from Daniel 6

My earliest childhood memory, from when I was but three years old, is of my Father holding me in the darkness of midnight, rocking me, stroking my head and telling me that everything was all right, that I was safe, and that I could stop screaming. “But what about the lion at the window?” I cried. “There’s no lion,” he replied. “You’ve just had a bad dream.”  And that’s when I first heard and learned the meaning of the word “nightmare.” I wish that this long nightmare were but a dream.

Funny, but before having that childhood nightmare, I had never seen a lion. I must have heard about lions in songs, folk tales or a Bible story, like the one in which David fought a lion, in his youth, or in which Sampson killed one for sport.  As a father, I too have comforted my children, during their early childhood, when they also awakened, screaming from similar nightmares about lions. They’ve never seen one either. I suspect that the fear of lions is something God gives us in our mother’s womb, so that we know better than to go looking for them.

It was only a few years later that I finally saw lions, though still not real ones. I saw lions on the banners of the Babylonian army, while soldiers rampaged through the streets of my home city, Jerusalem, killing, chasing, or capturing every person they found, and burning or knocking down every building that stood, including our precious temple. After my father hid me in an empty water jar, I never saw him, my mother, nor my brother again. I presume that they died in the sack of the city. Seventy years later, I still know neither where nor how they died. I survived simply because the soldiers who discovered me thought I was of the age to become a marketable slave.

I saw lions again during the weary march into exile, past Babylon’s city gates. But they were not real lions, either. They were figures made of colored tile on the walls of the city, symbols of Babylon’s great power. A slave I became here, certainly, but to the Imperial Court, as an adviser. I suppose they wanted some token Hebrew mascots to fill out some quota for public relations with all the captive minorities in the Babylonian Empire.

Between myself and my fellow Hebrew captives, the royal court of Babylon got more than it bargained for. `Having heard the letter from Jeremiah to the effect that we exiles were to seek the peace of this city to which God had carried us, we were willing to be good and trustworthy civil servants. But the royal Babylonian court had this incurable tendency to conflate their gods with their kings and queens, and to demand of their subjects the faith and worship that belong only to GOD MOST HIGH. That got us Hebrews in trouble numerous times.

It must be something in the waters of the Tigris which they drink, because now the Medo-Persian alliance that has taken over the empire has done the same thing: they’ve declared king Darius the Mede a god. I blame the courtesans, opportunists and professional yes-men who hang all over the court like leeches, who stroke the king’s ego for their own interests and agendas, of course. Sometimes I think they run the empire more than does the king. I fear they shall run it over a cliff. I also blame the weakness of human nature. When presented with such power and praise as what Darius has, every hour of each day, it so often falls to the temptations of pride like rotten fruit in a windstorm. Of course, Darius could not resist their recommendation that he alone be worshiped and prayed to as a God. Now I am the first one to be hustled off to the lion’s den for worshiping our forbidden God.

Which is the way I wanted it. Not that I went out intentionally seeking death. Death came seeking me, and offered me a fool’s bargain for—for what? A few more years of life, at most? It’s not the way my children and grandchildren want it, however. They urge some sort of compromise on me. “If you’re going to pray to the God of us Hebrews, do it in secret, at least,” they say. But I’ve never been secretive about my prayers and the worship of my God before. Why should I start being secretive, now?

“But we need you alive, here and now,” they say. “No one else among us Hebrews has the king’s ear, and the king’s trust, like you do.”

I believe that I will serve them better in faithfulness unto death, than by buying a few more years of life by compromise and cowardice. If their mother and grandmother, Rachel, were still alive, she would have joined me in prayer and in this lion’s den. Besides, when our people return to Zion soon, as Jeremiah told us we shall, our struggles will not be over, nor, really, our exile. We are never getting back the power, nor the pomp, nor the glory of King David and King Solomon. Such wealth and might became traps and temptations too strong for us anyway; their heights of power were the start of our downfall.

From now on, whether here or back in Zion, we will still need to fight. But we will need other ways of fighting. Like when King Jehoshaphat and the people went forth to meet an invading army from Moab with only priests, prayers and songs of praise. And the Moabite alliance melted and ran in fear and dissension. Such testimonies gave me courage to continue my thrice-daily prayers by the window to our forbidden God.Like David, I now face lions on behalf of my flock.

With King David’s weapons taken from our hands, my people will then need examples of courage and conviction to sustain them, not of cowardice and compromise. Better now that a harmless old man like me, so late in life already, should be the first test case of this blasphemy and buffoonery than someone younger, and with more to lose. Better by far that the first victim  be a high profile public person like me, to make this a high profile, public case. Whether I live or die, my being here in this den will expose the rotten teeth behind the empire’s smile. In my life or in my death, the Imperial administration shall again get more than it bargained for with its Hebrew servants.

And I finally get to see lions. Up close, through the moonlight coming through the bars above. They are more frightening than I could ever have imagined, and more beautiful. Lean and perfectly proportioned, but for terrifying, pursuing and killing their prey. I get glimpses in the moonlight of their eyes—golden, glowing reflections, like amber held up to a candle. Whenever they look at me, I see curiosity in those eyes, but also something cold, alien and calculating, not the warmth you see in a dog’s eyes when he welcomes his master home. When they yawn or roar I see their teeth. They look like daggers. Sometimes I hear the click and glimpse the flash of claws, like iron nails, on the dungeon floor. Their roaring sends a chill spiraling up my spine. Their breath smells terrible, like something long dead and rotting on a hot day in the market. It is not mine to ask why my God would make such beautiful, yet dreadful creatures, except to say that surely he did not make them to serve the arrogance and pride of mortal men and their empires, as they do in this dungeon cell. If anything, the MOST HIGH may have made lions so as to humble us.

From the call of the crier somewhere on the city walls, I know it is past the 6th watch of the night. The time remaining among these restless beasts is now only as long as the time I have already spent. I was fully prepared to die when they first lowered me down into this den. My legs quivered and my knees knocked, while my heart kept rising into my throat. The same gut-wrenching fear returns whenever one of the lions roars, or passes close by me, or looks at me, or when two of them start playing and wrestling with each other like house cats, giving me  glimpses of their power and skill in dealing out death.

I had prayed to God that either he protect me and spare me while in this den, as He protected my friends in the fiery furnace long ago, or that he give me the courage to face death in a way that would honor Him and fortify his people. I confess that I was more prepared for death than for life. I am surprised to be yet whole and breathing, without even a scratch on me. Should things change and these beasts decide that dinner comes late and I am the main course, I will count the few moments of pain and terror as nothing compared to all the joys of my long and meaningful life in the service of my forbidden GOD.

But as the hours pass and I recite the prayers and the psalms of the night-time vigils, I feel another presence here with me, like that of a lion, only more powerful than these beasts, and infinitely more warm, wise and gracious. Like my human father so long ago, He is holding me, comforting me, re-assuring me that this nightmare too shall vanish with the morning light, and that his truth, and I, shall be vindicated. I don’t have to survive for that to happen. Nothing in this dark and smelly den can take away from me what I hold most dear and have labored for all my life: my testimony to my forbidden God. And yet, little by little, I am gaining hope that I shall survive to see the sunrise, when, as King David said in the Psalm, “I shall look in triumph upon my enemies.”  God reassures me with the prophet’s words to Eli the priest: “Whoever honors me will I honor.”

There is another way in which I am not alone in this den of beasts: All of Israel, God’s people, are here with me. I can feel the sustaining, comforting effect of their prayers for me, like Moses praying for the Israelites when they battled the Amalekites (Ex. 17). As long as his hands were raised to the Lord in prayer, his people prevailed.  There must be other saints, other watchmen and women up with me this night, awaiting the dawn, holding me up prayerfully in their hands before God. So far, their prayers are prevailing,  peacefully, and patiently.

All Israel is here with me in another sense: when have we not been surrounded by threatening beasts? And when have we not been sustained and protected by a gracious and fearsome God more powerful and dreadful than our foes? Unless we had removed ourselves from his protective embrace, by idolatry and injustice? My story this night is my people’s story ever since God called Abraham and Sarah from this very land.

All Israel is also here with me in that I represent them in this den of testing; I have taken their place, so that hopefully they need not come here. And should they ever come here or to another den of darkness, for trial and testing, they will know that someone else overcame their fear and thus triumphed, in life or in death.

Whether tomorrow they celebrate my deliverance, or bury my bones, this is what I pray that my people remember from this trial: to cling to the God who clings to us, anywhere our testimony takes us; and that our forbidden God is powerful enough to deliver us from any situation. Even when He doesn’t immediately deliver us, He alone is worthy of our praise and loyalty because He is powerful enough to use even our deaths and defeats for our good and His glory. Our testimony for God, and our life with God, are more valuable than survival itself. With David I pray, “Your loving kindness is better than life.” With that assurance, I turn my attention back to the prayers of the night time vigils and pray the words of the Psalms of David, with any of my people who are yet up with me during this watch of the night: “O Lord, how long will you look on? Rescue my life from their ravages,  my precious life from these lions. Then will I give you thanks in the great assembly;  among throngs of people I will praise you. (Ps. 35: 17-18).”