We all face those moments when there is a clear fork in the road. We have to decide if we’re going to follow the ways of God or the ways of the world. Sometimes this takes place internally with temptations to entertain thoughts of anger, jealousy, bitterness, or lust. Other times, the options come from some outward force, an employer, co-worker, friend, or acquaintance. So, we have to choose. Will we show ourselves to be a part of the kingdoms of the world or of the kingdom of God?

James Montgomery Boice shows us exactly what the book of Daniel is all about. This is the introductory sermon to Daniel from the Boice Expositional Commentary series. And James Boice describes this as a choice presented to nations and individuals. Follow along to learn more about God’s purposes for this book.

Whose God is God?

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.

Daniel 1:1–2

Tucked between the great Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel on the one hand, and the twelve minor prophets that conclude the Old Testament on the other, lies Daniel. Jesus called Daniel a prophet, thus validating both the man and his function (Matt. 24:15). But in spite of this authentication, the Book of Daniel has been more vigorously attacked by higher critics of the Old Testament than perhaps any comparable passage of Scripture. One commentator flatly calls it “allegory.” Another says that it “purports to give the story of one Daniel who suffered the first exile under Nebuchadnezzar and lived in the Eastern Diaspora” but that it was actually written much later, after the events it purports to prophesy had happened.

The nineteenth-century scholar and churchman E. B. Pusey had it right when he wrote, “The book of Daniel is especially fitted to be a battleground between faith and unbelief. It admits of no half-way measures. It is either divine or an imposture.”

The Importance of Daniel

What is the value of Daniel apart from its having become a battleground between faith and unbelief? The large proportion of the book given to prophecy is one measure of its value—as well as the main reason for its having become a battleground. But it is not the whole basis for the book’s place in the canon. True, there is a great deal of prophecy. Daniel predicts the precise year of the appearance of Jesus Christ (cf. Dan. 9:25–26). He foretells the history of the world from the time of Nebuchadnezzar up to the beginning of the Christian era. The rise and fall of the Medes and Persians, the Greek kingdom of Alexander the Great, and Rome are described. He speaks of some things yet to come. Although these predictions are important, they are not necessarily the most important themes in Daniel.

What is the chief or most important theme? This is not a hard question, nor do we have to go far for an answer. The theme is at the very beginning in the words that give a historical setting for the story. “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god” (Daniel 1:1–2).

From One Temple to Another

The interesting thing about his beginning of the book, however, is that it is not the four men, whose stories will be told in subsequent chapters, who are said to have been brought back to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar but rather “the articles from the temple of God” that Nebuchadnezzar “put in the treasure house of his god.” That is no incidental or irrelevant beginning. On the contrary, it is the theme of the book and the key to everything that follows.

As the story will show, Nebuchadnezzar was an exceedingly arrogant man. The conquests he made were understood by him to be proof of his superiority (or the superiority of his gods). Jews boasted that their God, Jehovah, was all-powerful. Nebuchadnezzar believed that he was greater than God. So when he forced the capitulation of Jerusalem, his cause and his gods seemed vindicated. It was in demonstration of that conviction that he brought the gold and silver articles that had been dedicated to the service of Jehovah in Jerusalem to Babylon to be placed in the treasure house of his gods. The heathen gods had triumphed! Nebuchadnezzar was sovereign!

In this case, as in so many other historical situations, appearances were deceiving. Actually, Jehovah was as much in charge of the overthrow of Jerusalem as he had been in its defense. In fact, it was Jehovah who had brought on the destruction, sending it as a punishment for the people’s sins. Now, in spite of the fact that he had “delivered Jehoiakim into [Nebuchadnezzar’s] hand,” God was going to show that he was sovereign.

The Sovereign God

Gleason L. Archer, whose commentary in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary is one of the best works on Daniel available today, puts it like this:

The principal theological emphasis in Daniel is the absolute sovereignty of Yahweh, the God of Israel. At a time when it seemed to all the world that his cause was lost and that the gods of the heathen had triumphed, causing his temple to be burned to the ground, it pleased the Lord strikingly and unmistakably to display his omnipotence. The theme running through the whole book is that the fortunes of kings and the affairs of men are subject to God’s decrees, and that he is able to accomplish his will despite the most determined opposition of the mightiest potentates on earth.

The miracles recorded in chapters 1–6 demonstrate God’s sovereignty on behalf of his saints. The surpassing health of Daniel and his three companions after ten days of a simple vegetable diet (ch. 1); the miraculous disclosure to Daniel of the contents of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (ch. 2); the amazing deliverance of Daniel’s three friends from the fiery furnace (ch. 3); the previous warning to Nebuchadnezzar of seven years of dehumanizing insanity because of his overweening pride (ch. 4); the terrifying prediction inscribed on the banquet wall of Belshazzar, followed by a speedy fulfillment of the same (ch. 5); and Daniel’s deliverance from the lions’ den all clearly show that the Lord God of Israel was in charge of the tide of human affairs and was perfectly able to deliver his people from pagan oppression during their captivity.

The great and most important theme of Daniel is that there is but one God, who is Jehovah, and that he is sovereign over the events of history.

A Tale of Two Cities

Yet we need to see this in an even larger context. One of the most influential books on theology is The City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo. Its theme concerns the existence of two societies, which Augustine calls “cities.” One is God’s society. The other is the society of this world. Augustine described them, saying, “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”

This is a proper emphasis, and it is important here because it reminds us that the struggle between Nebuchadnezzar and God, recorded in Daniel, is actually only one example of that greater struggle between the world’s way of doing things and God’s way of doing things. This struggle has prevailed at all times and prevails today. It is this that makes Daniel a contemporary book.

The chief characteristic of Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar’s time was what we would call its radical secular humanism. I say this because of a statement Nebuchadnezzar makes later on in Daniel, in the fourth chapter. He says, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). This is a true statement in one sense. Nebuchadnezzar had built Babylon, and he had undoubtedly done it for his own glory. But he forgot God, the one who had given him the opportunity to create such magnificence. Nebuchadnezzar was actually taking God’s glory to himself. Like all secular humanists, he was saying that all that exists is of man, by man, and for man’s glory. That is a true expression of the earthly city.

Another Secular State

In twentieth-century America secularism is noticeable in many ways. People increasingly view reality as emerging from man and as existing for man and his glory. Let me give two examples.

First, there is the philosophy of evolution, which is the dominant reference for most persons’ thinking and which extends to almost everything. Why is evolution so popular, and why are our educators so insistent that they teach it and only it in our schools? There are different reasons for evolution’s popularity, of course. For one thing, according to evolutionary theory, everything is knowable since everything stands in a direct causal relationship to everything else and may be traced backward or forward through those relationships. This has obvious appeal.

Second, reality has only one explanation: The fittest survive, whether a biological mutation, a government, or an ideal. Third—and I think this is the chief reason—evolution eliminates God. This is precisely what Nebuchadnezzar was trying to do in his own way. If all things can be explained as the natural outworking or development of previous causes, then God may be safely banished to an otherworldly kingdom or even be eliminated altogether, as many, even so-called theologians, have done. Evolution allows man to be the center of the universe.

Church vs. State

The second example of today’s secularism is our current doctrine of the separation of church and state, which comes into a study of Daniel if for no other reason than that the struggle of Nebuchadnezzar, who represents the state, against God is so prominent. The doctrine of the separation of church and state used to mean that each functioned separately, kings or presidents not being allowed to appoint clerical authorities or run the church, and clerical authorities not being allowed to appoint kings or presidents. Nevertheless, it was always understood that both church and state were responsible to God, in whose wisdom each had been established. They were two independent servants of one master. Although neither was permitted to rule the other, each was to remind the other of its God-appointed duties and recall it to upright, godly conduct if it should stray.

Today, however, the doctrine of the separation of church and state is taken, often by church people, to mean that the church is irrelevant to the state—though the state increasingly brings its secular philosophy to bear on the church. Thus Christians withdraw from politics and neglect even to inform themselves of national or international issues. As a result, the articulation of spiritual and moral principles is eliminated from debates. The state becomes its own god with its chief operating principle being paganism. For its part, the state deliberately tries to keep religious values out of politics, promising to protect the right to worship so long as those wanting to worship do so on the reservation. The one thing Christians and other religious people must not do is attempt to bring their convictions out of this isolation ward into the real world.

Only One Master

This is the way the world’s city always thinks. Nebuchadnezzar considered himself master because he was able to take gold and silver out of the Jerusalem treasury and carry them to Babylon. Cain, which is where the secular city began, considered himself master because he had the strength and cunning to kill Abel. Rome considered itself master because its legions were able to march unhindered across the ancient world.

But the world is not master. God is master. God is sovereign, and he is able to bring the secular city down. He did it in the case of Nebuchadnezzar, as the story of Daniel shows. Nebuchadnezzar judged himself superior to all around him because of his military triumphs and achievements. He thought he had no need for God. But God declared, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:31–32). That is what happened. Nebuchadnezzar became insane and was driven from the city (v. 33).

This is what happens when people take the glory of God to themselves. They lose the proper glory they should have, that of God’s image, and they become like beasts. Indeed, they become worse than beasts—because beasts, when they are beastlike, are at least behaving the way beasts should behave, while we, by contrast, commit crimes of which they cannot even conceive.

The People of God

At the same time, while the world is living by its own standards and for its own glory in opposition to God, there is another people who know God and honestly try to please him. In this story they are Daniel and his friends. They are not the most visible people, just as the city they represent is not nearly so visible as the city of this world. But they are substantial people. And in the final analysis they are the only ones who make any real difference for good.

Are you with Daniel? No one is by nature in the company of these servants of the true God. All are born into the secular city. But one only enters the city of God by the new birth through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). The doors of that city stand open for any who will enter it. The New Testament says of Abraham, another citizen of the heavenly city who lived for God in the secular city, “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9–10).

If you are not a member of the city of God, I invite you to become one now through faith in Jesus Christ, and then begin to live here in a way that makes the invisible kingdom visible to many.

More Biblical Teaching with the Boice Expositional Commentary

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