By Sam E. Stone
“The Book of Daniel has attracted more interest than any book of the Old Testament,” declared Dr. James. E. Smith. “Because he was willing at all times to stand up for what he believed, Daniel is a true hero of the Faith.” In today’s lesson the role of one’s dietary choices focuses on two perspectives—feasting and fasting.
The first text describes what took place when many of the most promising young Jews were taken captive to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. His plan was to immerse them in the history, knowledge, and lifestyle of his people. Far from home and surrounded by a pagan society, they were under unimaginable pressure to conform to this new way of life.
Decree | Daniel 1:5, 8-17
The Israelite captives included those “from the royal family and the nobility.” Moreover they were “young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace” (1:4). They were the “cream of the crop.” Verses 6 and 7 narrow the focus to Daniel and three of his friends. These young men were to be given what was considered the very best of food and wine as they began their rigorous training.
Daniel, however, was not content to be just one of the crowd. He knew what he believed and let that guide his decisions. Food in the Babylonian diet ignored God’s distinction between clean and unclean meat. In addition, the food served to the king could also have been dedicated first to pagan deities. A similar problem arose years later in the church (see 1 Corinthians 8).
The Old Testament law made a distinction concerning which animals Jews were permitted to eat, “the clean,” and those that were strictly forbidden, “the unclean.” The Israelites were not to eat the flesh of a camel, nor any animal with a split hoof, nor pigs. Leviticus 11 lists various animals that were forbidden. In some cases the pagans did not drain the blood from the meat, and this also was forbidden (Leviticus 17:12).
Daniel asked the official in charge for permission not to defile himself in this way. God caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel. Although the official wanted to help Daniel and his friends, he also did not want to arouse the king’s anger against him! Suppose these young men under his charge ended up looking weak and sickly after following a different diet. The king would have his head! Daniel made a wise proposal. “Just let us eat a different diet for ten days, and then decide.” The official agreed. At the end of the test period, Daniel and his friends looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. That did it! The official was convinced.
The Lord blessed Daniel and his companions in a special way because of their faithful adherence to his will. He gave them knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. In addition, Daniel was able to understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
Declarations | Matthew 6:16-18
In the second section of today’s printed text, the scene changes. Matthew offered a glimpse of life in Jesus’ day. This brief excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount shows that even if you do what is required in Scripture, your heart must be right for your obedience to be pleasing to God. This is true whether one is thinking of financial stewardship (Matthew 6:1-4), prayer (6:5-13), or fasting (16-18).
Fasting was commanded on certain occasions in the Old Testament, such as on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31) as well as other times (Zechariah 7:1-5). In Jesus’ day, some Jews would fast two days a week (Luke 18:12). In God’s sight what is going on in the heart of the person is key. Abstaining from food must be practiced along with heartfelt prayer and repentance. “Prayer and fasting” belong together (see Luke 2:36, 37).
Jesus warned those who were only “putting on a show” by their fasting. Fasting is appropriate only when it is accompanied by intense prayer (see Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3, 4). Others are not to be aware of it. Hypocritical fasting is as wrong as unrestrained eating. Each presents a spiritual test for the believer. J. W. McGarvey wrote, “Fasting, as an aid to meditation and prayer, is a wholesome practice, but stated fasts lead to hollow formality, and fasts which are endured for public praise are an abomination.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.