Against all odds: The Sovereign King

Daniel 1:1-21

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, 10 and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.” 11 Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, 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 it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. 16 So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.


I moved to Australia when I was 10 and about to turn 11 years old. And I did not move by choice. I wanted to stay in Bali but I had no choice because my family moved to Sydney. You can say that I was taken into exile to Sydney. And it was a very frustrating time for me. When I moved to Sydney, I barely speak English. On my first day at school, I was extremely afraid to the point that I got diarrhea on my pants. What a way to start your first day at school right? The only three sentences I knew in English was, “My name is Yosi. How are you? Where is the toilet?” And I got detention on my first week at school because I did not do my homework. I didn’t even know I had homework because I did not understand my teacher at all. It was miserable. But over time, I began to understand more and more. I became more fluent in English and I adapted to western culture. So, I became a bi-lingual and bi-cultural person. And if you are bi-cultural, you know that it is not easy at all. For many years, I struggled with identity. I grew up in a home with an eastern culture where honour in the family is the most important value. But I lived in a society of western culture where personal achievement is the most important value. And I struggled a lot. For example, lots of my friends left the house at the age of 18. That’s when you become an adult. And they made fun of you for living with your parents. That’s western culture. But my parents are from eastern culture and they see things differently. “You are not leaving the house unless you are married.” So I could be 40 and still living with my parents. The society does not think of me an independent adult because I still lived with my parents, and my parent does not think of me as an independent adult because I am not married. And I am 34. Being bi-cultural is hard. I am not complaining though. Free-rent and free food every day. What could go wrong right? Or to put it in the words of my best friend, ”You get to eat mud crab for dinner and don’t have to spend a single dollar for it. While I only get to eat crab stick and I have to pay for it.” Living with parents is great.

Why am I telling you this story? Because as Christians, we are called to be spiritually bi-cultural. We lived in a culture that is getting more and more hostile to the God of the Bible. Marriage is no longer reserved between man and woman. Man can marry man and woman can marry woman. And they legalized it based on the argument of human rights and equality. Therefore, they said that for us to reject homosexual marriage is to reject human rights. The use of Marijuana is also legal now in our country. Christians who hold to their Biblical values are called bigots. How about this one. Now you can choose your own gender. Maybe you were born with a male body and male sexual organ and your parents named you Bob. But deep inside, you don’t feel like Bob but Barbie. If that’s you then you are free to have a transgender operation and free the real you. You can be Barbie instead of Bob.

There are lots of differences between the values of Christians and the values of our culture. These are some of the questions that I often asked myself. How do I live as a believer in an unbelieving world? How can I remain faithful to God in a world that rejects him? How can I live courageously and confidently in a city that does not follow God’s rule? Is it worth it to obey God at a high cost to myself when it does not look like it will get better anytime soon? Is it possible for me to be a blessing to my city under such conditions? Have you ever asked any of these questions? It all comes down to this question: How can I remain faithful to God and be a blessing to my city at the same time? Because that is what it means to be spiritually bi-cultural.


Today we are starting a new 6-sermon series on the book of Daniel. If you are not familiar with the book of Daniel, the first six chapters of the book of Daniel tell stories of how Daniel and his friends remain faithful to God and be a blessing to a city that is hostile to God. Daniel was an Israelite who grew up in a country that was centred on God. Their education, government, arts and culture were centred in the God of the Bible. However, they were taken into a Babylon, a county that was hostile to the God of the Bible. Everything about Babylon was contrary to Israel. In fact, Babylon is also used in the Bible to personify evil. Babylon represents the worst of the worst. So, Daniel, a God-fearing man, found himself in a city that did not want to have anything to do with his God. And as we will see, his life is an incredible example of how to live and thrive in the most godless environments. Daniel found many ways to remain faithful to God and be a blessing in a city that was far more wicked than anything we face. That is why this book is extremely important for us today. We are going to take a look at Daniel and how he did it.

Our passage for today is Daniel chapter 1. This chapter is crucial to our understanding of the book of Daniel. This chapter is not simply an introduction to the story, but it also shows us the main theme of the book of Daniel. Because the Israelites are now taken into exile. They are living in a country who worships different gods, in a culture that celebrates different values, under a king who is extremely powerful and wicked. And the question is, where is the God of Israel? How can he let this happened to his people? Does he not care about his people anymore? Does he change his mind about Israel? And the answer is, God has not changed. God is with them in Babylon. And this is the main theme of the book: God is the Sovereign King. He is not limited by any king or kingdom. God is in control of who is in control. And soon, Babylon will know that there is a God in Babylon.


Let’s get into the text. I’ll separate this chapter into three different themes. The Sovereign King over history; The Sovereign King over circumstances; The Sovereign King over individuals.


The Sovereign King over history


Daniel 1:1-2 – 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 gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, 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 placed the vessels in the treasury of his god.

The book of Daniel opens with a crisis. What happened is that Babylon defeated the army of Judah, overtaken the city of Jerusalem, and carried off its people into exile. And not only that, but they also took some of the vessels from the temple of God into Babylon. That is very bad news. It is customary in those days for a country who defeated the other country to take vessels from the temple. The same thing happened in the war with the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 5, the Israelites were heavily defeated and the Philistines captured the ark of the tabernacle. Now the ark of the tabernacle was a sign of the presence of God in Israel. And the ark was in the possession of the Philistines. They took the ark out of Israel and brought it to one of their city called Ashdod, and put it beside their god, Dagon, in the house of Dagon. Now those cultures believed that every god had their own territories. And the stronger your god, the stronger his territories became. So the Philistines not only defeated the Israelites in war but also took Israelites’ God out of his territories and put him under Dagon’s territories. With another word, they were declaring that Dagon was the better god than the God of Israel.

But when they woke up the next day, something weird happened. They came to the house of Dagon and found Dagon fell flat on its face on the ground before the ark of the Lord. They thought it was an accident. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. But when they woke up the next morning, “behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold” (1 Samuel 5:4). This was God’s way of saying that he is a God like no other. “So what if you take me out of my territory? Do you think Dagon can hold me back? Let me show you what I can do. I’ll not only make Dagon fall before me, I’ll break him apart to pieces so that you know that there is no God like the God of Israel.” The God of Israel is not limited by territory.

But now, Judah is fully defeated. Jerusalem is destroyed. People are taken into exile. Surely, the God of Israel is powerless before the God of Babylon. The people of Babylon is probably singing, “Praise Marduk from whom all blessings flow.” By taking some of the vessels from the house of God, they are saying, “Our god is better than your God.” The God of Israel lost. The god of Babylon won. But the beginning of the book of Daniel tells us, “Hold up. That is not what’s happening.” From a human’s perspective, it might seem that Babylon has won. But then Daniel opens the curtain of history and reveals to us another perspective that is not visible to human eyes. Verse 2, “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God.” It is the Lord who gives Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar. Did you hear that? The Bible insists that the God of the Bible is not absent. He is the Sovereign King who actively exercises his sovereignty in history. He directs history as he wills. When catastrophe strikes the kingdom of Judah, it is God and not Nebuchadnezzar who is ultimately moving the wheel of history to accomplish his purpose. His sovereignty surpasses the power of the mightiest of human rulers. Nothing happens outside the control of the Sovereign King. Nothing catches him by surprise. He is not surprised at the rise of Nebuchadnezzar. He is not surprised at the rise of Hitler and Stalin. And he is certainly not surprised by Covid19. God is the Sovereign King over history.

The question then, why did God do it? If he is the Sovereign King over history, why did he allow his people to be taken into exile? Because God is faithful to his word. He already warned Israel in many different places and through many different prophets that if the Israelites breaks their covenant with God and run after other gods, then God would destroy their city and sent them into exile. And God was patient with Israel but Israel never learned her lesson. Therefore, God kept his word and sent them into exile. At first glance, this sounds like bad news. But let me tell you why this is good news. If God is faithful in delivering his judgement, surely he will be faithful in showing grace to his people. The one who sent them into exile has also promised to be with them in exile and ultimately restore them from exile. Even though it is the judgement of God that sent Israelites into exile, God has not abandon his people. He is with them in the exile and he will be faithful to them. Yes, God sent his people into exile but because of it, Babylon will witness the power of the true Sovereign King over history. They will know that there is a God in Babylon. That is why this is good news. God is faithful to his word. To live faithfully in exile, we need to know God’s faithfulness.


The Sovereign King over circumstances


Many people know that Nebuchadnezzar not only plundered the goods in the city, but he also took the people into exile. What most people don’t know and I did not know until I studied this passage recently is that Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem twice. In 587 BC, he destroyed the kingdom of Judah. But 10 years before that, Nebuchadnezzar defeated Judah but did not destroy Judah. He did not take everyone into exile. Instead, he commanded his chief of eunuchs to select 10,000 people who were of a noble family, good looking and smart, and bring them to Babylon. So he selected the best of the bests to live in Babylon. Why? This is very strategic. Instead of destroying the whole country, how do you make another country become your subject? It’s simple. You take the best of the bests, you bring them to Babylon and you “Babylonize” them. You brainwash them with Babylon culture so they can brainwash their home country later. How do you brainwash them into a new culture? Three things. First, a new education. These people are put at Babylon University to be re-educated with Babylonian literature, which involved studying magic and divination. Second, a new lifestyle. They are to eat and drink from the king’s table. They are given the privileges of being a Babylonian. Third, a new identity. Their names are changed into Babylonian names. For us, changing names is not a big deal. People call me by different names. Yos, Yosi, Yosiah, Yoyo, Koyo, Ochi, etc. But in the ancient world, changing name is a big deal. Their name is their identity. And now they are given a new name that is associated with the Babylonian gods. Take Daniel for example. The name Daniel in Hebrews means “God is my judge.” Awesome name right? But his name is changed into Belteshazzar, which is a Babylonian name that means, “Bel is my god.” It’s like changing your name from the son of God to son of Satan. “Hey, son of Satan, how are you?” How do you like that? So this is the strategy for them to forget Israel and love Babylon.

Question: What would you do if you were Daniel? Would you just accept everything and be brainwashed by Babylon or would you resist everything and remain true to your Jewish identity? That’s a question that we must ask ourselves. Would we let our culture brainwash us or do we reject everything that the culture tells us? There are two trains of thoughts in Daniel’s time. One is by the prophet Hananiah and the other by the prophet Jeremiah. You can find it in Jeremiah 28 and 29. This is what Hananiah is saying. “Don’t you dare move into Babylon. We are believers. Babylon is a wicked city. It is the source of everything evil. Stay away from it. Don’t be influenced by their culture. Do not live in it. God will soon judge the city and destroy Babylon and we will be vindicated. We should have nothing to do with Babylon and pray for God to restore Israel back to power. We are God’s chosen people. He will deliver us soon if we stay away from Babylon.”

On the other hand, Jeremiah said something very different. Jeremiah is still in Judah at this time, and he heard what happened to the exiles and he writes them a letter. It is amazing. This becomes the blueprint for Daniel’s life. By the way, if you have not realized, Hananiah is the false prophet and Jeremiah is the true prophet of God. Jeremiah 29:4-7 – “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Did you catch that? And this leads to one of the most misused verses in the Bible. Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

This is massive. Jeremiah 29 is not saying that God will give you your dream future. God is not saying that at all. God is saying that he has a future and a hope for his people. But that future looks very different from what they have in mind. The future that God has in mind for them is to spend the next 70 years in Babylon. This is absolutely shocking to the people who received the letter. Three things that God is saying to the people in exile. First, God is saying, “I am the one who sent you into exile. I am the one who did it. I am the one who brought you into Babylon. It is part of my plan for my people to live in a wicked city.” Second, God is saying, “Move into the city. Get into the city. Work in the city. Live in the city. Get married, have kids and multiply. Seek the welfare of the city. Do good for the city. Be involved in the city. I want you to make the city great. I want you to make it prosperous. I want you to love the city. For the city’s welfare is your welfare.” And the third thing God says is, “I want you to pray to me. I want you to rely on me. Pray to me on behalf of the city. Don’t lose your identity as my people. Seek the welfare of the city and remain my people.” The word welfare comes from the Hebrew word shalom which means the complete wellbeing. Not just physical and material wellbeing but also spiritual wellbeing. With another word, God is saying, “I want you not only to make the city prosperous, but I also want you to spread your faith in the city. I want you to give your life so that city may know me. Make the city great and make my name great in the city.”

This is very different from what the false prophet is saying. The false prophet is saying, “Stay out of the city or else you will lose your identity. You will become like the Babylonians. You either withdraw from the city and keep your identity or you become like the city and lose your identity. The two choices you have are assimilation or separation.” God says neither. There is a third way, the gospel way. Let me sum up what God is saying through Jeremiah. God does not want you to love him and hate the city. God does not want you to love the city and hate him. God wants you to love both him and the city. My friend, this is a game-changer. That means as a Christian, we are called to be spiritually bi-cultural. We are called to love both God and the city. It means that we work hard for the city but we do not become one with the city. We don’t accept everything the city throw at us. If we only accept everything the city throw at us, we are not seeking the shalom of the city. We assimilate with the city. But if we reject everything the city throw at us, we are also not seeking the shalom of the city. We withdraw from the city. But to be spiritually bicultural is to love God for the good of the city.


How do we do that? Look at the life of Daniel. Daniel is spiritually bicultural. He does not reject the new education, lifestyle and name that Nebuchadnezzar gives him. In fact, he excels at it. Daniel graduated from the University of Babylon with Suma Cum Laude. By the way, that means that Daniel excels in magic and divination. He had to study all Babylonian culture which includes all those stuff. If Daniel is alive today, he would get in trouble with many Christians. Right? “What you study magic and divination? You learn how to interpret horoscope? And you call yourself a Christian? And what? You changed your name to the son of Satan? How dare you?” But that is exactly what Daniel did. Daniel mastered the art of the city but he also kept his distinctive identity.

Daniel 1:8 – But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. This is a very important verse. This verse does not teach that for us to be God’s people we need to change our diet to Daniel’s plan. Sorry, Rick Warren. But this verse does show us how to live for the city and not become one with the city. Do you see what Daniel did? Daniel sets a boundary to maintain his distinctiveness as God’s people. And he chooses to do that by resolving not to defile himself with the king’s food. Why? What’s wrong with the food? There are two common explanations. One, because the food is unclean. For example, the king eats pork, Daniel says no to pork. But if this is the reason, why Daniel refused to drink wine? God never prohibited his people from drinking wine. Two, because the food is offered to idols. But if this is the reason, why accept vegetables? There is no reason to think that if the meats are offered to idols, the vegetables are not offered to idols. So why food restriction? Here is what I think. Daniel might be in Babylon, but he will not let Babylon get into him. There are many things outside of his control, but in the few areas that are within his control, he seeks to preserve his distinct identity. And look at what happens next.

Daniel 1:9 – And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs. This is the second “God gave” in this chapter. God is not only the Sovereign King over history but he is also the Sovereign King over every circumstance in life. Just think about it. There is absolutely no reason for a Babylonian to care about Jewish exiles. At first, the chief of the eunuchs refused Daniel’s request because he is afraid that he will get into trouble with king Nebuchadnezzar. But Daniel refuses to give up. Daniel is not stubborn but he uses wisdom to live out his identity. He negotiates with the chief of the eunuchs and they agreed to test him for 10 days with only eating vegetables and drinking water. And at the end of 10 days, voila, Daniel and his friends look better in appearance and fatter than the rest. What is the lesson here? Vegetables make you fat. No, that is not the lesson. The lesson is that as Daniel seeks to love both God and the city, God makes the heart of the chief of the eunuchs to show favour to Daniel. It is God who gave Daniel favour through the chief of the eunuchs. God is the one who orchestrated every circumstance for the good of his people. God is always present with his people and he works behind the scenes as his people seek to love him and the city. God is the Sovereign King over circumstances.


So, it is possible for us to love God and be useful to the city at the same time. The life of Daniel is an example of it. Daniel is living and working at the highest position in a wicked kingdom and yet he does it by being a distinctive believer in the God of the Bible. But get this. This is not easy at all. It requires you to think hard and struggle. Let me give you an example that I stole from Timothy Keller. Let’s say you are a Christian actor and you move to Hollywood. The question is, what kind of roles can you take and not take? Are there roles you shouldn’t take? Are there roles you should be seeking? What is the prohibition? Where do you draw the line? These are hard questions. If you just come to Hollywood and accepts whatever roles given to you, you are not loving God. If you never ask yourself, “How can I live out my faith in this role? How can I point people to Jesus with my acting? How can I make Hollywood a better place with my presence? How can I seek the wellfare of Hollywood?” If you never wrestle with these questions, you have become one with Hollywood. You assimilated. You have lost yourself. On the other hand, if you say, “I will only act according to my faith. I will only act the role that is written in the Bible” you are in trouble. You are not going to be a good actor. What are the rules of Christian acting? We don’t have a manual from God on how to be a Christian actor. And if you reject every role you have to play except the role of Jesus, you will be a very bad actor. You separate yourself from the city. So if you accept every role, you have become one with Hollywood. But if you reject every role except the holy role, you separate yourself from Hollywood. Can you see why this is not easy? You have to do the hard work of thinking it out. That’s what it means to be Daniel.

This is very different from what I learned in Sunday school. In my Sunday School, I was taught that to be Daniel was to dare to be different. My Sunday school teacher never told me that to be Daniel is for me to learn all the dark arts of Babylon and to excel in it and remain a faithful Christian at the same time. Most churches are not saying what Jeremiah is saying. They are saying what Hananiah is saying. “Stay away from the world. Keep yourself holy and pure. Do not learn the arts of the world. Do not listen to secular music. Burn all your secular CDs. It is of the devil. Only listen to Christian music and watch Christian show. Pikachu is of the devil. Burn it!” So people in the church bring all their secular CDs and Pikachu and burn it. And when you burn the CDs, you hear the ”hiss” sound and you say, ”It is the demon.” No. That’s what happened when you burn CDs. True story. But Jeremiah is saying something very different. “God is sending you into the city. Learn from it. Give your life for the city. And do it for God’s sake.” This what it means to be spiritually bicultural.


The Sovereign King over individuals


Daniel 1:17-20 – 17 As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. 18 At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. 20 And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.

I love it. This is the third “God gave” in this passage. As Daniel and friends seek out to love God and the city, God gives them learning and skills in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel even has understanding in all visions and dreams, which will be very important in the near future. Nebuchadnezzar finds Daniel and friends to be ten times better than all the magicians in all his kingdom. God is the Sovereign King over individuals. He will give you the wisdom and skills you need to love him and the city. I used to think that these verses mean that I do not have to study hard because God will make me times smarter than everyone in my class if I am being a good Christian. But it does not mean that. It does not mean that Daniel slacks off and did not study. Daniel studies hard but it is God who prospers his study.

Look at the last verse in this chapter. Daniel 1:21 – And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus. This is massive. In one sentence, the author of the book of Daniel tells us that Daniel outlasts the kingdom of Babylon. Daniel remains in his position until the kingdom of Persia. If chapter 1 begins with a great defeat, it ends with a great victory. Daniel is introduced as an exile in Babylon but he outlasts Babylon. God has a purpose in sending Daniel to Babylon as an exile. Daniel is to bear witness about the God of Israel before different kingdoms. Mighty Babylon will fall but the servant of God will continue. Kingdom rise and fall but the Sovereign King of the universe remain in control. And this is what the book of Daniel is all about. The main character of the book of Daniel is not Daniel but God. It is God who moves history as he pleases for his purposes. And God uses the life of Daniel to tell the world about the one true God. It is God who makes him a blessing in Babylon and sustains his faith at the same time. And this is what God wants to do with our lives. He wants people in our city to know him through our lives. God is the Sovereign King.


However, this is what is amazing about our Sovereign King. He did not only tell us that we can be like Daniel, but he also becomes Daniel for us. The story of Daniel is pointing to the greater Daniel that has shown us what it means to be like Daniel. Like Daniel, Jesus is sent to a foreign land, away from home. But unlike Daniel, Jesus left his home willingly and he entered our Babylon, the sinful world. Like Daniel, Jesus is spiritually bi-cultural. He is fully God and fully man at the same time. He is full of grace and he is full of truth. He loves the world, but he did not become like the world. And like Daniel, Jesus stands before the ruler of his time. But unlike Daniel, Jesus is crucified even though he did nothing wrong. And by his death, all who put their faith in him are forgiven of their sin and become the citizens of the kingdom of God. And now Jesus has returned from his exile and he is seated at the right hand of God with all power and authority, forever interceding for you and me. Jesus is constantly praying for us. And this is his prayer.

John 17:15-19 – 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. This is what it means to be spiritually bi-cultural. We are in the world but not of the world. And we can only do this by understanding that Jesus has consecrated himself for us. He gave himself for us so that we may also be sanctified in the truth. That is the gospel. Jesus has done everything for our sake that we may be his faithful witness in the world. The key to be like Daniel is not to be Daniel but to embrace the gospel. Fix your eyes on Jesus and be Daniel to your city.



Discussion questions


  1. Explain in your own words what does it mean to be spiritually bi-cultural.
  2. Why is it very important for us to understand the sovereignty of God in order for us to be spiritually bi-cultural?
  3. There are three ways to live in relation to the cutlure. Assimilate; Separate; Gospel. Can you give examples from your daily life on how these three ways play out?
  4. Why did Daniel resolved to eat only vegetables and water? What principal does it teach us?
  5. Imagine you are a Christian actor in Hollywood. How would you live a spiritual bi-cultural life? Be specific.
  6. How does the gospel enable us to be Daniel for our city?
  7. Pray for one another that God may give wisdom and grace to both love God and the city of Sydney. 
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.