I have enough failed resolutions in my life to appreciate the difference between making up my mind to do something and then actually getting it done. Daniel makes up his mind in 1:8 not to eat what the king is serving – but actually keeping his resolution without dying in a hunger strike is a very different matter, a fact that narrator highlights by giving us details he didn’t have to.
We learn in vv. 8–10 that Daniel’s first attempt to keep his resolution fails. He approached the chief of the officials, who politely declined to cooperate: “No thanks, I’d like to keep my head” (or, in the memorable words of the NASB: “…you would make me forfeit my head to the king”). If the official did what Daniel wanted and the Jewish boys showed up before Nebuchadnezzar looking scrawny and sick, he’d be the one to pay for it.
Undeterred, Daniel took his problem to the guard in charge of the four young men. He proposed a test – ten days of veggies and water for Daniel & Co., and then an assessment of the situation. The guard agreed – though we’re not told why. (Some have suggested that he did it so he could take home four servings of leftovers for himself every day.) When the day of reckoning arrived, the vegetable-eating Jews looked better than the meat-and-wine folks. The guard was convinced and the boys were allowed to keep their diet throughout the three years of training, while the guard and his family probably ate like kings.
Is this just the Bible’s way of illustrating the timeless adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”? Maybe. But probably not. What reason(s) might the narrator have had for including Daniel’s first and failed attempt at keeping his resolution? Why didn’t he start the story with Daniel’s second and successful attempt? Biblical writers leave out all kinds of details. Why include this one?
I suggest a couple reasons.
First, the details of Daniel’s failed attempt give the narrator an opportunity to remind us that God is at work behind the scenes. For the second time in the text, the narrator says, “God gave” something to someone. The first time we heard this was back in v. 2, where “God gave” Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. Here, we learn that “God gave” Daniel favor with the chief official (v.9). In the midst of Babylon, God is at work on Daniel’s behalf.
But God is not the only one working. So is Daniel, and herein lies a second reason the narrator may have included this part of the story. Daniel’s resolution-keeping did not, in fact, come about on account of the favor God gave him with the chief official. Even though the official liked Daniel, this was not enough to make him willing to forfeit his head. But instead of conceding defeat, Daniel took another approach, this time with the guard. Tremper Longman again has apt words:
“True, the chief official declines the ruse. Daniel does not panic; he does not grow angry. He simply chooses another strategy to accomplish his goal. We see here the beginnings of a theme that will develop throughout the narratives concerning Daniel. He is the incarnation of a wise man – a man who knows how to navigate life. He knows the right action for the right situation; he knows the right word to effect a godly result” (p.54).
We know Daniel has aptitude for all kinds of wisdom, learning, etc., etc., etc. (vv. 3–4), or he wouldn’t have been in the king’s palace in the first place. Here we get to see the evidence that his wisdom is for real.
The chapter has one more “God gave” statement. In v. 17, we are told that “God gave [the Jewish boys] learning and skill in all literature and wisdom.” He enabled them to master the material of the Babylonian curriculum better than any of their colleagues, and he honored their actions as they wisely navigated the life set before them.