Darius planned to make Daniel the leading civil servant of the kingdom,
second in power and authority only to the king himself.
The reaction of those who had been passed over for promotion was
swift and sure.
They envied Daniel, and their envy was lethal.
Never think that envy is merely a twinge of heart or mind whereby
we fleetingly wish we had what someone else has, the twinge disappearing
a second later. Envy is a
poison that seeps into our bloodstream and renders us toxic to ourselves
and deadly to others. First
we covet what someone else has. Then
we resent her for having it. Next
we invent nastiness about her and project it onto her, the projected
nastiness now legitimizing the venom we shall surely inject with our
next “bite.” Our venom
can assume many forms. We
may gossip and ruin her reputation; we may harass her subtly in a
hundred different ways; we may make her life miserable by refusing to
co-operate with her; we may slay her through engineered humiliation.
If we are her boss we may even be able to demote her if not fire
her. Envy ultimately aims at
someone else’s annihilation.
Not only did government officials envy Daniel on account of his ability;
they also hated him on account of his goodness.
Daniel was said to be “blameless”: he couldn’t be bribed,
bought, threatened, corrupted, co-opted.
He couldn’t be drawn into influence-peddling or bookkeeping
wizardry or payola of any sort. Daniel’s
integrity was unimpeachable.
Was he loved for it? On
the contrary he was hated. Darkness
hates the light. People of
integrity who stand upright are hated by those who wriggle in the slime
of clandestine corruption.
more, the people over whom Daniel had been promoted resented him because
he was a foreigner. “Xenophobia”
is the social science word for the phenomenon.
Xenos means “strange”; phobia, of course, is neurotic
fear. Xenophobia is a
neurotic, groundless fear of strangers.
Once again, however, we mustn’t think that because xenophobia
is neurotic it isn’t harmful. Xenophobes
hiss their ultimatum: “assimilate or leave”.
Plainly Daniel already had three strikes against him.
Still, there was a fourth vulnerability to Daniel, perhaps the most
dangerous one of all: he was a Jew among Gentiles.
Here we come to the heart of what the apostle Paul calls “the
secret forces of wickedness” (2nd Thess. 2:7 REB) or “the
mystery of lawlessness” (RSV). Groundless
Gentile hostility to Jewish people, so deep-seated it couldn’t be
deeper, is utterly irrational, of course.
Still, the sheer irrationality of evil is one aspect of evil’s
evilness. To the extent that
evil could be understood or evil explained or evil accounted for; to
this extent its evilness would be lessened.
It saddens me to have to tell you that where virulent
anti-Semitism is concerned the same irrationality is found in many
Christians and frequently flares out of the church institution.
Until 1948, when the state of
was established, Jewish people customarily received far better treatment
at the hands of Muslims than they received at the hands of Christians.
Why is it that while the inquisition, spawned by the church and
maintained by the church, began in the 14th century, a second
inquisition was launched in the 15th, this time targeting the
Jewish people specifically? Why
is it that anti-Semitism, virulent throughout the Middle Ages, reached
such irrational depths that one aspect of the “blood myth” whereby
Jewish people were libelled; one aspect of this myth was that Jewish
males menstruated? You have
never seen it? Who needs to
see it when one segment of our society is labelled monstrous so
as to justify treating it as monstrous?
Never assume that irrationality is harmless.
We must never forget that it was Erasmus, the Christian
humanist without intellectual peer in the sixteenth century, who wanted
rid of its entire Jewish population, and who coined the term Judenrein,
purified of Jews -- which term had a horrific history in the 20th
Daniel was dead four times over.
The rest was commentary. Since
Christians believe that humankind is fallen, that the prince of this
world is nefarious, Christians of all people ought to have no illusions
as to the world’s turbulence and turpitude and treachery.
men who envy Daniel, hate him, resent him and loathe him now conspire to
frame him. Since they
can’t accuse Daniel of anything, they have to invent something that
will render his present behaviour -- exemplary in every respect -- newly
criminal. They persuade King
Darius to pass a law forbidding anyone to petition any deity or human
except Darius himself for the next thirty days.
Aware of Daniel’s ironfast faith, they know for sure that an
Israelite like Daniel will never petition a mere mortal like Darius
while refusing to petition God. Not
to address God is unbelief, while addressing a mortal as a deity
is blasphemous because idolatrous. It
would all have sickened Daniel inasmuch as he had long known he would
never, simply never, accommodate a pagan king where that king’s
request contradicted the claim of God upon him.
Daniel was aware that if he forgot for one minute who he was
because of whose he was, then in one minute he’d be useless to God and
Why did King Darius promulgate the law?
King though he was, undoubtedly he felt enormous pressure from
all the civic officials who had now “packed” on him.
When mediocrity packs it is nothing less than terrifying.
Darius saw in a flash that king though he was, once all his
subordinate officials packed on him he couldn’t administer his
kingdom. He would be a king
without a kingdom, a toothless tiger, a laughing stock.
When mediocrity packs it can always render excellence
inoperative, can’t it? Darius
saw instantly that he was soon to be a king without “clout” unless
he capitulated to the mediocrities around him.
None of them could individually out-muscle him, but collectively
they could render him politically impotent.
Daniel learned of the newly promulgated law.
He disregarded it. He
continued doing what he had always done; namely, he went to the upper
floor of his home where the windows were open and where he knew he would
be seen. He knelt down and
prayed. Daniel knelt to pray
in private even as his private devotion was visible, thanks to the open
window. In other words, private
worship is a public event. (This
point must be underlined in our society: private worship is a public
Daniel won’t apostatize. When
the law is passed forbidding him to pray to the Holy One of Israel, the
only true and living God, he prays.
Centuries earlier the prophet Elijah, together with thousands of
others, it turns out, had refused even to bow to Baal, let alone kiss
him. Centuries later two
apostles of Jesus Christ will cry out, “We must obey God rather than
men” (Acts 5:29), and then step ahead rejoicing that they are counted
worthy to suffer on account of the name of him who has incarnated
himself in the Nazarene. Daniel
is fully aware of the consequences of his non-compliance: anyone found
defying the king will be executed. He
ignores the edict and prays.
Where did Daniel find, how did he find, whatever it takes to
remain faithful to God and therein sign his own death warrant?
Our text tells us that when Daniel opened his window to pray he
, hier shalem, city of salvation.
Jerusalem was that spot on earth, we are told, where God “chose
to make his name to dwell”, according to Deuteronomy 12; that spot of
which God was to say, “My name shall be there”, according to 1st
Kings 8. God’s name is
God’s living person; God’s name is God’s person, presence and
power. God’s name is the
God who is high and lofty and lifted up focussing himself to pinpoint
concentration so as to render his presence and power palpable.
God had pledged himself to this at
Daniel wasn’t young at the time of this incident with Darius
and his drones. Daniel was
estimated to be 70 years old. We
mustn’t think that Daniel’s courage and resilience came upon him
merely in the moment of trial; his resolve not to capitulate didn’t
“just occur” to him on the spot like a bolt from the blue.
Daniel’s spiritual formation had been developing for decades.
For years he had prayed facing
without ever being able to see
. Living in
he oriented himself to the city he couldn’t see or visit just because
he knew that God had pledged his name to hier shalem, city of
salvation, and God’s name was nothing less than the concentrated,
effectual presence of God’s person.
The resources that Daniel needed at this moment didn’t arise
from this moment. The
resources Daniel needed arose from the spiritual discipline that an old
man had maintained for decades. These
resources now fortified the 70-year old man with a defiance that
wasn’t childish petulance but was rather righteous resilience.
Such resilience couldn’t admit even the thought of
self-serving, skin-saving compromise.
When Daniel prayed to the God his Gentile tormentors despised and
, the earthly guarantee of all that
’s God had promised, Daniel knew precisely what he was doing.
He knew that private prayer is always public event; more to the
point, private prayer is always public protest.
Was Daniel afraid? John
Wesley insisted that it is impossible not to fear.
We all fear and must fear. Then
the only matter to be decided is what or whom we are going to fear.
Wesley maintained that either we fear God and then fear nothing
else and no one else, or we don’t fear God and then fear everything
and everyone else. “Give
me a hundred men who fear no one but God and hate nothing but sin and we
upside down”, Wesley said. All
biblical faith begins in the fear of God, said Martin Buber, 20th
century philosopher and exegete.
Then did Daniel fear? Of
course he did. Yet because
he feared God more than he feared Darius he ceased to fear Darius.
Because he feared God he remained undeflectable.
Darius proceeds with Daniel’s execution.
Is Darius a psychopath, someone seemingly like us but utterly
conscienceless and therefore never to be trusted?
No. So far from
conscienceless Darius is conscience-stricken.
He’s devastated. He’s
distressed that he has allowed himself to be backed into the corner from
which he can’t escape without losing face.
Once Darius has had Daniel thrown into the den of lions he spends
the night fasting. Pagan
though he is, he intuits that fasting, a religious rite known throughout
the religions of humankind, has something to do with self-denial or
purification or intercession or whatever -- anything that might somehow
mitigate his guilt and lessen Daniel’s pain.
Darius is so very conscience-stricken that he can’t sleep.
Darius isn’t a psychopath.
But neither is he harmless. The
fact that what he’s done to Daniel upsets him dreadfully doesn’t
mean he hasn’t done it. Never
think that just because a person is conscience-stricken that person
isn’t dangerous. As a
matter of fact the insecure person is always more dangerous than the
nasty person. The nasty
person is characteristically nasty, consistently nasty, and therefore
predictably nasty. Because
we can count on the nasty person to be nasty we know what we must do to
stay out of harm’s way. But
the insecure person is different. The
insecure person will lash out unpredictably in a way that we can never
foresee. Not only will he
lash out unpredictably, he will lash out with consequences that are
themselves unpredictable. The
insecure person who dreads loss of face, dreads public humiliation and
therefore dreads loss of his fragile identity; this person is far more
dangerous than the mean-spirited person whom everyone has learned to
We must never think that super-sensitive people like Darius are
by that fact harmless. They
are dangerous, more dangerous than the characteristically nasty.
So Darius isn’t conscienceless.
But he is cowardly. And
he can be compromised. Is he
also cruel? He isn’t
inherently cruel. Still, his
sensitivity, his dread of losing face before the mediocrities who are
essential to him and who have “packed” on him; his dread of losing
face before them renders him cruel with that unintentional yet deadly
cruelty peculiar to the fusion of cowardice and compromise.
Darius is reluctant to execute Daniel; in fact he’s heartbroken
over it. So what.
Execution is execution regardless of whether the executioner is
smirking or weeping. Daniel
is going to be murdered.
Darius ordered the execution of Daniel he had a stone rolled against the
mouth of the lions’ den. Then
the stone was sealed.
This aspect of the story causes the reader to think of the tomb
in which the body of our Lord was laid.
Once our Lord’s remains were laid in the tomb, a stone was
rolled against the entrance to the tomb lest the body be snatched or
governmental process be violated in any way.
On Easter morning our Lord was raised from the dead in a
transfigured body. His
resurrection vindicated him. His
resurrection vindicated everything about him.
On the day that our Lord was raised from the dead he stood forth
vindicated, vindicated in all that he said and did and is.
When Daniel emerged from the lions’ den he too was vindicated
totally. Everything about
him was made to shine forth resplendently as God now honoured before the
world a man who had faithfully honoured God.
Daniel had served God with integrity in the course of his daily
work as pre-eminent civil servant in the service of King Darius.
Daniel had remained a steadfast son of
even though he was an exile in a strange land far, far from home.
Daniel had been unwavering in his loyalty to that kingdom which
transcends the kingdoms of this world, unwavering in his zeal for truth,
undeflectable in his thrice-daily recognition of all that
represented. In short,
Daniel had never forgotten God’s name.
And God’s name, Daniel knew, is God’s person, presence, power
fused as one -- now operative, effectual, in such a way as to declare
God himself the hidden truth and reality of the world regardless of the
world’s recognition or the world’s non-recognition.
Daniel had never forgotten God’s name.
Neither had God forgotten Daniel’s name.
Dan-i-el: “God is my judge.”
The Hebrew notion of judge, we should note carefully, differs
significantly from the modern notion of judge.
In our era a judge is an impartial arbitrator.
In our era a judge pronounces something but never does
of old it was different. The
first responsibility of the judge was to rescue the oppressed and free
the enslaved, and then to vindicate the newly rescued and freed as
righteous before God and henceforth the beneficiary of God’s blessing.
Daniel’s name -- “God is my judge” -- now declares that God
has rescued him from the lions, freed him from the den, vindicated him
as a righteous man and rendered him the beneficiary of God’s blessing.
God remembers those who remember him.
does he? Does God invariably
remember those who remember him? In
the course of his faithfulness to God in Nazi
Dietrich Bonhoeffer unfailingly remembered God’s name.
But it can’t be said of Bonhoeffer as it was said of Daniel,
“God sent his angel and shut the lion’s mouth.”
For that matter no one shut the mouth of the lion whose paw-swipe
decapitated John the Baptist. No
one shut the “mouth” of Mary Tudor when the gospel was surging
in the days of the English Reformation and “Bloody” Mary responded
by executing Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer,
together with 300 others. No
one shut the lion’s mouth on that never-to-be-forgotten day in 1597 in
when the Japanese, who had never heard of crucifixion until missionaries
told them the story of Jesus, crucified 125 Jesuit missionaries at once,
and then burnt and beheaded dozens more 25 years later in 1622.
The truth of the matter is, more often than not -- far more often
than not -- the lion’s mouth isn’t stopped, with the result that yet
another witness becomes a martyr.
While we are thinking of Bonhoeffer we should think as well of
another brave witness in the
during the same era, Martin Niemoeller.
Both men were Lutherans. Both
were scholarly pastors. Both
formed and informed the
, those Christians who refused to say “Hitler ist Fuehrer”, who
refused, like Daniel, to abide by the edict of the political ruler.
Niemoeller was in prison for eight years, was scheduled for
execution, but was rescued by allied forces three days before he was to
be hanged. Bonhoeffer was in
prison for two years, was scheduled for execution, and was not rescued
but rather was hanged three weeks before allied forces reached
Calvin has said that God’s providence is “inscrutable.”
Calvin is correct: providence is inscrutable.
The apostle Peter was executed in Nero’s persecution, while the
apostle John was exiled to the
. Self-denial is required of
all Christians, to be sure, but the nature of the self-renunciation
involved varies hugely from Christian to Christian.
Peter is permitted the comfort and consolation of a wife in his
apostolic struggles; Paul reminds us that he has been given no such
comfort. My discipleship has
cost me very little, it would seem, while Father Damien’s obedience
took him to a leper colony on the
where he ministered until he died from leprosy himself.
No lion’s mouth was stopped for him.
Or was it? Surely the
lion’s mouth is stopped for all Christ’s people ultimately.
Peter and John met very different earthly ends, yet neither had
his life dribble away fruitlessly. Both
have been used of God to introduce millions to Jesus Christ and nourish
them in him.
Bonhoeffer died at 39 and Niemoeller at 92, yet both have
equipped countless Christians who are threatened by totalitarian rulers
to hold out, hold on, hold up Jesus Christ as the transcendent
truth-bringer and therefore the world’s only hope.
Damien died of leprosy among lepers, while Shepherd will likely
die of old age among the elderly infirm of the local nursing home.
But both will have relished discerning God’s will for them and
abandoning themselves to it. Both
will have been sustained by their steadfast confidence that the Word
they aspired to keep on earth is going to keep them in eternity.
Since no Christian’s life ultimately succumbs to the forces of
destruction that surround us on all sides, therefore every Christian’s
life has been rendered kingdom-fruitful even if the King alone has seen
and noted and magnified the fruitfulness.
There remains another sense in which the lion’s mouth is
stopped for all Christians. Regardless
of the earthly circumstances under which our life unfolds, regardless of
the circumstances under which our days are terminated, none of
Christ’s people is consumed ultimately.
On the day of judgement all disciples without exception are going
to stand forth gloriously as irrefutable proof that they were rescued by
God’s outstretched arm, were freed from bondages both dramatic and
seemingly ordinary, were vindicated as righteous before God and are now
the beneficiary of his eternal benevolence.
Since God is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) and yet we are
not consumed on the day of judgement, then for us the lion’s mouth has
been shut and can never be opened.
In John’s gospel the risen Jesus tells Peter that Peter one day
will be bound and carried and stretched out; in other words, Peter will
be crucified like his Lord before him and in this manner glorify God.
Then Jesus urges Peter, “Follow me.”
Peter sees another disciple following too, a disciple concerning
whom Jesus hasn’t said anything yet.
“I’m going to be crucified?”, says Peter, “What about
him?” Jesus replies, “If
it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
The truth is, regardless of the circumstances under which both
Peter and the unnamed disciple died the lion’s mouth was stopped for
both. For both now stand
forth in glory as servants of Christ whom the master rescued, freed,
vindicated, commissioned, used, blessed and will continue to bless for
ever and ever, as surely as all of this can be said of Daniel too and
will even be said of you and of me.