The episode in the life of Daniel that we heard today is a major turning point in the history of God’s people. A lot is going on: the Persian Empire is on the rise, about to conquer Babylon, the rest of Mesopotamia, and eventually also India and Egypt and Ethiopia, becoming the largest empire in history up to that point. The new empire would soon issue the edict that allowed God’s people to return home and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. The long exile was finally about to come to an end!
The experience of exile was something of a mixed bag for the Jews. Many were poor and lived as slaves for their captors. Others were able to build new lives for themselves throughout Mesopotamia, and a few like Daniel rose to prominence in the Babylonian Empire. This enabled Daniel and his friends to be great blessings to their people, although they were in frequent danger of death as they refused to worship the idols of Babylon. Eventually King Nebuchadnezzar had accepted that fact, and the Jews lived in relative peace. But his son, Belshazzar, did not continue in his father’s wisdom, and God was now preparing to remove him and his dynasty and prepare the way for a new chapter in the life of His people.
Imagine a group of people breaking in to your church, stealing the chalice and paten – the vessels for Holy Communion – and having a party, using them for beer and chips. There’s something sacrilegious about that, it’s a mistreatment of objects that were specially set aside for the sole purpose of worship. What Belshazzar did was like that, except on a much larger scale. It is no coincidence that God chose that very night to intervene and declare His judgment. There are times when God allows His people to suffer and His holy place to be defiled – God uses those times to chastise his people and warn them when they’ve gone astray. But there are also times that God steps in to defend His honor and protect His people, and this story is an example of that.
The brief story in Acts 19 is similar in that regard. Seven Jewish exorcists, sons of a high priest named Sceva, realize that the Christians are really quite good at driving out demons “in the name of Jesus Christ,” so they decide to give it a try. It seems as though they were able to get away with it for a while until one demon called them out: “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” They were doing the same type of thing as King Belshazzar: they were plundering the name of Christ for their own purposes, handling things which did not belong to them. Just as the Temple vessels were only to be used by the priests in the course of Temple worship, or our Communionware is only to be used for Holy Communion, so too does the powerful Name of Christ belong only on the lips of those who are His own. As Saint Paul told the Corinthians, “I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
The moral of the story is that God is holy, and so is his people, and so even are the objects He consecrates for His glory. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “hallowed be Thy name.” We read in the Ten Commandments “You shall not take the Lord’s Name in vain.” God sometimes is slow to enact judgment, allowing time for repentance, but in the end He calls all to account. For those who take refuge in Him, this is a teaching that ultimately gives us comfort, because even though we too are guilty, erring and straying like lost sheep, we are, at the end of the day, his sheep. And that means that when he judges the world to vindicate His Name, He will also vindicate His people. Like today’s story in Daniel, God’s judgment can bring destruction, and like today’s story in Acts, God’s judgment can just be a light chastisement. But at the end of the age the result will be like both stories: God’s people will be freed from their captivity to the powers of this world, and the word of the Lord will “prevail mightily.” Thanks be to God!