Reviewed by Brandon Myers
What does it mean to live as believers in the midst of a non-Christian state and culture? How can we live ‘in the world’ and yet not let the world own us and squeeze us into the shape of its own fallen values and assumptions (17)? These are only some of the questions Christopher Wright, International Ministries Director of the Langham Partnership, answers in Hearing The Message of Daniel (2017). Wright has served as an Old Testament scholar for eighteen years on two continents (primarily in India and England) and is an ordained pastor in the Church of England who has established himself as a very helpful guide in biblical interpretation and exposition. Whether his award winning large tome The Mission of God, a shorter excellent work like The Message of Lamentations, or his many other noteworthy and helpful books, Wright’s careful thinking and engagement with scripture is fruitful reading for all thoughtful believers and his latest work on Daniel does not disappoint.
From the outset it is important to note what Wright does not intend the book to be. He writes, “This is not a commentary on the book of Daniel. The book in your hand had its origin in preaching, and it retains much of that style, though now smoothed out in written form” (12). He continues by stating that he “takes no position on the critical questions of the unity of Daniel, or the dating of its later chapters, or of the book as a whole. This book is for every believer “seeking to live as a citizen of the kingdom of God while having to live in an earthly kingdom” (16).
The book is laid out in ten (10-20 page) chapters; each looks at one chapter of Daniel with the exception of Chapter 10 which includes Daniel chapters 10-12.
In Chapter 1 (“Compromise or Confrontation”), Wright offers what I consider a most helpful and concise overview on what happened 600 years prior to Christ’s first coming (19-22). After establishing this context he then moves into what faith looks like for believers then and today. Wright seamlessly weaves in challenges that continue to confront Christians including tricky issues related to political loyalties, national commitments, self-interest in the market, etc.
Chapter 2 (“Head of Gold or Feet of Clay”) compellingly highlights how God works through even a pagan king (Nebuchadnezzar) and elaborates on Daniel’s refusal to adopt a total non-cooperation policy with this pagan secular power. Daniel demonstrated this through respectfully but truthfully giving the interpretation of the king’s dream. Wright very helpfully draws attention to the importance of genuine fellowship, prayer and prayer with other believers and the reassurance for believers especially in a hostile environment that God is still on his throne.
In Chapter 3 (“Bow or Burn”), Daniel’s friends face a massive life-threatening challenge due to Nebuchadnezzar’s decision to strengthen national pride and unity (patriotism) by requiring “nations and peoples of every language…to fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar set up” (Daniel 3:1-7). Wright reminds us there is almost a built-in tendency in every age toward idolatry by the state as a human institution (69). We then read of the cost of monotheism for Daniel’s friends in Daniel 3:8-15 and Wright elaborates and reflects on the uninvited, unexpected tempting pull Daniel’s friends would have experienced. Wright helpfully ties in our costly loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ as seen in New Testament texts like Hebrews 11:33-35 and points to the similar example of courageous commitment to the one true God as seen in Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego’s trial. Ultimately these men find confidence in the Lord God they served and so should believers today regardless of if God rescues as He does in Daniel 3:19-30 confounding Nebuchadnezzar.
In Chapter 4 (“Heaven Rules…On Earth”) Wright looks at Daniel 4 which deals with Nebuchadnezzar the builder and Daniel the challenger referring to the chapter as a “very penetrating study of pride and humility from various angles” (88). Through Daniel’s example of serving “so freely, so willingly, so competently” the man who destroyed his homeland, devastated his city and deported his people (96-97)” (and especially in light of other texts that show God’s people felt they couldn’t sing their songs in Babylon -Psalm 137:1-4), Wright finds one of the most practical examples of “loving your enemies” in the First Testament and of honoring Jesus words to “pray for those who persecute you.” For example, it is remarkable that when Daniel heard Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and understood its meaning he did not inwardly cheer but was terrified and perplexed on the king’s behalf. Wright also notes Daniel’s prophetic courage to speak the truth to the most powerful man on the world calling him to renounce his sins, and has an encouraging word for those who “stick it out in secular jobs and are faithful” (103-104). Finally, Wright highlights how God is the great humbler and how, in Daniel 4:29-37, Nebuchadnezzar exalted himself and was humbled by God because he did not accept Heaven’s rule on earth. Similarly, many refuse Jesus and His kingdom and when the church holds governments and people accountable these earthly powers and individuals often do not like the truthful criticism.
In Chapter 5 (“The Writing on the Wall”) Wright walks through the contrasts between Belshazzar (a “waster and a blasphemer”) and Nebuchadnezzar (a “builder and one who had some respect for holy things”) drawing parallels between Belshazzar’s “calculated and intentional mockery of what the vessels from the temple represented, namely the God of Israel” (110) and how some of the media today mindlessly and mockingly use the divine name and Christian symbols (111-112). He also notes the abuse in idolatrous and blasphemous forms of patriotism that call on God to bless weapons of destruction and war claiming, “God is on our side” and views it as blasphemous that Christmas has become “hijacked by the idolatry of mammon” in our consumeristic Western culture (113-114). Wright notes how Daniel 5:5-9 forcefully reminds us God is not mocked and highlights how Belshazzar knew “those who walk in pride God is able to humble” (Daniel 4:37), but he did not learn the lesson and would not honor God ultimately leading to his impending demise and the loss of his kingdom in Daniel 5:25-30. Romans 1:21-23 makes it clear we are not different and Wright walks through other helpful and convicting examples of how we are all tempted to ignore the Lord today.
Chapter 6 (“Facing the Lions”) has sharp relevance to all Christians under pressure from authorities especially in matters of life and death (125). Wright notes how Daniel worked with excellence, had personal integrity and great ability but was unjustly targeted (see Daniel 6:1-4), he had enemies (Daniel 6:4-9) who were jealous, racist (Daniel 6:13) and full of spite. Further he argues how Daniel’s enemies employed methods that exploited Daniel’s strength (his loyalty to God), violated the Persian Empire’s constitution (which granted a significant measure of religious freedom to subject peoples). Wright then weaves in some interesting hypothetical supporting arguments the enemies of Daniel may have suggested (and that rings true to what we hear in our day). For example, Daniel may have heard: “Daniel your private expression of religion is fine but loyalty to the state comes first” (137). Wright calls for and elaborates on the importance of constitutions and just laws protecting freedom of and propagation of religion in our day. However, most significantly Wright notes how for believers today with other secular forces and kingdoms, Daniel’s values, his prayer life, his God protected him and led to the worship of or at least a confession of Daniel’s God by King Darius (Daniel 6:25-27).
In Chapter 7 (“Beasts, Thrones, Saints and…a Man”) Wright works through the double vision of Daniel 7, that has had a variety of historical interpretations. Along with reminding us “bestial rule is terrible but temporary” and “The Ancient of Days will be “heavenly and eternal” (156), Wright holds that part of this chapter has “not so much a single unique historical point of reference but a recurring pattern” (159) that will lead to the vindication of God’s people when the heavenly kingdom fully comes when Jesus the Son of Man comes but the kingdom is even now a present reality (Hebrews 2:6-9).
In Chapter 8 (“A Ram, a Goat and an Ending”) Wright recommends it is best to “treat the symbolism of the statue and the beasts as portraying an underlying pattern within history” given the flexibility and complicated nature of the identity of the four kingdoms. Empires rise and fall as they successively overreach themselves in arrogance” (172). Wright reminds us we have been in the “end times” ever since Jesus was raised from the dead and that New Testament texts that speak of the “last days” teach the resurrection ushered in the final great act of God’s work on earth (Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20; 1 John 2:18). Wright reminds readers today that just as the reign of terror of Antiochus Epiphanes was limited in its duration and would not last forever (see Daniel 8:13-14,26-27), so the “trampling of the Lord’s people will not last forever” (183). Wright walks through how God is in control always over the terrible forces throughout human history like conquest, war, famine and death whom he summons and says, “Come” to from his throne (from Revelation 6:1-8). Knowing who is coming, who conquered and who gave his life (Revelation 5:5-6) we can have confidence as Daniel did to get up and go “about the king’s business” to get on with life doing the work God has called us unto with assurance and realism (187).
In Chapter 9 (“Model Prayer, Mysterious Predictions”) Wright invites readers to think for a moment what Daniel had experienced in his long life and what Daniel knew about “beastly spiritual dimension that lay behind the human political reality of the political and imperial world order and the heavenly reality and the sovereignty of the God in heaven whose kingdom would ultimately be victorious” (190) Yet, Wright notes, as we read in Daniel 9:1-3 we see Daniel committed to studying the Scripture and specifically Jeremiah 25:1-11 and Jeremiah 29:1-14 that refer to Babylon’s rule lasting seventy years in different ways and from different dates. God will bring judgement on Judah but will also restore them. Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9:4-19 is “saturated with scriptural echoes from Leviticus, Deuteronomy, from the Psalms and Jeremiah but are Daniel’s own urgent, intense, intimate engagement with God” (195). Wright notes how helpful it is for believers today to follow Daniel who confesses his sin and the sin of his people rather than his enemies and like Daniel for believers to continue to affirm facts about who God is, and to ask for mercy and restoration. Wright spends time unpacking certain scriptural echoes that fill Daniel’s prayer and God’s response through Gabriel. In my estimation this is the most devotional and encouraging part of the whole book because of the helpful section on prayer, the great reminders of God’s nature, God’s prefigured solution to dealing with sin through Christ’s work (Daniel 9:24) and God’s justice against all tyrants who take their puny stand against the living God” (209). Daniel 9 is a “schematic sketch of history to come, not detailed chronology within which we can dogmatically assign dates, persons and events” (209).
In Chapter 10 (“Finale and Farewell”) Wright takes on the last three chapters of Daniel in this chapter because they fall into three clear sections: Daniel’s preparation and encounter with Gabriel (10:1-11:1), A preview of the history leading up to Antiochus IV Epiphanes (11:2-12:4) and closing promises to Daniel (12:5-13). Wright admits complexities and uncertainties in this chapter, but states that it is clear that Daniel’s prayer on earth “is connected to spiritual conflict in the heavenly realms” and Daniel was encouraged to know God’s kingdom will triumph and the people of God will not merely survive but rise to everlasting life (222). Wright notes honestly for believers “persecution is lethal but limited” (224). However he also draws attention to the thread of future hope pointed to throughout the First Testament (see Psalm 16, Psalm 49:15, Psalm 73:23-24, Job 19:25-27, Isaiah 25:7-8, 26:19) and clearly revealed in the New Testament (John 11:24; 1 Corinthians 15:20; Philippians 3:21).
A few of Wright’s applications might be rejected as false equivalences and oversimplified reaches from Daniel’s plotline. Occasionally when he criticizes the West he could strengthen his argument by offering data to support his points rather than making what some might consider unwarranted assertions or overly broad claims (so p. 181 “We still have astoundingly arrogant and (in my view) blasphemous worship of the false gods of mammon and consumerism. We still sacrifice astronomical sums of money (and lives) on the altar of militarism, war and violence-meeting-violence, unsustainable levels of economic consumption and ecological carelessness that are leading to the destructive effects of climate change).”
On the whole this book is refreshingly non-technical and not long on minutiae (it seems some who preach or write commentaries on Daniel unhelpfully excel at both these). This book will greatly bless any pastor in a church seeking to teach and preach through Daniel and serve as a reliable guide with largely commendable application to New Covenant Christian believers. Wright has done a great service in showing us how important and critical it is to look first and foremost to God’s word and read it carefully. Doing so will help believers lead lives in light of the treasure and wisdom of God found in scripture. On the level of personal discipleship I found Wright’s emphasis on Daniel’s example of a man who prays and communes with the living God a great challenge and am confident other readers will as well. I highly recommend this book to hungry new believers, pastors about to preach and Sunday School teachers about to teach through Daniel. Additionally, I heartily recommend it to scholars who may neglect mining the text of Daniel with an aim to bless the church. We often incorrectly make dogmatic assertions about what we should humbly admit is esoteric more than we are comfortable with and simultaneously ignore or downplay the more challenging clear call to be faithful. Wright’s book is a gift to the church in this regard.
Brandon Myers is Pastor of Congregational Life at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, IL.
Buy the books
Hearing the Message of Daniel: Sustaining Faith in Today’s World