Perhaps more than anyone else in the scriptures, Daniel understood exile—physical and spiritual. The book of Daniel reveals patterns of how to not just live, but thrive in exile. More than ever, we need his example.
As much as Christians love our gazillion Bible Study book variations —there’s a major Biblical theme most modern followers of Jesus just haven’t gotten comfortable with. Mostly, because it sucks. But like root canals and April 15th, it’s a reality we can’t avoid. That theme is exile—and until we reconcile ourselves with the idea, and the ways to thrive underneath it, our spiritual health will be stunted. Thankfully, we have the example of an ancient Hebrew prophet to follow.
Thousands of years ago, a young man was ripped from his home by war. Taken captive by an oppressive and dominating culture, he was shipped back to their capital city, to be trained (read: brainwashed) in their ways. But he persevered. He held onto his identity. He did astoundingly good work. He visited dangerous big cats well before train-wreck Netflix documentaries made it popular. And God spoke to, and through, him.
That young exile was the Jewish prophet, Daniel. The stories and visions that comprise the Biblical book bearing his name come from another time, place, and culture. And yet, I find them incredibly prescient for life now. Daniel is a pattern of how to live, and even thrive, as a child of God in exile. It’s a lesson we’d all do well to learn, myself included, because we too are exiles.
To be sure—reading this article on your high-tech phone, while sitting in a comfortable chair beside an electric fireplace on your quiet street with your car parked outside—doesn’t exactly feel like exile. Therein lies the danger. When you’re not experiencing physical exile, it’s easy to grow dangerously comfortable with the status quo. Daniel comes to shake us from our spiritual slumber.
We should pause to note, physical exile is still a reality today. It’s horrifying to read the accounts of people forced to start their lives again in a land that’s foreign, intimidating, and possibly even oppressive, due to circumstances well beyond their control: war, famine, or political instability. It’s unlikely you’ve experienced that in your lifetime. Instead, if you identify as a follower of Christ, you’re a spiritual exile. You live in a land, influenced by a culture, and among a people, that are not your own. This is how it’s always been with the people of God.
As I’ve read and worked to get an understanding of the Bible, I’ve noticed a pattern emerging across it’s pages—one that we’re currently living in. It doesn’t matter how long ago your last math class was, I’m guessing you’ll see it too. It goes something like this:
Creation | Exile | Promised Land | Exile | Jesus | EXILE | Re-Creation
You and I are living in that third exile, the one in all-caps above, just before the final rescue (and re-creation) of God. Here’s a fuller picture of that story, as quickly as possible, because the context and pattern matter.
CREATION: God created a perfect world and put people in it. He lived with them in a garden called Eden. Things were pretty sweet.
EXILE: But humanity chose our way over God’s, and things went to crap. A physical exile away from Eden was merely a picture of the spiritual exile we felt away from the presence of God. But He wasn’t finished. God initiated a rescue plan by aligning Himself with an ancient people group, the Israelites. As they grew, they came on the radar of prehistoric superpower, Egypt, who takes them into slavery and exile for 400 years.
PROMISED LAND: God rescues His people through Moses and planted them back in their Promised Land. The people are game to try this living-alongside-God-thing again. But…
EXILE: The Israelites lose focus, choosing their way over God’s way again. And, just like last time, things go to crap. (Pattern? Anyone? Bueller?) Ancient baddie, Babylon, takes them into exile.
JESUS: After 70 years, God rescues His people from Babylon and (again) replants them in the Promised Land. Passed from one oppressive political power to the next, God’s people are foundering until His rescue plan takes on flesh in the person of Jesus.
EXILE: God makes clear that His plan is to redeem this planet, once more replanting His people (now comprised from all nations and backgrounds) in an Eden-esque kingdom where He reigns as king forever (RE-CREATION). But to get there, we get to pass through— you guessed it: another exile.
To quote the Muggle Queen of Arandelle: “Some things never change.” Which, by my measuring stick, brings us up to today—the exile before the ultimate re-creation.
Exiles live differently than everyone else around them because they understand the land beneath their feet is not their home. Let me be clear, I’m not at all subscribing to a theology that elevates a “cut and run to heaven” approach to life on the good earth God has given us. Far from it. Creation is a gift from God to be enjoyed and cherished. The people around you are worthy of your love and your best. You shouldn’t stay home from work tomorrow because of your newfound exile status. God’s plan is to come back here, to this pretty little planet, to live alongside His people again. Being an exile isn’t about forsaking the life in front of you. Instead, it informs how you live it. Instead of being less invested, you become more, at least in the things that truly matter, because life as an outsider in a foreign land is hard.
Peter, one of the original 12 followers of Jesus, uses the imagery of exile multiple times in his letters to early members of the Jesus movement. The first line of his first letter, cleverly named 1 Peter, begins with the greeting “To the exiles, scattered throughout the provinces.” He goes on to encourage those readers to live holy lives “during their time of exile” (1 Peter 1:17) as “aliens and strangers” in this world (2 Peter 2:11). Peter is playing on a motif that’s scattered throughout the scripture: the people of God are weird—like exiles in a foreign land. That’s a design feature, not a flaw. (Genesis 12:1, Deuteronomy 14:12, Psalm 39:12, Titus 2:14, to name just a few).
Even if you don’t feel like it, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re an exile. It’s important to recognize that fact, or you’ll be spinning your wheels in the wrong direction.
When followers of Jesus are more formed by their political ideology than their theology, we’ve forgotten we’re exiles. When comfort matters more than conformity to Christ, we’ve lost the plot. When individual freedoms eclipse love of neighbor; when we’re more familiar with the numbers in our bank account than the chapter and verse of the scriptures; when we look and act and think and inhabit the world just like everyone else, we’ve not only forgotten we’re exiles, we’ve been assimilated. The dominant culture has won.
The people of God have always been minority populations in the world—and they didn’t seek to be anything else. That minority population toppled the Roman Empire not by force, politics, or violence, but simply by being different. In a highly-classed society, the Church treated prince and pauper alike. With hunger and sickness rampaging, the Church emptied itself to feed, clothe, and bandage the forgotten. When sexual relationships had no boundaries, the Church practiced minority sexual ethics. When the world said Caesar was Lord, the Church responded by saying that was actually Jesus’ title, and then they actually lived like it was true.
Perhaps more than anyone else in the scriptures, Daniel understood exile—physical and spiritual. He not only survived his time of exile, he thrived under it. More than ever, we need his example.
At this point, it would be more worth your time to pause and go read Daniel before continuing on here. Yes, all of it, even the confusing final chapters. You can read (or listen to) the entire book in about an hour. It’s a much better use of your time than the doom-scrolling you’ll find on Facebook.
With this filter of I’m-an-exile-too front of mind, I recently re-read Daniel myself, eager to soak up the ways he lived, thought, and thrived as a follower of God living in the heart of the oppressive Babylonian Empire. The story came to life as never before. Here’s what I’m taking away—shared as an encouragement for you to pick up the book and search through it for yourself.
From the life of Daniel, I’m learning that thriving spiritual exiles—
MAKE PEACE WITH BEING DIFFERENT
Plucked from his homeland as a teenager, Daniel was recognized as one of the best and brightest of Israel. Ushered into a three-year training program, with a goal of exiting to serve the king of Babylon, Daniel was afforded pleasures and comfort other exiles could only dream about. Yet Daniel (and his three friends) chose their God over their position. They made peace with being different—from their food choices (vegetables and water instead of meat and wine), to the object of their worship, to the way they genuinely worked to improve Babylon. While the pressure to assimilate into the greater culture was incredibly high, Daniel was content to be different, as long as it was done in order to honor His God. Daniel didn’t Tweet his prayer schedule or his God-honoring diet— but he also didn’t hide it. He went about his life, with his focus on pleasing His God before anyone else, at peace with that differentiating him from the dominant culture around him. In a word, Daniel was fine being a weirdo.
Daniel’s pattern of being different is a theme throughout the book, but you can watch it being born in Daniel chapter 1.
LEAN ON EACH OTHER
Exile alone is disaster, but when you have a community to help shoulder the load (and refocus you on what matters most), it can be a high-pressure situation that turns coal into diamond. That’s what happens with Daniel, as he walks through exile with his three Jewish friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (you might know them as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—their Babylonian names). They support each other in being different; they pray for each other; they encourage and fight for each other. Their God-honoring subculture, within Babylon, only works because they have each other. It reminds me of the often-quoted African proverb: “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.” You cannot survive exile, serve God well, or enjoy your life if you’re doing it alone. You need other right-living exiles to do it with.
Daniel’s friendships with Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah dominate the first half of his book. Find them supporting each other in various ways in chapters 1-4.
Faithful people do faithful things. That phrase has been flying around my house the past few weeks. I love its simplicity. It’s a rephrasing of something Jesus said, that you’ll know a tree by the fruit it produces. Good trees grow good fruit—it’s as simple as that.
In Daniel, there are some spectacular moments of faith triumphing in the face of impossible odds: prophetic dreams that save lives; Daniel’s friends surviving a raging furnace, Daniel spending the night in a pit of lions. But those miraculous days are actually the outliers in Daniel’s life. A normal day was one spent bouncing between prayer and work duties, scripture, and time with friends. So, like a normal day any one of us might have.
Daniel and his friends weren’t born with supernatural faith that made their allegiance to God easier. Instead, they cultivated it. You see the patterns throughout the book: prayer (6:13), studying scripture (9:3), community (2:17-18), and spiritual disciplines like fasting (9:4). Daniel and his friends stood tall in the face of threats against their life and came out the other side precisely because they’d spent years proactively pushing their faith forward—even when it was difficult or illegal, because of their exile status.
They were faithful in the fire because they practiced being faithful before it. Again, their hints of their self-feeding are throughout the book, but read about the grand finales in Daniel 3 and 6.
DO GOOD WORK
The prophet, Jeremiah, a contemporary of Daniel, encouraged the Jewish exiles to “Seek the welfare of the city [God has] deported you to” (Jeremiah 29:7). Daniel did an exemplary job of this. Instead of seeking to overturn Babylon (the country that had kidnapped him, remember?), he actually worked hard to bless it. He served three (or maybe four) different kings—interpreting dreams, offering wisdom, and genuinely seeking the good of his enemies. He was such a blessing to those around him that he was elevated to positions of authority above natural-born Babylonians. The scripture says he, and his three friends, were found to be 10x as wise and insightful as anyone else in the kingdom. Talk about good work.
Daniel brought his A-game to everything he did. Instead of dividing the people around him into categories like worthy and unworthy, he sought to be a blessing to everyone (believer and pagan alike) and let God sort out the rest.
Daniel’s good work saves lives in chapter 2 and is the impetus for an evil king changing his tune in chapter 4.
ELEVATE THEIR VISION BEYOND THEMSELVES
Admittedly, the back half of Daniel’s book (starting in chapter 7) is decidedly more difficult to understand than the first. It’s comprised mostly of prophetic visions and dreams that Daniel has as he keeps pushing his faith forward (point #3 above if you’re keeping score at home). What the dreams mean, at least in my unschooled-opinion, is less important than the truth they communicate between the lines: thriving spiritual-exiles set their vision beyond themselves. They learn to see past the pain points of living in a foreign land and focus on the larger unseen picture. They latch on to the thing larger than themselves— God and the pursuit of His kingdom—and in doing so, make their lives more impactful than humanly possible.
For the Christmas lovers out there, there’s even a theory (just a theory, it’s not written in scripture) that connects Daniel to the Magi who visited Christ. Many scholars believe the magi came from Babylon, descendants of Babylonian Wisemen who originally learned about the coming Jewish Messiah King from an exiled prophet who lived among them some 500 years earlier. Talk about elevating your vision. Daniel looked beyond his own day-to-day life to the salvation that was coming—and in so doing, the ripple effects of his life were still felt half a millennium after he breathed his last breath.
As much as I love Daniel, he puts me between a rock and a hard place. He leaves me with a choice. I can invest in the comfort of my life here and now: better job, bigger car, greener lawn— or I can humbly accept my life as an exile, a citizen of a coming-but-not-yet-realized Kingdom built on foundations of love and grace, mercy and sacrifice, that our culture will never, ever understand. I can build my life, or I can build something larger and more lasting. What I’m pretty sure I can’t do, though, is build both.
Faithful people do faithful things, right? Daniel pushes me to get moving by making peace with being different, leaning on others, becoming a self-feeder, doing good work, and elevating my vision beyond myself. It’s the only way to survive, even thrive, in this exile.