To Set One's Heart

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Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
In the past week I have been listening to some really terrific theological lectures on Luther and the early days of that historical period we know and celebrate as the Reformation of the Church. We look forward to remembering October 31 in a vastly different way from the death-obsessed culture around us, because we know that on that date, 490 years ago (that’s 70x7 for you trivia lovers) we recall the nailing of 95 theses to a Wittenberg church door, and the shaking of the whole world as a result. You may have a mental image of a determined Luther, hammer in his hand, taking aim at a great spike he means to drive deep into the heart of a corrupt Roman church. But that image would be over-idealized. I suppose that no one was more surprised at the chain of events that followed Luther’s post than Luther himself.

Luther was caught up in a momentous time in which, by God’s decree, he was assigned a central role. He was suitably gifted for the task; he ran the race that was set out for him to run, and in so doing he became the inspiring figure we recognize today. Luther didn’t have any special insight to the future the day he tacked up his public notice offering an academic debate, no purpose in his heart to turn the world upside down. But Luther was a determined man; the purpose of his heart was both simple and powerful. Like Daniel, he had “set his heart.” Come what may, he would follow the dictates of the Word of God. It is that kind of faith referred to by Christ when he spoke of moving mountains.

Luther didn’t intend to hurl a mountain into the depths of the sea but he did. And Daniel didn’t intend to stand unmoved like the mount of God as some of the greatest kingdoms in the history of the world rose and fell around him, almost, if you will, at his decree—so true were his declarations of what was to take place. Such is the power and strength of faith in God and his Word. If you will “set your heart” on God and his Word, you may be assured of one thing. Not that your name will be remembered on earth after nearly 500 years, nor that you will be adviser to presidents and princes over a long life of service. No, but that you will stand next to Daniel in the age to come, when all vestiges of this world have crumbled away into nothingness, and time shall be no more.

This is the message of Daniel for us this evening. When the circumstances are desperate, when the faith of others around us, the faith even of our people generally, is expended on false hope and nothing remains, when confidence in God’s Word has been almost completely replaced by pragmatism, confidence in the flesh, and confidence in earthly sight—the man or woman of God, the boy or girl who hopes in God, will not be disappointed. Daniel, along with his three fellows, is not outstanding because he set his heart on rising like a superstar to the heights of political administration, but because he set his heart that he would not defile himself, no matter what price this world exacted.

We can take the chapter, and divide it into three main parts for study, and those portions will form a basic outline for us to follow. Vv. 1-7, the King’s Strategy Declared; vv. 8-14, Daniel’s Faith in Action; and vv. 15-21, God’s Judgment Revealed.

I. The King’s Strategy Declared
We began last week with only the briefest look at the first few verses of Daniel, and that was deliberate on my part. There are some surface details in those verses that set the stage for the episodes that follow. For instance, the time is established by reference to the king of Judah, godless Jehoiakim, in whose days the captivity of our author, Daniel, commenced. The foreign nation, and its heathen king, who act so boldly and enjoy every success against the chosen people are identified. And we note how frankly Daniel acknowledges that it is Israel’s own Lord who gives his king into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, and even allows the plunder of his own house. The flower—the best and the brightest—of Israel’s young men are plundered as well, to be put into service for the “good of the Babylonians.”

Thus, we were able to observe last week how often earthly powers act in their own selfish interests, but are unable to monitor the hidden ways of God whose design has foreordained even the use of their willful, sinful ways for the advancement of his kingdom, his redemption, and his gospel. Being ignorant of God’s plan, they cannot oppose it, except in the most general sense. A show is made of taking that which had been the God of Israel’s, both man and treasure, and presenting them to the god of Nebuchadnezzar. But God is not a god like the idols, and his objects and persons of interest cannot be alienated without his consent.

If then this is the case, then even this captivity is an instrument of perfection, of sanctification and beneficent discipline in the covenant people. Of course, it is that only for those who are by faith participants in the substance of the covenant of grace. In the absence of faith, the opportunity for spiritual growth is wasted on the one who is bound to the judgment that belongs to this world. These two groups are not distinguished in our first five verses. All that transpires is presented from an earthly observer’s standpoint. A fair number of the captives—ones who from an earthly assessment are ideals, whom the world might suppose were Jehovah’s own hope for his Messiah—these are sent to the school of the eunuchs.

In the days of hereditary kingdoms, kings often thought it prudent to create a bureaucracy of attendants whose lack of virility served as something of a curb on ambition. As regards many of its cultural ways, Israel stood apart from much of the Gentile world in this department also, eunuchs being excluded from Temple worship (Deut. 23:1). No Israelite king would create such a service, and no self-respecting Israelite would join it if he did. But in Babylon state service or advancement, in some departments anyway, came at a price, a steep barrier for volunteers. So, joining such service was not always voluntary, as witness the impressments of the Hebrew lads.

Like men forced to go to sea, impressed into the navy, there was work to be done to start with. These boys were to be trained in the language and letters of Babylonian officialdom. Three years, think of it as a college experience, to get the basic training necessary. Evidently, there were compensations, or else no one serving as courtier would be in any sense enthusiastic about their job. As in the case of these boys, fine fare for dining was a regular perk. And that was only the beginning. The closer one was to the king, the easier it was to satisfy any desire. Money, influence, and power were derived from the throne. It surely could not have taken Daniel long to realize he and all the captives were in grave danger of being totally corrupted.

Do you think Daniel was the only one of all these to see this threat? Worse than the spoiling of the nation, worse than robbing these young men of their opportunity to promote the Messiah’s birth, their captors were after their souls, and their very identities. Clearly Daniel wasn’t the only one, for there were these three others. But apparently, few if any others who saw the threat set their hearts as Daniel did. No other resisters are mentioned; they all gave in to the conditions imposed on them. What we find presented here is these four in contrast to all the rest.

Note, it wasn’t simply allurements, or passive measures the Babylonians used to undermine the covenant identity of these young men. V. 7, the chief of the eunuchs, we read, assigned new names to this class of captive-trainees. I encountered something like this in my military experience. Recruits are formed into cohesive units in part by reducing their individuality. Now, if one guy is something of a smart-aleck, his trainer might change his name (that is, what this man will learn to answer to)—change it to “Private Smart Aleck,” or fumble his actual name up—so that Private Duffy becomes Private Doofus from now on. In the case of these boys, the goal was to reinforce to them that they were no longer to think of themselves as Israelites. In other words, the new name is a summary statement—Your old self, its faith, its ideas, its hopes, all of that is over, done, gone. Daniel is dead. In his place is Belteshazzar. Hananiah is dead, replaced by Shadrach. Mishael is dead, replaced by Mishak. Aazariah is dead, replaced by Aabed Ngo.

II. Daniel’s Faith in Action
You cannot see what I am about to tell you in your English Bibles, and I wish there was some way that you could see this on the printed page. But in v.7, the chief “sets” names to the captives, the four who are our main interest not excepted. Then, immediately in v.8, Daniel’s response to everything, including being “set” a new name, is to “set” his heart—the very same word is used. The Babylonians can “set” the outward look of things. They can “set” these boys outward direction, they can command the heart and outwardly induce it into their preferred frame. But, they cannot set the heart themselves. Only these young men have power over their hearts. Only they can set their heart.

Now let me make another observation on that point. You may be a young person here tonight. And boy or girl, you are subject to the outward “set” given you by your parents. They can command your heart, and outwardly induce it into their preferred frame, which in your blessed case is likely that of a covenant keeper. But they cannot command your heart so that it obeys the will of God; they cannot set your heart. Only you have power over your heart. You have the natural power to set it in opposition to godly desires. But do you realize that you do NOT have the natural power to set it in cooperation with godly desires? The great difference between godly parents and the ungodly Babylonians is this: the Babylonians didn’t need to overcome anything but natural habits in these Israelite’s lives to make ungodly Babylonians out of them. Godly parents must pray for God to do what they cannot—to give their children a new power to love and believe God.

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Aazariah had been given new hearts to believe in the Lord God of Israel. And because they had those hearts, they could “set” them unto God against the will of their ungodly masters. It wasn’t simple rebellion to authority that Daniel and the others pursued, but it was a choice to remain God’s servants in their hearts, no matter what their outward service demanded. And if it was their parents who set them outwardly on the godly path from infancy, and prayed for God soon to make them inwardly what they as parents urged upon them outwardly, then it must have been a great comfort to them, after having their sons cruelly torn out of their lives, to learn of their sons’ indomitable faith—that it persevered, that God held them in his covenant love, and gave them the courage to set their hearts to remain Israelites.

What is your determination, young lady, young man? The world is calling you right now, today, “Change your name; join us. Don’t be called Christian, don’t follow Jesus. Suffering? Patience? Doing God’s will? Those ways are for losers! You can have everything you want right now; the price is very reasonable, considering all that I’ll give you.” Those are not loving words of wisdom and counsel—they are the Serpent’s lie from the Garden repackaged for you. You will set your own heart, so where will it be set? Do you have the desire to set it on godliness? Then do so! Your captors may not have your heart! It belongs to God who gave you his desires. Or do you desire only to set your heart for yourself, for ungodliness? Do you consider godliness imposed outwardly on you your captivity? Pray then, I beg you, for a new heart to set aright! For the way of defilement, pretty as it seems, has no children, no future, no heritage, only selfishness and death.

For Daniel, he went to the same chief of eunuchs who set him a new name, and asked this one in charge of the whole reorientation program for the freedom not to defile himself. The issue was not that the foods might be unclean, (for the wine certainly wasn’t unclean), but that this was firstly, food sacrificed to idols, and eating it joined one to the idols (as Hos. 4:17 indicates, and Paul observes in 1 Cor. 10-20 and the context), and secondly, was luxury fitted to make the lads forgetful. V.9 tells us that God made this one idolater favorable to Daniel, although v.10 makes it clear that his priorities were to his job and his own wellbeing, not to Daniel’s conscience.

So Daniel sought further a way to prosecute his case of conscience. Daniel approached the steward (v.11) or warden of the four (so having gone to the top, and secured favor, but not permission, he then went to the chief’s underling). He proposed a test, of limited duration—10 days of vegetables and water. This simple fare would require little (and perhaps even less) work, and most importantly would not be from the king’s tables, and part of his rituals. How unlikely that an underling would risk what his own superior was afraid even to chance? Calvin assures us that Daniel had the confidence born of supernatural revelation, and I agree. Failure to secure the chief’s permission brought Daniel back to God in prayer, who gave this proposal to him to share.

Do not miss Daniel’s final comment, v.13, “You be the judge, and as you see fit, deal with your servants.” This was a supreme act of faith in God. Daniel would be faithful, and so he believed would God. That comment could have been Daniel’s prayer to God, “God, you be our Judge; we are truthfully your servants alone.” It was God’s proposal, and God made the warden consensual.

Whether you are older, or one of our youth, I think you see in this young man, and his three friends, probably barely in their teens at most, faith in action we wish we would realize. Maybe you are thinking, “When the time comes to stand up for Jesus, I resolve to stand strong like Daniel.” I want to be clear on this: this is not a case of you screwing up your courage, or of simply making up your mind to BE STRONG. You have to be strengthening faith in God today, in this time of mild trials, and lesser attacks. If you wander away from God’s means of grace—his Word, his sacraments, and prayer—which he gave you for strength—and he hasn’t given anything else—you will NOT be strong like Daniel. You won’t even have small faith today. Remember, it is God’s grace alone, not our attempts at imitation, that is our strength. If you want to be like Daniel, you need to have Daniel’s faith in Christ, period.

III. God’s Judgment Revealed
Finally, the text shows us the first stirrings of God’s Judgment, his approving judgment in this case, as Nebuchadnezzar’s will and Daniel’s, Hananiah’s, Mishael’s, and Aazariah’s will are after a fashion laid before God and he honors the young men who prefer joining the sufferings of God’s people and the reproach of Christ than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, as Hebrews 11 relates of Moses. Daniel is remembered in that passage as well, not for this stand, but for a later one, when by faith he stopped the mouths of lions (11:33). But make no mistake, that act of faith is joined in one seamless garment to this one from the beginning. We should say it was even made possible by this one.

Some have suggested that vegetables are more healthful food, water is superior to wine, and therefore Daniel and the three friends prospered. In a word, that is nonsense, and completely inadequate to explain the result of what took place here. Folks, this was God’s work, plain and simple.
1) Consider the length of time. 10 days is short enough, that if matters were going badly, the four’s condition would be obvious, and they could be classified as sickly, and their diet restored. And yet it was hardly long enough for the lads to naturally separate themselves from the others who were all eating heartily. Yet the 10 days produced noticeable, positive change in their appearance. At the very least, the eyes of the observers were made to see what God wanted them to see.

2) Consider the content of their meal. This is classic reduced calorie fare. I’ve been on reduced caloric intake in the army during intense training, to add to our stress level. Your features do not get better looking, nor do you get fatter in flesh. “Better looking” would not equal “less flushed from wine”, nor would “fatter of flesh” be defined as “noticeably skinnier.” Maybe in modern American culture these features would be prized, but not in the days we are reading about. Yet, a diet that naturally contained fewer calories gave these youths superior appearance and their fatty flesh increased. Folks, this is no less a miracle than Elijah traveling 40 days and nights through the desert on the strength of two cakes and two drinks of water.​
So, the first outcome of this trial was that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Aazariah continued in their unique diet, as their warden governed their meals. Whoever was aware of this arrangement—if the chief of the eunuchs was ever reappraised of these Israelite’s unorthodox diet—no one moved to overturn what God had designed. And for the whole three years of induction, they were sustained in their strength, health, appearance and fatness. God came to the aid of “his elect, who cry to him day and night” (Lk. 18:7).

Second, God granted to these four to excel in their studies. We have all known, even perhaps been, one who could not finish an assignment. When you made your work complete, did you thank God for the success? These men mastered all their subjects: “ALL literature and wisdom” (v.17). And to Daniel, as though in approval of his leadership of the four, mention is made of him being given understanding regarding vision and dreams—an ability which not long hereafter is sought after urgently.

Third, the day finally came, three years later, when the chief of the eunuchs brought in the class of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Aazariah according to the king’s first dictate. And he sat to review their progress. He gave no indication of knowing anything of the four men’s special diet, and their refusal to eat from his table. His first introduction to them is this interview. And he is most impressed with them, above all the others who had graduated the course of study. This interview should remind you of Jesus interview, who so impressed the Jewish eldership at his examination for full covenant membership (Lk. 2:46).

So the judgment of God on behalf of his servants is vindicated and published and publicly acknowledged (however unwittingly) by the king whose will was overturned. They were given assignments in the king’s personal service. This privilege they took, not as those who curried favor or who had embraced the luxuries of the court, but rather had rejected them. Those young Israelites who had willingly become Babylonians in the main took lesser places. It was God’s judgment that his servants occupy significant places of influence over affairs of nations who were his enemies.

Furthermore, God continued to magnify the abilities of these men over those who were already ensconced in power. They were ten times better than the typical magician or astrologer in the king’s administration. And finally, God’s judgment comes to light in the closing verse of the passage. Daniel continued until the reign of Cyrus. Even if you knew little to nothing of the rise and fall of empires, you would easily tell that Daniel prospered in God’s providence for all of the king Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. How often does a man of prominence fall from grace in our own age of equality? Much more then in a capricious age like this one! But Daniel, so impressive, is preserved by God.

So then, if you know that not only did Cyrus not immediately follow Nebuchadnezzar, but was of a later, conquering empire succeeding and replacing the Babylonians, and that Daniel was practically unaffected in position by the falling of empires around him, then the Judgment of God in his case becomes even more apparent. God sustained his servant for over 70 years as his ambassador to the princes of the world. He was a forerunner of Paul of whom Jesus declared, “he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings” (Act 9:15).

In conclusion, we see in Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Aazariah great faith and great accomplishment. Not so that we should set our hearts on replicating their achievement, but so we should see in them a faint reflection of the glory of Jesus Christ, who we are called to imitate. If you will “set your heart” on God and his Word, you will stand next to Daniel in the age to come, and honor the Christ who served as none of us can, and who is worthy of that kingdom.
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