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 (Mathew 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.”
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 (Daniel 9:25–26). He foretells the history of his portion of the world from the time of Nebuchadnezzar up to the beginning of the Christian era, accurately forecasting the rise and fall of the Medes and Persians, the Greek kingdom of Alexander the Great and his successors, and Rome. 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 stated 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 gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God [the temple]. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, [in Babylonia] and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god” (Daniel 1:1–2). The principal theological emphasis in Daniel is the absolute sovereignty of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
By way of historical background it is helpful to know that Nebuchadnezzar attacked the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah three times, beginning in 605 b.c., a little more than a hundred years after the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians.
The second invasion occurred in 597 b.c., when Jehoiakim, son of the king of Judah mentioned in Daniel 1:1–2, was compelled to surrender Jerusalem and go into captivity with many of the Jewish leaders, including the royal family, the commanders of the army, craftsmen, and even some of the priests like Ezekiel. The third invasion was the one we remember most. It took place in 586 b.c. when Jerusalem was completely destroyed and the people of the land were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah was in Jerusalem at the time of this final destruction of the city.
Since Daniel begins by relating the events of the book to the deliverance of King Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands, it must have been through the first of these three invasions that Daniel and his friends Hananiah (renamed Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abednego) were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon to be trained for Nebuchadnezzar’s service.
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, and the conquests he made were understood by him to be proof of his superiority (or the superiority of his gods, which he did not always clearly distinguish from himself) to all others. Jews boasted that their God, Jehovah, was all-powerful. Nebuchadnezzar believed that he was greater than that 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 many times earlier 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 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.
“For He is the living God, enduring forever; His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and His dominion shall be to the end” (Daniel 6:26).