The prophet Daniel

We have recently had lots of readings from Daniel in the daily Masses, so here’s a quick read through that most interesting book.

Daniel is a rather interesting set of short stories that circle around one noble and pious Judaite boy who was removed from Jerusalem into exile with friends of his: Ananias, Misael, and Azarias. The four were immediately given Chaldean names, respectively: Baltassar, Sidrach, Misach and Abednago. Like other exiled Jews in the province, they were expected to acclimatise to the new environment, to take on new customs and learn a new language. The first chapter demonstrates how they remained true to the old Hebrew religion, even managing to privately skirt around the commandment from the neo-Babylonian king to break the dietary rules of the Law of Moses. It was soon discovered that the boys were good scholars and they prospered in the service of the Babylonian kings. Chapter two demonstrates that Daniel has a power that we may remember from the book of Genesis, for the patriarch Joseph had this same ability: the interpretation of occult dreams. In return for this service he renders to the king, Daniel and his friends are given new and overarching responsibilities in government.

“With that, king Nabuchodonosor bowed down face to earth, and made Daniel reverence; ay, he would have sacrifice offered to him, and incense, and with these words greeted him: ‘Doubt is none but this God of yours of all gods is God, of all kings the Master; He it is brings hidden things to light, or how couldst thou have read the secret?’ Thereupon, he raised Daniel to high rank, and showered riches on him; ruler he should be of all Babylon’s provinces, and over all its wise men have the pre-eminence. But Daniel made suit to him, and it was Sidrach, Misach and Abdenago that had Babylon under their charge; Daniel himself was the king’s courtier still.

Daniel, 2: 46-49

The old problem of the Old Testament raises its head again: idolatry. Chapter three tells how a golden idol erected by the king was designed for public worship, with severe penalties attached to non-observance of the rule. When this had happened in the old Israelites kingdoms, most of the people had succumbed to the rule of the kings, and only a minority remained faithful to the old religion and the Law of Moses. The people in exile must have done the same, but we are given to understand that the four young men were of the faithful minority of the Judaites or Jews who refused to comply. Being politicians, however, they have enemies who use the situation to have them eliminated. Thus we receive the wonderful tale of the fiery furnace and the rescue of the four by the presence of the angel. Even while this is taking place, we get one of the great prayers of the Old Testament, which is a summary of the fall of Juda and Jerusalem:

“Blessed art Thou, Lord God of our fathers, renowned and glorious is Thy Name for ever! In all Thy dealings with us, Thou hast right on Thy side; so true to Thy promises, so unswerving in Thy course, so just in Thy awards! No punishment Thou hast inflicted upon us, or upon Jerusalem, holy city of our fathers, but was deserved; for sins of ours, faithfulness and justice that stroke laid on. Sinners we were, that had wronged and forsaken Thee, all was amiss with us; unheard Thy commandments, or else unheeded, Thy will neglected, and with it, our own well-being! Nothing we had not deserved, pillage of Thy contriving, plague of Thy sending, and at last the foul domination of godless foes, of a tyrant that has no equal on earth! Tongue-tied we stand, that have brought disgrace on the livery of Thy true worship. For Thy own honour, we entreat Thee not to abandon us eternally. Do not annul Thy covenant, and deprive us of Thy mercy. Think of Abraham that was Thy friend, of Thy servant Isaac, of Jacob whom Thou didst set apart for Thyself; the men to whom Thou didst promise that Thou wouldst increase their posterity, till it was countless as the stars in heaven, or the sand by the sea-shore. Whereas now, Lord, we are of all nations the most insignificant; all the world over, men see us humbled for our sins. In these days we are without prince or leader or prophet, we have no burnt-sacrifice, no victim, no offering; for us no incense burns, no first-fruits can be brought into Thy presence and win Thy favour. But oh, accept us still, hearts that are crushed, spirits bowed down by adversity; look kindly on the sacrifice we offer Thee this day, as it had been burnt-sacrifice of rams and bullocks, thousands of fattened lambs; who ever trusted in Thee and was disappointed? With all our hearts, now, we choose Thy will, we reverence Thee, we long after Thy presence; for that clemency, that abundant mercy of Thine must we hope in vain? By some wondrous deliverance vindicate Thy own renown; Theirs be the vain hope, that would do Thy servants an injury. Fools, that would match themselves with omnipotence! Crush down their might; teach them that in all the world Lord there is none, God there is none, glorified as Thou.”

Daniel, 3: 26-45

That is a psalm worthy of King David himself, with echoes of his famous Miserere. We also receive from this chapter one of the great litanies of the Old Testament, which the priests and Religious read practically every Sunday of the year in the Divine Office of prayer:

“‘Blessed art Thou, Lord God of our fathers, praised above all, renowned above all for ever; blessed is Thy holy and glorious Name, praised above all, renowned above all for ever. Blessed art Thou, Whose glory fills Thy holy temple, praised above all, renowned above all for ever; blessed art Thou, Who reignest on Thy kingly throne, praised above all, renowned above all for ever. Blessed art Thou, Who art throned above the cherubim, and gazest down into the depths, praised above all, renowned above all for ever. Blessed art Thou, high in the vault of heaven, praised above all, renowned above all for ever.’ Then they cried out upon all things the Lord had made, to bless Him, and praise Him, and extol His Name for ever. ‘Bless the Lord they should, the Lord’s angels; bless Him they should, the heavens, and the waters above the heavens; bless Him they should, all the Lord’s powers. Bless Him they should, sun and moon, stars of heaven, each drop of rain and moisture, and all the winds of God. Bless Him they should, fire and heat, winter cold and summer drought, dew and rime at morning, frost and the cold air. Bless Him they should, ice and snow, day-time and night-time, light and darkness, lightnings and storm-clouds. And earth in its turn should bless the Lord, praise Him, and extol His name for ever. Bless the Lord they should, mountains and hills, every growing thing that earth yields, flowing fountains, seas and rivers. Bless Him they should, sea-monsters and all life that is bred in the waters, all the birds that fly in heaven, wild beasts and tame, and the sons of men. Bless Him Israel should, priests of the Lord bless Him, servants of the Lord bless Him; bless Him they should, spirits and souls of all faithful men; bless Him they should, dedicated and humble hearts.”

Daniel, 3: 52-87

This translation of the Bible leaves out the repeated refrain Bless Him they must, praise above all, renowned above all forever from after most of the various creatures in the list above, which would make the whole into a recognisable litany, such as we are used to in the Church. At the end of this chapter, and of the next, the Babylonian king Nabuchodonosor is himself drawn to faith in the eternal God. 

“‘When the appointed time was over, I lifted up my eyes to heaven, I, Nabuchodonosor, and right reason came back to me. Blessed I then the most high God, to the eternal gave glory and praise; such a reign as His lasts for ever, such power as His the ages cannot diminish. Matched with Him, the whole world of men counts for nothing; in the heavenly powers, as in our mortal lives, He accomplishes His will, and none may resist Him, none may ask His meaning. And when reason came back to me, back came royal pomp and state, back came the beauty I once had; prince and senator waited on me, restored to my throne now in more magnificence than ever. What wonder if I, Nabuchodonosor, praise this King of heaven, extol and glorify Him, so faithful to His promise, so just in His dealings? Proud minds none can abase as He.'”

Daniel, 4: 31-34

The story turns, with chapter five, to the folly of King Baltassar son of Nabuchodonosor, and the destruction of the neo-Babylonian empire of the Chaldeans with the taking of Babylon by Darius of Media. Chapter six reveals that Daniel found favour with Darius also and was made a governor again, which brought him new enemies. These men confound the king himself and cause him to thrust Daniel into a lions’ den, for the first time in these stories. Now the Median king finds faith in the one, eternal God.

Then Darius sent out a proclamation to all the world, without distinction of nation, race or language, wishing them well, and enjoining this decree upon them, that all the subjects of his empire should hold the God of Daniel in awe and reverence. ‘Here is a God that lives,’ he told them, ‘a God that abides for ever; such a reign as His there is no overthrowing, such power as His the ages cannot diminish. His to deliver, His to save, His to shew wondrous portents in high heaven and on earth beneath, the God who saved Daniel from the lions.’ Let Darius reign, or Cyrus the Persian, this same Daniel throve yet.”

Daniel, 6: 25-28

Chapter seven takes us back to the reign of the last Chaldean king, Baltassar (above), and to a wonderful dream or vision of the four beasts that Daniel had, which he realised was a reading of the future of four empires. This dream has an interesting Messianic insert that we would recognise from our Mass readings for (I believe) the feast day of Christ the King – one like a son of men would take up a kingdom and reign that never ends.

“Then I saw in my dream, how one came riding on the clouds of heaven, that was yet a son of man; came to where the Judge sat, crowned with age, and was ushered into His presence. With that, power was given him, and glory, and sovereignty; obey him all must, men of every race and tribe and tongue; such a reign as his lasts for ever, such power as his the ages cannot diminish. By this, Daniel wrote, my heart was ill at ease; a dread sight it was, and as I dreamed, my thoughts bewildered me.”

Daniel 7: 13-15

Chapter eight contains a further dream of Daniel, the one with the horned ram and the buck-goat and  from that same time-period, that further detailed the fate of the great empires that would succeed one after the other from Daniel’s time and forward, until the reign of a Prince of princes, who would win the final blessing by divine power. Chapter nine presents the vision by which Daniel, following a wonderful prayer of his on behalf of his people, was visited by the angel Gabriel and so claimed to know the precise timing of the restoration of Juda and Jerusalem (although the calculation looks obscure), and then went on and on through the next five hundred or so years until Christ, when the Temple would be abolished and burnt sacrifice forever ended. 

“…and then sixty-two weeks must pass before the Christ is done to death; the people will disown him and have none of him. Then the army of an invading leader will destroy both city and sanctuary, so that his taking away will mean utter destruction; only a ruin is to be left when that war is ended. High covenant he shall make, before another week is done, and with folks a many; but when that week has run half its course, offering and burnt-sacrifice shall be none; in the temple all shall be defilement and desolation, and until all is over, all is fulfilled, that desolation shall continue.”

Daniel, 9: 26-27

Chapters ten and eleven and twelve continue the story, with Daniel being led this time by another heavenly spirit, who seems to predict the rise of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and the turmoil following the death of Alexander, which would split his empire under four of his generals, the Egyptian Ptolemys and the Syrian Seleucids emerging as major contenders in their claims especially for the Holy Land. The story ends once more with the Messianic age and the end of the Temple in Jerusalem. Once again, the calculations are obscure and there are various opinions about how these days and weeks are to be treated. But it must be noted that using this information people in the time of Christ knew that the Messiah was among them somewhere; it’s the reason why the magi – the wise men – of the Christmas story made their way to Judah when they saw the star that confirmed their calculations. Daniel anyway receives a fine blessing here:

“Of this be sure; after the time when the daily sacrifice is abrogated, and all becomes defilement and desolation, twelve hundred and ninety days must pass. Blessed shall his lot be that waits patiently till thirteen hundred and thirty-five days are over. And for thyself, Daniel, go thy way … till the end; till the end of the days rest thou shalt, and rise to fulfil thy appointed destiny.

Daniel, 12: 11-13

Chapter thirteen gives us the wonderfully long tale of the tragic story of Susanna, a Jewish woman who was entrapped and almost killed by a couple of lustful elders of the people, who would have had their way with her had it not been for her excellent upbringing and high sense of virtue. This story may simply have been added to the book because of the name of one of the main characters – Daniel – who saved Susanna’s life. He may or may not have been the same Daniel as in the rest of the book. Chapter fourteen tells us of Daniel’s good relations with the Persian king Cyrus, who may have been the same Cyrus who allowed the Jews to return to Juda and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. There are some excellent stories here of Daniel ridding the Persians of two pagan cults, one of a deity called Bel and one relating to some type of serpent, which draws upon him the ire of the cultists and a second narrative stay in a lions’ den. Suitably enough, his new survival results in Cyrus himself being drawn to conversion to worship of the one, true God. And thus ends the book.

“And at that, the king cried aloud, ‘How great Thou art, O Lord, Thou who art Daniel’s God!’ And he took him out of the lion-pit, and shut up there instead the men who had conspired to ruin him; and in a moment, as he watched, the lions devoured them. Whereupon the king said, ‘Well may the whole world stand in awe of Daniel’s God. What deliverance He effects, what signal proofs of His power, here on earth, the God Who has rescued Daniel out of a den of lions!’

Daniel, 14: 40-42
Daniel’s vision of beasts emerging from the waters
back to Ezechiel | Daniel | on to Hosea