Daniel 6: 13: “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.”
(Note: Since the individual’s hope of eternal life remains unclear throughout much of the Old Testament until the last visions of Daniel’s long life, I don’t know how much the hope of resurrection was a factor in Daniel’s willingness to face lions and death at this point in his life. Was his courage more about his people’s survival than his own? Or was it more about the vindication of his God than of himself? Since I don’t know the answer to those questions (someone else may be able to set me straight), I have left that consideration out of what follows: an imaginative attempt –I hope– to put myself into Daniel’s sandals during his long night in the lions’ den.)
My earliest childhood memory is of my Father holding me, rocking me, stroking my head and telling me that everything was all right, that I was safe, and that I could stop screaming. “But what about the lion at the window?” I asked. “There’s no lion,” he replied. “You’ve just had a bad dream.” And that’s when I first heard and learned the meaning of the word “nightmare.” I wish this night were but a dream.
Funny, but before having that nightmare, I had never seen a lion before. I must have heard about lions in songs, folk tales or a Bible story, like the one in which David fought a lion, in his youth, or in which Sampson killed one for sport. As a father, I have comforted all my children, during their early childhood, when they too awakened, screaming from similar nightmares about lions. They’ve never seen one either. I suspect that the fear of lions is something God gives us in our mother’s womb, so that we know better than to go looking for them.
It was only a few years later that I finally saw lions, though still not real ones. A lion was depicted on some of the banners of the Babylonian army while soldiers rampaged through the streets of my home city, Jerusalem, killing, chasing, or capturing every person they found, and burning or knocking down every building that stood, including our precious temple. After my father hid me in an empty water jar, I never saw him, my mother, nor my brother again. I presume that they died in the sack of the city. Sixty years later, I still know neither where nor how they died. I survived simply because the soldiers who discovered me thought I was of the right age to make a good slave.
But the imperial administration of Babylon had different ideas. A slave I became, all right, but to the Imperial Court, to become an advisor. I suppose they originally wanted some token Hebrew mascots to fill out some quota for public relations with all the minorities in the Babylonian Empire. But between myself and my fellow Hebrew adoptees, the royal court got more than it bargained for. `Having heard the letter from Jeremiah to the effect that we exiles were to seek the peace of this city to which God had sent us, we were willing to be good and trustworthy civil servants. But the royal Babylonian court had this incurable tendency to conflate their gods with their kings and queens, and to demand of their subjects the faith and worship that only belong to GOD MOST HIGH. That got us Hebrews in trouble several times.
It must be something in the Tigris from which they drink, because now the Medo-Persian alliance that has taken over the empire has done the same thing: they’ve declared Darius the mede a god. I blame the courtesans, opportunists and professional yes-man who hang all over the court like leeches, who stroke the king’s ego, for their own interests and agendas, of course. Sometimes I think they run the empire more than does the king, and I fear they shall run it over a cliff. I also blame the weakness of human nature which, when presented with such power as what Darius has, falls to the temptations of god-hood like a rotten mango in a windstorm. So of course he couldn’t resist their suggestion that he be worshiped as a God. I am the first one to be hustled off to the lion’s den for worshiping a forbidden God.
Which is the way I wanted it. Not that I went out intentionally seeking death. Death came seeking me, and offered me a fool’s bargain for—for what? A few more years, at most? Its not the way my children and grandchildren want it, however. but I believe that I will serve them better in faithfulness unto death, than by buying a few more years of life by compromise and cowardice. If their mother and grandmother, Rachel, were still alive, she would have joined me in prayer and in this lion’s den. Better now that a harmless old man like me be the first test case of this blasphemy and buffoonery than someone younger, and with more to lose. Better by far that the first victim be a high profile public person like me, to make this a high profile, public case. Whether I live or die, my being here in this den will expose the iron teeth behind the empire’s sweet smile. In life or death, the Imperial administration shall again get more than it bargained for with its Hebrew servants.
And now I finally see lions. Up close, through the moonlight through the bars above. They’re both more frightening and more beautiful than what I had imagined. Perfectly proportioned, but for terrifying, pursuing and killing. I get glimpses in the moonlight of their eyes—golden, glowing reflections, like some jewel–yet which strike me as cold, alien and calculating. When they yawn or roar I see their teeth, like daggers, or I glimpse the flash of claws, like iron nails. Their roaring sends a chill spiraling up my spine. Their breath is terrible, like something long dead and rotten on a hot day in the market. It is not mine to ask why my God would make such beautiful, yet dreadful creatures, except to say that surely he did not make them to serve the arrogance and pride of mortal men and their empires. If anything, He may have made lions so as to humble us.
From the call of the crier somewhere on the palace walls I know it is past the 4th watch of the night. The time remaining among these restless beasts is about as long as the time I have already spent. I was fully prepared to die when they opened the gate and lowered me down into this den. My legs quivered and my knees knocked, while my heart kept rising into my throat. The same feeling comes back whenever one of the lions roars, or passes by me, or looks at me, or when two of them start playing and wrestling with each other, giving me glimpses of their power and skill.
I had prayed to God that either he protect me and spare me while in this den, or that he give me the courage to face death in a way that would honor Him and advance his cause. I confess, I was more prepared for death than for life. I am surprised to be yet whole and breathing, without even a scratch. Should things change and these beasts decide that dinner comes late and I am the main course, I will count the few moments of pain and terror as nothing compared to all the joys of my long and meaningful life.
But as the hours go on and I recite the prayers and the psalms of the night-time vigils, I feel another presence here with me, like that of a lion, only more powerful than these beasts, and infinitely more warm, wise and gracious. And like my human father so long ago, He is holding me, comforting me, re-assuring me that this nightmare too shall vanish with the morning light, and that his truth, and I, shall be vindicated. I don’t have to survive for that to happen. Nothing in this dark and smelly den can take away from me what I hold most dear and have labored for all my life: my testimony to my forbidden God. And yet I am gaining hope that I shall survive to see the sunrise, when, as King David said in the Psalm, “I shall look in triumph upon my enemies.” God reassures me with the prophet’s words to Eli: “Whoever honors me will I honor.”
There is another way in which I am not alone in this den of beasts: All of Israel, God’s people, are here with me, in that I can feel the sustaining, comforting effect of their prayers for me, like Moses praying for the Israelites when they battled the Amalekites (Ex. 17). As long as his hands were raised to the Lord in prayer, his people prevailed. There must be other saints, other watchmen and women up with me this night, awaiting the dawn, holding me up prayerfully in their hands before God. So far, I seem to be prevailing, peacefully, and patiently.
All Israel is here with me in another sense: when have we not been surrounded by threatening beasts? When have we not been sustained and protected by a gracious and fearsome God more powerful and dreadful than ourselves and our foes? Unless we had removed ourselves from his protective embrace? My story tonight is my people’s story since Abraham and Sarah.
All Israel is also here with me in the sense that I represent them in this den of testing; I have taken their place, so that hopefully they need not come to this place. And should they ever come here or to another den of darkness, for trial and testing, they will know that someone else overcame their fear and thus triumphed, in life or in death.
Whether tomorrow they celebrate my deliverance, or bury my bones, this is what I pray that my people remember from this trial: that if we cling to God, God clings to us, anywhere our testimony takes us; and that our forbidden God is powerful enough to deliver us from any situation, and worthy of our praise and loyalty even when He doesn’t immediately deliver us, because He is powerful enough to use even our deaths and defeats to our good. Because our testimony for God, and our life with God, are more valuable than survival itself. With that assurance I turn my attention back to the prayers of the night time vigils and pray the words of the Psalm of David, with any of my people who are yet up with me during this watch of the night: “O Lord, how long will you look on? Rescue my life from their ravages, my precious life from these lions. Then will I give you thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people I will praise you. (Ps. 35: 17-18).”