Daniel and the Lions: a political thriller

As we conclude our tour of the first six chapters of Daniel, we come to the best known story in the whole book: Daniel in the lions’ den. Although we won’t get to the literal den of lions until tomorrow, as we read the set-up of the plot we’ll notice that Daniel’s already very much in a metaphorical den of lions. He’s surrounded by jealous and scheming enemies who wish to do him harm, frequently described as “lions” by David:

Psalms 57:4 I am in the midst of lions; I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. (See also Ps 22:13, 21; 35:17.)

The story begins with the new king, Darius,* appointing Daniel as one of his three key administrators – and grooming him for the top job. Which doesn’t go down well with all the others, having this foreigner put in charge:

Daniel 6:1-4 It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps** to rule throughout the kingdom, 2 with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. The satraps were made accountable to them so that the king might not suffer loss. 3 Now 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. 4 At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.

As well as reminding us of chapter two, in which Daniel is portrayed as Joseph 2.0, this reinforces the pattern for God’s people are living under foreign rule: ordinarily, they should be living in such a way as to be above reproach, working for the welfare of the city in which they are living, and generally being obedient, law-abiding citizens. Ordinarily. But we’re about to get a challenge to that pattern, when Daniel’s jealous rivals work out his weak spot:

Daniel 6:5-9 Finally these 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.” 6 So these administrators and satraps went as a group to the king and said: “May King Darius live forever! 7 The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. 8 Now, Your Majesty, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered—in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” 9 So King Darius put the decree in writing.

In this ancient version of Supersize Me (Deify Me?), for thirty days the only being to which you can pray is the king. It obviously would appeal to the king’s ego, and be a great way to command loyalty. And it’s put in writing so it’s irrevocable, one of the features of the Medo-Persian legal systems. (In the next century, Haman uses this same set-up to trap Mordecai, recorded in the book of Esther.)

So what does Daniel do? Pray secretly for thirty days, to avoid getting himself into trouble? Or demonstrate in the streets, praying publicly in defiance of the order and asserting his right to religious freedom? No, he again follows that “middle way” of chapter one, making a quiet yet visible stand:

Daniel 6:10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.

He doesn’t make a big fuss. But he makes sure the windows are open, so that his act of loyalty to God – which now, by necessity, involved disloyalty to the king – would be seen. And he trusts God with the rest. (Why toward Jerusalem? He was probably following Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, in 1 Kings 8:35-36, even though the temple wasn’t physically there anymore.)

The predictable happens. The “lions” turn up, and they spot him disobeying the command. So they hurry off to the king report Daniel’s disloyalty:

Daniel 6:11-12 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. 12 So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: “Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or human being except to you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into the lions’ den?” The king answered, “The decree stands—in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.”

Clearly they’re just bursting to blurt this next bit out.

Daniel 6:13 Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.”

The king – who is clearly very fond of Daniel – tries to find a way around it:

Daniel 6:14 When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.

But the law is the law, and he has no choice.

Daniel 6:15 Then the men went as a group to King Darius and said to him, “Remember, Your Majesty, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.”

So the sentence is carried out, with heavy heart:

Daniel 6:16 So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”

And so the scene is set for a showdown between Daniel’s God and the “god” the plotters had tried to turn the king into. The battle between Daniel and his “lions” just got literal.

For good measure – and to show if someone, even the king himself, had tampered with the lions’ den and rescued Daniel – by sealing it with everyone’s signet ring:

Daniel 6:17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed.

And the king has to wait an agonisingly long wait throughout the night to see whether God would rescue him.

Daniel 6:18 Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep.

He doesn’t eat. He doesn’t sleep. And he can’t be distracted by either Netflix or chill. He just waits for the next day to arrive to find out what happens.

And so will we.

* Who was Darius? There’s no other historical record of a Darius at this time – Cyrus was the ruler of Persia at the time it took over Babylon – which makes it difficult to work out where he fits into the timeline of history. Some say his naming as Darius is inaccurate, reading a later king called Darius (552 – 486 BC) back into the story – this later Darius is recorded as introducing a new administrative system of satraps. But we need to remember that about a century ago, there was no record of Belshazzar either, until archaeological research caught up and discovered his co-regency with Nabonidus (see Monday’s post). So for now, we have to be content with the fact that we don’t know for sure. Various views that try to harmonise the Darius of the Bible with other historical records include:

  • Darius is the “throne name” (like a stage name; or even a pope-name) for Cyrus.
  • Darius is a governor of Babylon, not the king.
  • Darius is the throne name of Ugbaru, the general who conquered Babylon and then ruled it under Cyrus, the supreme ruler. (Emperors in those days couldn’t run their kingdom from everywhere, given the lack of telephones and Air Force One. So if they were off leading a military campaign, or relaxing in a picturesque holiday citadel, they needed to have someone in charge to rule the empire in their absence.)

See Tremper Longman III, Daniel, pp.157-58.

** Your guide to satraps:


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