The book of Daniel is a lot of things, but one is a sustained critique of corrupt government and false religion.
Nebuchadnezzar, representing both, swings into view immediately. The Babylonian king has defeated Judah and taken not only its leading citizens into captivity, but also the sacred vessels from the Jerusalem temple. These he deposits in the temple of his god.
The young Daniel is one of Hebrews taken captive, as are his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (or by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). As the story progresses, the Hebrews are seen as largely compliant with their captors except in areas of faith. They will not abandon an iota of their practice.
An inevitable showdown occupies the very first chapter (unless you count Susanna as the first, but more on that another time). The youths are not rebels; nonetheless, they humbly refuse to eat the king’s food, which fails to meet the Mosaic standards. “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself,” as the text says (v. 8 and compare 2 Mac 6.18). Daniel and his friends prevail and come to win favor with Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel possesses the unique ability of interpreting dreams and visions. The second half of the book is given to several of Daniel’s own, but in chapter 2 Daniel deciphers one of Nebuchadnezzar’s puzzlers. The king sees a man’s image made up, head-to-toe, of ever-coarser materials: gold, silver, bronze, iron, clay. The figure is dashed to pieces by a stone uncut by human hands, which in turn grows to become a giant mountain that covers the earth.
Daniel bravely informs the king that the image is succession of kingdoms all doomed to crumble, including his. In place of these kingdoms, says Daniel, God will establish his kingdom “which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (v. 44).
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Daniel’s interpretation kicks off a theme that runs through the book — the passing kingdoms of the earth and the lasting kingdom that God will establish.
Coming on the clouds
The theme is again picked up in Daniel’s vision of the beasts in chapter 7. Just as John later employs the metaphor in his Apocalypse, each successive beast represents a corrupt kingdom. All eventually lose their power, but then Daniel sees this:
[W]ith the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (vv. 13-14)
Christian readers see that Son of Man as Jesus and the kingdom he inaugurated as the kingdom of God. Jesus actually alludes to this passage several times, self-identifying as the Son of Man. In Matthew 16.28, for instance, he speaks of the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. In Matthew 26.64 he speaks during his trial of the Son of Man empowered and coming on the clouds — the line that gets him killed. And in Matthew 28:18 in fulfillment of Daniel 7 he says that all authority on heaven and earth is his.
The book of Daniel thus presents us with the picture of ungodly, earthly systems being put down by the rule, ultimately, of Christ — the stone uncut by human hands that grows into a mountain that fills the earth.
The failure of phony worship
The book of Daniel also takes on false religion, which is closely intertwined with these corrupt governments. Not only is Nebuchadnezzar impious toward the holy items of the Hebrew temple, but he also orders Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to bow to an idol he’s crafted. While the youths have been faithful servants of the king, they must refuse. Nebuchadnezzar is incensed, and the three are pitched into a blazing furnace. Miraculously, they are delivered, showcasing the power of the God against the idols of the nations.
As bad as he is, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor is worse. Belshazzar’s impiety goes on display when he takes the aforementioned sacred vessels and uses them in a rollicking night of debauchery and idolatry — for which God brings him down before the dawn.
His replacement, Darius the Mede, carries the theme forward and suffers the book of Daniel’s most pointed jab on the matter of false religion. Darius signs a law saying that people can pray only to him. Any other supplication is suddenly illegal. Though he’s a loyal servant, Daniel’s loyalty is first to God. And so, like Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, Daniel runs afoul of the law.
Unlike Nebuchadnezzar, however, Darius is not angry with Daniel. Rather, he favors Daniel and seeks to save him. “[T]he king,” it says, “was much distressed, and set his mind to deliver Daniel; and he labored till the sun went down to rescue him” (6.14). But he can’t. The king is powerless to overturn his own law, and so off Daniel goes to the lions.
Only God delivers
There’s the jab. Darius represents himself as the only legitimate god, and yet he can’t even save one man. Instead, Daniel looks to God and is delivered. The book’s original Jewish readers must have relished that one. The same with Christian readers five, six, and seven centuries later who suffered under Rome, the last beast brought down by the stone uncut by human hands.
As his kingdom continues to grow and cover the earth, believers today can read Daniel and find in its pages assurance that corrupt power and impiety will not last forever. Such a reign is reserved for God alone.