In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.
I. THE AIM OF GOVERNMENT. Nebuchadnezzar had an eye for intellectual wealth as well as material. There might be stores of capacity, in his train of captives. These were to be brought out, developed for the public service. Herein a lesson as to the aim of government, not merely political, but of administration in general, whether in the family, the Church, or the nation.
1. To utilize all talents; e.g. those of the four.
2. To develop spiritual gifts. "Whatever would help to lay open the future or to disclose the secrets of the invisible would have become precious in Babylonian esteem. It became known far and wide that Divine communications, in the form of prophecy, had been vouchsafed to the Hebrew nation. Dwellers in Babylon might imagine that inspiration and prophecy were permanent endowments of this favoured people. To utilize these endowments might have been one object with the king."
3. To conciliate subjects. Government of any sort is of little value without the moral element, which consists mainly of love. An administration that is only feared is of little power and less use. The elevation of the few would conciliate the Hebrew many.
4. To maintain intercourse; e.g. through the few with the many.
II. THE CONDITIONS OF SERVICE. Nebuchadnezzar pointed out what would be requisite in these candidates for court service. They are for the most part the conditions of all ministration to the public weal, of effective ministry (not using the word in an official sense) in the Church of God. Here it may be desirable to distinguish between a man's being simply a Christian - a believer in the Lord Jesus - and being consecrated as one of the Lord's servants.
1. Conditions intellectual.
(1) Ability. "Such as had ability," etc.
(a) Some knowledge to begin with. "Cunning in knowledge."
(b) Capacity generally. "Understanding science."
(c) Special aptitude, i.e., for Chaldee science; i.e. the science of the magi. "Skilful in all wisdom" (see the original of first part of ver. 4).
2. Conditions physical. "No blemish, but well favoured." The king, no doubt, desired comeliness of person. We have here to do with it only on its ethical side, as expressing character, and so being a passport to the confidence of men.
3. Moral and spiritual. Not named by the king; but must be mentioned; illustrated, and enforced here. For these, see the career of the four, but especially that of Daniel. - R.
2 Kings 23:34-36, we learn that Jehoiakim was raised to the throne of Judah by Pharaoh-Necho king of Egypt. He continued tributary to Egypt three years, but in his fourth year, which was the first year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, a great battle was fought near the Euphrates between the Egyptian and Babylonian kings, and the Egyptian army was defeated. This victory placed all Syria under the Chaldean government; and thus Jehoiakim, who had been tributary to Egypt, now became a vassal of the King of Babylon. (Jeremiah 25:1, and Jeremiah 46:2; 2 Kings 24:1). After three years, the King of Judah rebelled against the King of Babylon, who came against Jerusalem, and besieged and took it, as soon as his engagements with other wars allowed him to direct his attention to Jewish affairs. The land of Shinar was the ancient name of Babylon.
I. INTRODUCTORY. Nebuchadnezzar is called king, but he was not yet the reigning sovereign of Babylon. He shared the throne in conjunction with his father Nabopolassar. His accession to the sole sovereignty was some two or three years later (compare chapter 1, verse 5, with verse 18, and chapter 2, verse 1). This captivity is here said to have taken place during the third year of Jehoiakim, while Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:1) places it in the fourth. Both statements are true. Daniel reckons the three completed years. Jeremiah the fourth upon which Jehoiakim had just entered. There were three deportations of the Jews in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar; this — the first — in , a second in , and the third when Jerusalem was destroyed in This captivity appears to consist of nothing more than a number of hostages carried to Babylon, among whom was Daniel and his three friends, whose history, more particularly of the first, is given in this book.
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah.Jeremiah 4:4, 12, 13, 14). This threatening God now began to execute. Literally, "judgment began at the house of God." Having entered the temple, Nebuchadnezzar carried away part of the vessels of the Lord's house. These he took into the land of Shinar, the ancient name of the region in which Babylon was situated, and placed them in the treasure-house of his god. Considering the place from which these vessels had been taken, and to whose service they had been consecrated for ages, they may certainly be regarded as one of the most remarkable trophies that ever a conqueror presented at the shrine of his deity. But victories obtained over God's people, when they are also triumphs over God himself, will in the end be found pregnant with disaster. Thus, when the Philistines took the ark captive, God glorified himself in a very remarkable manner. And, when he summons the nations to the overthrow of Babylon, one reason mentioned is, to take vengeance on her for what she had done to his temple. "Make bright the arrows; gather the shields; the Lord hath raised up the spirit of the kings of the Medes; for his device is against Babylon to destroy it; because it is the vengeance of the Lord, the vengeance of his temple." In a subsequent chapter of the Book of Daniel, we shall meet again with these vessels, and see them prostituted, by an impious monarch, to bacchanalian purposes. Jerusalem was taken in the third year of Jehoiakim. We are not, however, to suppose that this was the end of his reign. Having humbled himself, and promised to pay tribute to the king of Babylon, he was restored to his throne, and reigned seven years. Having then rebelled a second time, Jerusalem was again taken, and he bound in chains, to be carried to Babylon, but died by the way. The final overthrow of Jerusalem did not take place till the eleventh year of Zedekiah's reign, about eighteen years after this period. When we consider that the sins of the Jewish people were so numerous, varied, and aggravated, and that they had been accumulating for ages, it might have been expected, that they would have suffered the seventy years of threatened captivity, from the time when the final stroke of vengeance came upon them, in the reign of Zedekiah. But, "for the sake of the elect, the days were shortened." The seventy years of the Babylonian captivity did not begin when the temple was destroyed, but when the vessels of the temple were taken away — not when the nation was removed, but when Daniel and a few others of noble birth were carried into Babylon.
I. Nebuchadnezzar invested Jerusalem, and took it, by the union of his own skill, and the courage of his army, and yet it is here said, "the Lord gave Jehoiakim into his hand." From this, we may learn, that there is a twofold agency concerned in all the events that take place in this world, — the agency of man on the earth, and the agency of God in the heavens. This twofold agency, however, is not co-ordinate. God and man are not possessed of equal efficiency in the production of events, Nebuchadnezzar besieges Jerusalem, but it is the Lord who gives Jehoiakim into his hand. Jehovah is the God of gods, and the King of kings, the First Cause of all events, as well as the First Cause of all beings. Men may form their plans, and gratify their passions, with the most entire freedom from all control, and yet they will only do "what God determined before to be done." This is the fundamental truth of religion, whether natural or revealed; the denial of which shows as great a lack of philosophy, as of piety. If the material, or intelligent, creation, was in any respect independent of God, this would sap every rational ground of confidence and composure. I know few duties more necessary to be inculcated, than this, of connecting outward events with the Divine government. Jehovah is, to a great extent, practically deposed from his throne of providence. Even many who profess to believe in his supremacy, "put a reed into his hand for a sceptre." Speculations on the state of the world too generally overlook the influence of God in the affairs that are occurring. In contemplating the world and its affairs, we should beware of looking only to the hand of man. Let us look beyond the creature, to the Creator.
II. The political causes, that led to the overthrow of Jerusalem, are apparent to all. These causes are not stated in the Book of Daniel. They are, however, fully developed in the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. In mentioning irreligion, as the radical cause of God's controversy with Judea, it is unnecessary to produce proofs of the assertion from Scripture. While the outward forms remained, there was such a want of true godliness, that Jehovah loathed and abhorred his own ordinances. And, when a people cease to fear God, or decline in this, their national character will begin to lower. They will cease to be distinguished for those loftier sentiments, which have their origin in the more strictly spiritual department of human nature, and which, more than anything else, tend to cherish wisdom, courage, genius, and patriotism. When the religious feeling of a country begins to decline, it will be marked by a growing disregard for God's holy day. Sabbath desecration is placed prominently among the causes of God's wrath against Judah. Religion is the parent and the nurse of all genuine morality. As might have been expected, from the low state of religion, we find the prevalence of immorality stated as one cause of this calamity that came upon Judea. "Run ye," said God to Jeremiah, "to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I will pardon it "(Jeremiah 5:1-6). Zephaniah in like manner represents the corruption of manners as extending to all classes. "Her princes within her," says he, "are roaring lions, her judges are ravening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow. Her prophets are light and treacherous persons; her priests have polluted the sanctuary and done violence to the law." There are some sins particularized by all the prophets. Among these none is mentioned more frequently than deceit. With the prevalence of this the prophet Jeremiah was so affected, that at the beginning of the ninth chapter of his book, he breaks forth in these heart-rending strains, "O that mine head were waters," etc. (Jeremiah 9:1-8). Covetousness is specified as another sin (Jeremiah 6:12, 13). Covetousness is represented as producing fraudulent dealing, and corrupting the sources of justice, because of which the Lord was displeased (Micah 6:10, 11). Pride and luxury are also mentioned (Isaiah 3:16-24). The prevalence of immorality, and particularly, the prevalence of deceit, covetousness, and luxury, may, generally, be considered as symptomatic of the last stage of nations. These operate disastrously in two ways. First, They expose to danger, because they are offensive to God. Secondly, They operate, naturally, to produce a dissolution of the social body. Luxury has the same influence on the social health, that an Asiatic climate has upon an European frame; it enervates and debilitates, and causes premature decay, and death. And deceit is like a secret poison, pent up within the bowels of the empire, and gliding fatally, yet imperceptibly, through its veins. And covetousness is like a vulture preying on a diseased and disabled victim, while its blood is still warm, and its breath has not gone forth. And general immorality is like begun mortification, a disease that has no successor in the list of maladies. Irreligion and immorality, when combined, never fail to produce a bitter and malignant aversion to the cause of holiness and truth, and to their adherents. Before the overthrow of Jerusalem, the spirit of irreligion did not exist in a state of apathy. It was roused to great fierceness; it stood forth in the form of malignant contumacy, and defiance against the Lord. His warnings were rejected, his denunciations were scorned, his prophets were persecuted.
III. We shall only mention two things illustrative of the circumstances in which the captivity came.
1. The overthrow of the Jewish state came gradually. Manasseh was first carried captive, then Josiah was slain in battle, Jerusalem was then taken four times by the enemy, twice in the days of Jehoiakim, again in the days of his son, and finally in the reign of Zedekiah. From this we may learn, that national destruction is sometimes a gradual thing. It comes in successive shocks, some at a greater interval, and others at a lesser interval. We are not to suppose, because the sins mentioned prevail in any land, that it shall be instantly overthrown. It is with nations as with individuals, — the impenitent person shall perish, but God may spare him to a good old age. Caution is, therefore, necessary, lest we should commit the honour of Christianity, as good men have often done, by denouncing judgment as certainly at hand. Sin will assuredly Bring it; but the times and the seasons are in the Father's hands.
2. A second thing very observable is, that before each of these successive shocks of national disaster, God made use of means to promote the reformation of the country. Before the calamities that came upon the land, in the days of Manasseh, godly Hezekiah, had endeavoured, during a lifetime, to promote a revival of true religion. The reign of Josiah immediately preceded this disaster in the days of Jehoiakim. In the interval between the death of Josiah and the destruction of the temple, they were warned by divinely-commissioned prophets. Among others, God employed Jeremiah, a man in whose character, zeal for God was finely united with tenderness to man. And it has been God's ordinary way, to use means for reforming nations, before their overthrow. The flood came and swept away the ungodly world, but did not God give them warning? Nineveh was not overthrown till she was called to repentance by the ministry of Jonah. If God's government be a moral government, then moral evil must be the cause of all physical sufferings, and of all political difficulties. Moral evil is the crime, the political evil is the punishment. Moral evil is the disease, political evil is but the symptom.
II. THE CAPTIVES.
1. They were of noble birth. They were selected of the king's seed and of the princes. Daniel himself was probably of the blood-royal, as we learn in 1 Chronicles 3:1, that David had a son of that name. Josephus says he was the son of Zedekiah. It was a sad day at Jerusalem when the most promising of the young nobility, in whom the hopes of the nation were centred, were carried away captive to Babylon.
2. They were distinguished by personal beauty. The orientals connected a handsome form with mental power. This, alas! is not always true. Neither spirituality nor intellect appears to be partial to beautiful tenements; but sometimes the purest gem is found in the commonest setting. When , now an elderly man, becomes acquainted with Charmides, the loveliest youth in Athens, he is so deeply touched by the charms of this paragon that at first he knows not what to say. Recovering his self-possession, however, the sage speaks worthily of himself, telling Charmides that the fairest form needs one addition to make the man perfect — a noble soul. History makes it more than doubtful whether the, Grecian did not fail here; but about the Jewish youth there is no doubt whatever.
(John Taylor. The Jewish traditions represent Daniel as a tall, spare man, with a beautiful expression.
3. They were intelligent and well instructed. They are represented as "skilful in wisdom," "cunning in knowledge," and "understanding science": by which is probably meant that they had been well taught in the knowledge of their day and had discovered an aptitude for deep studies. The Babylonian king designed to induct them into all the lore of the Chaldeans, in order to wean them away from the worship of God and make them subverters of Israel's national faith. If, therefore, they should be the future prophets of heathenism to their own people, it was necessary that they should be skilful and wise; and if he, indeed, had any such ulterior designs, it must be confessed he chose his instruments well. But there was an element in their previous training which he either overlooked or held too cheaply. If a Jewish youth was taught in science and earthly knowledge, he was yet far better instructed in the truths of his religion. Nebuchadnezzar will find it difficult to eradicate this deeply-planted faith; and the issue will show that, with four of them at least, he makes lamentable failure.
4. They were very young. But God can strengthen the hearts of the young and make the mouths of babes and sucklings to render him praise. Doubtless many a mother, parting with her offspring and sending them forth into life, or to the temptations of collegiate halls, can find comfort in this reflection.
III. THE PROSPECTS OF THESE CAPTIVES. Considered from a world-standpoint there were two sides to their future. There were elements of deep sorrow, and elements which might be regarded by some as mitigations of their lot.
1. They were exiles. This word is enough to excite our sympathies. So long as the sentiment of patriots remains, exile will be among the saddest of words. But chiefly to the Jew was exile a bitter misfortune. Not only patriotic sentiments, but religious, contributed to darken the life of one who was borne away from his loved Jerusalem, where stood that Holy Temple in its glorious beauty, the visible centre of the worship of Jehovah. Some of the psalms of the captivity reveal the depth of this great sorrow to a Jew, particularly that beautiful song: "By the rivers of Babylon" (Psalm 137).
2. They were cut off from hope of posterity. They were significantly given into the care of the "prince of the eunuchs," and the ordinary practice of oriental courts leaves us little doubt of their fate. This, moreover, had been prophesied (2 Kings 20:18).
3. They were to be taught all the wisdom of the Chaldeans. No doubt much of the Chaldaic learning was valueless, but it is undeniable that they cultivated many useful arts and sciences. Daniel and his friends would learn new languages unfolding to them new literature. They would be trained in arts of divination by which they could obtain power over kings, and princes, and the common people. They would be taught the science of astronomy, which at that day the Chaldeans had carried beyond any people. They would be educated in the science of politics, rendering them necessary to rulers as advisers. All this knowledge would of itself give them caste among this new people, would elevate them to position and power.
4. They were to occupy honourable positions in the court of the king. This opens up many prospects which might fire the ambitions of youth. We can well imagine, then, that if these had been godless youths this prospect of power, stimulating their ambitions, might have suited to offset the horrors of exile; yet we may be sure that there was not one of them who would not have given all the wealth and splendour of Nebuchadnezzar's court for one brief day on the hills of Judea, among the comrades of their childhood.
IV. A LESSON. The prince, their keeper, shall endeavour to make of these Jewish captives, Chaldean sages, and he begins this endeavour by changing their names. These four are named for the four chief deities of Babylon. Bel — the Chief-god, the Sun-god, the Earth-god, and the Fire-god. To render this change of character and religion complete all their external relations are correspondingly changed, and a whole new set of influences are brought to bear upon them. And yet, change what they would, they could not reach the heart. It is beyond man's power to do that. How powerless man stands before the spirit of his fellows!
(The Southern Pulpit.)
(W A. Scott, D.D.)
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