In this essay we are taking up the second of the two best-known and most-loved stories in the book of Daniel. The first was the story of the deliverance of the three Hebrews from the fiery furnace in chapter three. Here we have the wonderful story of Daniel’s deliverance in the lion’s den.
We must begin this study, as we did the last, by trying to identify the king in whose reign this event took place. Last week we quickly reviewed the first four chapters, and noted that all the events of those chapters took place during the days of king Nebuchadnezzar.
But chapter five was set in a different king’s reign. His name was Belshazzar. But that became an historical problem, because no Belshazzar appears on the secular king lists of Babylon. As we studied the issue, we concluded that there were two possible identifications of Belshazzar, and that there are problems with both.
Now in the very last verse of chapter five (v. 31), another new king had come on the scene. His name was Darius the Mede. Again, as with Belshazzar, no king Darius appears on the secular king lists at that time. Cyrus the Persian is the king of record.
Three possible solutions are put forward. But I am not going to work through those suggestions, because no genuinely satisfactory conclusion can be reached. Whoever Darius the Mede was, he was the king when the events of chapter six took place. The passage begins with a description of the governmental organization that Darius put in place, and Daniel’s role in it.
Darius divided the kingdom into 120 provinces, each under the rule of a satrap. Interestingly, in the days of Queen Esther, roughly a century later (486-465 B.C.), we find Persia still organized that way (Esther 1:1, 8:9).
Then Darius divided the 120 provinces into three groups, each under the supervision of an “administrator” (NIV), or “president,” as the NRSV translates it. Daniel was one of the three (vv. 1-2).
Daniel’s performance in the role of president was so impressive that Darius was considering giving him authority over the whole kingdom, under Darius of course. Darius evidently mentioned this publicly, causing jealousy among the other presidents, and some of the satraps (v., 3).
So the jealous ones plotted against Daniel. They could find nothing in Daniel’s work they could attack, so they concluded that they would have to find something associated with his religion (vv. 4-5).
They came up with an ingenious plan, which we see in verses 6-9. The plan began with a lie to the king. They told the king that all the presidents, prefects, satraps, counselors and governors were making the request, which was not true. Certainly Daniel had not agreed to it; and probably neither had all of the satraps, among whom would have been Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and others loyal to Daniel.
The request was that the king establish and enforce an edict that anyone who made a petition to any man or god other than the king for thirty days would be thrown into a den of lions. The king, flattered by the idea, signed the edict (v. 9).
In verse eight we see a statement about “the law of the Medes and Persians.” That law was that once an edict by a Persian ruler was officially given, it could not be revoked. This law is confirmed in Esther, in 1:19 and 8:8. And of course it was the intention of the plotters that the king be bound by his own edict.
The edict did not pose a threat to any of the pagans, because they easily could comply. But that was not true of the Jews. However the king didn’t think about that when he signed it.
When Daniel learned about the edict, he had to make a decision. He would have had several options. For example, he could have rationalized the situation and stopped praying to the Lord for 30 days. That would have been compliance. Another possibility for Daniel would have been to pray to the Lord in secret. That also would have kept him in compliance with the edict. But Daniel did neither of those things. He chose a third option. He decided to follow his usual practice, established during his decades in exile. Daniel prayed before a window that opened towards Jerusalem three times a day, as he always had done.
The “three times a day” probably was morning noon and night. In any case, the plotters had what they wanted. They were watching him, and they saw him praying to his God by the open window three times a day. So they went to the king and told him what Daniel was doing. And of course they reminded the king about his edict.
Verse 14 indicates that the king, who liked Daniel, gave considerable effort to finding a way around his own edict; but none could be found. And the plotters came back to remind the king of his duty (v. 15).
Faced with an impossible situation, the king did what he had to do. And Daniel was thrown in with the lions. It is ironic that the man who sentenced Daniel to this fate tried to comfort him, as the sentence was carried out (v. 16).
When one reads the literature on this account, there is considerable speculation on the construction of the den. Most are convinced that it was large, and that it had two compartments so that keepers could safely enter to clean it. But no one knows any more than that, though further speculation sometimes is done. The purpose of sealing the den with the king’s seal was to ensure that no one opened the den to rescue Daniel.
After a sleepless night, the king hastened to the den at daybreak to see what had happened. His calling out to Daniel seems to indicate that he had some hope that Daniel may have been delivered by God (vv. 19-20). And lo and behold, he was. Daniel answered him, “My God sent his angel and shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king” (v. 22).
This made the king happy; and he responded in three ways. First, he brought Daniel out of the den (v. 23). Then, second, he cast Daniel’s accusers into the den, along with their families. And the lions immediately devoured them (v. 24). The execution of the families of the plotters, along with the plotters themselves, though terribly cruel, was standard procedure in that culture.
And finally, third, the king issued a decree that gave four reasons for fearing and reverencing Daniel’s God (verses 25-28). One, Daniel’s God is alive (v. 27). Two, he endures forever (v. 27). Three, his kingdom, that is his rule, likewise endures forever. And four, he delivers and rescues by working miracles.