1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god.
In Jehoiakim’s fourth year as king (Jeremiah 46:2), or the third year according to Babylonian calculations which didn’t count the first year, Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24-25). Judah was being punished by God for failing to repent despite the many warnings God gave them through the prophets. Thus, the Lord gave Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, a pagan nation and the most powerful nation of the day. God would teach Nebuchadnezzar many things through this, for, even though His chosen nation was in captivity, God still used those who were faithful among them to declare His name and mighty power. Nebuchadnezzar, believing that his ability to defeat Judah was a sign that his gods were more powerful than the God of Israel, took the treasures of the house of God and put them into the treasury of his god. He failed to realize that God had given Judah into his hand, and he boasted in the wrong deities and in his own power and ability. He would have to learn that God is over all, even mighty Babylon.
3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel, including some of the royal family and of the nobles, 4 youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and he ordered him to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king appointed for them a daily ration from the king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank, and appointed that they should be educated three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s personal service. 6 Now among them from the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 Then the commander of the officials assigned new names to them; and to Daniel he assigned the name Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach and to Azariah Abed-nego.
Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz, his chief official, to gather up some of the captives of Israel that he might benefit from the best and brightest of their nation to serve in his kingdom. Those he chose were young men, some of whom were of Jewish nobility and some not. They had no physical or mental defect, were good looking, were extremely intelligent and able to absorb information from all sorts of areas of study and inquiry, and were fit to serve in the king’s court. Nebuchadnezzar wanted them to learn the language of the Chaldeans and their literature. By shaping them into Babylonian culture and society, he probably thought that any remnants of their religious past would be forgotten and discarded. For some, this probably worked, but for Daniel, Azariah, Mishael, and Hananiah, it did not. Ashpenaz even gave them new Babylonian names to try to change their whole identity from servants of God to servants of the Babylonian king and deities. But just because a given name might have pagan roots or reflect the names of pagan deities was not enough to change the hearts of the faithful servants of God who understood that their real identity was bound up in their relationship with God. Nebuchadnezzar wanted them to eat of his food and drink of his wine, and he wanted them to be educated for three years and then enter his personal service.
8 But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself. 9 Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials, 10 and the commander of the officials said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has appointed your food and your drink; for why should he see your faces looking more haggard than the youths who are your own age? Then you would make me forfeit my head to the king.” 11 But Daniel said to the overseer whom the commander of the officials had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days, and let us be given some vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then let our appearance be observed in your presence and the appearance of the youths who are eating the king’s choice food; and deal with your servants according to what you see.” 14 So he listened to them in this matter and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food. 16 So the overseer continued to withhold their choice food and the wine they were to drink, and kept giving them vegetables.
God looked out for Daniel and his friends even in a hostile pagan environment. Daniel didn’t want to give an inch and start compromising when it was in regard to matters of the heart, of sin, or of testimony to his God. He was uncomfortable eating of the king’s chosen delicacies. Perhaps some of the food violated the parameters of the law, perhaps it was sacrificed to idols, or perhaps it was just unhealthy. Daniel didn’t want to do anything to damage his testimony, to weaken his judgment, to weaken his body which could also weaken his judgment, or do anything that would reflect negatively upon his God. The Lord granted Daniel favor with the chief official, and he allowed Daniel and his friends to be given the food of his choice, vegetables and water. This was a bold decision and request on the part of Daniel because it could have provoked the king to anger that his Jewish youths were rebelling and not assimilating. But the official agreed to allow Daniel’s request to be carried out for a test period of ten days. At the end of the test period, Daniel and his friends were healthier and fitter than the others, and they were allowed to continue to eat as their consciences permitted them and in the fear of God. God gave them the strength to stand against temptation, for even a small little compromise can lead to more and more assimilation with the sinful ways of the world. Daniel demonstrated that, by faith, it is possible to stay pure even in a very corrupt world and even when danger and death lurk.
17 As for these four youths, God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all kinds of visions and dreams. 18 Then at the end of the days which the king had specified for presenting them, the commander of the officials presented them before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and out of them all not one was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s personal service. 20 As for every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king consulted them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in all his realm. 21 And Daniel continued until the first year of Cyrus the king.
God equipped these four young men with great intelligence to understand every branch of literature and study. They were more than adequately gifted by God to be who they needed to be and to play the roles that they needed to play. They were so talented and gifted that the king chose them for his personal service, for they impressed him with their wisdom and understanding even more than all the others. Whenever the king consulted them for advice, their wisdom was, according to the king, ten times better than the pagan magicians and advisers in his kingdom. The wisdom of God always gives His servants an advantage over the false “wisdom” of the world, for the world’s “wisdom” is foolishness before God. Thus, these four, even though they were but youths and from a foreign land, were able to advance in the king’s service and favor and not violate their integrity in the process. Daniel was given special ability by God to understand and interpret dreams and visions, for God knew that he would use this gift to accomplish His purposes in a pagan land and to teach Nebuchadnezzar a profound lesson. Daniel would continue in the king’s service all the way until Cyrus of Persia came and conquered Babylon. Clearly, God had a purpose for him to continue to declare His name in a pagan land despite those who tried to harm him.