Daniel: A Good Citizen of Babylon

John Shortt

An Old Song

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down.’ I thought that it would be quite contemporary to start this morning with the words of this song. Then I looked it up and discovered that it was nearly 30 years ago that Boney M. had their big hit with it – in 1978! Not as contemporary as I has thought!

The song was of course based on words from Psalm 137 which depicts exiles from Jerusalem hanging their harps on poplar trees in Babylon. They are weeping because they cannot sing in response to the taunts of the people who ask them to sing a song of Zion. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord”, they ask, “while in a foreign land?”

The site of Babylon is about 50 miles south of modern Baghdad. Around 600 BC, it was the centre of the Babylonian Empire to which king Nebuchadnezzar carried away hostages from Jerusalem. Among them were some young men of noble birth, handsome and very able intellectually and one of these was Daniel.

Would he have sung words like those of Psalm 137? Would he have rocked along with Boney M.? Well, he might. He certainly wept for Jerusalem before God. And I can imagine him joining them in that deep-voiced refrain, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight”!

But I don’t think he would have spent too much time in nostalgic longing to be back home in Jerusalem. Paraphrasing another popular song, I cannot imagine him singing, “Take me home, desert roads, to the place I belong” or weeping for an opportunity to go back home.

For Daniel, Babylon was not a place in which to sit around, weeping with longing for the homeland. It was a place in which to serve God! 

An Important Letter

Around that time, the prophet Jeremiah who was still back in Jerusalem sent a letter to the exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah 29 tells about it and this is what he wrote to them:

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters … Also, seek the shalom 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.’”

‘Shalom’ means peace and wholeness. Shalom is not merely peace as the absence of hostility for, as Nick Wolterstorff memorably puts it in one of his books, “to dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy living with oneself”. This cannot be reduced to the mere material wealth of a prosperity doctrine which is not worthy of the followers of the Man who had no home and who died on a Roman cross!

Would Daniel have read this letter? We don’t know have any record that he would have read it – any more than we do that he would have been involved in the planning for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which it is said Nebuchadnezzar had built and became one of the wonders of the ancient world. But it is reasonable to suppose that he must have for, after all, he was a person of learning and was rising to high position in Babylon … and it was a king’s emissary who had brought the letter.

A Good Citizen

But whether or not he had read Jeremiah’s letter, Daniel most certainly did what it said – he sought the welfare of the city of Babylon, he sought its peace and prosperity. And he did so for many, many years, right through the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar and his successor Belshazzer, and then through into the reigns of the obscure Darius the Mede and of King Cyrus after the Persians took over Babylon.

This would have been for at least 66 years and Daniel would have been moving into his 80s. It seems that he was still working because Daniel 6:28 says that he was still a significant person into the reigns of both Darius and Cyrus.

Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem under Ezra. There is no record of Daniel going with him or with Nehemiah who went back after that to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

Daniel 1:21 says that he stayed in Babylon until the first year of King Cyrus. Did he die at about that time or did he stay on in Babylon while others went back?  We don’t know but what we do have is a record of years of faithful service in Babylon under pagan emperors.

Daniel wasn’t sitting for ever under the trees, weeping with homesickness for Jerusalem. He was serving God and seeking the peace and prosperity, the welfare, of the city where God had put him. This is why he is one of my biblical heroes. He was thoroughly ‘in the world’ but definitely ‘not of the world’.

Three Strategies

I would suggest that there are three strategies open to us as Christians as we consider our involvement in the pagan world, the Babylon in which we find ourselves.

One is that of total separation. We hold ourselves aloof from the world and its concerns. We don’t get our hands dirty. We build our separate Christian structures. We are not ‘of the world’ and we are not ‘in the world’ either. We sit for ever under our trees, weeping for a better place in which we think it might be possible to truly serve God. (And this separation can be more a mental attitude than a matter of what we actually do but it is nevertheless separation, separation in mind.)

At the opposite pole, there is the way of total identification. We adopt all the ways of the world. We work along with others and we do everything just the way they do it in our work-places. We are ‘in the world’ and, apart from our special activities at church or in our personal devotional lives, we are ‘of the world’. There is nothing that marks us out from others. We are altogether uncritical of the ways of the world.

In between is the way of transformation in which we are both ‘in the world’ and ‘not of the world’ … but always seeking to make it a better place. We can never make it perfect – only Jesus can when He comes again but that does not mean we should just abandon it to its ways. “Seek the shalom of the city”, said Jeremiah in his letter. “What, of Babylon?  You can’t mean it!”, we reply. Yes, even of Babylon, that name which, to Christians and Rastafarians and others, has come to mean everything that is opposed to God.

True Service for Shalom

Seek the shalom of Babylon, its true peace and prosperity. Learn all its knowledge. Work for the good of the community in which God has put you but do that without weakening the basic convictions of your faith. That is the way of Daniel: service of the community in faithful commitment to God.

Daniel prayed to God when the law said that he should not. He was even willing to tell the king that he would go mad. He served the emperor but, more importantly, he served the King of Kings in serving the emperor and where the two were opposed, there was no doubt who came first. However, the two were not always opposed in practical everyday life for, if they were, Daniel could not have held and continued to hold, even into old age, high position in the empire.

What about us?  What does this mean for us in relation to the workplaces of our community, our shops and offices, our schools and hospitals? May the Lord make us true Daniels, good citizens of our Babylons.

(This talk was given at a prayer breakfast for members of a church, people who represented a wide range of callings in life. But what does it imply for us as Christian educators? What does it mean for us in our thinking about life in modern nation-states? What about how we should prepare children and young people for life and citizenship in our modern Babylons? Are we good citizens of Babylon, seeking its shalom ourselves and teaching the young to do so also?)

John Shortt