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Daniel in the Lion's Den -- a study of Daniel 6

Daniel never compromised his loyalty to God Almighty.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Daniel 6

In the very famous (and dark) story of Daniel in the lion's den, we learn that Daniel faced his own "fiery furnace" moment without fear or compromise. He taught the Persian king that he could be first and foremost a Jew and also a trustworthy and loyal Persian official. The story gives us two very different perspectives on the "dark night of the soul".

“Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God been able to rescue you from the lions?” (6:20)

Happy Valentine's Day!

Ordinarily, I try to incorporate holidays/special events into by Bible study suggestions. But... Valentine's Day and execution by lions? I got nothing. The original St. Valentine was martyred? True but not helpful.

And the Super Bowl is on Sunday. Again, nothing helpful.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Animals Can Be Dangerous: A PSA

I love talking about animals. We share our home with a wide array of animals (and I'm not talking about our kids). We have dogs, birds, reptiles, and rodents. We love all of them. We raised our kids with animals. We have had multiple zoo memberships.

One of the things we love about animals is their unique personalities. Every animal has a personality -- likes and dislikes, mood swings, quirks, and fears. If you have pets, or if you work around animals, talk about how fun and interesting they are! Share your favorite animal stories.

But then it has to take a turn. If you are not careful around animals, if you treat them the wrong way, they will aggressively defend themselves. Even animals you have raised -- do the wrong thing and they will snarl and nip at you.

America's Funniest Home Videos made quite a living off of people's ignorance of animals.

[Most of these clips are humorous. What angers me, though, is when the ignorant human gets mad at the animal for the human's dumb behavior. (But more on this below.)]

So, also share your animal horror story.

I try to be very respectful of every animal I encounter. I don't mess with them, so they don't mess with me. (Wasps are a different matter, but I digress.) Some friends in Kansas City were so taken by our Green-Cheeked conure ("Maggie") (she was great; recently died of old age) that they got their own conure ("Elliott"). Well, they didn't realize that Elliott had a thing against males, so when a male friend got Elliott out, Elliott bit him on the cheek (!). Our friends heard from the kitchen, "It hurts, it hurts!" (We died laughing, hearing the story, but it wasn't a laughing matter to him.)

In the meme world, two animals are on a unique pedestal: geese and roosters. They are the apex predators of funny home videos (and memes). You can YouTube "when geese attack" and "when roosters attack" and see what I mean. We have Canadian geese in the pond out back this time of year, but we have no problems with them because our neighbor's ducks rule the pond.

Elsewhere in the world, though, Canadian geese are terrors. Here's a classic video of a goose chasing a rhino.

Let me share some personal rules about animals that are not your pets. Maybe share these with your group as a PSA -- free of charge.

  • If an animal is not your pet, do not approach the animal. Admire and enjoy it from a distance. If you are not a threat, they will probably ignore you.

  • If you get too close to an animal, it will do one of two things: run away from you, or run toward you (to scare you off). If an animal charges you, for the love of all things do not flail your arms and scream and run around. The animal will interpret that as aggression. Just back away as quickly as you can, and the animal will soon turn back.

  • Animals can sense your mood. Force yourself to remain calm.

  • If you do get bit, see a doctor asap -- animals carry diseases.

As you might have guessed, this week's passage is Daniel in the lion's den. I love animals, but not all animals are "safe"! Animals exist in a food chain where violence and death are common (blame it on Adam), and people get in the middle of it at their own risk.

Here are some interesting statistics:

  • Sharks kill 6 people per year

  • Wolves kill 10 people per year

  • Tigers kill 50 people per year

  • Lions and elephants kill 100 people per year

  • Hippos kill 500 people per year

  • Crocodiles kill 1000 people per year

  • Dogs kill 17000 people per year

  • Snakes kill 60000 people per year

The most deadly animal attacks on humans take place in Africa and India, where people live in the same areas as large predators. (By far the deadliest creatures, though, are insects that spread disease (like malaria and Chagas), and parasites like tapeworms.)

I'll share some information below about how animals were used as executioners in the ancient world, but for now, your transition would be that Daniel never got far away from the jealousy of his Babylonian peers. Just as they threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a furnace, they would find a way to throw Daniel into a lion's den. If God could protect His children from flames, do you think He could handle lions?


Where We Are in Daniel

We are jumping ahead through some incredibly important moments in world history! Here's the outline of the book:

  1. Daniel and His Friends in Babylon (1-6)

  2. Daniel's training in the court (ch 1)

  3. Interpreting a dream (ch 2)

  4. The fiery furnace (ch 3)

  5. Another dream (ch 4)

  6. The writing on the wall (ch 5)

  7. The lion's den (ch 6)

  8. Four Apocalyptic Visions (7-12)

  9. The four beasts (ch 7)

  10. The ram and goat (ch 8)

  11. The seventy sevens (ch 9)

  12. Wars to come (chs 10-12)

A liberal scholar named Paul Redditt pointed out a chiastic structure to the first part of the book that I summarize like this:

  • A dream of 4+1 kingdoms (ch 2)

  • Jealousy leads to execution in a fiery furnace (ch 3)

  • Nebuchadnezzar's pride, fear, and fall (ch 4)

  • Belshazzar's pride, fear, and fall (ch 5)

  • Jealousy leads to execution in a lion's den (ch 6)

  • A vision of 4+1 kingdoms (ch 7)

What I like about that summary is it draws the clear parallel between Daniel's sentence and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. For those of you who wondered "where was Daniel in the fiery furnace?", here's your answer; Daniel didn't "get off the hook" -- he faced his own severe trial.

This Week's Big Idea: From Daniel 5 to Daniel 6

Daniel 5 describes the end of the Babylonian Empire, and Daniel 6 describes the beginning of the Persian Empire in Babylon. That's not a little history. Let me oversummarize things:

  • Babylonian kings

  • Nabopolassar (626-605 BC) -- overthrew the Assyrians

  • Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC) -- led Babylon to greatest power

  • Abel-Marduk, Neriglissar (562-556 BC) -- weak sons

  • Nabonidus (556-539 BC) (son: Belshazzar) -- usurper

  • Persian kings

  • Cyrus the Great (539-530 BC) -- conquered the Babylonians

  • Babylonian Regent: general named Gubaru who may have been called "Darius" (meaning "King")

  • Cambyses (530-522 BC) -- son of Cyrus

  • Darius the Great (522-486 BC) -- emerged from messy succession battle

Not long after Nebuchadnezzar died, a chieftan named Cyrus took control of part of Media (559 BC), the kingdom just northeast of Babylon. Over the next 20 years, he conquered all of the small kingdoms around him and had become powerful enough to pose a legitimate threat to the once-dominant Babylonian Empire.

Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar ruled over a disintegrating Babylon. He was an usurper who worshiped a minor god in Babylon's pantheon, so he spent much energy simply maintaining his authority. When it became clear that Persia was stronger than Babylon, Cyrus took the city without a fight by declaring himself the people's ruler who favored the traditional god Marduk. Belshazzar was killed and Nabonidus taken prisoner (all in Daniel 5).

Cyrus's empire grew rapidly. (It is called the Achaemenid Empire (which is how you'll see this map described on Wikipedia) because Cyrus's great-great grandfather was named Achaemenes.) Cyrus was not just a great military tactician -- he was a brilliant politician and administrator. Cyrus granted a great deal of autonomy in the lands he conquered.

He allowed the Israelites to return and even gave them back the implements Nebuchadnezzar had captured from the temple (see Ezra 1, which probably follows our passage in Daniel 6 and may have even been inspired by it). This "Cyrus Cylinder" describes how Cyrus repatriated conquered peoples and rebuilt many temples.

He innovated a governmental system called a satrapy. He established 4 capitals: Pasargadae, Babylon, Susa and Ecbatana, each overseeing regions called satrapies. The Satrap was the "governor" of the satrapy who was a "vassal king" that reported to Cyrus's central government. Each satrap also had a general who kept the local army and maintained order, and a secretary who maintained records. Cyrus even started the first long-distance postal service.

[Aside: Cyrus's government was so effective that when Alexander the Great conquered Persia, he not only kept the existing Persian government, he exported its structure to the rest of his empire. This is why, for example, the Roman Empire allowed Herod to be the "king" of Israel. Through Alexander, Cyrus has influenced all western-style governments.]

Daniel 6 picks up probably not long after the conquering. We learn that Daniel had been retained as one of three primary administrators. (Remember that Cyrus valued local rule for its potential to keep the peace, and Daniel had been a capable administrator for decades.) This made the Babylonian officials very jealous. Note: 120 satraps (which is probably a "junior satrap" in the larger structure) and only 3 administrators. The only way those satraps can be "promoted" is for an administrator position to come open. Duhn duhn duhn!

[At the moment, companies seem rather desperate for qualified employees, but you might remember a day when you were in competition with other people for a specific position. How cutthroat was it? How bad did it get? Throw out any semblance of morality, and that's what Daniel was dealing with.]

The satraps would have acted quickly to depose Daniel. Once he was entrenched as the trustworthy, capable administrator in the eyes of Persia, they would be powerless over him. In 6:6-9, we learn that they fool the king into signing a decree that everyone in Babylon can only pray to the king for 30 days. (Aside: was Darius the local ruler accepting this, or was he redirecting it to Cyrus? The Bible doesn't say, and it's not really important.) I say "fool" because the satraps lied to the king -- they said that everyone agreed to this decree, when clearly Daniel (the chief administrator!) was not told anything about it.

And that's where our passage picks up.


Part 1: The Trap Set (Daniel 6:10-14)

10 When Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went into his house. The windows in its upstairs room opened toward Jerusalem, and three times a day he got down on his knees, prayed, and gave thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel petitioning and imploring his God. 12 So they approached the king and asked about his edict: “Didn’t you sign an edict that for thirty days any person who petitions any god or man except you, the king, will be thrown into the lions’ den?” The king answered, “As a law of the Medes and Persians, the order stands and is irrevocable.” 13 Then they replied to the king, “Daniel, one of the Judean exiles, has ignored you, the king, and the edict you signed, for he prays three times a day.” 14 As soon as the king heard this, he was very displeased; he set his mind on rescuing Daniel and made every effort until sundown to deliver him.

Again, read the preceding verses so that everyone better understands what's going on here. The fact that Daniel "learned" about the decree proves that he was not a part of the decision.

Two important things to catch here:

  • As I said, Persia was known for its tolerance -- allowing freedom of religion, so this decree seems out of sorts. Further, the king was not considered deity as far as we know in Persian religion. So, this implies that Darius's rule was still a little shaky. And that implies that this was early on in the takeover. (Speculation: maybe Darius was sold on the idea that this would help all of the people in Babylon accept the new regime more quickly?)

  • Persian kings were not above the law. This added a great deal of stability to the empire, and it would heavily influence later governments.

We're going to learn repeatedly that the king was very upset by how this law had turned out. If this was Gubaru acting in the king's place in Babylon, then he was probably feeling the heat. He knew that this decree was out of character for Persia (and probably wouldn't make Cyrus happy). And if this foolish decree cost him his most capable administrator (6:3), then he had dug himself quite the hole.

Anyway, Daniel responded to this decree very much like how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego responded to Nebuchadnezzar's decree.

He went into his house -- not to hide, but to throw his windows open so that everybody could see that he would not change his allegiance to God Almighty. He had developed the personal practice of praying on his knees three times a day. (I could not find anyone who knows why he did this or if it influenced other religious groups, although some scholars suggest that the Islamic practice of praying toward Mecca comes from this.)

The "Gotcha Crowd" ran with this to the king, who immediately realized that he had been tricked. The word for "approached the king" in verse 12 also appears in verses 6 and 15; it is an obscure Aramaic word with a loaded (and contested) meaning. They didn't just "approach the king", they "approached the king with a purpose". In this case, it was manipulation.

The king was trapped by his own decree. (Note: the leader guide gives the example of how in Esther, the duped Persian king had to issue a counter-decree to allow the Jews to protect themselves from the earlier decree allowing their extermination.) Unlike in Esther, he could not think of a way out for Daniel.

For discussion, try this on: Daniel was identified by his worship practices; how well do your worship practices identify you? Could someone say, "I know we'll find him at the church on Sunday morning"? Or "This is when she sits in the corner of the cafeteria reading her Bible"? Or "Before he comes into work, he meets for prayer at McDonalds"? Or something like that. How do your visible practices of worship identify you to the world? These other guys knew they could trap Daniel by his prayer life because Daniel had not made a secret of it.


Aside: Animals as Executioners in the Ancient World

Most Christians today are aware that Christians in the ancient Roman world were martyred by being "thrown to the lions". It was a common form of capital punishment (damnatio ad bestias) with a disturbing origin. To make a long story short, Roman commoners were entertained by fatal maulings, so the emperors made such executions common.

(These mosaics are said to date to the second and third centuries.) It is estimated that more than 400,000 people died in the Roman Coliseum in the mouths of wild animals. There is no doubt that the animals were horribly mistreated -- starved and wounded in order to make them more violent.

But here's where I'm going with this. Lions and tigers and bears and elephants (and whatever else) were not native to Rome. The Romans imported the practice of "death by wild animal" from the lands they conquered. Persians used lions as executioners at least 600 years before the Colosseum was built. Alexander the Great's successor in Babylon executed mutineers by having them trampled by elephants. Carthage also used war elephants as executioners.

It's beyond disturbing to be reminded what humans are willing to do.


Par 2: The Door Shut (Daniel 6:15-18)

15 Then these men went together to the king and said to him, “You know, Your Majesty, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no edict or ordinance the king establishes can be changed.” 16 So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you continually serve, rescue you!” 17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den. The king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the signet rings of his nobles, so that nothing in regard to Daniel could be changed. 18 Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting. No diversions were brought to him, and he could not sleep.

It had become apparent that the king was trying to find a way out of this situation, so the connivers shoved him along.

I don't know if I feel good about Darius for being a man of his word, or if I am furious with him for using the decree as a cop-out for letting injustice happen. The Bible deals both with this guy and the later Darius the Great (Ezra 1) favorably, probably reflective of Persia's role in helping rebuild Jerusalem.

Anyway, you know what happens. Daniel gets thrown into the lion's den.

So, about this. Lions were obviously common in the region. I showed you pictures of the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, and this famous Lion of Babylon statue dates at least to Nebuchadnezzar. All of the Achaemenid kings carved lions into their thrones. These are the Asiatic lions, not as big as the big African lions, but still big.

The "den" was probably manmade. This was a place for executions (the satraps didn't make the punishment up). There were no ways to escape (like we might expect in a natural cave). It was probably a pit like we would find in prisons of the time, except big enough to keep lions. That would imply that the lions were trapped in there -- a cruel way to exist.

The king "sealed" the pit so it would be very obvious if someone came and helped Daniel escape. This could have been as simple as pouring wax at one of the seams. Note that the Jewish leaders put a seal on the stone of Jesus' tomb for a similar reason (Matt 27:66).

Obviously, this execution was not meant for public spectacle. Maybe the king did not want to give the connivers any satisfaction, or maybe he could not handle his guilt. His words to Daniel, "May your God rescue you," could be interpreted as a hope (as CSB), or an expectation ("Your God will rescue you"). If you're optimistic about this king, you lean toward that latter option.

The king's subsequent behavior is interesting. He couldn't eat and he couldn't sleep. The word for "diversions" is elsewhere used of things like dancing girls, music, and food. If you're optimistic about this king, you like to think that he was fasting and praying to Daniel's God. Otherwise, this is common behavior for a guilty party.

Perhaps your discussion for these verses will take you into "The Law of Unintended Consequences" and how they have affected you. The king was not thinking about how his edict might be used against him, and before he knew what had happened, he was executing a respected (and important) advisor.

A famous (and debated) modern instance of this is fuel efficiency regulations -- making cars smaller and lighter has also made them less able to hold up in an accident, increasing traffic fatalities. A humorous instance is a law passed in Vermont in 1968 banning roadside billboards (to protect the natural beauty of the state). Instead, businesses built massive (and weird) sculptures to advertise themselves -- like a giant gorilla, genie, rooster, and teapot. That's definitely not what the lawmakers intended.

Anyway, back to Darius. He is painted as caring about Daniel, as being remorseful for his poor action, and as being open-minded about Daniel's God. You've heard the phrase "prayed to a God I don't believe in" -- here's an example of it. I wonder what sort of impact it had on Darius in the long term. I wonder if this had an influence on the later decision not only to let the Jews return but also to give them resources (and return their stolen property).

I imagine that most of us, when we read this passage, think about Daniel here, the fear he must have felt being in the darkness with ravenous lions. But Darius's perspective is also valuable to imagine -- it's his fault Daniel is in that situation.

What's a time in your life when you desperately needed God's protection (like Daniel)? And what's a time in your life when you felt guilty for someone else's need (like Darius)? How did you go to God with those needs? What happened?


Part 3: The Tables Turned (Daniel 6:19-24)

19 At the first light of dawn the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. 20 When he reached the den, he cried out in anguish to Daniel. “Daniel, servant of the living God,” the king said, “has your God, whom you continually serve, been able to rescue you from the lions?” 21 Then Daniel spoke with the king: “May the king live forever. 22 My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths; and they haven’t harmed me, for I was found innocent before him. And also before you, Your Majesty, I have not done harm.” 23 The king was overjoyed and gave orders to take Daniel out of the den. When Daniel was brought up from the den, he was found to be unharmed, for he trusted in his God. 24 The king then gave the command, and those men who had maliciously accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the lions’ den—they, their children, and their wives. They had not reached the bottom of the den before the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.

We all know how this turns out (although we might not think much about the horrific ending).

One of the reasons skeptics reject this story is the king's personal interest in the matter. No king would care like this. Are you sure? Assuming this is Gubaru, and knowing how important these first years of power are and how important Daniel is to that success (and his own missteps), why shouldn't he be extremely invested in this matter?

Sleepless Nights and How They End

There's an obvious topic of discussion. All of us can relate to this -- "something big is happening tomorrow morning". That could be so many things. Maybe tomorrow is the job interview. Maybe you're finding out if you got the job. Maybe it's the final exam. Maybe the scores are being posted. Maybe you're going in for medical testing. Maybe you're getting the results of those tests. Maybe you're confessing something you did wrong. Maybe someone is confessing something to you. You know what I mean. We have all had sleepless nights, wondering/worrying about the next morning.

There are two parts to this discussion: the trying to fall asleep part, and the waking up the next morning part. What's the morning like?

For me, those mornings are all about self-control. Forcing myself to go through my normal routine, knowing I can't speed up the clock.

But I've never been in a situation at all like Darius. I'm not even sure I can imagine a situation like that. What's going through his mind?

There are some similarities with the mindset of the women going to Jesus' tomb. The women thought Jesus was dead; they wanted to get into the tomb so they could pay proper respect to Jesus' body. The king possibly expected Daniel to be dead. But the differences... For one, this would be more like if Pontius Pilate or High Priest Caiaphas went to the tomb on Sunday morning thinking "I made a mistake, I sure hope Jesus isn't dead". But on the other hand, we are given hints that Darius believed God would preserve Daniel's life. Pilate knew that Jesus was dead before being placed in the tomb. I think there are way more differences than similarities between the two "going to a cave in the morning expecting to find a dead body" situations we read about in the Bible. (That sentence makes complete sense in my head, but it sure looks weird in writing.)

I love what the king does when he gets to the den. He calls out to Daniel! If Daniel is dead, the king is going to look like a fool in front of the people he is trying to rule. But if Daniel is alive, the king is anointed! What a gambit! It only makes sense if the king, through his night of fasting (and praying?), had a real sense of God's work in this terrible situation.

And of course, Daniel answers. Wow! For the rest of the entourage, this probably has the same effect as "Lazarus, come forth". Unforgettable. Life-altering.

I also love Daniel's response.

  • He doesn't blame the king, intending to ease the king's conscience.

  • He points immediately to God, acknowledging God's justice.

  • He makes it very clear that he (Daniel) can have his primary allegiance to God Almighty and still be loyal to the king. Those two things don't have to be mutually exclusive.

The only reason Daniel's loyalty to the king was in competition to God was the king's totally unnecessary decree about worship. God desires the well-being of all people, so there is no good reason for a nation to pass laws that are in contradiction with God's laws.

[Aside: I think this is a valid application for Christians in America -- proof that we can be loyal to our country and work for/within our government without violating our primary loyalty to God. But Daniel also models for us what we must do when our nation challenges our loyalty to God, and what we must be willing to sacrifice. Such a challenge is unnecessary and foolish on the part of the nation, but people can be unnecessary and foolish, right?]

So, they retrieve Daniel from the den. This is a favorite scene for artists.

I tend to agree with these interpretations, rather than the ones where Daniel is cuddling up with the smiling lions. (But let me be honest -- if the lions were smiling because they were enjoying the presence of a man of God, that's totally their right.)

But this is where the really dark turn comes. The lions get their meal.

I'm all in favor of "Daniel in the lion's den" children's crafts -- it's an amazing story that's utterly memorable. But teachers need to be uber-cautious about how far they dig. In this child's craft, what do you think those bones are from? Yikes! Of all of the Christmas ornaments, I think I like the one pictured -- it's not totally sanitized, but it's still safe to be displayed on a Christmas tree in the family living room.

There might be a tiny bit of exaggeration in verse 24. The point is that Daniel did not survive the night because the lions weren't hungry. But to me, the bigger question is how many men were a part of this conspiracy. When I read verses 4, 6, and 15, my first impression is that all 120 satraps and both administrators were working together. That requires an absurd number of lions in the den to kill them all so quickly! But it's not necessary for all of those men to be involved in this group (any more than all of the Sanhedrin was assembled to condemn Jesus) for the verses to still be completely true. Or even if all of them were involved, it's unlikely that all of them were in the group that went to the king. Some of them had to work, right? Rather, verse 24 could easily mean that just those men who had come to the king specifically to accuse Daniel were the ones he targeted for retribution. Sure, he could have dug deeper into the conspiracy, but he didn't need to. These executions would make it very clear to everyone in Babylon who was in charge, and then the king wouldn't have to replace all of his leaders.

It's a terrible fate for the wives and children of these men. It makes me pump the brakes on how much I want to "like" this Darius.

Be clear that God doesn't miraculously save every Christian from death in persecution, and that doesn't mean that God loves some Christians more than others. We cannot understand why Daniel was preserved from this terrible fate but, say, Stephen was not. We rejoice over the Daniels in our history, and we thank God for the witness of the Stephens ("martyr" means "witness").

Pray for the boldness and protection of Christians around the world facing persecution, and pray that we will be bold in our times of trial!


Closing Thoughts: Being Daniel in Persia

I'm completely out of space, but I want to give you one thought that might come up in your discussion. Daniel was as fish-out-of-water as it gets. A man of uncompromising morals and values in a fishbowl position living and working in a world that did not live or work with the same morals and values.

If you think you have it tough, you have nothing on Daniel. Let this story remind you that we have no excuses to compromise our loyalty to Jesus!

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