I'm doing some research on the Old Testament book of Daniel in preparation for a project I am about to undertake in the not too distant future. I'm taking it slowly. I'm still in chapter 1.
Daniel 1 is an interesting place to begin a book. I mean, Daniel isn't typical prophecy. It has prophetic elements in it as well as some so-called apocalyptic elements too, but it's not typical of a book of prophecy like, say, Isaiah or Jeremiah. There's no long poems or sermons. There's no real sweeping judgments against nations even if there are some heavy judgments against individuals who happen to rule those nations. Daniel is stories and dreams and visions. And that's about it.
With that in mind, I was thinking: why does Daniel begin where it begins? I mean, what's the point of opening a book of prophecy or a book about a prophet, by telling a story about who will eat and what food they will eat? Then I got to thinking that perhaps Daniel 1 isn't really about food or eating after all. Maybe the subtle point Daniel is making is that there is more going on in his life than mere appetite–there is more going on in his life than the king can possibly satisfy with portions from his table.
Several years ago, I wrote something similar in a devotional I had prepared for my congregation. I wrote:
I do not think Daniel and his friends felt they had a mandate to change the Babylonian culture and make it Jewish. What Daniel and his friends did have a mandate to do was to remain faithful to God–at any cost. They resolved not to be dependent on the culture in which they lived by eating food from the king's table. To eat from the king's table was like saying, 'we are going to be dependent upon the king. We will ingratiate ourselves to his providence.'
I think the short and long of it is this: when you eat like the king, you become like the king. Daniel and his friends were ultimately saying: we do not want to be like Nebudchadnezzer, and by not being like him, we will be better and more useful. It seems to me this is a larger story for us too: when we partake of the culture, we become like the culture. The culture of Babylon, in particular the person of the king, started changing because Daniel and friends remained faithful. It's a short road to the compromising of faithfulness. Daniel and his friends want to remain distinctly Hebrew in the context of Babylon. I'm not even certain Daniel's motive had anything to do with seeking God since there are no explicit commands anywhere that prohibit people from eating the king's food in captivity.
There's probably no such specific commands for Christians either. We are free to enjoy life and liberty and, if we choose, to eat from the king's table. Paul did write that all things are permissible. He also wrote, however, that not all things are profitable. So here we are faced with the crazy idea that we have to decide what is and is not compromise here in America where the king's table is so abundantly spread.
Given where Daniel's book begins (1:1): In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebudchadnezzer king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And given where chapter 1 ends (1:21): And Daniel remained there until the first year of king Cyrus. I would say that Daniel's decision not to take his sustenance from the king's table benefited him, and many others besides, well: He outlived them all and provided counsel for many kings and peoples. I would say that his decision to remain unique and distinct among the culture of Babylon was well played.