Exposition of Daniel 1:17-21 Yahweh causes Daniel’s rise

Daniel 1:17-21

17 To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

21 And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.

Commentary

While it was true that Nebuchadnezzar had sent Daniel and his friends into training, it was Yahweh who granted them mastery by giving them knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning (verse 17). Not least, they knew the true God and could disregard the false gods of Babylon. They also knew to steer clear of divination and sorcery, which were forbidden in the law (Deut. 18:10-12). For an example of how the Babylonians commonly used such practices to make decisions during military campaigns, see Ezekiel 21:18-24 with special attention to Ezek. 21:21.

Not only did God enable the four young men to read cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian, but he also granted to Daniel the special skill of understanding “all visions and dreams” (ESV) not “all kinds of visions and dreams” (NIV). Yahweh did not make Daniel the master of dream categories; he made Daniel the precise interpreter or any individual dream by giving him the exact interpretation when required. This will become plain in chapter 2. In effect, Daniel became the channel for God’s interpretation of any dream whose meaning was to be made known to others.

Wood supports the above interpretation of verse 17 when he says:

This gift was entirely from God. Daniel could not learn the technique of true vision and dream interpretation. There is point to noting this here, for the Babylonians believed one could do so. In fact, much of the literature in which the young men would have had to become proficient concerned such techniques. … The four Judeans would have had to reject all such thinking, as they recognized that true revelation could come only from God, and as he pleased.[1]

In time, the day of reckoning came for Nebuchadnezzar to personally interview every candidate trained for service in his government (verses 18-20). This kind of attention to detail is plainly what made him one of the most formidable rulers of ancient times. By showing the king’s meticulous care, Daniel sets the stage for the unfolding of the king’s shrewd actions in chapter 2.

Because several English versions (NIV, ESV, NET and NLT) use the word “magicians” to describe some of the king’s counselors in Dan. 1:20b, we should clarify this term. The English word “magician” leads us to think of various illusions and tricks we have seen on television. But that is not anywhere close to the function Daniel mentions. The standard Hebrew lexicon offers “soothsayer-priests”[2] and HCSB skillfully translates using “diviner-priest.” Miller further describes the role of the diviner-priests:

Supposedly in touch with the world of the spirits and the gods, these individuals were advisers to the king on virtually every matter. They employed rites and spells intended to heal, exorcise demons, or counter an evil spell placed upon the sufferer. Omens were studied in order to understand the future, and astrology played an important part in this activity.[3]

Before you sneer at the idea of a powerful ruler being guided by such arcane advice, consider that one of our most popular American presidents is known to have used the advice of an astrologer in making and executing many decisions. In Nebuchadnezzar’s time there was no reason to hide such advisers; they served in an official capacity.

Chapter 1 records the steady rise of Daniel and his companions. They began as royal captives swept up in punitive conquest (verses 2-3). By maintaining their special diet as a symbol of loyalty to Yahweh, the four are seen by their overseer to be superior in appearance to all other trainees (verse 15). When Nebuchadnezzar examines their skill, they demonstrate superiority to all the diviner-priests and enchanters in Babylon (verse 20). At the beginning of the chapter no one is paying much attention to Daniel and his friends, but by the close of their training, the king values them above all his other advisers. The king has unwittingly recognized the skills Yahweh has given to these young men, and the chapter closes with the note that Daniel’s career extended throughout the Neo-Babylonian empire and into the reign of Cyrus the Great of Persia (verse 21).

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. These materials were originally prepared for use at Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973)43.

[2] HALOT, chartum, soothsayer-priest, q.v.

[3] Stephen R. Miller, Daniel, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1994)72.

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