Why was Daniel in the lions' den? Who put Shadrach in the fiery furnace?
What was the handwriting on the wall? Read on for answers to these burning questions.

Daniel Outside the Lions' Den


Daniel 1:1-21, Babylon takes the Jews, including Daniel, into exile.

Daniel 2:1-13, King Nebuchadnezzar orders the execution of all the wise men.

Daniel 2:14-36, Daniel tells what the king's dream was.

Daniel 2:37-49, Daniel interprets the dream and is rewarded.

Bible Stories for Grownups: Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego

Daniel 3:1-13, Nebuchadnezzar's idol becomes the occasion of a conspiracy against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel 3:14-18, Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego refuse to worship the idol.

Daniel 3:19-30, God rescues Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and impresses Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel 4:1-18, Nebuchadnezzar has a second alarming dream.

Daniel 4:19-37, Daniel is right again.

Bible Stories for Grownups: The Hand Writing on the Wall

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 1: Daniel 5:1-9, The Hand Writing on the Wall

Daniel 5:1-16, King Belshazzar's party is interrupted.

Daniel 5:17-31, Daniel can read the handwriting on the wall.

Bible Stories for Grownups: Daniel in the Lions' Den
Daniel 6:1-17, Daniel is the focus of a conspiracy.

Daniel 6:18-28, The conspirators are a taste of their own medicine.

Daniel's Visions
Daniel 7:1-14
Daniel 7:15-28
Daniel 8:1-27
Daniel 9:1-27

Daniel 10:1-21

Daniel 11:1-19

Daniel 11:20-45

Daniel 12:1-13

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Shadrach, Meshach en Abednego in de vurige oven, by Matthijs Pool, 1720.  Click to enlarge.
Shadrach, Meshach en Abednego in de vurige oven, by Matthijs Pool, 1720.  Click to enlarge.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Overview (08/31/20)

I've been meeting several times a week by Zoom with a Chinese seminary student who needs to improve his English in order to continue his studies in America. One day we were comparing the church in China with the church in the United States, and we decided that they are almost exactly the same. One of the sad similarities is that people don't read their Bibles! For example, we agreed that everyone knows the story of Daniel in the Lions' Den, and that's about it for Daniel. Even in the thirteen and a half years of this email study, we have never spent time systematically reading the whole book. So now we're going to take a look at Daniel outside the lions' den.

When the Babylonians decided to take over Judah, they besieged Jerusalem for three years, broke down the walls, razed the city, and took nearly everyone – certainly anyone of importance – back to Babylon. The Exile was a turning point in Jewish history, and several books are written about it. The writer of Daniel (probably not Daniel himself, but we'll talk about that later) doesn't give you any of this background information, because he expects you to know it already.

Instead, the book starts by giving examples of the good looks, character, piety, and wisdom of Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, better known to us by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel 1:1-21, Babylon takes the Jews, including Daniel, into exile. (7/13/2011)

"Daniel in the Lions' Den" is almost as famous as "Noah's Ark."  Children know that the LORD protected Daniel from the hungry lions, who in the paintings always look very well-fed and placid in any case.  Children also know that the LORD protected Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego in the fiery furnace.  These are both important things to know, but as a grown-up, aren't you just a wee bit curious about what they were doing there?  What had they done?  Who put them in the lions' den and the furnace?  What happened after they got out?  What the heck does "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN" mean?  You mean all three of these stories are related?? In order to understand these stories, we are going to have to do some background reading, so hang in there, and eventually we'll read "Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego," "Writing on the Wall," and "Daniel in the Lion’s Den."

So here's the situation.  The Kingdom of Judah had gone so far into apostasy and decadence that God decided to punish his people to see if they couldn't get their heads straight.  Jerusalem was besieged by the armies of Babylon, and after three years of war and famine,  the city fell.  Essentially the entire remaining population – a fraction of what it had been – was taken away into what is called the Exile or the Babylonian Captivity, to be slaves.  Four nobly born teenagers named Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were among the exiles, and they were selected to serve in the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar.  Apparently they had not been apostate and decadent before the Captivity, however, because even now they did not want to  defile themselves by eating the unclean (i.e., non-kosher) food of the Babylonians. 

Daniel 2:1-13, King Nebuchadnezzar orders the execution of all the wise men. (7/14/2011, 9/1/20)

Palm reading, fortune telling, and horoscopes are all based on the principle that everybody is pretty much the same.  For example, Dear Reader, here is a reading that I have prepared especially for you:  Sometimes you have thoughts that you don't want to share with anyone.  You have some regretful memories from your childhood.  There's something you want to do, but somehow the time has never seemed right. 

Am I right, or am I right?  Of course I'm right, because those three statements are true about everyone over the age of two.  But if I put on a turban and gazed deeply into your eyes, you would think I was pretty smart.

King Nebuchadnezzar had apparently dealt with fortune tellers and their ilk before, and he had caught on to this fundamental truth.  So when he started having bad dreams, he said that before he would listen to anybody's interpretation, he wanted them to tell him his dream.  That way he would know whether they were smart or just smart-alecks.  No one could do that, all the fortune tellers got kind of huffy about it, and the King decided to execute the lot of them.  Daniel and his friends were also slated for the hangman.

Daniel 2:14-36, Daniel tells what the king's dream was. (7/14/11, 9/02/20)

When Daniel heard the problem, he immediately knew the solution:  prayer to the living God.  He successfully told the King the dream and the interpretation, both of which God had revealed to him.  I feel pretty strongly about giving credit where credit is due. For example, when a fellow-reader has a good insight, I usually tell you who it was when I pass it along. Daniel knows that on his own, he never would have figured out the king's dream, and he makes that clear to King Nebuchadnezzar. I especially like the way the Contemporary English Version translates vs. 30: "However, you must realize that these mysteries weren't explained to me because I am smarter than everyone else. Instead, it was done so that you would understand what you have seen." Daniel knows all the credit is due to God, and that God has reasons for his actions.

Daniel 2:37-49, Daniel interprets the dream and is rewarded. (09/03/20)

Naturally the King was impressed with Daniel's abilities, and Daniel and his friends were raised to positions of considerable power and prestige within the Babylonian empire. This is the first of four great signs that God gave to Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar got a message from God, but he didn't understand it and didn't know how to call back. Daniel not only had a direct line, but he also understood the message and was able to explain it in a way the king understood. Pay special attention to what the king says and does in vss. 47-49, because his actions here lead to some later discontent in the court.

Bible Stories for Grownups: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego

Daniel 3:1-13, Nebuchadnezzar's idol becomes the occasion of a conspiracy against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (09/04/20)

Do you ever wonder what somebody was thinking when they decide, for example, to make a huge statue, demand that all of a sudden people should start worshiping it, and decree that if they don't they'll be thrown into a furnace? Does that make any sense to you at any point? Whether or not it made sense to the satraps, etc., it sure gave them an idea. "Aha!" they thought. "What a great opportunity to get rid of those irritating Jews who've been taking our jobs and doing them better!" So they immediately went to Nebuchadnezzar to tattle on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo.

Daniel 3:14-18, Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego refuse to worship the idol. (09/07/20)

Two things about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are wonderful and amazing. The first thing is that they ignored all social pressure to bow down to the official idol. They just went about their business of worshipping God. That's difficult. We always talk about peer pressure on our youth, but peer pressure on our adults is just as strong and more insidious. Do you watch television? Tremendous peer pressure on how to spend your money and time, and it isn't designed to encourage your support of the Kingdom of God, I guarantee! Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn't buy the product of idols, because they knew that God was perfectly capable of rescuing them from the fiery furnace.

The second thing about them is that they recognized that God might not rescue them, but their attitude was, "Oh, well!" Just as I might invest in the stock market and take a financial loss, they recognized that they might worship God, refuse to worship idols, and die anyway. This is the risk they embraced. Very brave men.

Daniel 3:19-30, God rescues Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and impresses Nebuchadnezzar. (7/15/2011)

Oh-KAY.  Finally we are getting to the fiery furnace, although come to think of it, getting to the fiery furnace is not something we should be looking forward to.  Anyway, you remember that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were the Babylonian names of three Jewish youths, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who were enslaved as part of the Exile.  And you remember from yesterday that they did pretty well for themselves, and the King appointed them to positions of prestige and power in his court.  This made some other people at the court jealous.

When the King set up a giant golden image and passed a law that everyone had to worship it, the enemies of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego saw their chance to get even.  You need to understand that once a law was passed, it could not be repealed. Period. You might think that people would consider the consequences more carefully of any law they passed under those circumstances, but you would be wrong.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and their enemies took great delight in reporting them to the King.  He ordered them again to worship the image, on pain of death.  Note what they said:  “Our God can save us, but even if he doesn't, we will not bow down to any other god.”  That's faithfulness!  So now you know why they were in the furnace in the first place.  Then comes the children's story:  God saved them.  The King was so impressed that he passed a second law, saying that no one could speak out against God, and he promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.   

This is the second great sign that God did in Nebuchadnezzar's court.  I can't help but think that God was trying to convert Nebuchadnezzar by showing him all these signs of power.  Unfortunately Nebuchadnezzar didn't get it.

Daniel 4:1-18, Nebuchadnezzar has a second alarming dream. (09/08/20)

If Nebuchadnezzar had been a Jew, I wonder if he would have been a prophet? He keeps getting these visions from God, although unfortunately, as the king of an idolatrous nation, he has no clue what they mean. At least this time he is experienced enough to summon Daniel when his own wise men can't interpret his latest dream.

Don't be fooled by Nebuchadnezzar's avowal of the powers of the God of the Hebrews. He is Babylonian, and the Babylonians worshiped a pantheon of gods. Adding God to the list wasn't a great stretch.

Daniel 4:19-37, Daniel is right again. (09/09/20)

If you feel that you've lost your place and are reading the same thing several times, be assured that you're fine. In Daniel 4:10-17, King Nebuchadnezzar tells his dream to Daniel. In vss. 20-23, Daniel repeats the dream back to the king, with some preliminary interpretation. In vss. 24-27, Daniel gives the full interpretation and relates it back to the dream. Vss. 31-32 announce that the interpretation is about to come to pass, and in vs. 33 it comes to pass. The chapter ends with King N. awakening to the idea that it doesn't pay to be too prideful about your accomplishments. He also gives glory to God, but notice that he doesn't say anything about renouncing the other gods in Babylon.

Bible Stories for Grownups: The Hand Writing on the Wall

Can you read the handwriting on the wall?  We all know that this English idiom means "figure out what's going to happen from observation of hints and clues," and after last Saturday's supplement, we aren't at all surprised to learn that it came into English directly from the Bible.  In particular, it comes from a Bible story about Daniel. (7/16/2011)

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 1: Daniel 5:1-9, The Hand Writing on the Wall (3/2/15)

For an explantion of the Random Walk, see the introduction.

In this passage from Daniel, there’s a hand writing on the wall. That hand didn’t make it into the illustration, but I like the artist’s portrayal of the human hands. The king is wringing his hands in anxiety. The queen is clinging to her husband. Daniel, in contrast, has good strong hands, and he’s using them to point to God’s message.

I also really like the way the artist has portrayed the relationship between the king and Daniel. The king and queen seem to be in awe of this foreign prophet who is able to interpret the message. This is a pretty good trick, because the artist apparently didn’t consult a Hebrew scholar – some of the characters on the wall look vaguely foreign, but the writing is gibberish. Or maybe the artist intended that no one in his audience would be able to read it, so that it would be gibberish to us, just as it was for the king and court in Babylon.

Introduction to the Random Walk. Next Step.
Daniel interprets the writing on the wall for the king of Babylon. Click to enlarge.
Image from the Binns family Bible, now in the private collection of Regina L. Hunter.

Daniel 5:1-16, King Belshazzar's party is interrupted. (7/16/11, 9/10/20)

According to Wikipedia, Nebuchadnezzar reigned for 45 years, his son reigned for 23 years, and his grandson Belshazzar for only two years. The book of Daniel doesn't mention the son, so we don't know what Daniel and his friends did during his reign. Daniel, at least, is still around during the reign of Belshazzar, and he hasn't been forgotten. When King Belshazzar's feast is interrupted by a supernatural occurrence, his queen suggests that he call upon Daniel for an explanation.

Belshazzar gave a giant feast (while Darius the Persian was besieging the city, vss. 30-31), and during the feast he used the gold and silver bowls that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple before razing Jerusalem.  Okay, that's bad.  But then Belshazzar and all his guests began to praise the gods of gold and silver, which is a lot worse.

Now, it is a good thing for me and you that God is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy," which is one of the most common descriptions of God in the Old Testament, although this particular case is from Psalms 103:8.  I have the impression, however – and it's just my impression – that there is one area in which God is a little less slow to anger, and that is when we attribute to God the works of Satan, or when we attribute to other gods or to Satan the works of God.  (Many scholars believe that this latter is "the unforgivable blasphemy" referred to in Matthew 12:31.) 

It appears to me that this is what got Belshazzar into such serious trouble.  Because God is merciful and slow to anger, He tends to cut pagans who have never heard of Him a lot of slack in their ordinary lives.  But to take vessels from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, use them at a drinking party, and then praise some other god for them is to despise God and attribute to other gods the works of God.

Daniel 5:17-31, Daniel can read the handwriting on the wall. (7/16/11, 9/11/20)

Now comes the children's story:  the hand appeared and wrote on the wall, and Daniel interpreted it.  Belshazzar's language was somewhat related to Hebrew (think English and German), but it was written in cuneiform.  Daniel, of course, spoke and read Hebrew, so he had no trouble reading what was written on the wall in Hebrew.  Scholars naturally are not 100% agreed about what the words MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN mean, because as you remember, they might mean different things depending on what vowels are put in.  However, there is a big school of thought that they should have the vowels that make them into the ordinary Hebrew words meaning "numbered," "to weigh," and a play on "divided" and "Persian."  Since those are the meanings that Daniel ascribed to them when he was interpreting for God, I think we ought to go with them.

Other scholars think they are Chaldean words, that is, words in the language of King Belshazzar’s court. So why couldn’t he read them? Possibly they were written in Hebrew characters, not Chaldean characters. According to John Wesley, the writing reads literally in Chaldean, “He is numbered, he is numbered; he is weighed; they are divided.” Daniel, a well-educated Hebrew who by this time had been a member of the royal household for many years, could easily read the writing, whether in Hebrew or in Chaldean, and applied them to the king.

Bible Stories for Grownups: Daniel in the Lion's Den

Daniel 6:1-17, Daniel is the focus of a conspiracy. (7/17/2011, 9/14/20)

Daniel first came to prominence in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar, and became even more important under King Belshazzar.  After Darius the Persian conquered the Babylonians, Daniel's rank rose even higher.  People and politics being what they are, other high-ranking officials wanted to get rid of Daniel and take his place.  No fault could be found with his work, so they decided to come up with something else.  Remember the law that no law could be repealed?  Daniel's enemies, knowing that Daniel would never worship anyone but God, got King Darius to pass a law that no one could worship anyone but Darius for 30 days, and then immediately reported Daniel for breaking the law. 

Daniel 6:18-28, The conspirators are a taste of their own medicine. (7/17/11, 9/15/20)

A Chinese preacher friend of mine and I agree that the Chinese church and the American church have a problem in common: the Bible stories we teach our children are about the limit of many Christians’ biblical knowledge (not yours, of course). The children's story is this: Daniel was put into the lions' den, and God saved him by preventing the lions from killing him.  King Darius was so relieved and happy that Daniel survived that he immediately ordered Daniel's enemies and their families to be put in with the lions, and they did not survive.  Usually that part is omitted from the children's story.  Darius also decreed that everyone in the kingdom should worship God, although apparently few or none converted to Judaism.  Probably they just added God to their existing pantheon.  The next king, Cyrus the Persian, allowed any Jew who wanted to go to return to Judah, and the Exile was officially over.

Daniel 7:1-14, Daniel's visions. (09/16/20)

Most of the second half of the book of Daniel records a series of apocalyptic visions and their interpretations that predict the end of the Persian Empire and the appearance of a mystical figure, the Son of Man. These visions probably account for Daniel’s position in the books of the prophets in the Christian Bible; its placement in the Hebrew Bible is different. Here’s a brief comparison of prophecy and apocalyptic writing. In prophecy, the prophet hears the word of God and reports it to the people. Usually no explanation is needed. Apocalyptic is highly symbolic, and the seer, that is, the person who sees the vision, must have it explained to him.

Notice that this first vision supposedly came to Daniel in the time of Belshazzar, before Darius the Mede invaded and conquered Babylon.

Daniel 7:15-28, Daniel's Visions. (09/17/20)

Apocalyptic writing is highly symbolic, but there’s almost always someone in the vision whose job is to explain the symbolism to the seer. Daniel didn’t understand his vision, so he seeks help from a person in the vision. Remember that this vision is about the end of the Babylonian empire. (Apocalyptic is nearly always about the end of something – a kingdom or time itself).

Now, another thing that you should think about is that apocalyptic writing is not prophecy. It normally isn’t written before the events it describes. More often, it is written during, or even after, the event. Its purpose is to say, “Times are bad! But God’s in charge, so just hang on!” Apocalyptic is normally speaking about a specific time and event – here the destruction of Babylon – and we need to be very, very careful about applying it to another time or event.

Daniel 8:1-27, Daniel's visions. (09/18/20)

The visions in apocalyptic writing tend to be extremely accurate. This is because they are not prophecy; they are reports of what has happened or is happening now, packaged under the name of someone who lived in the past – in this case, Daniel. They are "pseudonymous," that is, written under an assumed name, supposedly as prophecy, and then "sealed" until the time of actual writing. This vision was written in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, who was persecuting the Jews terribly. Persecuted people normally can't write anti-government tracts, so the writer encodes a message in symbols that the recipients will understand, but, with any luck, the oppressors won't. Notice that the person who explains the vision to Daniel is the Archangel Gabriel. The message is the same as in all apocalyptic: Things are terrible, but God's in charge, so hang in there!

So here's the code from John Wesley, although in the case of Daniel, I think just about everybody agrees.
Daniel 9:1-27, Daniel's visions. (09/21/20)

You know how I'm always telling you to read more than one translation? I was bemused by the idea that Gabriel might be exhausted, so I looked at vs. 21 in several translations. Apparently the various translation teams were also bemused, because this is what I found: What this says to me is that they aren't quite sure. How Gabriel arrived is a small point; reading more than one translation is the main point.

Gabriel's arrival is prompted by Daniel's prayer confessing his own sins and those of the people, and that part is clear. Gabriel's answer isn't clear, which is often true of apocalyptic writing. Don't worry about figuring it out, and be skeptical of anyone (including me) who is too certain about knowing what it means. If it were important to salvation, it would be clear! As usual, the emphasis is on the end and God's ultimate triumph.

Daniel 10:1-21, Daniel's visions. (09/22/20)

I have no idea what's happening here, and neither does Daniel, except the part about the commander of Greece. That's Alexander the Great. Maybe tomorrow the person who looks like a human will explain it to us. (I think verse 1 is referring to the explanation that Daniel gets, not to understanding it on his own.)

Meantime, notice that visions are frightening and exhausting. They focus on "end times," although in this case it's the end of the Persian Empire, not the end of all time. And the seer doesn't understand the visions or tell anyone about them; instead the seer "seals" the message for later (which is because they were actually written later, in most cases). Prophecy may also be alarming, but the prophet knows exactly what the message means and is energized to go out and tell everybody right away.

Daniel 11:1-19, Daniel's visions. (09/23/20)

Just as we expected, the person who looks like a human shows up to explain Daniel's vision. Remember that apocalyptic writing is a coded message, written to people who are being persecuted at the time of writing. Redundant codes are easier to understand than messages sent only once, so apocalyptic writing is repetitive. If Chapter 11 seems to you to repeat Ch. 8, you are correct. For example, we see Alexander the Great in 8:5 and 11:3; the four rulers who take over his empire after his death in 8:8 and 11:4; and Antiochus Epiphanes in 8:9 and 11:21 (which we'll read tomorrow). And wars, and alliances, and so on, all of which are extremely accurate. The reason it's so accurate is that it is history and current events disguised as prophecy. Apocalyptic writing has a message for the present, not the future, and the message is, "God's in charge! Hang in there!"

And that's still a good message for us today.

Daniel 11:20-45, Daniel's visions. (09/24/20)

True pre-exilic prophecy usually sounds like this: "God wants you to stop sinning right now! If you don't stop sinning, assorted bad things will happen to you in the near future. If you do stop sinning, God will bless you." True exilic and post-exilic prophecy sounds more like this: "Honestly, people, your sin has really gotten you into trouble! Repent, and God will rescue you. Eventually." In neither case does prophecy contain a step-by-step prediction of future history. Prophecy is about the consequences of sin, and the prophet is sent to warn of and maybe even avert the coming disaster.

Apocalyptic writing, in contrast, is about the consequences of undeserved persecution. It's written to encourage faithfulness to God during terrible times in the life of God's people. It often does contain step-by-step descriptions of history, and they are accurate because they are history at the time of writing. The person who looks like a human is still explaining the vision to Daniel, and it sounds more like this: "I know all these things are happening, and times are really, really bad, and a lot of you are dying. Hang in there!" This section of Ch. 11 is about Antiochus Epiphanes and the treachery and destruction that were his normal mode of operation.

Daniel 12:1-13, Daniel's visions. (09/25/20)

Shades of Revelation! Or probably it would be more accurate for the reader of Revelation to say, "Shades of Daniel!" Michael's there, the coded message is there, persecution is there, resurrection is there, the seals are there, the vague times and specific events are there, and the end times are there. That's because both Revelation and the last half of Daniel are apocalyptic writing, and they have the same message: Things are bad now, and a lot of people are going to die, but God will make everything all right in the end. And speaking of the end, this is the end of our study on the book of Daniel.

Copyright 2009, 2011, 2020, and 2022 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

The color illustrations are from the Binns family Bible, now in the private collection of Regina L. Hunter.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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