Sometimes you can miss the first few minutes of a movie or even the first few pages of a book, and you can still catch up pretty easily. This is not the case in the book of Daniel. If you read too quickly past the first 2 verses of chapter 1, you miss the key to the entire book.
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. (Daniel 1:1–2 ESV)
These verses are straightforward enough – King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeats King Jehoiakim of Judah and pillages the temple of God to enrich the coffers of his god.
Right. Those are indeed the basics, but, at the risk of making my English teacher and editing friends cringe, “what’s it mean?”
In these verses we meet two kings: Nebuchadnezzar and Jehoiakim. On his way to becoming one of the greatest kings of the ancient Near East, Nebuchadnezzar had to squash a number of rebellions in the Levant (modern day Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and Jordan), including one in Judah. King Jehoiakim of Judah was a bothersome bug to the Babylonian king. Originally a vassal (subject state) of Babylon’s enemy, Egypt, Jehoiakim switched his allegiance to Babylon after three years on the throne. After three more years, he waffled again and returned his loyalties (and his tribute money) to Egypt. Not to be toyed with, Nebuchadnezzar moved on his on-again-off-again vassal, squashed the rebellion, and ultimately destroyed the capital city of Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated King Jehoiakim of Judah.
In these verses we also meet two G/gods. The ancient Near East knew nothing of our modern “separation of church and state” or privatized religion. There was no such thing as “secular.” Everything was religious because everything was controlled by “the gods.” The ancient Near Eastern king was a flesh and blood representative of a patron god – and when the king went to war, he did so at the command of his god in order to extend his god’s empire. The bigger the king’s empire, the more gods his patron god had defeated. When Nebuchadnezzar defeated Jehoiakim, everyone would have understood that his god (either Nabu or Marduk) had defeated Jehoiakim’s God. The proof was in the plunder: God’s temple riches were relocated to the Babylonian god’s treasury. His city had fallen and his temple was destroyed. God had been defeated.
Or so it seemed. But the author of Daniel tells you what really happened. Despite all appearances to the contrary, King Nebuchadnezzar did not take King Jehoiakim and the temple booty. God gave them into his hand. Nabu may have won, but God handed him the victory on a silver temple platter.
The entire book of Daniel hinges on this reality. The King of kings, who reigns forever, is behind every rise and fall of a human king, and the ongoing contest between God and the gods is really no contest at all.