In 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and enslaved many of the brightest and most promising Hebrew boys and took them back to Babylon. In Babylon they were to be trained for three years and then placed into the Babylonian King’s service. Approximately fifteen years of age, Daniel. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of the Hebrew boys who were first captured. “The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego. But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.”
John Calvin lived in an age of ecclesiastical and political warfare in which many thousands suffered greatly for their faith. In Germany in 1546, Charles V began a war to stamp out Lutheranism. In France, between 1540 and 1544, Francis I attempted the same thing, massacring the Waldensians as part of his misconceived program. In 1545 he burned twenty-two villages and killed three thousand men and women. Others were sent to the galleys. In 1562, the year after Calvin’s commentary on Daniel appeared, the eight Wars of Religion began, the destruction of which was so great that Europe did not recover for two centuries. Thousands became exiles during this period. Many fled to Switzerland where Calvin, who was himself an exile, lived.
Calvin’s commentary breathes with compassion for these people, and as a result it has always appealed to those who consider themselves exiles in a strange land. It appeals even more broadly than this. For Daniel was a man of God in worldly Babylon, and Christians are always God’s people in the midst of those who do not honor and in fact oppose their divine King.
Calvin dedicated his book to the “pious Protestants of France” and hoped Daniel would bring them great encouragement. “I have the very best occasion of showing you, beloved brethren, in this mirror, how God proves the faith of his people in these days by various trials; and how with wonderful wisdom he has taken care to strengthen their minds by ancient examples, that they should never be weakened by the concussion of the severest storms and tempests; or at least, if they should totter at all, that they should never finally fall away. “
In order to understand Daniel we must realize that the Babylon to which Daniel and his three friends were taken was a secular, worldly place and their initial experiences there were intended to blot out of their minds the remembrance of the true God and their homeland. We see this in several ways. For one thing, Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to choose young men who would be easily molded by their new environment. Again, he attempted to lure them with the delicacies of food the great city of Babylon could provide.
The Hebrew names of these young men were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were changed to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It should be immediately evident to anyone with even a limited knowledge of Hebrew that the Jewish names of these men each contains a name of God and has a spiritual meaning. Daniel and Mishael both contain the syllable el, which means “God” and is the basis of the frequently appearing (plural) name Elohim. Daniel means “God is my Judge.” Mishael means “Who is like God?” The other two names, Hananiah and Azariah, both contain a shortened form of the name Jehovah. Hananiah means “Jehovah is gracious.” Azariah means “Jehovah is my helper.” The very names of these men were reminders of their heritage and a challenge to them to remain faithful to the Lord. But now, deported into a strange, pagan land, their names are changed. And the names they are given all contain a reference to one of the false gods of the ancient Babylonians, Aku and Nego. It was a way of saying that these who had been servants of the Jewish God were now servants and worshipers of the gods of the pagan pantheon.
Yet the change accomplished nothing. Nebuchadnezzar changed the men’s names, but he could not change their hearts. They remained faithful to the true God of Israel, as the story shows.
I apply that to our own age. One thing the world seems always to try to do – it has happened in the past, and it is happening in our own time – is to take Christian words and rework them to convey the world’s ideas. I suppose it is one of the devil’s subtlest tricks. It happens in liberal theology. “Sin” used to mean rebellion against God and his righteous law or, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” But today it means ignorance or merely the kind of oppression that is supposed to reside in social structures. “Jesus” is no longer the incarnate God who died for our salvation, but rather our example or what might even be termed an evolutionary peak of the human race. “Faith” is awareness of oppression and beginning to do something about it, and so on. Of course, in the secular world the readjustment of words is even more ridiculous and extreme.
This is a great danger, I admit. But although it is a danger, if the truth of what is behind these words remains strong in the minds and hearts of those who really know the truth, then the vitality of the faith will remain regardless of the world’s corruptions. Christians will persevere because God will strengthen them to stand against the culture.
God has called believers to freedom and Independence. Freedom from sin (by being converted) and independence from the culture – regardless of what is taking place.