Do you feel more and more that you can empathize with how Daniel and his friends must have felt in Babylon? Under an ungodly regime, fighting a constant push to compromise on matters of faith, with our young ones being taught things contrary to God’s word, and the realization that we’re very much in the minority? We are not the first ones to experience this situation, and the Bible gives us a great deal of wisdom about how to cope and behave from saints who have walked through it before us, under much worse conditions, and survived. In fact, not only did they survive, but they were able to effect powerful change on the whole regime. Romans 15:4 tells us that, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope”. When we read stories of Daniel, of Esther, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Nehemiah and others in Babylon, and of Joseph in Egypt, we should pay careful attention. Their stories are our handbook to living in exile. What top tips can we glean?
Our faithfulness in small matters leads to God’s miracles in big matters
God did remarkable things throughout entire empires with his holy ones. How? They didn’t strategize to overthrow the regime, but rather they consistently made good choices about their own lives in humility and faithfulness. Then, by his own power, in his own time, God did miracles. He lifted key people to positions of power and influence, where he could use them to accomplish his purposes. Not just for their sake, but for the sake of the entire population.
Joseph is a great example. He ended up in Egypt, in a hostile land, utterly alone in his beliefs, enslaved, and eventually imprisoned unjustly. Yet day after day, he chose personal righteousness. He did not waver in his own faith in God. He just consistently made good decisions in his own heart – to serve to the best of his ability, to be honest and hardworking, refusing sexual temptation when no one would ever know, and in prison he was kind to other prisoners, caring about their wellbeing, and asking them what was wrong when he noticed that they were downcast.
Think about it – if he had not done precisely these things, he would never have ended up in Pharaoh’s court, interpreting those dreams and saving not only the whole of Egypt, but the future of the Jewish people and therefore the safe delivery of the Messiah through them – and so in a way, God arranged it that through Joseph the whole world was saved. He was not perfect, but he stayed faithful, doing the little that he could in his own life, and because he did those very things, God accomplished a massive redemption that ultimately affected us all.
Another important thing that Joseph got right was that he continued to hang on to God’s promises. We see that he never lost faith in the words God spoke to him as a teenager when he received two dreams – Joseph says to Pharaoh: “The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon” (Gen 41:32). All through those long years of languishing in prison, he never lost hope that God would fulfill his word to him through those two dreams he had as a boy. His faith stayed strong despite all the suffering and appearances to the contrary.
Not many of us will end up in pivotal positions in government, or second in command of a country, but all of us can make these small, personal, daily choices that Joseph made: To resist temptation for the sake of God, to care for others even when we are suffering ourselves, to choose to believe in God and his word no matter what. Joseph’s integrity continued as he personally chose to forgive his brothers. The effect of his life on Egypt and the whole world was enormous, but the decisions that accomplished it all were small, personal, hidden, and consistent. He is a great example for us today. It’s not up to us to change the whole system, but right decisions about small things in our daily lives are powerful currency in the hands of God.
Understand that all power ultimately lies with God
As we read in Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will”. Don’t forget that. God really is in charge of every power and authority, every tyrant and every regime. Ours is not to overthrow, but to submit and surrender to almighty God. He does the overthrowing. Part of the reason for not trying to take control of countries for God is that God’s plan and vision for the future might – just might – be different to the one you imagine might be best. God knows what he is doing across the globe and throughout time – he is the commander in chief and we are just foot soldiers. As much as we might like to think that we understand everything that’s going on in the world and how to bring God’s Kingdom to earth, this is really God’s job. We are his servants. He has the plan, and he calls the shots.
God can topple regimes easy as pie, as he has done many times in the past. We do not need to worry that he is not strong enough to transform any and every situation. But it is increasingly easy to imagine how Daniel and his friends might have been feeling as they watched the huge golden statue being built, knowing what the likely outcome would be for them. I love the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego on hearing their death sentence –
“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan 3:16-18)
As it transpired, yet again, God wrought salvation not only for them, but for the entire province, as he revealed his glory in a manner that would not have happened if his servants had not humbly and faithfully been ready to give their very lives doing the right thing in their own personal lives.
They did not yell at everyone else for idol worship, or try to mobilize mass demonstrations against the statue-building blasphemy of Babylon – they just refused to participate, and were not afraid to hide it. They did what only they could do as individuals (micro-scale), and then God came and did what only God can do in the nation (macro-scale).
“Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. “I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.” (Dan 3:28-30)
True transformation of nations comes through prayer and fasting
Another important lesson from our exilic heroes is that of the power of prayer. God brings the change, but he invites us to participate by partnering with him in intercession. When we think of Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah – they all took prayer very seriously, and God heard and answered in the most extraordinary ways. As someone wisely said, “When we work, we work. But when we pray, God works”. The contrast in results brought about humanly versus supernaturally is enormous. It’s an exciting thing for us who might be tempted to despair because although we can reasonably deduce that there’s not much we can do in the face of great evil and colossal international chaos, we do know someone who can do ANYTHING. And he beckons us to his throne. He is looking for ones who will stand in the gap.
Esther found herself in the most extraordinary situation, and had to risk her life in order to save the entire Jewish race. She understood the gravity of the situation, and what was needed. She tells her uncle Mordecai; “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” The results of her selfless courage combined with earnest corporate prayer are recorded in the the rest of the book.
Nehemiah is also a great example of one who understood the importance of prayer in a hostile environment. Nehemiah prayed and fasted when he heard of the sorry state of Jerusalem – repenting for and with the whole nation: “We have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments”, Nehemiah admits. But then he calls on God to remember his promise to regather his people, and asks for favour with the authorities. Nehemiah recalls, “The king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.”” If you know the rest of that book, you’ll know that Nehemiah’s requests to God and the king were both granted.
We might feel powerless, but the truth is that we have 24 hour access to the most powerful being that ever will be. He loves to hear from us, and it is a privilege to work together with him to accomplish his purposes on earth. I’m sure the minute we arrive in eternity, we’ll be kicking ourselves for not praying more than we did. I really think we have no idea how much power is available to us as we pray to our Heavenly Father, Lord of the Angel Armies. Open our eyes, Lord!
Be ready for the long-haul
Living in dark times doesn’t mean the story is over, but we need to be ready for the long haul. Esther’s beauty competition victory was only the beginning of a very arduous and alarming time for God’s people, and Joseph was in jail for years. Daniel went to Bablylon as a young lad, and was still there, interpreting dreams for wayward kings as an old man. We musn’t get discouraged or give up, but be ready to run this race with perseverance. In some ways it’s frustrating to feel at a loss in a society that is in freefall, but equally, it’s great to know that the most important thing for us to get right is actually in our control – to do justly, to love mercy, and just to keep walking humbly with our God. Then we can be like stars, shining brightly in the darkness.
So, to recap, here are some of the small, personal choices made by our heroes in exile, that led to God unleashing great spiritual power in their environments:
* Joseph worked hard under every boss
* He refused sexual temptation
* Daniel and his friends refused to eat food sacrificed to idols
* Joseph cared for those around him
* He didn’t lose faith in God’s word
* They all had courage
* Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would not bow down to idols
* Daniel prayed three times a day, regardless of the cost
* Nehemiah prayed short prayers on the spot and long prayers alone
* Daniel and Nehemiah both repented for themselves and the people
* Esther and Mordecai prayed and called a fast
* Esther submitted and obeyed those in authority
* Esther understood the importance of patience and timing
There is no record of our heroes berating others for not doing as they did – they simply got on with living God’s way. It was God himself who brought about the realization that this was the right way to live in powerful ways, and transformed the situation all around them. Just like ancient Israel, we are different – we are marching to a different tune. God assures us that there will be an affect on those around us when we obey his words and keep in his ways:
“Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who… will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” Deut 4:6-7
Or as the Apostle Paul put it in Philippians 2,
“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold out the word of life.”