I’ve known the story of Daniel and the lion’s den since I was a kid in Sunday School classes, but I never really considered before what Daniel was thinking at the time. As I wrote some of these retellings, it was obvious that the heroes were actually terrified and full of doubts, like Gideon. Samson wasn’t at all fearful, but he’d placed his confidence in himself, rather than in God. It was only very rare individuals that seemed to be completely confident in the Lord. David and Jonathan clearly had this mentality, because the things they said to those around them just before their exploits revealed their thoughts. With Daniel, it’s not quite so clear, until you put this event in chronological context with the rest of the book of Daniel.
The first half of the book of Daniel is historical, telling events that transpired during Daniel’s lifetime as the kingdom changed rulership. The second half, from chapter 7 through 12, is prophetic, in which Daniel is treated to a series of profound visions which encompass the “silent” years of the Old Testament through the coming of Christ, and then apocalyptic visions that harmonize with John’s account in Revelation. We’re told in Daniel 5:31 and 6:1 that this episode of the lion’s den occurred during the reign of King Darius, and historians say he only reigned for two years. We also know from Daniel 9:2 that Darius was king during the time that Daniel received his famous seventy weeks prophecy, so these two events must have occurred relatively close to one another in time. In the seventy weeks prophecy, Gabriel appeared and helped Daniel to understand that while Jeremiah’s prediction of seventy years of captivity (Jeremiah 25:11-12) was nearly over for Israel, there was a deeper meaning for the seventy years as well. There would also be seventy weeks of years, or 490 years, from the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, until the end of the age. It would be sixty-nine weeks of years from the rebuilding of Jerusalem until the Messiah would come (and according to “The Coming Prince” by Sir Robert Anderson, from the time Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the walls of the city, sixty-nine weeks of years, where a year in the calendar of the day was 360 days, would work out to 173,880 days. This is to the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, proclaiming himself to be king, Luke 19:28-44.) That last week of years, or the last seven years, will be the end of the age—and the rest of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy describes the antichrist, the covenant with Israel that begins those seven years, and the abomination of desolation 3.5 years in, which will initiate the last 3.5 years of tribulation. Daniel’s prophecy here doesn’t indicate that there is a gap between the 69th and the 70th week, though some scholars believe that was because there didn’t have to be a gap: had the Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah when he rode in on Palm Sunday, the first and the second coming might have been one and the same. This might have been why Jesus wept as he rode into town (Luke 19:41-44). As it was, there is a pause in Daniel’s timeline “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
In my retelling, therefore, I imagined how full Daniel’s mind must have been with such wonderful revelations. He’d seen and spoken with God’s messenger, not once, but twice (Gabriel also came to him in Daniel 8:16). He’d been in captivity nearly all his life, and now in his eighties, he realized that the time drew near for his people to return to Jerusalem. His prayer in Daniel 9:4-19 is so impassioned, one can almost picture him weeping as he contends for their release. Gabriel told him that he was greatly beloved (Daniel 9:23), and told him that not only did the time draw near for his people’s release, but also showed him God’s entire plan for history.
Meanwhile, Darius wanted to promote Daniel because, like Pharaoh had said of Joseph, he had the spirit of God’s wisdom upon him (Daniel 6:3). As King Solomon wrote, a man who excels in his work will stand before kings, and not obscure men (Proverbs 22:29). Daniel did his work with excellence, but he had no ambitions in Persia. His heart was clearly with his people, his homeland, and God’s plans for the earth. So when the other governors and satraps conspired against him, I imagine that Daniel almost ignored them. He had far bigger things on his mind. He probably heard the threat, knew it was petty jealousy, proceeded about his business, and forgot about it.
It was the Persian custom that a law sealed by the king could not be changed (Daniel 6:15), which was the same issue Esther ran into in her day. Clearly Darius realized that his satraps and governors had convinced him to sign such a law just to entrap Daniel. Darius wanted to rescue Daniel and tried to find a loophole (Daniel 6:14), but even he couldn’t do it, which was what his officials had counted upon. Daniel’s devotion to the Lord had made such an impression on Darius by this point that when Daniel was cast into the lion’s den, Darius declared, “Your God, whom you serve continually, He will deliver you” (Daniel 6:16). Even this pagan king believed God would save Daniel! He also loved Daniel so well that he didn’t sleep that night, and rose first thing in the morning to check on Daniel and see if God had indeed delivered him. If he had been certain to find Daniel dead, he presumably wouldn’t have gone to check.
What must it have been like for Daniel to spend the night in that pit? Did he actually see the angel that he later told Darius had shut the lions’ mouths? I don’t see why not; he’d seen Gabriel at least twice before by this time. If Daniel’s mindset was what I imagine it might have been, I suspect that he would have slept that night, just as Jesus did on the boat during the storm (Matthew 8:24, Mark 4:38, Luke 8:23). That’s the picture of the perfect peace of one whose mind is stayed on the Lord because he trusts in Him (Isaiah 26:3). Daniel, I think, embodied this peace. That’s why he inspired even Darius with such confidence on his behalf.
When the king found Daniel alive, he then did to the conspirators what they had intended to do to Daniel. The concept of reaping what one sows is well established in scripture (Luke 6:38, Galatians 6:7, Proverbs 26:27). The fact that the lions tore them apart before they even hit the bottom of the pit proves that they were both vicious and hungry; they just hadn’t been able to touch Daniel. It seems awfully harsh to punish the conspirators’ wives and children for crimes they did not commit, and this is not God’s way (Deuteronomy 24:16, Jeremiah 31:30). But God was not the one to mete out judgment against Daniel’s accusers; Darius was.
Fictional Retelling:
I lived almost my entire life in exile—in the land that was Babylon for the majority of my life, and then became Persia in my old age. I was constantly surrounded by political intrigue, though most of the time, it did not concern me. My dominant thoughts lay elsewhere.
Though I’d left there as a boy, my heart was still in Jerusalem: the city of my father David. It had been so many years since I’d seen it that the place had taken on a mythical quality in my imagination, and I commingled the concept of Jerusalem with that of the throne room of heaven. Every day, when my duties as one of the governors over the kingdom of Persia did not otherwise compel me, I pored over the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel for some clue of the Lord’s plans for His people. After I read, I opened the windows of the upper room of my home so that the sunlight would stream in; in my mind’s eye, the sunlight was the radiance of the Lord Himself upon his throne, emanating from Jerusalem, His city. I faced Jerusalem and I prayed for wisdom, for repentance on behalf of my wayward people, and for mercy.
When I shifted my heavenly focus down to the here and now, I executed my duties as governor with the wisdom the Lord gave me. King Darius set forty provinces, led by forty satraps, under each of his three governors. My provinces prospered effortlessly—of course. I had the wisdom of the Lord. It was clear that King Darius recognized the Lord’s influence and admired me above all of the other governors and satraps, and I knew he considered putting me over the entire realm because of this. This was fine. I had no aspirations at my age. My heart and soul belonged to my own people and nation; I only labored for this one because for now, Darius was my king, and integrity demanded that I do the work he set before me to the best of my ability. I was vaguely aware that my more ambitious peers and the satraps under them envied me. I could do nothing about this though, and regarded their esteem lightly anyway. So I paid it little attention.
Instead, I spent my days swept up in visions and prophecy. One morning when reading the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, his words leapt off the scroll to me that the time of Jerusalem’s desolations was to be seventy years.
Sixty-nine years had passed.
I tore my robes and put on sackcloth, deliberately sprinkling the floor of my upper room with ashes to symbolize repentance on behalf of my people, and determined to fast before the Lord for however long it took. Then I threw open my windows and fell to my knees, praying toward Jerusalem with such fervor that it was as though time and space fell away. I do not know how much time passed before I felt a hand on my shoulder. I was already so worked up that I jumped and my eyes flew open. The man I beheld was one I had met once before: the angel Gabriel. He was much larger and more powerfully built than the greatest of the Persian warriors, radiant with light and dressed in gleaming white.
He told me I was greatly beloved. He also showed me that there was a deeper meaning to Jeremiah’s prophecy than what I had first supposed. Yes, there would be seventy years until my people could return to Jerusalem. But there would also be seventy weeks of years from the time of Jerusalem’s reconstruction to the end of the age, and sixty-nine weeks of years from the reconstruction to the appearance of the Messiah.
I floated after this, so buoyant with happiness and overwhelmed with the implications of Gabriel’s message that the details of the concrete world around me paled in comparison. So when I heard that the other governors and satraps had convinced Darius to sign into law the ridiculous order that for thirty days, anyone caught praying to any god or man except to him should be cast into the lion’s den, I hardly considered it. I would not have heeded the rule at any time, but especially not now. The Lord had shown me such wonderful and marvelous things, so much larger than myself and my own life. I saw myself as a representative for my people, and Gabriel’s words had confirmed this to me. We were on the cusp of the breakthrough I had awaited all my life… would I be stymied by fear, due to the petty jealousy of those who fancied themselves my political rivals? By no means!
I went home that very day and threw open the windows of my upper room as I always did. Then I knelt down and prayed to the Lord. I prayed for the end of my people’s captivity. I envisioned my own return to Jerusalem, the city of my fathers. I prayed for my people 483 years from now, when Messiah the Prince would be revealed—oh! What a day that would be! May the people of that day know and recognize and rejoice at the appearance of their hope and redemption!
Two more times that day I did the same, giving thanks to God for hearing my prayers and for esteeming me so well that He was pleased to reveal to me what would come, long after my time. Both the second and third times I prayed that day, I glanced down and saw the assembly of governors and satraps on the street below, watching me, pointing, and whispering to one another.
“Oh Lord,” I prayed when I saw them, “as King Solomon wrote, ‘let he who digs a pit fall into it, and he who rolls a stone have it roll back on him.'” Then I went on with my prayers, thanksgiving, and supplications. I forgot all about the men clearly conspiring against me, until I heard a pounding upon my door at nightfall. It was insistent.
“Daniel!” shouted a voice I recognized as Kasper’s, one of the other governors of the realm. I could tell he was not alone, but that he was with a company—probably the very ones who had seen me praying that day. I could make out the voice of Bijan, one of the most hateful of Darius’s satraps, among them. “Open up, by decree of the king!”
Instinctively and though my window was shut just then, I glanced in the direction of Jerusalem, since in my mind, that was the direction of God’s throne. More of Solomon’s words came back to me unbidden: Though they join forces, the wicked will not go unpunished, but the posterity of the righteous will be delivered. I wrapped my nightclothes in my cloak and opened the door. Perhaps six pairs of hands grabbed me at once, and dragged me out of my house so forcefully that I stumbled, old man that I was.
“Daniel!” Kasper’s voice rose above the din, even as they dragged me toward the palace, “you have not shown due regard for the king! You were seen today petitioning and praying to your God, against the royal decree. You knew the penalty for this was death by lions. We take you now to meet your fate!”
I tripped and nearly fell numerous times on the short walk to the palace dungeons, had it not been for the hands upon my robes. I should have been terrified, and entirely in this moment. Yet somehow, I felt insulated, almost as if I were watching the events transpire against someone else. I kept thinking of my friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who, many years ago, had defied a similar order from King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. I had been traveling on the king’s business at the time. When I returned and heard the story of their supernatural deliverance, I’d been almost envious. I so wished I’d been there with them, to have seen the Lord face to face! What a story!
Now, almost sixty years later, here was my chance.
King Darius met me and my entourage at the entrance to the palace dungeons, looking frantic and disheveled.
“Daniel—!” he moaned, his voice thick with grief. “I did everything I could to deliver you, but the decree is iron-clad!”
“I know you did,” I smiled at the king tenderly, and reached out a hand to his shoulder. It was a more familiar gesture than I perhaps would have attempted under any other circumstance, but I felt a rush of affection for him in his obvious distress. He was too inexperienced a ruler to have understood how his governors and satraps had played him. He had not known the extent of the political machinations of his court when he’d signed that decree, though he knew now.
“Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this!” Darius suddenly declared.
I blinked at him in amazement, then beamed, even as the satraps moved the stone off of the mouth of the lion’s den. I knew this, but to hear it from the mouth of a pagan king!
“You are already much closer to Him than you realize,” I told the king. “I’ll see you in the morning—”
My words were cut off by a rough thrust from the hands of my accusers, shoving me toward the open pit. I stumbled, and then fell in headlong, twisting in the air. I landed hard on my palms and knees, sending jolts of searing pain up to my wrists, shoulders, knees, and hips. I gasped, but then tested my bones and joints to make sure nothing was broken. Darius let out a strangled sob up above, as the satraps and governors heaved the stone back in place. Just before it sealed, I caught a glimpse of the five great shaggy beasts pacing and growling around me.
Then there was utter darkness.
I closed my eyes and opened them again, and could tell no difference. The padding of great paws picked up their pace, and the growling turned to roars, one after the other, like a great cacophonous symphony. I had the sense that the lions were frustrated by the prey in their very midst, and yet they could not seem to get at it.
“Let me see you, Lord,” I prayed, yawning with sudden weariness as I lay down on the floor of the pit. “I know you’re here…”
Suddenly the pit filled with an otherworldly glow. Gabriel circled around me, bearing a sword in each hand. He whipped it with dazzling speed each time one of the great cats got too close. They, in turn, backed off, but roared with fury.
“Go to sleep, Daniel,” Gabriel told me, and flashed me a grin. “You might as well. I’m going to be up all night, anyway.”
I laughed, and the vision faded until all was complete darkness again. I tuned out the lions’ roars, though I think they eventually must have given up and fallen silent. I couldn’t say for sure. I drifted off fairly soon after that.
I gasped awake, squinting against the light streaming in from the top of the now open pit. I perceived a silhouette up above, though all I could see was the disheveled hair sticking out in all directions. I recognized the voice as the king’s though. He sounded nearly as anxious as he had the night before.
“Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve so loyally, saved you from the lions?”
I sat up, glancing around the pit to see the great cats fast asleep around me, though they stirred now as I did from the light and the noise. I grinned at the king, who began to come into focus as I gazed up at him.
“O king, live forever!” I called. “My God sent his angel, who closed the mouths of the lions so that they would not hurt me. I’ve been found innocent before God and also before you, O king. I’ve done nothing to harm you.”
Darius let out a shout of glee, clapping his hands together. He stood up out of my view, and I could neither see nor quite hear what he did next, but I heard him speaking to someone. The next thing I knew, a thick rope with a loop at the bottom of it descended into the pit, and I saw two strong servants at the top, ready to pull me out. Two of the lions saw the commotion, got to their feet, and began to snarl and pace again.
“Hurry!” cried one of the servants, glancing at the lions with alarm, just as one of the lions let out an almighty roar.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I told them with a wave of my hand, as I stepped into the loop and grabbed on to the rope up above. “They’re just frustrated. They can’t even get close to me.”
I wasn’t sure if the servants even heard this, as they immediately began to heave me up and out. Once I was well out of the way, the lions paced to the place where I had been lying, roaring up at me and swiping the air with their claws. The edge of one claw sliced clean through the bottom of my robe, just as one servant let go of the robe to grab me around my waist. I twisted to sit down at the top of the pit and edge away.
“Daniel!” King Darius forgot his royal position and threw his arms around my neck, weeping with relief. Surprised, I patted his shoulders, and then he pulled me back to inspect me. “You are truly unharmed?”
“Truly, my king,” I nodded, wiping the last of the sleep from my eyes as I yawned.
“Did—you sleep in there?” he demanded, incredulous. Then he added, almost accusing, “I didn’t even sleep last night! I rushed here at first light to see how you fared!”
I smiled at the king fondly. “My king honors me greatly with his concern,” I said, and shrugged. “I saw no reason to fear the lions. Besides, I was tired.”
The servants behind King Darius let out an incredulous snort of laughter at this, but stifled it when the king whipped around to glare at them. One of the servants clamped a hand over his mouth, as a slow answering smile spread across Darius’s face. Then the king started to laugh too. Before I knew it, the servants were doubled over, as was the king, tears running down his face.
Nervous relief? I thought as I watched them in wonder, totally missing the humor.
When the king recovered himself, his expression grew suddenly fierce. He told his servants, “Tell my royal guard to seize Daniel’s accusers, the other two governors, the complicit satraps, and their families. Bring them here at once, before the hour has passed!”
I felt a wave of foreboding and sympathy, suspecting I knew what the king intended to do to them for their treachery. Darius got to his feet, and I followed suit. He confirmed my fears when asked me, his expression dark, “Would you like to watch, Daniel?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “No, my king.”
“You are a better man than I, then,” said King Darius. “I rejoice at the destruction of my enemies. And your enemies have now become mine. You are dismissed.”
I bowed my head and made my way alone back to my home. At a distance, I saw Kasper, his wife and children struggling against the rough hands of the king’s royal guard. His wife wept and begged. The children, I could tell, did not understand what was going on, but knew something was wrong. They cried because their mother did. Though we were far away, Kasper’s eyes locked with mine, frantic with fear. A wave of nausea rolled over me.
“O God, may it be quick and painless,” I prayed. “I commend the souls of the innocents to Your mercy.”
I heard later that my prayers were answered. The hungry, frustrated lions overpowered all those thrown into the den, killing them instantly before they even hit the bottom.
The same messenger informed me that the king had now officially placed me above the entire realm. I had assumed this would be the case, since the other two governors had perished. The news brought me sorrow—not because I minded the position, but I had never sought it, either. All this had transpired because the governors had not wanted to relinquish their power to me. Instead of merely their power, they had lost their lives, and those of their families too.
That evening, I heard the news that King Darius had sent out a royal decree to every corner of his kingdom, which read, “Peace to you! Abundant peace! I decree that Daniel’s God shall be worshiped and feared in all parts of my kingdom. He is the living God, world without end. His kingdom never falls. His rule continues eternally. He is a savior and rescuer. He performs astonishing miracles in heaven and on earth. He saved Daniel from the power of the lions.”
I took the written decree to the upper room of my home, and laid it before the Lord. I thanked Him for rescuing me. I thanked Him for humbling and saving King Nebuchadnezzar all those years ago, when he returned to his right mind and served the Lord for the rest of His days. I thanked him that King Darius now honored Him too. I thought of Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh, and how they too had repented. I thanked the Lord that He did not show favoritism; He wanted to save the Jew and the Gentile alike, the rich and the poor, the ruler and the peasant. I thanked Him that though I had been brought into Babylon as a captive, now like Joseph, I found myself favored by the king, and second in command of a pagan kingdom.
“You are faithful to honor Your servants who fear You, even in a land not our own,” I prayed.
Yet still, my heart was not here, in this foreign nation where I had lived most of my life. For all my power and prestige, I was but a sojourner; that was the great irony. I would serve the Lord where He had placed me to the best of my ability all of my days, and would try to represent Him well. But I would daily pray toward my true home, awaiting the day of our redemption.