I suppose any book in the Bible can be misused to teach a kind of moralism that is totally foreign to the true Gospel that the Bible is intended to communicate. Yet I suppose that few books have been used as often to teach such moralism as the book of the prophet Daniel. Unfortunately, this moralism has probably most commonly been thrust upon children, who have been told to "dare to be a Daniel." In some ways, it's easy to understand why this is so common. Daniel is one of the few biblical characters (apart from Jesus) who is portrayed consistently positively. With almost all of the great heroes of Scripture--from Noah, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and David, to Peter and Paul--we are given pictures of men who are truly human, truly sons of Adam, with their sin exposed just as ours is. Yet, Daniel never seems to make a false step. So, it's not difficult to understand why many sermons from Daniel, whether preached to children or adults, point us to Daniel instead of to Christ. Just because it's understandable, however, doesn't mean it's right.
The Holy Spirit no more means to point us to Daniel, to emulate him, than He means to ever point us to any other broken sinner and say, "Be like him and you'll be fine." No, that can never be the answer to our own brokenness and sin. I believe Jesus when He said that all of Scripture testifies to Him. I believe that God is the hero of every story of the Bible. And I believe that all of Scripture meets some need, answers some question, offers some hope, or otherwise provides some grace from God through Christ to us in our brokenness and sin. So, even though it may sometimes seem difficult to find the gospel in Daniel, I still say it's there. In fact, I'd say it's mostly due to poor reading habits brought about by poor examples and teaching that make the gospel seem to us muddled in Daniel. I believe Daniel contains some of the most fascinating teaching of the gospel in the Old Testament.
One of the things that's usually necessary to get at the gospel in a narrative passage of Scripture is to understand the context. If you think the events related in the book of Daniel simply happened in an historical vacuum (or worse, if you think it's "just a story"), then it may indeed be difficult to get past a moralistic reading of the text. But, of course, the events did not happen in an historical vacuum (and they did actually happen). I don't have the time or expertise to provide a detailed historical context for the book of Daniel. But I will offer an incredibly broad and brief overview of the historical setting.
After the Lord redeemed His people, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt; and after giving them His law so they could live righteously before Him and the world and draw the nations to the worship of the Lord; and after He established them in the land He had promised Abraham hundreds of years before; and after giving His people a king who would lead them in seeking the Lord's righteousness; Israel continued to sin and rebel against the Lord. Soon after the "golden era" of David and Solomon's kingship, Israel split into two nations, known as Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
The kings of Israel in the north were all wicked kings, which led the people to further wickedness. As judgment upon their sin, Israel was defeated and taken into exile by Assyria in 721 b.c. Judah had some faithful kings and some wicked kings, but even the good kings were not good enough for long enough nor consistent enough to lead the people to live righteously. Thus in 587 b.c. Judah's capital, Jerusalem, was defeated and its people were taken into exile, this time by Babylon. What was worse was that the Temple of the Lord was destroyed.
Instead of living righteously as the people of the Lord in the land He had given them, not only for their own blessing, but also for the blessing of all nations who might observe and wonder at a people whose Lord truly dwelt among them, Israel had rebelled, had been judged, had been conquered by the nations, and the Lord's "House" had been destroyed. This is the potential existential crisis that Daniel finds himself in Daniel 1:6 when he is a young man brought to live in the court of his conquering king, Nebuchadnezzar.
Well, I've left out a lot. As I proceed to discuss Daniel further, I'll offer bits of background along the way. But you can fill in the details in a couple of ways: 1) read the Old Testament; 2) refer to some commentaries and reference works that can provide the context you need. A few I'd recommend are: Calvin's commentaries on Daniel. Calvin is a master exegete and he is an amazingly practical pastor for a reader today, given that he wrote 450 years ago. For a contemporary commentary, I like this one by Ernest Lucas. He's a little more accepting of some critical scholarship than I like, but he doesn't give away the farm. He does provide a good summary of some of the best modern scholarship on Daniel and he often offers reasonable exegetical and theological conclusions. I've also referred to the commentary in the Preaching the Word series by the late Rodney Stortz. I don't agree with his eschatological perspective, which plays a significant role in Daniel, but I still found the commentary useful (and it's readable). And finally, for some more general help with the historical setting and other matters of introduction, An Introduction to Old Testament Prophetic Books is a very helpful and useful book.
In the small group Bible study I lead at Memorial church, we've been studying/discussing through the book of Daniel for a (long) time, finishing just last week. I really enjoyed the time we spent in this book. I loved studying it on my own in preparation to lead discussion. And I loved the insights and wisdom and clarifications and desire to learn and grow that my friends brought to the studies and discussions. Back when we started the study, I intended to do a recap of each evening's discussion on the blog--but I never got around to it. I don't have any detailed notes from the discussions. I don't even have most of my prep notes and discussion questions (which I usually fit onto a 4x6 note card). So, as I work through Daniel, chapter by chapter, I'll just offer the thoughts I do have--some maybe remembered, some maybe fresh. At this point, it will be difficult for me to delineate which ideas are mine, which are my group memberss, and which came from the commentaries that I referenced above. If this was an academic paper or a series of sermons I'd be more careful to offer correct attribution. But these will just be a series of informal reflections. They might not be of much use to anyone else (I don't even know if any of my old readers are still with me), but at least I'll be able to look back and remember what God taught me in one season of my life through the book of Daniel.
boon-dog-gle: (noun) work of little or no value done merely to keep or look busy.
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"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."