About 10 years ago I heard Steven Sample, who at the time was the president of the University of Southern California, speak at a leadership conference. He's a follower of Christ and an excellent communicator who often speaks at college graduations.
Regardless of the setting, Sample usually gives the same address, and it involves asking the graduates three questions: How do you feel about money? How do you feel about children? How do you feel about God? The last question often catches his audience off guard. As Sample notes in his terrific book, The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership...
Say what? Did he say God? Why would anyone bring up God at a commencement ceremony? I quickly assure the graduates that I'm not trying to sell them a set of religious beliefs. After all, the question is not how should you feel about God, but how do you feel about God in fact? What I have found…is that the vast majority of people—leaders and followers alike—duck this question altogether. Discovering how one feels about God is simply too difficult or frightening for most people to address in any serious or meaningful way…[but] it is probably to…[the leader's]…advantage to discover and confront those feelings sooner rather than later. Doing so will almost certainly help him locate his moral center, and in the process help him become a better leader.
Perhaps you've never wrestled with how you feel about God, but I have. Maybe it's because I teach at a seminary and have been a pastor for almost three decades that I've been told at times that I'm not supposed to wrestle with that. Still, sometimes I do. Depending on my behavior, situation, mood or my health, I've wrestled with fearing God, loving Him, feeling close to Him or even wondering if He really cares about me. That's one of the reasons why this story in Daniel 6 gives me hope, because it grounds me in theological reality. This narrative shows us what our God can do even in the midst of the most daunting circumstances that life brings our way.
Daniel's Faithfulness in the Face of Death
The story begins with a change of regime from the Babylonians to the Persians and Darius, the new king, makes Daniel one of the top administrators of his empire. That's very important because at this point Daniel was at least 75 years old and was still an occupational success. In fact, because of Daniel's competence and ethics, Darius planned to set him over the whole kingdom. Daniel was first at work in the morning, finished the job every day and didn't cut corners. He might have been on the older side of life, but he still had his mojo. In a youth-oriented society such as ours, it's good to see that folks on the far side of 50 still can deliver the goods.
Moreover, Daniel's faith was not just private but public. His relationship with God was so integrated into his life that it influenced his speech, his decision-making and his management style. He didn't push his faith on others, but it's clear that he talked the talk and walked the walk. As with Eric Liddell, the great Scottish runner featured in Chariots of Fire, Daniel's faith was visible wherever he went.
Daniel's circumstances in Babylon never had been easy, but they now became deadly. His enemies didn't like his incorruptibility because they wanted to keep skimming the king's resources. They didn't like his disciplined work ethic because it made them look bad. Knowing that Daniel never would compromise his faith, they manipulated Darius to legislate that anyone who prayed to any god besides the king during the next 30 days would be thrown into the lions' den.
After the law was passed, they found Daniel doing what he had done every day for the past 60 years: opening his windows to Jerusalem, getting down on his knees and praying three times a day to His God (Dan. 6:10). The conspirators eagerly reported Daniel's violation to Darius (v. 11-13) who tried to do everything he could to rescue his servant, but it was all for naught. The law of the Medes and Persians could not be changed, and Daniel was brought to that horrible hole in the ground that opened into the lion's den. Just so we know how serious this situation was, the writer says in v. 17, "A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel's situation might not be changed."
Sometimes We Can Do Everything Right and Life Still Goes Wrong
This story shows us that sometimes despite our best efforts, things go horribly wrong. We can work really hard, yet businesses go bankrupt. We can act ethically and still lose our jobs. We can do our best to be a faithful spouse and good parent, yet end up with tangled or broken relationships. A good man can serve his king in an ethical and competent manner and still get thrown to the lions.
While we're fortunate at this point in our country's history to be free from religious persecution, there are still some lions' dens that we get thrown into. Maybe we're wrestling with something spiritually or morally of great intensity. We feel as if it's a lion that has its claws in us with the potential to tear us apart. Maybe we're sick, and the pain we feel or the treatment we're undergoing feels as if we're in the lion's jaws. Maybe we tried to be financially wise but saw our portfolio go down into the dark den of recession. Maybe, as with Daniel, we took a stand for Christ and found ourselves excluded or mocked, even by our own family members. These are places that test not only what we think about God but how we feel about Him, which is why it's crucial to see from this text what our God can choose to do.
God Can Deliver with a Miracle
The text says Darius was so distraught that he spent the night without food or entertainment. Even the Persian equivalents of Ambien and Tylenol PM couldn't help him sleep. When the sun cracked the horizon, he sprinted to the den and in anguish cried out (v. 20) "Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually been able to rescue you from the lions?" Daniel answered, "May the king live forever! My God sent His angel, and He shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in His sight. I never have done any wrong before you, Your Majesty." Darius was so happy that he gave the order to lift Daniel out of the den. We're told in verse 23 that after Daniel was lifted out, no wound was found on him because he had trusted God.
This was a genuine, A-1 miracle of deliverance. Those lions intentionally had been starved and were extremely hungry, even for the little meat they'd find on the bones of a skinny, old man such as Daniel. In fact, when the king ordered the conspirators thrown into the den along with their families, they all were killed immediately (v. 24). The author wants us to know God always can do the miraculous, and early Christian art often used the story of Daniel in the lions' den as an Old Testament picture of the resurrection of Jesus. That's the power of God. He can deliver His people from bondage in Egypt, from Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace and from the lions' den of the Persians. He can crumble the walls of Jericho, use one smooth stone to fell a blasphemous Philistine giant and raise Lazarus from the dead.
That's not always true for all of God's people in all times and all places. Sometimes He lets them be beaten, whipped and crucified. Foxes' Book of Martyrs is one of the most prominent books in the English language, and it describes the torture and death of hundreds of faithful Christians through the middle of the 16th century. There were probably more Christians martyred in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined. So, while Daniel 6 tells of a great miracle of deliverance, God does not always choose to deliver. Maybe that's why the author emphasizes something else of spiritual importance in this story.
Let's Make Our Home with the All-Powerful Savior
In verse 16 and 20, Darius twice describes Daniel as "continually serving His God." In the original text, it's one word and it's only used here in all of Scripture. It means to "move in and make your home with."
Vernon Grounds, one of the fathers of the Neo-Evangelical Movement died last year at the age of 96. Vernon had a great sense of humor, and years ago he told a group of us that when he was 50, his mother-in-law moved in with him and his wife and lived with them for the next 15 years. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, "I'm sure that living for so long in such close quarters with my mother-in-law accounts for my advanced state of spiritual maturity."
Verse 23 says Daniel trusted his God—even in the most dire of circumstances—and I'm convinced he did so because years before he moved in and made his home with God and learned in time that God was good and always would be his Comforter, his Counselor and his Savior. Although Darius foolishly deified himself, he had no power to save Daniel. Our God shut the mouths of those lions and saved Daniel from certain death, because He's the all-powerful Savior. He never sleeps or slumbers, and He is always working to accomplish what He wants in your life and mine. As the author notes in v. 27, He's the One with the power to deliver regardless of the circumstances, and that's why we need to make our home with Him.
Bishop Ken Ulmer is the pastor of Faithful Central Bible Church in Southern California. He tells the story of two men, one an international chess champion, walking through a museum when they stumble on a picture titled Checkmate. One character in the painting was a man; the other looked to be the devil. The chess champion looked at the painting and then told his friend to go on ahead; something about the painting bothered him, and he had to study it a bit more. A little later, his friend returned and the chess master said, "We need to contact the artist who painted this piece. He either needs to change the painting or change the title." When his friend asked why, he replied, "The title of this picture is Checkmate, but as you look closely at the painting it becomes clear the king still has one more move."
The Hebrews were oppressed by Pharaoh, but their King still had one more move. David looked to be an insect to Goliath, but David's King still had one more move. It looked as if it was all over for Daniel when he was thrown in the lions' den, but his King still had one more move. Jesus was tortured, crucified, dead and buried. His enemies said, "That's all folks. Show's over. Time to go home. Checkmate." They were wrong because the King still had one more move.
Jesus is our King, our Lord and Our God and He always has one more move! So make your home with Him, because He's the All-Powerful Savior. Regardless of your circumstances, irrespective of your situation, our King always has one more move, and that's something—and Someone—we can feel great about.