It is easy to get bogged down in the details of apocalyptic literature when reading Daniel and miss the important theology of the book. Daniel has several major theological themes which might be overlooked if we focus only on the difficult interpretive problems.
The fall of Jerusalem was a profound crisis of faith for the Jewish people. Prior to 586 BC they believed that because they were God’s people and God dwelled on Mount Zion, the city of Jerusalem would never be destroyed. They might be oppressed by Assyria or Babylon, but God would always rescue them. It was unthinkable the Temple itself could be dismantled, the Temple treasures stolen and placed at the feet of a pagan god in a temple in Babylon.
Beyond the national disaster, the fall of Jerusalem was a spiritual and theological disaster. For the exiles forced to settle in Babylon, it may have appeared God had forsaken his people. God’s judgment was severe, perhaps he has canceled his promises when scattered his people among the nations to love as foreigners and aliens. Perhaps, the gods of the Babylonians were more powerful than the God of Israel? Maybe Yahweh is a cruel and capricious god who goes back on his promises? Perhaps the Jew in exile should switch loyalties and follow the greater gods of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. After all, where had serving Yahweh gotten them, except exiled from their homeland?
The message of Daniel speaks to these issues. Daniel is clear: God has not changed nor has God been defeated by gods of Babylon. He is still fully in charge of the world and he cares deeply for the suffering of his people. Daniel looks forward to a time when God will restore his people and fulfill all of his promises made to Abraham, David, and the Prophets.
First, the main theme of Daniel is God is Sovereign. That God is sovereign over the world is a theme found throughout Scripture but it is in the forefront of the book of Daniel. This theme begins in the first few verses of chapter 1. When Nebuchadnezzar captures Jerusalem and takes Daniel and his three friends captive to Babylon, the writer is clear it is the Lord who handed Jehoiakim into the hands of Babylon. It is the Lord who gives favor to Daniel and gives prosperity to the four you exiles. It is the Lord who protects them and gives them advantage over all of the other exiles being trained for service to Babylon. The Lord gives Daniel his special ability to interpret dreams.
This message would be extremely comforting for the Jew living in the post-exilic world, under the Persians, Greeks, Romans, or at any point in their history. After the captivity the Jews thought they were going to return to Jerusalem and God would restore the kingdom to them. That was what the prophets promised! But this restoration did not happen as many expected. The Jewish people went from submission to the Babylonians to the Greeks and later to the Romans. They never realized the ideal of the Davidic kingdom of the Old Testament.
It would be very easy for a Jew to doubt God was truly in charge of world events. How could God allow the Babylonians to destroy the Temple of God in his most holy city Jerusalem! This is the complaint of Habakkuk, who questioned God’s use of the Babylonians to punish Israel. Yet Daniel presents God as raising up the empires and humbling him according to his will.
God cares about the suffering of his people. There are several stories presenting Daniel and his friends in difficult situations where their faith is tested. There is a potential for suffering in the first chapter. Daniel 3 and 6 put the characters to the test in life threatening situations (a fiery furnace and a lion’s den). In each case, God protects them even though they are willing to die than break important boundaries of their faith in God.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish people may have thought God no longer cares for his people. He handed them over to the Babylonians and they are “getting what they deserve.” But this is not the attitude of the Lord. He genuinely cares that his people continue to follow his will and his Law even in a new context where it is inconvenient and even dangerous.
To the post exilic Jew, this message is extremely challenging once again, whether that is under the Persians, Greeks, Romans, or at any point in history. One of the reasons Daniel is thought to be written in the Maccabean period is that it fits so well in that context. The Jews were faced with a challenge to their very existence as Antiochus IV Epiphanes sought to impose Hellenism on rebellious Jews.
Some of the problems of the Greek period were simply examples of subtle compromise. Styles of dress, for example, seem trivial to us, but to the Jew they were matters of national significance. Would a young godly man stand up against the trends of the day and not behave like a Greek? Will he turn his back on the traditions and laws of his people? Would a young Jewish man stand up against Antiochus himself, even if it meant his life? Daniel teaches that God honors those that make a stand against the godlessness of their times even in the little things.
This is perhaps the most pertinent message for the twenty-first century Christian. It is fairly easy to be a stealth Christian in America. Just be politically correct and avoid public demonstrations of personal faith. A Christian makes subtle compromises all of the time because they do not seem to mean very much. Obviously few conservative Christians would choose to compromise on the big issues (abortion, for example), but they are quite willing to compromise on speaking the truth, in order to maintain relationships. Worse, many Christians are willing to compromise their faith for political gain.
Because Daniel and his friends did not compromise in what seem to the modern reader like small issues, they were able to stand against the bigger issues. American Christianity might just have that backwards. Shout out loud and angry on one or two big issues and ignore all the rest. For example, people complain about those anti-Christian red cups at Christmas but fail to examine their consumerism, greed, and complete ignorance of the poor and needy the rest of the year.
Despite the clear application to the Jews in their persecutions, Daniel is therefore a critically important book for the present time, in our time of minor “inconveniencing.”