Learning the Language of Babylon

In two earlier articles I looked at Israel in captivity, and lessons for the church. Here I want to pen a third and final article on this theme of living as a people in exile. In particular I want to focus on the Book of Daniel, in particular the narrative portion (chapters 1-6).

We can learn much from Daniel and his Israelite friends who were taken captive into Babylon. These were Israelites “who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and he ordered him to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4). As Tremper Longman puts it, “They were to be immersed in the culture of their enemies”.

Those familiar with the story know that Daniel and his friends did just that: they became heavily involved in polytheistic, idolatrous Babylonian culture, yet did so without compromising their faith in Yahweh.

Now there were other options available to the captive Hebrews. They might have gone in a number of directions. And bearing in mind the lessons Christians can learn from all this, let me draw upon a classic 1951 work by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. In it he looks at various options as to how Christians might relate to the surrounding culture.

Just as the Hebrews had different options available to them while in captivity, so too Christians have various possible responses to the alien culture that we live in. Niebuhr listed five such options, but let me here simply mention three.

The Hebrew captives could have simply assimilated into the pagan culture they found themselves in. They could have responded with a negotiated settlement, trading biblical principles and priorities for peace and security. This is what Niebuhr calls the Christ of Culture position.

It was a temptation to the Hebrew captives, and it can be a temptation for Christians today. But it surely is not the recommended option. A second option for Daniel and his friends was to simply withdraw, form a little ghetto, and seek to have nothing to do with – or battle against – the big, bad hostile outside world they found themselves in.

Niebuhr refers to this as the Christ against Culture position. It is one of opposition, antagonism and hostility. Some Christians take this approach, and Daniel and his friends could have done the same. But they did not. Instead, they took a third option, that of being in the culture but not of it, in order to transform it.

Niebuhr calls this approach the Christ the transformer of Culture position. By this he meant letting the Lordship of Christ extend to every area of life, by seeking to be salt and light in the culture one finds oneself in.

That certainly describes what Daniel and his colleagues sought to do. And according to the biblical account, they were quite successful in this. Sure, there was always conflict, tension, and times of difficulty. But they felt this was the strategy they must pursue.

Here they were, God’s covenant people, living in a hostile land, surrounded by the enemies of Yahweh and the enemies of Israel. Yet they were mindful of Jeremiah’s counsel to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7).

Thus they rose in power and influence in pagan Babylon, yet without compromise or loss of integrity. The stories recorded in Daniel 1-6 are well known by most of us. They show how it is possible to live in a hostile and strange land, and yet be a force for good, without loss of face or faith.

Just one of the many familiar stories found in these chapters is worth recalling here. It ever serves as a great lesson for all God’s people for all times. I refer to the remarkable incident recorded in Daniel 3: the image of gold constructed by Nebuchadnezzar.

You know how the story goes: the king orders everyone to worship this statue. The Hebrews of course refuse, the king is furious, and he orders them into a fiery furnace. The real highlight of this chapter is not their miraculous deliverance from the furnace (amazing as that is), but what they told the king.

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up’” (Daniel 3: 16-18).

What an incredible testimony of faith and perseverance. They would not betray their Lord, even if it cost them their lives. Their faith, in other words, was not simply about what benefits they might get out of Yahweh. They were not in it for the goodies, ready to jump ship at the first sign of trouble or opposition. They were in it for the long haul, and they were in it because Yahweh deserved their worship and their all.

They believed Yahweh could deliver them, but even if not, they still would remain true. How often do we follow Christ simply for the possible benefits we might get out of the deal? Do we look on God as a divine Jeeves, ever ready to deliver us from whatever spot of bother we might find ourselves in?

This is one of a number of incredible stories recorded in Daniel. An overwhelming theme of the book is that God is in control. Another theme is that God puts us in the world to make a difference. We are here to turn our world upside down.

We are not here to simply please ourselves. We are here on a mission. God gave everything for us so that we might live. Surely we now owe everything to Him, and must seek to please Him in all that we do.

Like Daniel and his friends, we must seek to be world changers, even in the midst of a hostile and dark world. They were called to make a difference, and so are we. They were faithful in all this. Will we be as well?

To sum up these three messages on living in exile, bear in mind six principles: First, we must be aware of the problem. We are in captivity. Second, we need God’s heart on all this. Are we comfortable with our captivity, or devastated? Recall how Ezekiel felt about it:

“The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the LORD upon me. I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Abib near the Kebar River. And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days – overwhelmed” (Ezekiel 3:14-15).

Third, we are not to respond with a negotiated settlement. Our job is to reclaim lost territory. There must be no compromise: Fourth, we must recognise that we might be in it for the long haul. Turning things around will not happen overnight. It might take quite a long time indeed.

Fifth, we must learn the language. We must become aware of the culture that we live in, in order to better reach it for the gospel. Finally, we must seek to get involved in the key areas of power and influence, just like Daniel and his friends did.

Applying the lessons of Daniel to today’s situation is not always easy and will never be exact and straightforward. But the important themes of Daniel offer us much as we seek how to best be God’s people in a strange land.

[1322 words]

4 Replies to “Learning the Language of Babylon”

  1. Excellent article and very thought provoking as usual. This is the struggle that we all face as adults and as parents when we try to live out, uphold and teach good Christian values. Harder to communicate this to our little kids, especially in this world where there is so much “junk”, “on the air”, in their schools, in the papers etc. May God help us!
    Nigel Onamade

  2. This is one thing we have been learning in our church. A lot of people think that working for the church in some capacity is the best job – but think of the light that we can shine in the world if we be Christian out in the world.
    I love the stories of the Christian workers who prayed to God and God gave them a design/idea that worked over and above anything thought of previously – such things should give much praise and glory to Jesus, yet we are very content to live just like secular workers.
    E.g. (as far as I can remember) I think around Vietnam time the army needed a vehicle that take trees out at a certain speed (and other requirements I’m sure…) and every major engineering company said they couldn’t do it – impossible. They got around to a Christian company and he said Yes, I can do it – give me two weeks to come up with a design. So he prayed for the design, God gave it to him, and he made it! God’s still the *creator* today – why don’t we let Him be, and indeed _expect_ Him to be!
    Nathan Keen

  3. Dear Bill, Your word on the Babylonian incarceration was precise and prophetic. God’s Word unveils a similar curtailment of privilege as they experienced.
    This foresight should be widely proclaimed around our nation. You may have included the miraculous, protective presence of ‘the form of the fourth is like the Son of man’ (our beloved omnipotent Lord.Jesus.)
    Richard Wurmbrandt of Romania was buried underground for years, preaching daily by Morse code from his confined cell. In our day, Peter Jensen challenged 2000 in London to contend for the faith delivered to the saints. Rescuing Anglicanism.
    Bill, please give us a word on Prime Minister Daniel.
    Harrold Steward

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