In the book of Daniel, there are lots of memorable stories in the literal text, and there are memorable spiritual stories going on in the internal sense, too.
The first chapter is centered on a story in Daniel's life - a sort of anecdote - in which he and his friends, now captives in Babylon, refuse the food that is being offered to them from the King's table.
Before that anecdote begins, though, there's some background: the Kingdom of Judah has been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. Many Judeans have been taken captive, and brought to Babylon.
The chapter begins with the phrase "in the third year." Even a cursory study of the Word shows that many sequences begin by setting a time in which the action takes place. Time in the Word always indicates a spiritual state (AC 4901). When the Word mentions blocks of time, days, weeks, months, years, they indicate states people pass through. Each term indicates a different state. To differentiate further between them, numbers are often attached to define the state. In the phrase, "in the third year," the number "three" contains the idea of fullness, an end, and a new beginning, and contains within it the added dimensions of a judgment on the past.
So the story begins with the end of one state, and the beginning of the next. The finishing state, represented by the king of Judah, Jehoiakim, gives way to a second state: Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The story of Jehoiakim, during whose reign Daniel was captured, describes the final throes of a deteriorating spiritual condition.
In the third year of his reign, Jehoiakim stopped paying tribute to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar did not immediately invade Judah, preferring to give other conquered states, Syria, Moab, and Ammon, the task of harassing Jehoiakim with the intention of reducing him to submission. When this did not work, he attacked, forcibly reducing the city to submission. During Jehoiakim's revolt, Nebuchadnezzar took hostages to Babylon, including Daniel.
'Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, represented the Babylonian falsification of the Word, and destruction of all truth therein (AR 47:4 ).
At the end of the first verse, Nebuchadnezzar comes to Jerusalem and besieges it. This contains two elements: the first is Jerusalem; the second is his treatment of the city. Jerusalem was the center of worship in Judah, although by the time of Jehoiakim, the temple was desecrated. Secondly, in ancient times, the siege of a city did not necessarily mean its destruction, and at the time Daniel was taken captive, the city was not destroyed. But a siege was a long and disastrous event, weakening the fiber of the city. The siege perfectly illustrates the situation of spiritual things of the church with a person, represented by Jerusalem, when they are weakened by false thoughts and selfishness, depicted first by Jehoiakim and then by Nebuchadnezzar. Selfishness, attracted by a love of falsity, given a free hand by a lack of interest in the Word, besieges the mind until the bonds of consciousness are relaxed and selfishness wins.
This sets the natural and spiritual environments in which the story takes place. The historical Daniel lived in Babylon; he worked for kings, administering their kingdom. Spiritual meanings transcend this external, though they correspond perfectly to the details of the literal story.
Nebuchadnezzar's transfer of the vessels from the house of God to the house of his own god underscores and illustrates the meaning of the "third year" in the first verse. "The third year" signals the end of one stage and the start of the next. The desecration of the temple dramatically demonstrates this, for the temple, which should have been the center of Judah's worship, should have been protected at all costs. In reality, the temple was already desecrated by the sins of Jehoiakim, which were so bad they tipped the scales of Divine justice against Judah. With Nebuchadnezzar besieging the city, and the relinquishing of these vessels, the state of Judah's integrity came to an end — her most holy vessels were carried into captivity, and an entirely new chapter of Judah's history began.
This second verse refocuses the emphasis from the action of Nebuchadnezzar to the Lord: while the first verse states that Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, the second shows the hand of the Lord in this. The clear indication is that Nebuchadnezzar did not conquer Judah from his own power, but "the Lord gave Jehoiakim, king of Judah, into his hand."
In Hebrew, the word for "Lord" is "Adonai," the Latin is "Dominus." While the Writings have no entry for the word "Adonai," the term "Dominus" is frequently used. The name "Lord" describes the Divine good — the Lord's love operating in peoples' lives (AC 2921). The book, Divine Love and Wisdom, poetically describes the quality of this love as "consisting in this, that its own should be another's; to feel the joy of another as joy in oneself, that is loving" (DLW 47). The Word shows the Lord's love in many places: from love, He took on the human form and saved the human race; from love, He brought both heaven and hell into order; and from love, He revealed Himself by means of the Word. Love is the very being of the Lord; it is the root and source of each of His actions through the ages. The words "the Lord gave Jehoiakim, king of Judah, into his hands," shows that this was from the Lord's love.
The Lord did not deliver Jehoiakim into Nebuchadnezzar's hand as punishment, but to illustrate how He brings goodness from an evil situation. If He did not do this on a daily basis, the whole foundation of human our regeneration would be undermined. Once Jehoiakim, representing the lusts for falsity, is submerged by the love of self, which is Nebuchadnezzar, people's spiritual lives would be over unless the Lord had a way of arresting the slide into hell and spiritually rehabilitating us.
The vessels held captive in the temple of the Babylonian god is a depiction of people, as they grow older, turning away from the things they learned in youth, and embracing things that appeal to their selfish will; they forget the spiritual things they learned as children. Selfishness destroys the taste for the truth, and with that destruction, people gradually lose the power to resist the allure of selfishness. This is what happened when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem: the selfishness inherent in every person finally overruns the concepts of the truth already weakened by a lack of will to think and act according to the truth — represented by Jehoiakim. Selfishness carries off the vessels of the temple; it subverts the things that should introduce people to worshiping the Lord for another cause: the service of self.
After setting the scene in the first two verses of the book, we come to the central character of the story: Daniel himself. His introduction into the story fills the major segment of the first chapter. Verses three to five are transitional swinging away from Nebuchadnezzar the warrior king, to Daniel, the hero of the rest of the book. At this point, the focus is still on Nebuchadnezzar as an administrator. His power over Daniel appears in these verses, and indicates the power of the falsities (Nebuchadnezzar) arising from selfishness (king of Babylon), over the human conscience and commitment to truth, represented by Daniel. At this point in the story, Daniel is a helpless young man at the mercy of the king.
In the spiritual text, Daniel is the presence of the Lord within people, even in their pre-regenerative state when truth is captured and dominated by selfishness and twisted thinking. The Lord is central to the entire theme, both literally and spiritually: the Divine Love is ceaselessly in human lives, continually striving to turn people away from selfishness towards good. It is a great teaching of the Heavenly Doctrines that the Lord never breaks a people's state, but rather bends them within the bounds of human freedom and response. Historically, He placed Daniel in Babylon to show how He keeps the human conscience alive to judge actions, point out errors, and finally to lead people into His kingdom.
Enter Ashpenaz. The position "master of the eunuchs" makes Ashpenaz a high ranking court official. He is entrusted with the important task of training Jewish captives for future use in the Babylonian empire. In this capacity, he represents a common human situation: some people have the ability to appear to be good, nice, kind, and honest, while bent on fulfilling some hidden, and often selfish, agenda. But the Lord uses these visible qualities of good to lead people into true goodness. In many cases, regeneration is more of a change in a people's motives than a change in actions.
Only certain boys were suitable for the kind of training Nebuchadnezzar had in mind: the young men could have no blemish, they must be good looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge, and quick to understand. Each of these criteria describes aspects of the truths the Lord cultivates in people in order to combat selfishness.
These boys were fed from the royal table. The concepts of "eating" and "drinking" in the Word describe the absorption of goodness and truth into people's lives. When people eat food and drink wine, these become a part of them, assimilated into the body. A similar thing happens with goodness and truth on the spiritual level. The process of learning or experiencing something good or true is very similar to the way people eat food and drink: the meal enters the stomach where it is digested and becomes a part of the person's spiritual life.
Babylon, a symbol of extreme selfishness, is diametrically opposite to the Lord Himself. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who represents the falsification of the Word from that selfishness, is the opposite of the Lord's truth given in the Word. The food he offered the boys would, on a spiritual level, undermine everything they stood for. Only innocence, defined as a willingness to follow the Lord by living according to His truth, can lead people from the clutches of selfishness; yet it is the very nature of selfishness to undermine that innocence and pervert truths. This is what is described by Nebuchadnezzar's apparently kind act of giving the boys food from his own table. This becomes clear in his motives: "three years of training for them, so that at the end of that time they might serve the king." This three-year period was to produce servants. The subversion of truth is never a quick process – people go through years of torment from hell before they totally surrender to it. Yet if they have no innocence, if the food of thought has always centered on selfishness and falsity, the time will come when the person's resistance breaks down completely, and that person will serve our spiritual Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.
So Daniel appealed to Ashpenaz for permission to avoid eating the king's delicacies. In the literal sense, this took courage. Ashpenaz had a great deal of authority and Daniel was a mere captive. This courage is needed for spiritual change. When external actions are in the grip of false thoughts and rationalizations from selfishness, altruism is easily quelled. It takes courage to change motivation and to act from truth rather than falsity, especially when this change of motivation requires very little external behavioral change. Yet it must be done, and so Daniel made the request.
Every effort to come into order is blessed by the Lord. Daniel worked up the courage to ask, and God brought Him into favor and good will. The name for the Lord used here, "God," shows the presence of the Divine truth. This makes sense because Daniel represents truth affecting people's natural lives. This is from the Divine truth presented in the Word. Without Divine truth, people have no understanding of truth, and remain in falsity and selfishness forever.
When Daniel made his request, Ashpenaz was afraid that Daniel would not prosper as the other boys, and he, Ashpenaz, would be blamed. This is the essential nature of merely external good: when behavior is good without any sort of spiritual rudder to guide it, people find themselves led as easily by falsity as by truth. People guided by nonspiritual natural good allow themselves to be easily persuaded by evil, for evil spirits are in their element or their life's delight when they can get into another's desires; once they have entered, they allure that person into every kind of evil (AC 5032:3).
Ashpenaz faced a situation: one of his promising boys was rejecting the king's food and might soon look worse than the other boys. This means that truth, which challenges selfishness, begins to lose its appeal. Yet the challenge must be borne out to its conclusion. If people give in so quickly to selfish desires, their spiritual life would be over quickly. The solution is to look for another alternative, another place where the truth can gain a toehold in our minds.
Daniel appeals to the "steward." There are times when external behavior, good as it may seem, is too closely related to selfish will to respond to an appeal from truth. Sometimes the route of truth through the minds needs to begin at the outer, and often subordinate, elements of our lives – the steward.
To some degree, all people go through this process: before regeneration, we are motivated by selfishness, yet learn truth, and eventually learn to think from truth and develop an affection for it. This is how the Lord develops a toehold in the selfish nature of the unregenerate person. Eventually, adopting the affirmative principle and allowing truth to influence our actions, we find ourselves changing for the better: the stranglehold of selfishness on every facet of our lives begins to slip, and the slow process of liberation begins. But this truth is still in its early stages. In the first states of regeneration, the deeper levels of our mind are still under the control of selfishness and the falsities from it. Nebuchadnezzar is still on his throne, king of the most powerful empire in the world.
Daniel's experiment had been successful, and the final verses of this first chapter extol the wisdom of the four young men. Truth developed and cultivated in our lives appeals to our inner sense of selfishness – a selfish person can take pride in intelligence and wisdom. It is a wonderful thing to be thought good and wise. These are virtues a person can use for selfish ends.
But, as future chapters will show, the beginnings of a conscience spells the end of a life of selfishness. It may take a long time, just as Daniel lived and labored in Babylon for many years, but ultimately the conscience will be victorious, and selfishness banished.