Several years ago, Woody Allen began a commencement address with this observation: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." Although said with his typical humor, Allen's observation captures the despair that many today feel. Whether through personal tragedies or global warning, the end, many feel, is right around the corner. Fears of the future loom large while hope wanes. Enter the American optimist—the particular variety of human being who is awash in positive thoughts about life, the future, health, money, relationships, and supremely themselves. To such an upbeat, look on the bright side kind of person, every day is full of possibilities, and the crucial factor they would say, between a knowing cynicism of hopelessness and a glowing confidence of the Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen type is simply you. You are the crucial factor. It is your characteristics. It is your faith, your courage, your daring, your willingness to risk, to stand firm, to be faithful to your religion or your own personal dreams. You make all the difference. Where would they turn in the Bible to find evidence for such fate-shaping faith?
Well, how about a book where tragedies turn to triumph, integrity is kept, courage is shown, risk is accepted, death is mocked through fire-resistant, lions' mouth-closing faith. To people who want examples of how to live in the world without being of the world and yet do pretty well by the world, what book more regularly provides encouragement? Who else in the Bible has the courage of a Nathan combined with the success of a Joseph, and the visions of a prophet? Who else stayed so near the seat of power of the greatest power on earth and yet kept their faith in God's revelation and Scripture whole and complete? While Jeremiah was berated and Ezekiel was probably largely unknown outside of his exiled community, this man was at the center of it all.
The Book of Daniel is a book full of famous stories regularly mined by Christian parents wanting to keep their kids from going with the crowd. Daniel stands up for his diet in chapter one, he stands up for uncomfortable truth in chapters two, four, and five. He stands for his faith in chapter six. It's a story—really it's a book with a number of stories that are full of human drama—about the valor of facing danger, truth in response to threats, and uncompromising faithfulness in places full of temptations, power, and wealth. You've got two sieges for kings, and several visions and dreams all in the first six chapters of Daniel, the biographical chapters if you will. Those are the ones we want to look at this morning.
As I read and reflected on these, it struck me that as vivid as these stories are, I think the stories of Daniel are often misunderstood. If you're familiar with them, you might want to think for a moment, how have you understood them? What have you taken them to mean? That faithfulness guarantees survival? Have you understood Daniel as this sort of how-to guide, a kind of religious manual about how to succeed in business or government? Certainly there is much we can learn from Daniel's example. He is an arresting combination of faithfulness during adversity and being rewarded.
God reigns behind the scenes
You remember the story you see in chapter one. In 605 BC, Jerusalem was captured by the most powerful nation in the Ancient Near East, the Babylonian Empire. As a young man, perhaps even a teenager, Daniel was taken into captivity. Once in Babylon he was selected for a special program, to be trained as an adviser to the king. In that program Daniel did well, he was treated with favor by those in charge, was allowed to eat his own food so that he could avoid the ceremonial uncleanness that would have come by eating the other food, and gained great knowledge and understanding. In chapter two he tells King Nebuchadnezzar about the vision the mighty king had and interpreted it for the king. The rest of the stories continue in the same vein with Daniel being both faithful and a model of prosperity.
Now, of course this isn't just a story about Daniel. It's clear as we read this if you look at Daniel 1:2 that God is reigning behind all these events. So this verse makes it clear that Judah, whose capital city had been taken, Jerusalem, and apparently that meant that the God of Judah had been defeated. That's the way the Babylonians understood it. The beginning of the verse makes it clear that it was the Lord who delivered Jerusalem into the hands of the Babylonians. As for that official showing favor to Daniel, look down in verse nine, we see that God had caused the official to show favor. As for Daniel gaining so much understanding, look there in verse 17, God gave knowledge and understanding. Daniel served in the court as a wise man and adviser, and he did it for a long time. See in verse 21, Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus. I know you probably don't have a timeline sitting there in your Bible, but that's a long time. That's almost 70 years after he was deported. He was deported in 605 BC Cyrus came to the throne. That is where the Persian Empire began to eat up the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC. So imagine a presidential adviser to Harry Truman advising the president every year professionally up through now. That's the kind of position that Daniel was in. It was an extraordinary position.
Relevant to Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream there in chapter two, we read in verse 19 that the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a dream, then Daniel prays to the God of heaven for God's sovereignty. He acknowledges there in Daniel 2:27-28, that no man could have come up with interpretations of the king's dream, only God. For that matter, it's not just Daniel's interpretation. Even Nebuchadnezzar's power comes from God. Nebuchadnezzar was the greatest king of the Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar was the one who built the hanging gardens of Babylon. It was the zenith of the Empire's days. The God of heaven, Daniel says, has given you, Nebuchadnezzar, dominion (see verses 37-38). We don't exactly know when the vision came to Nebuchadnezzar. It must be early in Daniel's time because Daniel was unknown. He was just one of the many advisers. The king doesn't know him. The interpretation of the dream is the thing that brought Daniel to prominence.
God gave Nebuchadnezzar a vision representing his own and three successive empires. It seems pretty clear that he was referring to the Medo-Persian Empire (that's the head of gold) and then the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great and then the Roman Empires. Nebuchadnezzar wouldn't tell his astrologers what this dream he had was. He wanted them to tell him what the dream was. It's one thing if you come and tell somebody a dream and then they give you an interpretation. How do you know if they're right? Nebuchadnezzar being a very canny sort, asks all of his astrologers, "Tell me what my dream was and interpret it," so he could know that it was God who had informed this interpretation. Because only God, he's reasoning, would be able to tell the astrologers Nebuchadnezzar's dream.
The astrologers were aghast at Nebuchadnezzar's demand. They say, "There is not a man on earth who could do what the king asks. No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men" (see verse 10). If you read through this book, you find that people who speak like that to the king tend to get killed. The astrologers spoke more truth than they knew, didn't they?
When these astrologers say, "No one can reveal it to the king except the gods and they do not live among men," they were right. Only the true God could reveal the meaning of the vision. Daniel takes up the impossibility of the task there in 2:26 when the king asked him, "'Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?' Daniel replied, 'No wise man, enchanter, magician, or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.'" When you have exhausted all the resources of humanity you are not yet at the end of the story because there is God in heaven who reveals mysteries. Daniel was saying just what the astrologers had said, except he says where they had concluded that the gods do not live among men and therefore we couldn't know such things, there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. Down at the end of the chapter in verse 47, Nebuchadnezzar comes to agree with him through this.
This is a vision of these coming world empires but it's even more a vision of the coming kingdom of God. If you think there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries it's not in the least surprising that there should both be predictive prophecy and that it should be accurate. Well, that's what we have here, this amazing prediction of this vision of the future that was to come. Did you notice in verse 44 it's not just about earthly empires? Verse 44 says, "In the time of those kings," that would be the Roman emperors, the last one he's talked about, "The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever." That's the great message, that there is this kingdom. God's obvious sovereignty that will prevail.
From the king's threat of death in the beginning of the chapter to the end of this chapter, how Daniel's lot has changed exactly because of the sovereign God. Look at verse 48: "Then the king placed Daniel in a high position …" This is Daniel who had a death sentence placed on him earlier in the chapter. They were going to kill him along with all of the astrologers and wise men and advisers, but now look at it. Verse 48 says, "Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. Moreover, at Daniel's request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court." Now, surely you must join me and other readers for centuries who have admired Daniel's courage, his willingness to stand for the truth.
God is our only hope
Philip Bliss, who wrote "It is Well With My Soul," wrote a lot of music. He was a congregational Sunday School teacher in Chicago in the late 19th century. Bliss was inspired by this story of Daniel to write a Sunday School song that some of you may be old enough to know: "Dare to be Daniel." Let me read you some of the words of that song: "Dare to be a Daniel, standing by a purpose true, heeding God's command, honor them the faithful few, all hail to Daniel's band." The refrain comes after every verse:
Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known. Mighty men are lost, daring not to stand, who for God had been a host by joining Daniel's band. Many giants great and tall, stalking through the land, headlong to the earth would fall if met by Daniel's band. Hold the gospel banner high, on to victory grand. Satan and his host defy and shout for Daniel's band. Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known.
Isn't that the point of these stories—that God rewards faithfulness in this life so be a faithful evangelist, stick to your principles? A single person with right on their side is always the majority. Dare to be a Daniel. Isn't that what this book is about? What do you think? I would say, "Not quite." I mean, this would only be true, wouldn't it, if faithfulness such as Daniel's guaranteed deliverance from earthly trials. Which it only sort of did in Daniel's case, and it apparently didn't in the case of Job, whom God called blameless.
Then what are the lessons that we are to learn from these stories? Well, I'm sure there are many that we can learn, but taking these chapters and stories as a whole considering our situation today, I'm going to draw your attention to three of these lessons. Lesson number one: God is our only hope. Daniel exposes the myth of the Godless world. We are not left in this world without hope, whether you are a refugee from a defeated nation, a religious minority, under an unjust sentence of death, have your friends persecuted, or called to speak difficult things to those above you in station or power. This book does show us that we have hope and that that hope is in God, the true sovereign of this world. God's kind faithfulness is more the explanation for Daniel's survival and prosperity than even Daniel's daring, courage, and boldness. Considering these first two chapters again with this in mind, it comes out clearly when we see all those ways that we see God's hand in the fall of Judah, in the favor shown to Daniel. Throughout these stories God is shown to be powerful.
In chapter 3 of Daniel there is the well-known story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar went out and made a great golden image. We don't know why he did that, but he made a great gold image and commanded everybody to come and worship. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Daniel's three friends, remained standing when everybody else was to fall down and bow. The actions of the three men incensed the king. He threatened them with death. He presented a conditional death sentence. He pronounced it upon them, that if they would not bow down they would be burned alive. Daniel 3:17 records their answer. They believed that God could rescue them even in the furnace, and they refuse to worship the golden image. Nebuchadnezzar later praises God who rescued the men and refers to God as the "Most High God" (see verses 26, 28). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego trusted in God and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.
We see the same mighty God presented as our only hope in chapter 4. We have the extraordinary account of the Lord's humbling of Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar says, "It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders. His kingdom is an eternal kingdom. His dominion endures from generation to generation" (Dan. 4:2-3). A little bit later down in verse 17 it says, "The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes, and sets over them the lowliest of men." Daniel himself echoes those words of Nebuchadnezzar in verse 25, "The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes." As he says succinctly in the next verse, verse 26, "Heaven rules." In verse 32, Daniel says, "The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes." Nebuchadnezzar closes out the chapter beginning in verse 34 saying, "Then I praised the Most High. I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion. His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the powers of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'" Then down there in verse 37, "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven because everything he does is right and all his ways are just, and those who walk in pride he is able to humble."
God's faithfulness and sovereignty
The central feature of this book is not Daniel's faithfulness, it is God's faithfulness. God is the great, powerful, faithful one that we have account of here. We see it in the story about God delivering Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar makes the image of gold, as we've said. Of course the astrologers were again anything but wise and good, as we read in Daniel 3:8. They denounced the Jews, and it was Daniel the Jew, after all, who had saved their lives years before. Nebuchadnezzar, too, seems to have entirely forgotten the lesson he had learned through that troublesome dream, so he blusters, "What God will be able to rescue you from my hand?" (Dan. 3:15). It is another question more pregnant with meaning than he knew. I guess Nebuchadnezzar didn't learn the lesson or didn't remember the one that he had learned earlier. We have that amazing response that we read a few moments ago from Daniel 3:16-18. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are faithful to God. This is the confident, trusting, humble, joyful statement of persecuted Christians to their persecutors. Isn't it amazing how throughout the history of God's church, God's church has always been persecuted and yet there has always been a faithful witness of those who don't kill for their faith but who die for it and do so with confidence and joy, knowing the truth of the promises we have in Christ.
Here Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are sentenced to a fiery death. Notice how hot the furnace was. The writer wants to make this clear there in Daniel 3:19. The king's command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. There, of all places, in that blazing furnace, the place where earthly power would seem to be greatest, Nebuchadnezzar could choose to extinguish life. There the mighty ruler himself finds out the limits of his own power as God sovereignly contradicts Nebuchadnezzar's will and saves the three young men. Nebuchadnezzar once again sees the power of God, so he praises the true God. Nebuchadnezzar says in verses 28 and 29, "For no other God can save in this way." Nebuchadnezzar had seen God reveal mysteries, he had seen God save, and so he praises God. I wonder, did Nebuchadnezzar realize this was the same God as Daniel's God? Had Nebuchadnezzar forgotten? Whatever the case, Nebuchadnezzar's pride obviously grows again.
Chapter four offers a final story about Nebuchadnezzar. We take it that it's near the end of his reign; he seems to be finished with all his buildings. He's very pleased. He's walking around the city, talking about the great city that he has built, and how great he is, and he's proud. It's interesting that we're getting this recounted by Nebuchadnezzar himself in chapter four. It's Nebuchadnezzar's account of God causing him to have some condition where Nebuchadnezzar thinks of himself as a cow or a wolf or something for some time. Commentators are all over the place trying to explain what went on, talking about medical things I don't understand. Apparently, to use my high theological understanding, Nebuchadnezzar went crazy.
The point was to teach him and others that the Most High is the only sovereign. Nebuchadnezzar learns that lesson and offers praise to the Most High. He finishes with these telling words in Daniel 3:37, Nebuchadnezzar's last word in the Bible. How appropriate that one of the most powerful rulers, maybe the most powerful earthly ruler mentioned in the Bible by name, last words in the Bible are these: "And those who walk in pride, He is able to humble." Note that verse: "Those who walk in pride, He is able to humble." This book is about God. The pride Nebuchadnezzar had was deception, and it caused deception. We see that clearly in Nebuchadnezzar's life and in the way he walked around acting like he was God. Nebuchadnezzar may have been able to capture Jerusalem, but Jerusalem's God was still unassailably sovereign over him. Nebuchadnezzar may have had a long reign, but he himself confessed that God's reign would never end. Nebuchadnezzar may have built one of the wonders of the ancient world, but it was God who had made the world itself.
It is false and distorting when we start thinking of ourselves in high and mighty ways. It is better to humble ourselves and see the truth and come to know the one who is truly mighty. We are not our own best hope. God is our own best hope. If you're here today and you're not a Christian, I wonder if you understand how God could be right in his sovereignty and his power to judge you and condemn you. It's a strange notion to people who aren't Christians, and I understand that. I myself was an agnostic. I wonder how far you think God's sovereignty, his rule, and his reign go. How extensive do you think it is? How eternal, how inescapable, how exacting? In this story, more than once we see people who had a death sentence pronounced on them. We see them saved. What was their only hope in that circumstance? It was the same as your only hope. Your only hope will not be in how many times you come to church or go to some other religious meeting. Your hope will not be in the alms you give or the prayers you pray. Your hope will be in God alone and what he has revealed to us of his mercy in Christ.
You must understand that you running your own life as you do offends God. It offends him. More than offends anyone else, it offends God. He made you so that you would rely on him, so that you would trust him, so that you would confide in him, so that you would follow his most loving and wise counsel as the most loving and wise of fathers. God made you to relate to him like that. We've all rejected God by our sins. We've chosen to go our own way, we've chosen to do what we want rather than what he tells us. We've chosen to, as it were, orphan ourselves as if God were dead, but he is not dead. That is your problem—God is not dead, and that is your only hope. God made us to know him. We've separated ourselves by our sins.
God is right to judge us, but in his amazing mercy and grace, he came and took on flesh and lived a perfect life in Jesus of Nazareth. He died on the cross to take the penalty, the punishment for our sins that we should take. In his amazing love God sent Christ. Christ has died. To show that God's wrath was exhausted against the sins of his own people, Christ was raised from the dead to show that it is done. We are now invited to repent of our sins and to trust in God, to throw ourselves on his mercy in Christ and to pray that Christ's righteousness would be accounted our own. Do we grow and become better in the Christian life as people? We hope to do so, we mean to. That's the work of God's own Spirit in our lives. Is our hope in that? No. Our hope is never in our sanctification or in our growth in godliness. Our hope is always in the perfect godliness of Jesus Christ. That is our hope. God is our only hope. We've exhausted all the other means. Trust in him alone. There is no utopia in this fallen world, but there is hope for eternity through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God becomes our hope as he was the hope of Daniel and others in these stories.
Our hope is the same as Daniel's. Our only hope is in God, and that's what this book is here to remind us of. Only God can give us the faith and the faithfulness that we need. Christ's righteousness is a gift to us through faith in him. Our dependence from first to last is upon God. Have you noticed that every other religion teaches you that you are to live better and you try to live well enough that God will accept you. I would say Christianity is the only religion that is honest. We will never be good enough for a holy God, so he came and made a way for us. Those are words of great hope for us. Our promises that we make are no better than God's word. It is when we have exhausted our own strength that we are in the perfect place to trust the Lord.
What else could Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego do? The fiery furnace even consumed the guards that brought them. Surely they were at their end. Can you think of a better place for God to display his glory and his power than when all earthly ends are out of means. So it is with our own righteousness. The fires of God's holiness will burn up our works. They are tainted; they are incomplete. There are others that would condemn us, but God in Christ can accomplish what we cannot in our own feeble righteousness. If we are so dependent on him, what should we do? Surely we should want to cultivate our affections for him. We want to read his word and pray; we want to give ourselves to getting to know others and loving them. We would wake up from these delusions about ourselves and our own power. We should come to humble ourselves. How can we do that? I would encourage you to make two aspects of God's nature and character your special study.
Number one, study God's sovereignty. Behold his power. See the mighty God that is presented in the Bible. Don't doubt it. Come to understand it better by studying his word. Come to understand his lovingkindness. What has he done with that mighty power? Come to understand his tender mercies, how he has shown them to us so fully and amazingly in Christ. What better hope would we have today than God? He is our best hope. Daniel shows us truly that God is our only hope. We try by our teaching, I'm attempting in this very sermon, to deconstruct false and deceptive hopes, to burn down those houses so that you will run out of them and run to the one place where there is safety. That place of safety is in Christ. That is the only place for your hope. Daniel is not calling for victory through personal integrity or devotion or virtue; Daniel is telling us about God, the God that we've sung about this morning, the God whom we serve, the God whom we are enjoying together today. The message of these chapters is that God is our only hope.
There is a second lesson: You can survive. You can survive opposition. Daniel's survival is meant to be an inspiration to those who read. I think it's meant to be that even more than it is any kind of how-to instruction. Daniel is to be an inspiration to us for the hope that we need. It is amazing that Daniel survived as long as he did. The kings he served had great power. You see how they dispatched people to their deaths. They were absolute monarchs unchecked by parliament or popularity, by press or poll, but still they would send people off to die, but they also would die. Think about it, Daniel survived the king that had destroyed his native city. Daniel not only survived that king, he survived that empire, even in his earthly life. Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC. Daniel continued to serve kings that would succeed him.
In chapter five, we see Daniel, probably the ultimate court survivor, still within the orbit of the king and his court in 539 BC. The king is now Belshazzar. Belshazzar was shaken by this famous incident recounted in chapter five. That is the famous handwriting on the wall. There in a drunken feast a hand appears writing words on the wall. Belshazzar does not understand. We see how shaken he was by the words. His face turned pale, he was so frightened that his knees knocked together, and his legs gave way. His nobles were baffled. Belshazzar promises Daniel that if he can read that writing to him, if he can interpret it, then he will make him the third ruler in the kingdom. Why that? Belshazzar wasn't a "king" king. He was ruling Babylon at that time because his father, Nabonidis, the emperor of Babylon, was away. Belshazzar himself was in the second place but was offering Daniel the next one up, the third place. Daniel was unimpressed. Daniel's response is recorded: "Daniel answered the king, 'You may keep your gifts for yourself. Give your rewards to someone else'" (Dan. 5:17). Daniel very directly confronts Belshazzar. Daniel says, "But you his son, oh Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself though you knew all this." "Son" there just means successor, a later Babylonian king.
Belshazzar kept his word. What is the most amazing thing is that Daniel after saying that prospers again. "Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom." Daniel had taken unusual risks in speaking honestly to this king who had no praise for the true God. Belshazzar seems to be a drunken sot. He seems to be a sort of leftover of the Babylonian kingdoms. He was no doubt tempting God by using the sacred object of the temple in the way that he was.
That night Belshazzar was slain (Dan. 5:30). Belshazzar was slain and Darius the Mede begins to rule. Even the mighty Babylonian empire can come to an end. Daniel once again had survived. There are no worldly circumstances you will face, if you're a Christian, that should ever drain your hope dry. All opposition to God's people will fail, either in this life or the next.
Let's labor to keep our hope in the gospel. Let's labor to keep our hope in the good news of Jesus Christ. Let's grab all those other stray hopes that we have and try to evacuate them from those false places where they are and push them over to be in the gospel. When we keep our hopes elsewhere they deceive us or distract us. Jesus said where our treasure is there our heart would be. Let us treasure the gospel of Jesus.
You will face opposition
A final lesson, and perhaps one that some of us particularly need to hear: You will face opposition. I've said that the book of Daniel exposes the myth of the Godless world and of the hopeless world, but it also exposes the myth of the moral world. What do I mean by that? Well, the myth that this world rewards righteousness and punishes Godlessness. You might want to be careful here; at its best the world does do this, but the world is rarely at its best. In fact, our world is so fallen that it is normal for the godly to face opposition, and Daniel warns us of this reality.
We understand that Christianity offers forgiveness for our sins; for sure now we can be certain that we are forgiven eternally and a restored relationship with God the very thing we were made for, for all those who will repent of their sins and trust in Christ. We understand this to be a free gift, and yet we understand that in accepting this gift we can only accept it by giving up ourselves completely, by, as Jesus said, denying ourselves. Christians talk about dying to self, and yet we see that even such self-denial, such self-death is infinitely worth it for the new life that we get in Christ.
Daniel, in our passage, continued to face persecution, even down to the last years of his life. He never obeyed so much or was so courageous that the persecution stopped coming. You would think maybe near the end the Lord in his sovereignty managed to leave him alone, yet in chapter six, now the Babylonian empire has fallen. Babylon itself falling in 539. Daniel's in his seventh decade being there.
Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom, but as is so often the case, there were unprincipled men willing to take hold of Daniel by his principles and harm him. The men said, "We will never find any basis for charges against this man, Daniel, unless it has something to do with the law of his God." The king in all this is not the bad guy; he actually wants to help. That fits with the Persian Emperors, actually. They had a much more lenient attitude toward religions. It was Cyrus, it was either this guy or the one who comes after him, but it was Cyrus who sends the exiles back to Jerusalem because of this tolerant policy that the Persians had. Everyone was not happy about Daniel's prosperity.
Theologically, we must understand that we are in a fallen world. We must expect no utopia, no perfect government. Though virtue may allow us not to be persecuted for doing wrong, we should work with courage and integrity as Daniel did. In this upside-down world, righteousness is no guarantee of avoiding trials. Even the most virtuous face opposition. In fact, our world is so bent that Jesus told us we would face opposition, just like he did. Commitment to God's glory above our own will normally bring suffering and persecution in this life.
Is this what you've expected in coming to Christ? It's useful to try to consider carefully what our expectations are because as Proverbs tells us, "Hope disappointed makes the heart grow sick." You can be sure there are many here with sick hearts this morning, and I mean among those of us who are Christians. We feel a lack of peace, we feel guilty for feeling a lack of peace, we struggle with the sin that we think we must be the only ones ever to have committed, and we are discouraged by opposition and antagonism that we encounter. Consider carefully what your expectations are, because wrong expectations unshaped by Scripture are dangerous to your soul. They set us up for disappointments and finally disaffection. Let your expectations be shaped by what God promises in his Word. Consider all the trials that Daniel faced. We think of his prosperity. He was a blessed man surely, but consider all he had to endure without knowing everything we know from just quickly reading over these few chapters. He faced these things in real time.
Christians, in this fallen world your best life is never now, even if a bestseller lies to you and tells you that. It is the world to come—the next world—that is the focus of Christian promises, not this world. How do you cultivate such an afterlife-centered expectation? You come and you hear God's Word preached, you partake in the Lord's Supper, you share in your church, you evangelize, sharing the gospel beyond. You realize that this now, what we're experiencing as a church, is supposed to be a foretaste of the great then. That's what a church is; it's a haven in promise of heaven. That's what we're to experience here together.
How will the surrounding community like us in this haven of faith? We can't know. We want to live in such a way as to bring glory to God and no reproach upon ourselves—that's a good thing. We see that's not always possible. James warns us that friendship with the world is enmity with God. That doesn't mean we can't have non-Christian friends but rather that as Christians we should not be bound by what the world will respect in us. We can't expect Christians to always be as plentiful as they are in America these days. We can survive in this world by God's grace, we may even prosper, but we shouldn't expect it. What should we expect but opposition from this world? Why should we think it isn't coming? We will face opposition. Realistic expectations help us to put our hope in the right place and so not be deceived and discouraged.
We are righteous only because we have found something that we love more than this world's praise, this world's prosperity, even this world's life. We are counted righteous because of Christ's righteousness.
God is sovereign, you can survive, and what we survive are our trials. In this world, Christian, you have never met a trial that will outlast you, never one, and you never will. You will see the end of every earthly trial when you come into the presence of God himself. That has to be our greatest hope, and that hope will not disappoint.
Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks.