Daniel: Champion, visionary, man of prayer
The Babylonian Empire extended from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea to the western end of the Persian Gulf in the period between the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC and its own conquest by Cyrus the Great in 539. It was during this period that Daniel was active as a source of wisdom in the royal court, and as a visionary who could also interpret dreams. The Book of Daniel is a combination of delightful stories of his Divinely-gifted brilliance and disturbing accounts of his mystical visions of the future.
It is widely thought that the principle apocalyptic visions were recorded much later, perhaps in the second century BC, because their style and content is more consistent with that period. And in any case, it is an indication of the mysterious process by which the books of the Bible were formed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that, in the canonical version of Daniel accepted by the Church, there are two different (though very similar) accounts of the famous episode of Daniel in the lion’s den, a longer version in chapter 6 and a shorter one in chapter 14.
The Book of Daniel, therefore, provides an excellent opportunity to remind readers that we know what is and what is not a part of the Divinely inspired word of God in Sacred Scripture not by historical or literary analysis but by the tradition of the believing community (both Jewish and Christian), confirmed to be of Divine origin by the authority of the Church. And we know the authority of the Church because of the clearly-attested historical fact that it was founded by the Risen Christ, and from the constant testimony of the early Christians who, despite frequent persecution from the very first, adhered steadfastly to the Risen Christ and to the authority of His Church.
All of this is reflected in the books of the New Testament, but we must always remember that the Church preceded the New Testament and can alone attest to the authority of those books, in addition to the writings of the Old Testament. Any effort to read and interpret Scripture outside the essential framework and authority of the Church skips a necessary initial step, without which we cannot even know which writings are inspired by God and which are not, let alone how to understand them. Among many other important points we learn by this authority is that all of Scripture must be read in the light of Christ, to whose life and work it is universally oriented.
Daniel, along with Hananiah (Shadrach in the Babylonian language), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abednego), was chosen from among the Jewish exiles, along with the most handsome, skillful, and knowledgeable young men throughout the kingdom, to be fed on rich food and wine while being trained for service in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. The book opens with a contrast: On the one hand, the Lord gave King Jehoiakim of Judah into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand (as the Scriptural expression has it), “with some of the vessels of the house of God”; on the other hand, “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s rich food, or with the wine which he drank.”
This juxtaposition between the desecration of the sacred vessels and the dedication of the holy young men highlights a central theme of the book, which is the surpassing power and authority of the Lord over all things. Thus, from the first, the Jewish young men grow more excellent than the others in every physical, intellectual and moral attribute, despite eating nothing but cheap vegetables and drinking nothing but water. Later in the Book, Daniel’s wisdom and courage, along with the fidelity of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, are used to prove repeatedly that the God of Israel has dominion over all.
Among the famous (and highly entertaining) episodes recounted in the book are: Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, by which Daniel teaches the King to honor God for the part he plays in God’s plan; the threat of the fiery furnace in which the three others prove to Nebuchadnezzar the power of their God; Daniel’s interpretation of the famous “writing on the wall” which heralds the downfall of the impious King Belshazzar (who ate and drank from the temple vessels); and Daniel’s miraculous survival in the lion’s den, to which he was consigned by King Darius through the trickery and animosity of the presidents and satraps who administered the kingdom.
Interestingly, it is not until near the end of the book that we get the famous story of Daniel as a young boy, when he confounds the lecherous elders and rescues Susanna. There follows the famous account of how Daniel, under King Cyrus, uses a clever stratagem to unmask the “supernatural” trickery of the priests of Bel, who were gaining a powerful hold over the people.
Like the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar, the visions of Daniel come to him in a dream-like state, they are apocalyptic in character, and they cannot be interpreted without Divine insight. These famous visions include the four beasts and the “ancient of days”, the ram and the goat, the seventy weeks of years, and, under King Cyrus, a vision “for days yet to come”. In each case there is an interpreter of the vision within the “dream”.
In the first, we learn that:
[T]he kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them. [7:27]
In the second, it becomes clear that the angel Gabriel is the interpreter of the visions, which has to do with the power of evil over the whole world before the end. In the third, Gabriel foretells the massive conflict among the nations leading to the end times. Most of the visions involve kings and kingdoms which, while more or less symbolic, are associated with regions and peoples familiar to the Jews of the time.
But in the fourth vision, Gabriel explains that “seventy weeks of years are decreed…to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness” (9:24). Interestingly, after sixty-two weeks “an anointed one shall be cut off” and great desolation shall be inflicted on the world “until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator” (9:26-27).
I wish to return to the third vision, however, because it contains two passages which are particularly valuable to us in their very specificity. First, when Gabriel interprets this vision, he explains: “I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these [evil “kingdoms”] except Michael, your prince” (10:21, emphasis added), an astonishing reference to Michael as the chief of the angels. And then, after the evils have run their course, we find this:
“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. 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, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. 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. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the end.” [12:1-4]
Daniel’s visions are powerfully Messianic, but in general they are oriented not toward Christ’s first coming, but His second.
The book ends with Daniel killing a dragon which the Babylonians revered, and with the second account of the episode in the lion’s den, but we would betray an undue excitement over the great stories as compared with the spiritual message if we failed to note the single atypical chapter in the book, which has to do not with dramatic miracles and visions, but with Daniel’s simple and level-headed prayer for the Jewish people. The occasion for this prayer arose in the first year of Darius, when Daniel “perceived in the books” (Jeremiah’s prophecies) that seventy years must pass “before the end of the desolation of Jerusalem”.
Now aware of the length of the punishment, Daniel provides us with a remarkable example. Fasting in sackcloth and ashes, he confesses the sins of the people, acknowledges the Lord’s justice, and begs for help. And he knows exactly why he should expect this help. It is the same reason we should expect it for the Church today:
O my God, incline your ear and hear; open your eyes and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by your name; for we do not present our supplications before you on the ground of her righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercy. O LORD, hear; O LORD, forgive; O LORD, give heed and act; delay not for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name. [9:17-19]
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