If you read through the Bible book of Daniel (I would recommend it… and don’t stop at Daniel 7, either!) then right from the get-go Daniel leaps off the pages as a definite ‘good guy’ (along with his godly BFFs). In the first chapter alone, he successfully handles a delicate ethical problem, contextualises his faith, witnesses for the Gospel (as he had it) in a clear and effective way… and even manages to earn a pretty impressive promotion while he’s at it.
Daniel is definitely one of the good guys in the Bible; a good guy, through and through.
The trouble is, a nice squeaky clean person like that always makes me uneasy and suspicious. Aside from my natural suspicion, Romans 3:10-12 keeps kicking my frontal lobe in objection: no one is that good. Additionally, I have spent some time over the last few months in the Bible book of Jeremiah. As a result I’m pretty convinced that while Daniel had clearly got his act together by the time he was in exile, his life in Israel might not have been so squeaky clean.
Daniel the (ig)noble
In Jeremiah 22, the prophet is sent to the palace of the king and is told to proclaim a message there. This message of ‘change your ways, or else….’ was primarily for the king but also included all the nobles and officials of the king’s court who would have been there… and there is a good chance that this would have included Daniel (see Daniel 1:3).
Now, you could argue that Daniel was a good apple amongst a bad orchard. He may well have been. We cannot say for certain because Daniel is only mentioned by name when he comes onto the biblical stage in Daniel chapter 1.
However, I think that the idea of a ‘diamond in the rough’ Daniel amongst the bad nobles of Israel doesn’t quite hold up when you consider the wider scope of what the Bible says about Israel’s leadership and nobility prior to the exile. For example, the message of judgment upon the leadership of God’s people is a message that runs loud and clear throughout the first half of Jeremiah, and it is reasonable to conclude that Daniel was amongst these nobles who had provoked God act by handing them over to the Babylonians in destruction and exile. Was he in a minority of a few righteous people? Probably not, especially when you think of other instances of God’s severe judgment on a collective of people being held off for even just a few righteous people (Genesis 18).
For what it is worth, my opinion is that Daniel was not such a great example of godly nobility when back in Israel and, as such, was just as deserving of judgment as the rest of Israel’s leadership. Yet, even in his ignoble state back in Israel, Daniel was marked out by God’s grace for a surprising blessing.
Off go the ‘good’ guys
As you read on in Jeremiah, you come to chapter 24. It is not an understatement to say that I found this chapter to be one of the most shocking and surprising chapters in the Old Testament.
Using a basket of good and bad figs as an visual aid, Jeremiah is told what the LORD was planning to o with those carried off into exile and those who ‘survived’.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
This is so surprising! Think about it… the LORD announced a few chapters beforehand that exile was certain because of the LORD’s judgment and punishment of his people’s sin, especially for the sin of their leaders. The exiles would have suffered greatly, lost everything, been humiliated and carried off to a land not their own as captives.
Yet, according to the LORD, this was his plan for them, to keep them safe!
The LORD intends to watch over them and bring them back with not only a deeper heart and love for God than when they went away but renewed and more intimate relationship with the LORD God as their God.
Those that were led off into captivity were the ‘good guys’. Or, more precisely, those that were led off into captivity were going to be made the good guys by the LORD himself.
Read v4-7 again, and pay close attention to the words and phrases: ‘I regard as good’, ‘my eyes will watch over them’, ‘I will build up/plant them/give them a heart to know me’. The LORD was going to be the one to make them good and bring them back to himself as people who know him and seek him ‘with all their heart’.
As I have said, I reckon that before being led off into captivity it is highly unlikely that Daniel was a good guy amongst a rotten nobility. At best, he was an impotent noble who did not or could not stand up for what was right in the face of his superiors and peers. My view is that he joined in with sin, pride and idolatry like the rest of them (and that is certainly what Daniel seems to suggest in Daniel 9).
So how did Daniel go from being a bad noble to being a good guy and a great example of contextualised faithfulness and exemplary godliness?
Jeremiah 24:4-7 makes it clear that the change in the people in exile was going to come entirely from the LORD himself. Daniel and the other exiles were taken off into exile as broken sinners, but the LORD would bring them back as his refined and renewed people… and this all by his amazing grace and mercy.
A key instrument in this was the Word of the LORD. Daniel himself notes that he had a copy of Jeremiah’s writing (Daniel 9:2) which he sought to understand and apply. Perhaps Daniel went into exile with these words of Jeremiah on his mind and in his heart, which is why he and his friends ended up humbling themselves and devoting themselves to maintain a faithful walk with the LORD, even in exile.
By merit of his grace alone, the LORD brings Daniels and the other exiles closer to him. He uses the affliction of exile to refine them and the Words of Scriptures to reveal his purposes and speak hope into their circumstances.
That sort of thing sounds awfully familiar…