Pastoral Perspectives

Hope in the Midst of a Hostile World

We are starting a new sermon series on the book of Daniel. This is a continuation of where we left off last year when we preached on the Kings. Recall that after Solomon’s reign, his kingdom was split into two, the northern kingdom being Israel and the southern kingdom, Judah. Sadly, all the kings of Israel practiced idolatry. God used the Assyrians to bring judgment upon Israel when the former conquered the latter in 722 BC.

As for the southern kingdom, Judah, she did not learn from the mistakes of Israel. Many of her kings also served idols except for a few good ones. However, the last 4 kings did evil in the eyes of the Lord and so God eventually used the Babylonians (who became the next superpower after the Assyrians) to bring judgment upon Judah in 586 BC. The temple of God in Jerusalem was destroyed and the walls surrounding Jerusalem were also torn down. The Babylonians deported the abled men of Judah to Babylon so that they could serve in the king’s palace while only the poorest of the poor were left behind.

The book of Daniel has to do with the exiles in Babylon of whom Daniel himself was one of them. This book fascinated readers through the ages. In particular, the stories of Daniel and his friends are definitely fixtures in the Sunday school curriculum which children love to hear; the stories have also inspired great works of art and music.

The first half of the book (chapters 1-6) contains stories about the miraculous experiences of Daniel and his friends as they serve in the courts of foreign kings. Through them, foreign royalty recognises who Yahweh is and that His control extends beyond the borders of the Jewish community. The second half (chapters 7-12) contains a number of strange visions reportedly received by Daniel. These visions trace the rise and fall of the ancient Near Eastern empires (Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks). The overall purpose of the miraculous stories in the first half and the bizarre visions in the second half points to a God who is ultimately victorious over the powers and authorities of this world and to the people of God who would eventually triumph because they remain faithful to Him and to His teachings.

The book of Daniel is considered as apocalyptic literature with prophetic and wisdom influences. “Apocalypse” is a Greek word meaning “revelation”, “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling” (Goswiller). Apocalyptic literature contains dreams and visions with their interpretations and predictions about the future. God who holds time in his hands and sees the end from the beginning is the one who reveals; he gives wisdom to his servant Daniel through whom the revelation is made known. This is similar to the last book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation, where the Apostle John is made privy to what is going to happen concerning the end times.    

Apocalyptic literature has the purpose of strengthening those who are being oppressed. Daniel was written while Jews were suffering in exile. Revelation was written for persecuted Christians. Salvation is in the distant future. God has not forgotten His people. In fact, God is in control and He is working out His good purposes in the midst of the chaos.  Apocalyptic literature is designed to comfort and encourage the faithful in distressful times. It will thus bring much comfort to present day Christians who are suffering for their faith under evil regimes.

The book’s chief theological contribution has to be the sovereignty of God and how that sovereignty may be manifested on earth through God’s faithful servants. Yahweh is addressed as “the God of gods” (2:47; 11:36), “the Lord of kings” (2:47) and “the Most High God” (14 times). He is the one who gives power and glory “to whom he will” (4:17, 25, 32; 5:21). He is the one who raises up rulers and brings them down. On the one hand, divine sovereignty means that all human powers, even the oppressive and wicked ones, derive their power ultimately from God; He always has the final say. On the other hand, divine sovereignty also means that God may give power to the powerless, even to the lowliest of men (4:17). Indeed through the lowly and seemingly powerless, God’s reign may be manifest on earth.

God sets up an eternal kingdom “that shall never be destroyed” (2:44). That kingdom, the 5th one in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2, is symbolised by the “stone cut from the mountain by no human hand” (2:45); this stone subsequently “became a great mountain that filled the whole earth” (2:35). To Daniel and the exiles, it is comforting for them to know that even if they are powerless and lowly, they are under the abiding reign of God. To us who are living in the year of the Lord, we think of the kingdom of God Christ has ushered in when he came the first time, a kingdom that is eternal and will never be destroyed, and a kingdom that will fill the whole earth when he returns to consummate it.

Being sovereign, God is certainly transcendent in the book of Daniel. He is repeatedly called “the King of heaven” (4:37), “the Lord of heaven” (5:23), “the God of heaven” (2:18, 19, 37, 44), “God in heaven” (2:28) or simply, “Heaven” (4:26). Yet that transcendence does not imply a God too aloof to be concerned with human affairs. He intervenes on behalf of mortals on earth by listening to their cry for mercy and unravelling divine mysteries for them (2:17-23). He also responds by delivering his servants from harm although he cannot be manipulated by their faith in him. Daniel’s three friends illustrate this well: “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (3:17-18).  

We therefore worship God not because we want to get something out of Him; God is wholly free to deliver or not to deliver. George M. Schwab in his book Hope in the midst of a hostile world says: “In that reliable divine involvement in life’s trials and tribulations, people of faith can be assured that the reign of God, even if it is not fully realised in one’s own time and place – even if it is not evident by earthly expectations of power – will never pass away and will never be destroyed. On the contrary, God’s reign will continue to grow until it fills all the earth. No promise of ease in life is made, no assurance of freedom from trials and tribulations, no removal of the threat of terror and death – only a hope held out of vindication even after death, a resurrection hope (12:1-4).”

God is in control. The faithful will triumph in the end. The one word that cries out from the book of Daniel is ‘Hope!’