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Schooled By Babylon (Daniel 1:1-7)

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A few months ago I was doing work at our kitchen table while Ashley was with the girls in our room. She asked me to pull out dinner at a certain time. I was hard at work and at some point the smoke alarm went off. Dinner wasn’t due to be done for another 15-20 minutes, so I thought it was just giving off a little smoke, I fanned the alarm with a towel, it shut off, and I got back to work. But soon the alarm went off again. I went back to fanning the alarm, but more alarms started going off. The girls wanted to come out, but I told them, “No, it’s too loud, just wait until dinner is done cooking.” At some point it occurred to me that I should check what was going on with dinner in the oven. As soon as I opened the oven, smoke billowed out and eventually cleared to reveal a dinner that had been burnt to a crisp. And that’s when I finally took another look around the room and finally saw that the whole house was thick with smoke. I had thought there was just a little natural smoke being given off, but evidently I wasn’t seeing things right. Smoke had been all around me, but I had been staring at my computer screen and couldn’t see it.


We have been talking for some time from 1st Peter about the challenge of being in the world, but not of the world — living, going to school, and working in Babylon, but not being defiled by Babylon’s way of thinking and living. But it helps to see these principles lived out in action —  especially as our kids are going back to school soon — hence Daniel 1.


Like sitting in a room that gradually fills with smoke, it is hard to see Babylon for what it is when you are living in Babylon, working for Babylon, and when Babylon is the one teaching you. It can be hard to imagine that there is a different way of thinking, learning, working, and living — or why anyone would want to do anything differently. And yet, as you may know from the book of Daniel, Daniel and his friends went to school in Babylon, they worked in and for Babylon, and yet, not only were they not compromised in the slightest, they brought pagan kings to their knees praising the God of heaven.


This morning we will look at three big picture things in Daniel 1: (1) What Babylon does, (2) what Daniel and his friends do, and (3) what God does.


What Babylon Does (Daniel 1:1-7)


1. Babylon believes their power and their gods run the world (vs. 2). Nebuchadnezzar takes the vessels of the true God’s house and puts them in the house of his God. This is what ancient empires commonly did. In fact, when Babylon itself had been defeated by Elam, Elam took Babylon’s statue of Marduk to its capital city only for it to be recaptured years later and bring it back to Babylon. They think, “We won, so that means either that our god is bigger than your god or your god joined our side.” Later, though God has told him otherwise in a dream, Nebuchadnezzar will only see his hand as the reason for Babylon’s success, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30). And yet, verse 2 says that “The Lord gave … Judah into his hand.”


Babylon believes their way and their gods run the world, and that’s a problem because that means they don’t know how the world would keep on going without the Babylonian way. How would things keep going without Babylonian power? gods? businesses? technology? education? And when you think you can’t live without something — that the world cannot go on without Babylon — you worship Babylon.


The kingdoms of this world forget that the world has existed for a long time and that there is a God, king, and kingdom that both precedes them and will still be around after them: the kingdom of God. The God of heaven both gave Babylon its power and would take it away, and the same will be true of every kingdom. Every rule, authority, and power must be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:24) and as we live in Babylon we need to recognize that is not ultimately Babylon’s system that keeps the world turning, it is God Almighty.


2. Babylon values the young, the competent, and the good-looking (vs. 3-4). This was the Babylonian way. Other empires simply scattered people and had no use for them. Babylon operated differently. Their empire was rapidly expanding and they needed competent people to help run it. So, when they conquered nations, they did as they do with Israel here: they bring some from the royal family and nobility who are young, without blemish, good-looking, wise, knowledgeable, and competent to stand in the king’s palace. It is certainly a blessing from God to have any of those things, but do we see in this how Babylon views people? One author (Longman) puts it like this: “The Babylonian court apparently did not want unattractive smart people or dumb attractive people, but rather people who were pleasant to look at and intelligent enough to contribute to the management of the state.” In the eyes of Babylon, people are valued for their usefulness. People are tools to get stuff done and bring pleasure — and if you don’t, you’re out.


We live in the thick of a world that prizes this utilitarian ethic: youth, good looks, and intelligence above the image of God. When Ashley has been pregnant the doctors ask if we want genetic testing — see what blemishes there are so we can determine if the baby will have a life Babylon deems worth living (i.e., do they fit in with our utilitarian ethic or not?). While we give glory to God for our strength and abilities, we need to remember that all men are made in God’s image: the poor and rich, the old, young, and not yet born, those with high IQs and low IQs, those who live in Babylon and those who do not, those who have blemishes and those who do not.


3. Babylon indoctrinates people in its pagan worldview (vs. 4-5). These smart and good-looking youths are brought in to be educated in Babylon University for three years to learn the literature and language of the Chaldeans. Babylon always demands: you will talk like us, learn like us, and think like us. Through the recovery of ancient cuneiform tablets, we know they would have likely the ancient Mesopotamian myths about the creation (Enuma Elish), the flood (Gilgamesh Epic), and more. It is possible they would have been trained in the Babylonian ways of divination — interpreting sheep organs and the stars to seek to determine the future. They would have been taught a Babylon-centric worldview where all real history that matters begins with Babylon. Babylon’s worldview encompasses everything. It changes how they view history, science, technology, government, and religion.


Are we able to see that it is no different today? And that can be okay — Daniel and his friends were educated in Babylon and by Babylon. And as we will see in a moment, God caused them to excel in pagan Babylon University. But it is only okay as long as we realize we are being schooled by Babylon — because then we can see Babylon’s thinking for what it is. But it can be hard to see the smoke we’re sitting in. I have absolutely zero interest in this becoming a debate about home-schooling and public schooling. We all likely know fantastic Christians who were educated by public schools and homeschoolers that simply aren’t. I was both homeschooled and public schooled — so hear me correctly both public school and homeschool families: Daniel and his friends went to Babylon University and that’s okay because they knew it was Babylon University and they knew the difference between the worldview found there and the worldview seen through the lens of God’s word. Whether we are at school or in company-sponsored training: we are not learning mere objective facts. The questions they ask and the answers they give are part of larger worldviews. Whether we are talking about history, social studies, economics, business, literature, science, or technology: there are Christian ways of viewing these things, and then there are Babylonian ways of viewing these things. Parents: we need to prepare our kids to see the difference. That means we show them what is real — but we also expose them to the counterfeit from time to time. Babylon will try to indoctrinate them.


4. Babylon tries to co-opt our identity (vs. 6-7). It is hard for us to see it, but Daniel, Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah are all Hebrew names that praise the name of Yahweh and Elohim, but do you notice what Babylon does? They changed their names to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — names that extol the gods of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar later says of Daniel that he was named “Belteshazzar after the name of my god.” (4:8)


Names mean something. If someone remembers our name, it means something. If they forget our name, it means something to us. It means they remembered us and who we are. And naming someone denotes authority over a person. Adam named the animals and he named Eve. Eve named Cain. Naming says I have the authority to say who and what you are.


Do we see what Babylon is doing? They have taken them from their homeland, put them in school for three years, and changed their names to Babylonian names. They are attempting to re-write who these young men are from the ground up.


And, as we will talk about next time, there’s a lot of this that Daniel and his friends don’t seem to fight. We will get into that next time, but what we need to realize for now is that this is what the kingdoms of the world do. It’s not something to pull our hair out over — it happened to Daniel and his friends and they are some of the most righteous people we read about in Scripture. But we also know that we are only told about these exiles. Verse 6 — there were others. We don’t know how they responded to all this.


The question is not whether or not we live or work or are educated in Babylon, the question is whether we recognize it for what it is. I was sitting in the smoke and I had no clue.


John 17:15–19 ESV, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

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