At Work & Theology 101

What Obedience Looks Like “In the World”

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Can a story about four young men in the book of Daniel help us in our struggles as believers in a post-Christian culture? Daniel’s story might just provide the perfect model for faithfulness to God’s call on our lives—no matter what the environment.

Working for the Good of the City Doesn’t Mean Complete Assimilation

Daniel opens with four young Jewish exiles, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah trying to fulfill Jeremiah’s call to “work for the shalom of the city” (Jer. 29:7, OJB). Like others who’d been recruited to serve in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, they are about to embark on three years of training. The training is designed to erase their Hebrew identities and assimilate them into the culture of Babylon.

The first step in this primitive brainwashing is to change their names. They would now be known as Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 1:7). In the ancient world, “naming” someone had great significance. Paul Redditt writes in his Introduction to the Prophets, “To rename someone is to claim far-reaching power over that person.”

As part of their indoctrination, the young Hebrews would be trained in the language and literature of Babylon and live in the king’s palace, eating the rich food of the king’s table (Dan. 1:4-5). But Daniel resolved, or as the King James Version says, “Daniel purposed in his heart,” not to defile himself by eating the food from the king’s table (Dan. 1:8).

Outwardly, Daniel may have looked Babylonian, but inwardly, in his heart, he remained a Jew, a follower of the most-high God.

Daniel’s request for a different menu is initially turned down by the king’s chief of staff, but he perseveres and gets an attendant to agree to a test. (Dan. 1:12). After ten days of only vegetables and water, Daniel and his friends look even better than those on the king’s diet and are allowed to continue with that diet for the duration of their training (Dan. 1:15-16).

Allowing God to Work

Interestingly, the passage does not tell us why Daniel and his friends did not want to eat the king’s food.

It may have been because the food was unclean (not kosher) or that it had been sacrificed to idols. In either circumstance, to eat the food would have gone against Jewish law (Lev. 11; Deut. 14). According to Joyce Baldwin, in her commentary on the book of Daniel, another reason may stem from an ancient Near-East practice; eating from the king’s table was to enter into a bond of fellowship with him, effectively acknowledging devotion to Nebuchadnezzar as Daniel’s covenant Lord.

But Tremper Longman suggests in his new book, The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom, that the reason Daniel and his friends didn’t eat from the king’s table was that, “…Daniel [was] giving God room to work.” And work he does.

At the end of their three-year training, God greatly blesses these four men, and they are found to be ten times wiser than not only the other talented trainees but all the wise men in the kingdom (Dan. 1:20).

The faithful actions of Daniel and his friends were unusual for their day. The other young men had no problem eating from the king’s table. And Israel did not exactly have a stellar track record of religious fidelity in this period (See 2 Chron. 36:14, NASB).

Obedience and Trusting in God

Daniel was determined not to assimilate into the Babylonian culture when it was possible for him to actively resist. In his resistance strategy, Daniel displays three principles that apply to all of God’s people who are struggling to be faithful in the midst of a godless culture.

  • First, Daniel resolves, decides, purposes, makes up his mind to be holy and not be absorbed into the idolatry of the Babylonian culture.
  • Second, Daniel does not carry out his resistance in an arrogant or obnoxious way, but exercises his opposition with genuine humility and grace.
  • Third, Daniel exhibits faith, trusting in the power and promises of God and expecting God to respond to his faithful obedience.

This is Christian activism demonstrated through cultural resistance. It’s a model for us of how to “seek the shalom of the city” as an “exile” without compromising our faith.

Daniel’s example calls us to perseverance. His message is, “Don’t give up, continue to resist the temptations, being obedient to what you know God has called you to do.”

His example is also a call to faithfulness. To stand firm through faithful obedience to God’s divine word and what you know he is calling you to do.

Like Daniel, God’s followers must serve in the wider world, but with limits on their participation in the customs of that world. It is often difficult to maintain religious convictions, but we must decide where our loyalties lie.

As John Goldingay points out in Daniel and the Twelve Prophets for Everyone:

…we are reassured that the Daniel who lives at court, stands by the side of the king, and serves the empire, is one who has taken his stand and kept himself pure; and we are challenged about our own willingness to accept an involvement in the world, but to recognize that there are points at which we have to draw a line. We are called to be citizens of two worlds, neither surrendering one’s citizenship by assimilation nor surrendering the other by forming a ghetto.

As Goldingay observes, Daniel provides a biblical alternative to Christians withdrawing from society, which has been advocated by some.

If the best choice for us as “exiles” in a hostile culture is to resist the culture while serving people (and God), like Daniel, then we need to strive to be faithfully obedient right where we are.

Persevering even in the small things that God has called us to do will make room for him to work both in us and in those around us.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about God’s call for us to “reweave shalom” through our work in How Then Should We Work?

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