The book of Daniel is the last and, next to Lamentations, the shortest of the major prophets’ books. It is also, to my mind, the most distinctive. It does not focus on warning of destruction to Israel or lamenting it, as the other major prophets do. It contains instead a narrative of six more or less self-contained stories (one each in chapters 1-6) followed by a series of visions (chapters 7-12) accompanied by explanations and, in one case, a confessional prayer (that prayer is the one echo of the other major prophets’ focus on Israel’s sins).
So here’s a one-sentence summary of the six stories:
- Daniel and his three fellow Hebrew exiles in Babylon adhere to their Jewish diet and thrive more than the other young advisers who eat from the king’s (rich) table.
- Daniel not only interprets a dream of the king’s correctly: He tells the king what he has dreamed without the king having to tell him first.
- When Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow to a golden statue the king has made, they are thrown into a fiery furnace, but miraculously do not burn (a mysterious fourth person — who “‘looks like the son of the gods'” (3:25) — is seen with them).
- Daniel interprets another of the king’s dreams correctly, this one foretelling among other things that he (the king) will go mad and eat grass like a cow.
- At a royal feast, a human hand appears and writes a mysterious message on the wall that no one there can read — but of course when Daniel is summoned he can, and the message correctly predicts that the reign of the Babylonian king is about to end since God has found him wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medes and Persians; that very night the Babylonian king is slain and the Medes take over. [I’ll note that sometimes a borrowed word or phrase becomes distorted so that it is used in a way that does not reflect its origin — e.g., Frankenstein is not the monster but the scientist — but that’s not true here: When we say that someone has “read the handwriting on the wall” it means exactly what it means in Daniel, namely that someone sees that something bad is going to happen.]
- The king is tricked by his anti-Daniel advisers into passing a law that requires him to put Daniel into a den of lions since he will pray only to his God rather than to the king — but the lions don’t touch him because God sends an angel to shut their mouths.
The common theme here, obviously, is the power of God and the importance of obedience to Him.
Daniel was a stand-up guy. First and foremost, of course, he refuses to compromise his faith in the face of secular pressure — and note that he unsuccessfully urges Nebuchadnezzar to clean up his act (4:27) and, before interpreting the writing on the wall, he recounts (5:18-24) to the king the royal arrogance that resulted in the bad news. Still, he’s respectful, diplomatic, and forgiving to the king (see, e.g., 4:19 and 6:21-22) and, while he discounts the gifts and rewards offered him by the king, he ultimately accepts them (compare 5:12 with 5:29). It’s also remarkable that he always gives credit to God for his remarkable ability (2:27-28), and he even goes out of his way to put in a good word for his secular rivals (2:24).
And his three friends were stand-up guys, too. When the king told them that they had to pray to his gold statue or else be thrown in the fiery furnace — asking them, “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” — here’s their breathtaking reply (3:16-18):
The story of Daniel shows how a believer can maneuver within an alien and hostile culture without compromising his faith.
Daniel’s career is like Joseph’s in Genesis: Life begins for each promisingly enough, but they find themselves suddenly stripped of privilege and in a foreign land, yet neither will be kept down, and both manage to become top royal advisers, owing to administrative talent and the ability to interpret accurately royal dreams. Both of them survive and prosper without compromising the faith, but this latter point is generally implicit in Joseph’s case, but explicit in Daniel’s — indeed, it is the whole point of the narrative. It is interesting that the Babylonian kings here — Nebuchadnezzar in the first four chapters, Belshazzar in the fifth, and Darius in the sixth — are more respectful of Daniel (and impressed with his God) than pharaoh was of Joseph (and his God); this especially so for Nebuchadnezzar and Darius.
One reason this kind of story has the ring of truth is that it is really not not the sort of narrative that a people would make up to make themselves look good. That is, the narratives are pleasant enough and have a hero and a happy ending, but on the other hand the protagonists are not warriors but smart assistants, and they interpret dreams rather than slay dragons. The point is not showcasing Jewish talent or teaching a lesson of brain over brawn. No, the point is that the Jews are with God, and God understands and controls everything — and so of course, for example, it makes sense that Jews would be able to interpret a Gentile’s dream when other Gentiles could not.
Two random notes on the first chapter: (1) The book begins with the statement that God delivered the king of Judah into the hands of the king of Babylon; and (2) according to my NIV study Bible, when the names of Daniel and his friends are changed from Hebrew to Babylonian, the references to God imbedded in the former — rather cheekily and craftily, I thought — changed to references to corresponding Babylonian gods in the latter.
On to chapters 7-12. Daniel’s visions here (and dream interpretations in the earlier chapters) predict, among other things but most dramatically, the fall of Babylon and the subsequent rise and fall of the Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, successively (my NIV study Bible notes that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream here deals with the empires politically, while Daniel’s corresponding vision deals with them morally). I’m not going to unpack the all the future-telling, and will just say that it is important for two reasons. First, if the future can be accurately foretold, it shows that someone — namely God — is in control and must have a lot of power and intelligence, to understate grossly. Second, the presence in the Bible of accurate prophecy is a powerful apologetic tool, as Blaise Pascal emphasized in his Pensees.
I’ll close with two other observations.
First, there are passages in Daniel of particular importance to Christians. For example, 12:2 and 12:13 reference resurrection, and a life after death for the good and evil alike. Christians would interpret 7:13 as a reference to Christ; Jesus Himself presumably took his favorite self-description — “the Son of Man” — from there. Even in the first part of the book, Christians might see Christ as the fourth person in the fiery furnace with Daniel’s friends.
Second, I’ll note that there is curious shifting of point of view in this book. Most of the first part is written in the third person; much — but not all — of the second part is written in Daniel’s first person; and chapter four (except verses 28-33, in the middle) is written in Nebuchadnezzar’s first person. In this regard I’ll also note that the author of the book is traditionally Daniel, but that’s disputed; there is, of course, no rule that says an author cannot refer to himself in the third person, and indeed that has been commonly done in ancient as well as modern writing.