Don’t get too comfortable. I wonder whether that might be a main theme of Daniel 1. This is a book about the Israelites living in exile. God put them in exile. And Daniel and his friends had to figure out how to live in exile.
King Nebuchadnezzar had a plan for the best and brightest among the people whom the he conquered. He wanted to assimilate them into the Babylonian culture. He wanted to give them high positions and an education. He wanted to give them good food and drink. He wanted make them indebted to him. He wanted to make them, firmly, Babylonians first.
I suppose he wanted these best and brightest from the conquered Jews to become influencers among their people – to show them how they, too, could live as Babylonians and how they, too, could cut ties with the old traditions. Nebuchadnezzar was a smart man.
And so Daniel and his friends had to figure out how to live in exile. The first test involved food and wine. I think Daniel’s reluctance might have had something to do with the dietary laws that all Jews were trained to follow from birth. There were some foods, simply, they had been commanded not to eat.
And Daniel’s reluctance also likely had something to do with Nebuchadnezzar’s main goal of assimilating these Jews into Babylonian culture. Something happens to a people when they regularly eat together. Families bond over food. And the founder of the feast carries authority. The subtle message that would come across at each of those meals would have been, “Nebuchadnezzar is king. Do as he says. Thank him. Appreciate him. Learn his ways.” Surely and slowly, meal after meal, the exiled people would become Babylonians.
And Daniel declined. I suppose he saw through Nebuchadnezzar’s strategy. And he asked for vegetables and water. Some of the others must have said, “Just eat the food, Daniel. Drink the wine. This isn’t that hard.” From the outside looking in, Daniel’s reluctance must have seemed silly. But Daniel knew: More was at stake than anyone else could see.
And so he declined.
I think about our own life in exile. Every Christian is living in exile, whether we want to admit it or not. “But our citizenship,” the apostle Paul wrote, “is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior …” (Philippians 3:20). The life we live here is one of exile. Someone else rules the roost. A King David does not sit on the throne. The powers-that-be aren’t Christlike powers.
And those powers push us to assimilate. We’re asked to eat at the king’s table – because the king’s table is where the best food and wine are. Life is easiest at the king’s table. And we have to decide how to respond. Slowly and surely, meal after meal at the king’s table, we will conform. Slowly and surely, we will leave behind our traditions of faith.
And when we resist, it seems to the world, “What’s the big deal? Just do it. It’s not that hard.” But more is at stake than the situation seems to indicate.
It used to bug me that we couldn’t have worship services on Sunday mornings in the church sanctuary. Actually, the fact that no gathering took place there each Sunday – that the lights remained off and no one came – really gnawed at my conscience. I almost couldn’t bear it.
I’m over it now. All it took was two months.
And there were many in the world who looked at those pastors and Christians who were reluctant to comply with the government’s rules – and there were some Christians, too – who said, “What’s the big deal? Just cancel your services. It’s not that hard. It’s best for your church and for you and for society.” And those pastors and Christians were shamed for their reluctance.
Give it a couple of months. A conscience can soften in that short of a time. And pretty soon everybody is sitting at the king’s table eating his food and drinking his wine. We’re in exile learning how to be Babylonians – assimilating.
We may be in exile, as the apostle Paul said, but we still are Christians. Paul would say that, too (Philippians 3:17-19). We still have a Christian DNA that includes certain specific practices – gathering, prayer, singing, breaking bread, sharing our possessions, and hearing the Word. The powers-that-be in our exile want to pull us away from those practices. “What’s the big deal if you don’t gather?” “What’s the big deal if you don’t hear God’s Word?” “What’s the big deal if you don’t pray?”
All it takes is a couple of months, and the press of our conscience can soften.
The call ultimately is to repentance. It’s the continual call of Christ to the people of God (Matthew 4:17). Disciples are the ones who answer that call. They stand and listen and take a hard look at their lives to see how they’ve responded to the exile pressure. They’re like those faithful ones in Israel, listening to Malachi preach (Malachi 3:16).
And they had a meeting.