One of the most fascinating books in the Old Testament canon is Daniel. It’s a delight to read, study, and preach for many reasons. It tells the inspiring story of how Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) navigated the problems and pressures of serving God and others in the pagan bureaucracies of ancient Babylon and Persia. In addition, the book is composed of both narrative and apocalyptic genres, which gives it a distinctive flavor among various prophetic texts. Moreover, Daniel was written mostly in Hebrew but also with portions in Aramaic, creating something of a challenge for translation.
Of greatest importance is its provocative and challenging message which makes it immensely relevant to followers of Christ everywhere in the globalized world of the early 21st century. From beginning to end, Daniel speaks of the sovereign God’s gracious oversight of the prophet and his three friends who lived faithfully for him as exiles in foreign societies. This providential oversight, along with the mysterious, futuristic visions given to Daniel in the latter half of the book, demonstrate the Lord’s ever-faithful love for his people regardless of their circumstances.
Many authors and commentators over the past century have argued that Daniel was composed during the persecution of the Jews by the notorious Greek king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 175 – 164 BC). The most recent scholarship, however, makes the persuasive case that it was written no later than 525 BC following the return of the exiles to Judea following the decree of the Persian king, Cyrus. Thus, Daniel provides an accurate historical account of God’s prophesied judgment on his people, their seventy year exile to Babylon, and how some of them made a profound spiritual impact on those around them during that time (Jer. 25:10-11; Dan. 1:1-2; Daniel 3, 4, and 6).
Nebuchadnezzar, the enormously gifted king of the Babylonians, was the primary agent of this exile and he is a main character throughout the first four chapters of the book. It was during his reign (612 - 562 BC) that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah entered government service as some of the most outstanding young leaders within a culturally diverse environment (Dan. 1, c. 600 BC). Yet their commitment to God took precedence over all else, sometimes casting them into life-threatening situations which drives the narrative forward (Dan. 2 and 3). And it was Daniel’s exemplary work as the king’s servant that ultimately propelled him to the top of the Babylonian hierarchy, allowing him to be God’s agent of truth and grace to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4).
The narrative takes an abrupt turn in chapter five where we encounter the last of the Babylonian kings, the corrupt and blasphemous Belshazzar. This episode occurs almost thirty years after the death of the great Nebuchadnezzar and reveals the degeneration of Babylonian leadership and the demise of its empire. Belshazzar is judged by God, replaced by the Persians, and Daniel enters a new, although certainly not easy, era of his later life (Dan. 6).
Chapters 7-12 form the apocalyptic section of the book which is composed of various visions about the fallen nature of human empires (Dan. 7, 8, 10-11), God’s control over every element—natural and supernatural—in human history and his future plan of redemption and resurrection for those who love him (Dan. 9, 12).
Through the various ups and downs of Daniel’s long life and service in both the Babylonian and Persian bureaucracies, God is seen to be always present and utterly sovereign. While the Lord allows people to go their own sinful ways, often to their demise, he continually reveals himself thru Daniel to be the one, true God over human history who is all-powerful, gracious, and yet not to be trifled with (Dan. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 12). Those who are his faithful servants often suffer but he never leaves or forsakes them and will, at the end of history, resurrect them to life eternal in paradise (Dan. 3, 6, 8 and 12).
The ethos of contemporary churchworld in North America as well as the makeup of Daniel present some interesting challenges for preaching the book. Some congregations may be up for a twenty-five week series that explicates all the narratives and prophecies in detail but my intuition and experience suggest this is probably too much for most churches. Instead I would propose doing one of the following:
An eleven week series that covers the overall content and flow of the book by focusing on all the narratives and most of the apocalyptic sections.
Weeks 1 – 6 would address the narratives in chapters 1 - 6.
Weeks 7 – 11 would address the apocalyptic chapters of 7, 8, 9, 10-11 and 12.
A twelve week series, with two sermons on each narrative, that focus on the theological themes and practical applications derived from the text.
Weeks 1 and 2 would address Chapter 1 – The key themes would be honoring God thru our decision making and the necessity of practicing spiritual disciplines in our efforts to honor God.
Weeks 3 and 4 would address Chapter 2 – The key themes would be relying on the sovereign God in personal crisis and the certain expansion of God’s kingdom in human history.
Weeks 5 and 6 would address Chapter 3 – The key themes would be our total devotion to God and God’s faithfulness in the fires of life.
Weeks 7 and 8 would address Chapter 4 – The key themes would be God’s opposition to the proud and grace to the humble and some key steps in developing humility.
Weeks 9 and 10 would address Chapter 5 – The key themes would be God’s judgment on the unrepentant arrogant and the blinding nature of sin in a self-focused life.
Weeks 11 and 12 would address Chapter 6 – The key themes would be the value of a lifetime of consistent faithfulness and how God glorifies himself thru the faithful witness of his servants.
A short series of five weeks that addresses the history and theological emphases of the apocalyptic sections.
Week 1, on Chapter 7, would focus on the cosmic contest of good versus evil and stress the coming of the Messiah who destroys the latter and establishes his kingdom of righteousness (Dan. 7:23-27, Matt. 24:15-31)
Week 2, on Chapter 8, would focus on the power of sin to corrupt what is noble, which always leads to idolatry, destruction, and death.
Week 3, on Chapter 9, would focus on God’s great forgiveness and his plan of redemption as seen in the coming of the Messiah who gives his life as a sacrificial ransom for many.
Week 4, on Chapters 10-11, would focus on God’s sovereign control over larger unseen spiritual forces as well as earthly kings and rulers who seek to destroy God’s people and upend his redemptive plans.
Week 5, on Chapter 12, would focus on the hope of God’s gracious provision of ever-lasting life to his faithful servants by means of their resurrection from the dead.
Suggested Big Ideas for Preaching
Text: Daniel 1
Exegetical Idea: Daniel and his three friends are enculturated into Babylonian society but choose not to defile themselves with Nebuchadnezzar’s food and wine. Consequently, God blesses them and begins to use them at the highest level of that culture.
Big Idea: God calls us to engage the culture without being defiled by the culture so we can impact the culture for Christ.
Text: Daniel 2
Exegetical Idea: Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great statute destroyed by a huge rock creates a deadly situation at court but, thru Daniel, God graciously resolves the crisis by revealing that His kingdom will usurp all others made by human effort.
Big Idea: God reveals himself to be sovereign over both our personal crises and the flow of history as he establishes his kingdom.
Text: Daniel 3
Exegetical Idea: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and, consequently, are thrown into the fiery furnace where they are miraculously rescued by the pre-incarnate Son of God.
Big Idea: Total devotion to Christ might get you thrown into the furnace but he will meet you there for your good and his glory.
Text: Daniel 4
Exegetical Idea: Nebuchadnezzar refuses Daniel’s prophetic advice to repent of his pride and, consequently, is humbled with the disease of lycanthropy but ultimately recognizes God as sovereign and is restored to his throne.
Big Idea: The Sovereign God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Text: Daniel 5
Exegetical Idea: Despite knowing the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion, King Belshazzar blasphemously challenged the sovereign God and is consequently destroyed.
Big Idea: In view of God’s judgement we should be teachable, repentant, and responsive (rather than foolish, arrogant, and callous).
Text: Daniel 6
Exegetical Idea: As an innocent victim of the irrevocable law of the Medes and Persians, the aged and faithful Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den, but is miraculously rescued by the living God, Who is glorified throughout the Persian Empire.
Big Idea: We can trust our God and live faithfully for him because he’s the Living One, Who rescues and resurrects.
Text: Daniel 7
Exegetical Idea: Human history is often filled with horrific empires that hurt humanity but, in the end, God’s Messianic kingdom will displace them all.
Big Idea: Because the world is infected with evil we should expect pain now but because God is great we can anticipate glory then.
Text: Daniel 8
Exegetical Idea: Out of the glories of Hellenistic civilization arises the evil two-bit king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who promotes himself as a god and consequently persecutes God’s people.
Big Idea: Destructive evil can arise from good things if they become our gods.
Text: Daniel 9
Exegetical Idea: Recognizing the end of the exile, Daniel confesses Israel’s sin and seeks God’s redemption which Gabriel promises will come about thru the future coming of the Messiah.
Big Idea: We’re really sinful but God redeems us thru the sacrifice of Messiah (Christ) Jesus.
Text: Daniel 10-11
Exegetical Idea: By means of a long, complicated vision given to Daniel about future historical events and figures who engage in endless conflict, God’s people are strengthened to endure until the Lord eliminates all this painfully futile activity.
Big Idea: History is both a long journey and a brutal battle but our sovereign Savior will, in the end, wipe away the sinfully tangled causes of suffering.
Text: Daniel 12
Exegetical Idea: In the face of horrible suffering and enormous confusion, God’s people are called to endure thru the promise of his strength now and resurrection from the dead then.
Big Idea: In the midst of misery, our ultimate hope is based on the Savior resurrecting us from the dead unto eternal life.
One of the major challenges of preaching any book of the Bible is making accurate and relevant application of the text to contemporary life. This is especially true of Daniel, given its vast historical and cultural distance from our own day and time. Nonetheless, I believe this book is especially pertinent now for Christians living in North America, as well as in various other parts of the world, because it forces us to recognize the enormous power that culture, political empires, and larger spiritual forces play in our lives—often in clear opposition to God purposes and his kingdom rule. We may often fail to recognize these ever-present realities but the Book of Daniel puts them front and center.
Given that, I’d like to offer the following suggestions for application when preaching this great book.
Daniel and his friends lived with consistent pressure from the cultures and political forces resident in Babylon and Persia. They successfully navigated this but only by their utter reliance on God’s gracious—and sometimes miraculous—provision in their lives. Their decisions and devotion were always undergirded by a firm belief that God would graciously provide for them in either life or death because they were his children who had been called and redeemed by him. This belief (faith) is the foundation of their behavior and is seen specifically in Chapters 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12. Thus, God’s consistently gracious and providential provision for us should be stressed.
A second specific application regards their practice of prayer, especially as seen in the life of Daniel. The crisis caused by Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 was only resolved because Daniel and his friends corporately prayed to their sovereign God, asking for his help and deliverance. Daniel’s response to King Darius’ decree of death for anyone praying to any other god or person in Daniel 6 was met with his thrice daily practice of prayer. His long, specific prayer of confession for Israel’s sin and request for God’s redemption in Daniel 9 is a model that can be leveraged for the spiritual health of both individuals and churches. Thus, prayer—consistent, fervent, and humble—on the part of individuals and congregations should be stressed.
A third specific application regards the need for perseverance. By relying on God’s presence and power, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were able to withstand the enormous pressure brought upon them by cultural forces, not-so-benevolent kings, and lawless peers who sought their destruction. Moreover, the prophetic visions given by God to Daniel are intentionally designed to provide knowledge and strength for believers in the midst of future political upheaval, persecution, and intentional malevolence caused by evil spiritual forces. Thus, a consistent awareness of God’s future provision in the face of pain and suffering should be stressed.
A fourth specific application relates to the consistent emphasis throughout the Book of Daniel on the need for and value of the virtue of humility. God is utterly sovereign and opposes those who exalt themselves at his expense and the expense of others be they kings, bureaucrats, or anyone else. In contrast, God reveals himself as benevolent to those who consistently rely on him for grace, protection, and provision. Thus, the virtue and power of humility in the lives of God’s people should be stressed.
The main theological theme of Daniel is God’s sovereignty. The historical setting of the book are the imperial and hierarchical empires of Babylon and Persia, which are often ruled from behind the scenes by malevolent spiritual forces, yet the LORD is the one true king over all.
A second theological theme concerns the inherent depravity of humanity. This does not mean that we are as bad as we could be. It does mean, and Daniel’s book highlights this, that humanity consistently exhibits sinfully destructive behavior via pride, idolatry, blasphemy, superstition, political persecution, and war. This sometimes culminates in anti-Christ figures who terrorize nations and seek to destroy God’s people.
A third theological theme is the crucial importance of hope. In the midst of a fallen world with all its attendant problems (see above), God is expanding his kingdom, preserving his people, and providing a blessed future for them.
A fourth theological theme is faithfulness, both human and divine. God is always faithful to his people and their promised redemption. In view of that, his people are called to be faithful and will be rewarded for lives that reflect this.
My Encounter with Daniel
I have preached or taught thru the Book of Daniel on at least a half-dozen occasions over the past thirty-five years. While I always draw on prior sermons and series each time I engage it anew, I continually find new—and I hope—more relevant insights and applications going forward.
Perhaps the most effective series that I did was about six years ago. I followed the first format given above under Sermon Series where I covered all the narratives and apocalyptic sections in an eleven week series. It was titled “The Lord is King: Daniel for Today” and I worked hard to stress God’s sovereign grace, his loving presence, and our call to faithful discipleship in an increasingly complex cultural context.
I wanted to teach this because I love the book and believe it is more relevant now than ever before for Christians in North America. My audience consisted of men and women, ages twenty to eighty who seemed to appreciate how I tried to make the book relevant to their daily lives (whether I was successful or not, only they and the LORD would know!). My hope is to preach it a few more times in the coming years, given the tenuous cultural, national, and global contexts we have recently entered.
While there are many fine and substantive commentaries on the Book of Daniel, the three I have found to be most helpful for discerning authorial intent and then assisting with preaching are:
Dale Ralph Davis, The Message of Daniel (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).
Davis is a masterful scholar of the text as well as a practicing preacher. This volume is full of tremendous insights, useful illustrations, and sparkling prose!
Ronald Wallace, The Lord is King: The Message of Daniel (Downers Grove: IVP, 1979).
Wallace was one of the pre-eminent bible scholars and theologians of the past generation. This volume contains innumerable theological gems and handles the apocalyptic sections with exceptional sensitivity and insight.
Christopher J.H. Wright, Hearing the Message of Daniel: Sustaining Faith in Today’s World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).
This helpful volume reflects Wright’s tremendous facility with Old Testament literature but is written for those who teach, preach, and pastor people who live and work in the secular realm ala’ Daniel.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.