By John Guzzetta
The first chapter of the book of Daniel states that when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and began deporting its people hundreds of miles into Babylonian slavery, he ordered the chief of his officials to bring in those youths who exhibited the intelligence, wisdom, and good-looks that made them promising candidates for service in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. The king wished to mold their young minds into conformity with Chaldean language and culture, shaping them into loyal personal servants. Befitting the youths’ potential, Nebuchadnezzar appointed for them a daily portion from his own choice food.
Two aspects of the royal menu would have challenged a follower of Mosaic law. First, much of the table probably would have been set with meat from animals God had declared unclean (Deut. 14:8) or with foods that had been improperly prepared (Lev. 17:10). Second, (and impossible to avoid simply by selecting only particular dishes) the food would have been sacrificed to Babylonian idols before being placed before the king, making partaking of the food equivalent to accepting the Babylonian idols (1 Cor. 10:27).
Daniel made up his mind “that he would not defile him-self with the king’s choice food,” exhibiting a deep devotion to God. Daniel asked the commander in charge of the exiled boys to permit him to abstain. Initially the commander re-fused, worried that he would lose his head for allowing the boys to eat inferior food and grow weak. Daniel pressed the point, however, and was able to convince the commander to feed him and his three friends vegetables and water for a trial period, and test whether they remained robust. The trial worked. “At the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food. So the overseer continued to withhold their choice food and the wine they were to drink, and kept giving them vegetables” (Dan. 1:15).
An aspect of this passage often overlooked is that at the time Daniel overcame this challenge, he was a young teen-ager. Most commentators agree that he was between 14 and 18 years old. For such a young man, Daniel mustered extremely mature resolve.
Young Daniel’s steadfastness proves extraordinary for a believer of any age when we take into account the extenuating circumstances which Daniel could have seized upon and used to rationalize eating the unclean food. First, Nebuchadnezzar had appointed the food for them, not merely offered it as a suggestion. Severe punishment existed for failing to eat it, as evidenced by the commander’s fear in 1:10 and the furnace of blazing fire which awaited those who refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image in chapter 3. Daniel must have feared punishment for resisting the king’s command, but remained firm in allegiance to his heavenly Lord.
Second, the king’s choice food was succulent, while other captives’ food was probably unappetizing at best. Daniel could have easily felt thankful for his lot and refused to jeopardize his good fortune, especially when he compared it to the lots of the captives who were toiling in the fields and choking down gruel. The only alternative food that Daniel could eat and be sure was clean was bland vegetables and plain water, hardly a comparison to the mouth-watering fare offered to him. Daniel did not let his good position or his appetite get in the way of his faith; he gave up the appetizing meals for meals acceptable to God.
Third, it appeared that God had turned away from Daniel, allowing him to be wrenched from his family and carried into foreign exile. Daniel must have been strongly tempted to slip into depression, accuse God of abandoning him to misfortune, and therefore to ignore God’s ordinances. In-stead, Daniel clung to his faith and realized that though his predicament was not one he expected or thought he deserved, God had not abandoned his faithful remnant and still demanded obedience to him. The prophet Ezekiel said that a man like Daniel can deliver himself by his righteousness even while severe judgments are being passed onto every-one else (Ezek. 14:12). Furthermore, Ezekiel said that the conduct and actions of the righteous are comforting to other faithful ones who observe them (14:23). Daniel realized both that God would remain his loving Lord as long as he remained faithful and obedient, and that God could use him even in this unlikely situation. The remainder of Daniel’s life in the Babylonian court interpreting the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, being promoted, being saved from the lions’ den, and so on bears out God’s care and provision for his faithful servant Daniel.
Fourth, the majority of Judean youths in Nebuchadnezzar’s court had given in and accepted the unclean food (v. 15). Daniel had to resist the pressure to follow the crowd, and stand firm in his personal convictions.
Finally, and possibly most challenging to overcome, the authority figures that had been present throughout Daniel’s life were suddenly absent. Daniel’s parents were completely out of the picture, unable to communicate with him. So were the other role models, the older men, the relatives, and the teachers. Daniel and the other boys found themselves completely on their own, forced to determine their actions for themselves without parental guidance or support. Babylonian exile was a perfect opportunity for Daniel to forget his past and do whatever he pleased since mom and dad would have never found out. Daniel, however, knew that even if his parents were absent God was ever-present. He remembered divine guidance and remained a faithful teen.
Daniel’s faithful obedience out of proportion to his youth demands application to the world today. Parents and role models must consider whether or not they should expect this kind of maturity and resolve from the faith of Christian teenagers. If Daniel had given in to the challenges that he faced, many twentieth-century readers would find it easy to excuse him for his youth. Often, adult Christians excuse teenagers as a group by virtue of their age from the moral responsibility they have to overcome the challenges they face in the world today. Daniel’s example suggests that teens are not too young to handle crucial moral pressures.
Without a doubt, today’s teens are faced with situations demanding morally mature decision-making. Nebuchadnezzar and his efforts to entice the youths of Judah strike one as eerily symbolic of the situation in twentieth-century America. Though the text of Daniel chapter one does not go into detailed specifics about Nebuchadnezzar’s means and reasons, one can assume the purpose of his tactics. He tried to discredit the boys’ Jewish upbringing and conform them to Chaldean ways. He offered them tantalizing food and preferential treatment to entice them to give up their allegiance to their parents and place their allegiance in him. He insidiously attempted to erase the influence of their Israelite lessons and heroes and re-place them with Chaldean religion and ethics, and threatened punishment for those who resisted. Nebuchadnezzar’s generation exile resembles our own. Nebuchadnezzar and his efforts to reprogram these children in the absence of their parents symbolizes the efforts of the popular culture to exile modern children and re-program them.
Modem teens live in a state of forced exile. Society has forced young people to grow up much faster than their places in the home and in the church suggest. This world offers violence as the solution to frustrations. Wealth is aggrandized. Pornography is thrust in their faces, and flesh greets them at every turn of the head. Their schoolmates experiment with sex and drugs. The media hawk acceptance of “alternative lifestyles.” These temptations wash over teens for long stretches of time without the immediate intervention or advice of parents. In some sense, every day teens go out the front door, they have been taken away from their parents and mighty forces conspire to destroy their faith. The home, a place of nurturing and supervision, is a temporary shield, where the usual teen spends very few of his waking hours.
This exile dominates teens’ lives from a very early age and into young adulthood. It begins as early as the middle school years. It intensifies when the kids enter high school and when they or their friends get the keys to a car and new independence. It especially intensifies when they go off to college and are gone for weeks or even months. (Incidentally, the challenges to teens’ faith are as present at a religious institution as anywhere else. Too often religious institutions are expected to produce the faithful attitudes that parents have neglected to instill.)
Parents and role models need to equip teens with the faith that will see them through the moral quandaries they will face without immediate direction. Teens must learn them-selves to “remember their Creator in the days of their youth” (Eccl. 12:1). We can expect that kind of faithful behavior because Daniel exhibited it under the worst of circumstances.
Also, the text leaves open the possibility that Daniel was just being sure, since it doesn’t come right out and explain exactly why the meat was defiling. Was Daniel sure it was defiling, or was he just making sure? Makes him seem extra faithful he was sure from v. 8. Since the text doesn’t explain why it could have been defiling, it at least introduces the possibility that Daniel was being sure. He could have been going beyond a careless sort of caution, just to be sure. Certainly an extremely mature attitude.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 7 p. 24-25
April 3, 1997