Daniel – Introduction

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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The People’s Bible – Daniel by John C. Jeske, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1985.

Introduction to Daniel

Historical background
The book of Daniel was written on the historical background of the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people. To appreciate what this fascinating book has to say, we will need to remember that centuries earlier God had raised up the descendants of Abraham to become the united and powerful kingdom of Israel. Sad to say, Israel’s glory years did not last long. Under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon this united kingdom lasted for a little more than a century.

A split in the kingdom of Israel occurred in 931 B.C., when the ten northern tribes broke away and formed a kingdom of their own. This northern kingdom, also known as Israel, lasted about two hundred years. During those two centuries, Israel was ruled by 19 kings (20, if you include one pretender to the throne), and all of them were wicked in the sight of God. In his judgment upon this unbelieving and rebellious people, God let the Assyrians invade the homeland of the northern tribes, defeat them on the field of battle, and lead them off into the Assyrian captivity, from which they never returned.

Now all that was left of God’s ancient people were the two tribes to the south, with their capital at Jerusalem. This remnant, known as the kingdom of Judah, continued for about 350 years after the split in the kingdom (from 931 B.C. to 586 B.C.). Like her sister nation to the north, Judah had 19 kings (again there was a 20th, a royal pretender), of whom God considered eight to be good kings. Although the people of Judah had the temple, the earthly dwelling place of God, in their midst, with its beautiful and meaningful worship services designed by God himself, they failed to appreciate their blessings. They were indifferent to the Word and will of Jehovah, their Savior-God. They ignored and sometimes even persecuted the prophets God sent to speak to them. More and more, they began to resemble the heathen nations around them.

True to his word, God sent a fearful judgment on the nation of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem. Over a 20-year period, beginning in 605 B.C., the armies of Babylon invaded Judah three times, smashing Judah’s armies, plundering and destroying their cities, and leading tens of thousands of Jews, including Daniel, into exile in Babylon. In 586 B.C, the city of Jerusalem, with its beautiful temple of Solomon, was destroyed (2nd Kings chapter 24 verse 1 through chapter 25 verse 30; 2nd Chronicles chapter 36; Daniel chapter 1 verses 1-2). The Babylonians remained the leading world power for only about three-quarters of a century. They were toppled by the Medo-Persian Empire under King Cyrus in 536 B.C.

Significance of the exile for the Jews
The destruction of Jerusalem and the violent uprooting and transplanting of the Jews into exile was a bitter experience for God’s ancient people. Its immediate result was to put an end to the independence of the Jewish nation. But the exile involved still more. In the Old Testament the people of God actually formed an earthly kingdom, which took its place alongside the other nations of the ancient world. This nation of Israel enjoyed the special guidance and protection of God. We call this a theocracy (“government by God”). Ancient Israel was God’s chosen nation. He established his earthly dwelling place on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He revealed his sacred secrets directly to no other ancient nation, but only to Israel. As Psalm 147 verse 19-20 states:
He has revealed his word to Jacob,
his laws and decrees to Israel.
He has done this for no other nation;
they do not know his laws.

Israel’s kings were God’s servants, whose prime responsibility was to keep the nation loyal to Jehovah. This theocracy came to an end when the Jewish nation was led into exile. It was never restored. Even though after 70 years in exile the Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem, the theocracy was not reestablished. Only a very small group of exiles returned, and the government they established was little more than a Persian puppet. Jerusalem’s walls and its temple were rebuilt by the returning exiles, but the old order of things was gone forever.

In spite of suffering the judgment of God in exile, however, Israel remained the nation through which God chose to carry out his good intentions toward humanity. A new order of things would come with the Deliverer that God had promised to send from the royal line of David. In him God’s rule would reach its high point. Through the work of the promised Messiah, God would gather his special people, his sons and daughters—no longer from just one nation, but from all nations on earth.

The lot of the exiles in Babylon
With the defeat of Judah’s armies and the collapse of her government, tens of thousands of Jewish citizens were forced into exile. A century and a half earlier, the Assyrians had led the Northern Kingdom of Israel into exile, and that conquered nation had never recovered; it had simply ceased to exist. Would the same thing happen to the much smaller Southern Kingdom?

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God had foretold that the nation of Judah would not be extinguished in Babylon, but that after 70 years the Jews would be permitted to return from exile to their homeland (Jeremiah chapter 25 verse 11; chapter 29 verse 10). But even if they believed this promise of God, most of the deportees realized that they would not live long enough to see their homeland again.

What was life like for the exiles in Babylon? One would naturally expect that being forced to live as a captive in a foreign land a thousand miles away from home would be hard, and it was. It would not be correct, however, to imagine that living in Babylon was like living in a slave labor camp. The picture we get is that life in exile was not totally unpleasant for the Jewish exiles.

The prophet Ezekiel speaks about a settlement of Jewish exiles near the Kebar River, an important irrigation canal. It seems possible that farming was the livelihood of many of the exiles. They had their own homes, enjoyed freedom of movement, and carried on correspondence with people in their homeland. The Babylonians granted their captives a considerable measure of liberty. They were permitted to form colonies and to keep their religious institutions of priest and prophet. Before Jerusalem fell to the armies of Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah had urged the citizens to prepare for an exile of 70 years. He told them, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. . . . Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah chapter 29 verses 5-7). Many of the Jews actually grew so prosperous during the exile that years later when they had the opportunity to return to Jerusalem, they chose to stay in Babylon.

In spite of these factors, living in exile must have been especially difficult for the believing Jews. The man who wrote Psalm 137 put into words the heartache that the Jewish believers felt, as well as their longing for God’s house in Jerusalem, now lying in ruins:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land? (verses 1-4)

Being uprooted violently from the land of their birth was a shock, although one can argue that it ought not to have been a complete surprise. Throughout the history of Israel, God’s spokesmen, as early as Moses, had warned the Jews that if they consistently ignored Jehovah and his good will, he would uproot them and scatter them among the nations (Deuteronomy chapter 28 verses 36,37,63-68). But now, when Judah’s finest young men and women were deported, when the Jews saw their splendid temple looted and destroyed, when they saw their capital go up in flames, they were shocked and shaken.

What hurt all the more was that God’s gracious promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been tied up with the nation of Judah. And now that chosen nation was the victim of a disaster from which no nation had ever recovered. If the nation of Judah went under, would God’s promises be canceled?

In the face of this, even the believing Jews needed God’s help in the Babylonian exile. They needed help in understanding that for the faithful, this act of God’s judgment was not a condemning judgment but a purifying one. The believing Israelites needed God’s help to make sense out of the apparent contradiction that a holy God would seemingly allow a wicked nation to have its way in the world. The believing exiles needed to have God speak to them in Babylon. And God did speak.

The book of Daniel is more than Jewish national literature. It is not a series of folk legends passed down from generation to generation and finally put into writing. The book of Daniel claims to be divine revelation. Revelation is that miracle by which God pulls back the veil and shows human beings truths that they could not have known otherwise. The writer of the book of Daniel states repeatedly, “The mystery was revealed . . . in a vision. . . . The revealer of mysteries showed . . . what is going to happen” (chapter 2 verses 19 and 29). The writer of the book claims that by means of dreams and visions God showed what would happen in the future (chapter 7 verse 1; chapter 8 verse 1; chapter 10 verse 1) and that God’s messenger then interpreted the dream or the vision (chapter 8 verse 16) to give the writer “insight and understanding” (chapter 9 verse 22).

When God through the book of Daniel lifted the veil and showed the exiles what the future held, the picture they saw was not entirely pleasant. Although the exiles would be permitted to return home from their captivity, the nation of Israel would never again be powerful or prominent. Heathen world powers would dominate the international scene. About 536 B.C. Babylon would be overthrown by the Medo-Persian Empire, whose power would be unchecked for two centuries, until Greece’s famous Alexander the Great became the world conqueror. God revealed, furthermore, that Alexander’s sudden death would unleash a struggle for power among his successors, and that this struggle would mean bloodshed and persecution for the descendants of the Jews. By comparison with the heathen world powers, the people of God indeed seemed insignificant and powerless.

But throughout the book of Daniel, God also revealed the truth that all earthly kingdoms would, one after the other, go down to defeat and disgrace. The God of Israel is superior to the gods of the heathen. His rule, and only his, is lasting. And his people will share in his final victory over all enemies. World powers may have their day, but God will have the last word.

The message of the book of Daniel was a comforting message for the people of God to hear. It still is. At the time of the exile, it was a sobering warning for God’s enemies to hear. It still is.

Unlike other prophets (see Isaiah chapter 1 verse 1; Jeremiah chapter 1 verse 1), the book of Daniel contains no heading or clear statement calling Daniel its author. Yet the book does point to Daniel as the author. We have here a situation something like that of the first five books of the Old Testament, in which Moses often writes of himself in the third person, as does Daniel here.

At times Daniel refers to himself in the first person: “I, Daniel, had a vision” (chapter 8 verse 1); “I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures . . . that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years” (chapter 9 verse 2). If Daniel is named as the one who received the divine revelation recorded here, then it follows that he is the author.

The question “Who wrote the book?” is settled finally for us by Christ himself. Quoting from the book of Daniel, Jesus referred to the words as being “spoken . . . through the prophet Daniel” (Matthew chapter 24 verse 15). Both the Jewish and the Christian churches have for centuries agreed that Daniel wrote this book during the sixth century B.C.

For a number of reasons, many Bible scholars prefer to think that the book of Daniel was not written by Daniel, and not in the sixth century B.C., but by an unknown author, some pious Jew, in the second century B.C. At the heart of the debate about the date of the book is the matter of predictive prophecy, since Daniel frequently refers to events in the distant future. Many scholars reason as follows: It is impossible for any human being to predict events that lie in the future; therefore, a book that contains such predictions must have been written after the events which it predicts. But if we believe that the God who controls the future chose to reveal to Daniel events that were still in the future, then there is no valid reason for contesting the book’s claim to be the record of the life and visions of Daniel himself.

Daniel the man
More is known about the writer of the book of Daniel than about any other Old Testament prophet. He was one of the group of bright young men who were the first to be deported to Babylon (chapter 1 verses 1-6), to be trained for important positions in government. These young men came from the king’s family and from the most distinguished families of Israel.

Daniel is described in the Scripture as a man of great faith, a son who was steadfastly loyal to his heavenly Father. Ezekiel, a contemporary of Daniel, mentions Daniel along with Noah and Job as an example of a God-fearing man (Ezekiel chapter 14 verses 13, 14, 19, 20). Although he was surrounded by the corruption of the Babylonian royal court, Daniel remained faithful to the God of his fathers. He maintained the honor of the true God in heathen Babylon, with the result that even heathen kings sang the praises of Israel’s God (chapter 2 verse 47; chapter 4 verses 34-35; chapter 6 verses 25-27). Daniel was a gifted young man to begin with, but in addition God endowed him with the special ability to interpret dreams, as well as with the gift of supernatural prophecy.

Daniel the civil servant
God accomplished great things for his people through Daniel. He permitted Daniel to be taken to Babylon much earlier than the main groups of captives. Daniel had been in exile eight years when the Babylonians deported ten thousand soldiers and craftsmen (2nd Kings chapter 24 verses 12-14), and 19 years by the time of the main captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. This allowed Daniel the opportunity to be promoted to a position in the government from which he could work for the welfare of his people. The Jews who were deported to Babylon naturally expected their lot to be hard. Apparently, this was not the case for most of the exiles, as has been mentioned previously. Daniel may very well have been responsible for this. Unlike the prophet Ezekiel, Daniel lived at the royal court.

After the years of captivity were over, Daniel may have had much to do with helping the captives return to their home without delay. In spite of the fact that a complete change of government had taken place and he himself was an old man, Daniel still held a position of influence. He may even have been used by God to persuade Persian King Cyrus to issue the decree authorizing the Jews to return to their homeland.

In the course of the events described in the first six chapters of the book, we see a change in Daniel from a very young man, very likely in his teens, to a very old one, perhaps in his 80s.

The 12 chapters of the book of Daniel are written in two languages. The section from chapter 2 verse 4 through chapter 7 is written in Aramaic. The rest is Hebrew.

Hebrew was, of course, the language of the Jews, and those portions of Daniel’s book intended especially for the Jews were given to them in their language. Aramaic, a member of the Semitic family of languages and thus closely related to Hebrew, was the official language of much of the Near East at the time of Daniel. It was the language of diplomacy and of commerce in the ancient world, just as English is the “universal” language today. Those portions of Daniel’s prophecy that speak of God’s judgment on the world powers were written in Aramaic, the language which the nations of the world could understand.

The book of Daniel is a fascinating portion of God’s Word, written to teach us. Chapters 1 to 6 make up the historical section of the book. They describe historical events in Babylon over a period of about 70 years.

Chapters 7 to 12 make up the prophetic section. They record a series of dreams God gave to Daniel, visions of future events.

The End