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Daniel in the Lions' Den

One small act of faith for a man, one giant messianic image for mankind.

Written by Mike Biolsi & David Steltz on .


Today, we conclude our journey through the story of Daniel. We’re at chapter 6, which is the half-way point of the book, and marks the end of the narrative portion of the book. Remember, the first half of Daniel is a selection of stories from Daniel’s life which show God at work during the period of the Jewish exile. The second half does not chronologically take place after the narrative of the first half, rather it’s a totally different type of literature, which summarizes various dreams, visions, and prophecies Daniel had throughout his life. At this point, we’re not going to tackle going through the second half once we finish the first half, so we’ll be leaving Daniel for a while after today.

But, I feel like we’ve almost saved the best for last when it comes to the stories of Daniel, because chapter 6 has probably the most famous story associated with Daniel, almost synonymous with Daniel even. I think I’ve heard the phrase “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” more often than just the name “Daniel” by itself, to the point where it almost seems like “In the Lions’ Den” is actually Daniel’s last name! It’s not, of course, but it is a very iconic story. Which makes sense because it’s a very cool story. It’s unique in some ways, but, as we’ll see, it’s also very similar to the other stories in Daniel, and even fits a larger pattern which points to Jesus.

Setting The Stage

All that said, let’s jump in and begin reading the story! We’re picking up at the beginning of Chapter 6, and remember that chapter 5 ended with the death of Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, and Darius the Mede receiving the kingdom. So, Darius is on the throne, and chapter 6 begins by telling us about Darius’s reign:

Daniel 6:1–28 (NLT):1 Darius the Mede decided to divide the kingdom into 120 provinces, and he appointed a high officer to rule over each province. 2 The king also chose Daniel and two others as administrators to supervise the high officers and protect the king’s interests. 3 Daniel soon proved himself more capable than all the other administrators and high officers. Because of Daniel’s great ability, the king made plans to place him over the entire empire. 


At this point, we’ve seen enough from Daniel that this shouldn’t come as a surprise. He has repeatedly, under every king, demonstrated this so-called “extraordinary spirit” which distinguishes him, sets him apart from all the other wise men and officials. Of course, we know that it’s because of Daniel’s faith in Yahweh, and god’s spirit in his life, but from the perspective of king Darius and the other officials, Daniel was just a guy who set the bar really high! And overachievers usually aren’t very well liked by the people who they make look bad in comparison:

4 Then the other administrators and high officers began searching for some fault in the way Daniel was handling government affairs, but they couldn’t find anything to criticize or condemn. He was faithful, always responsible, and completely trustworthy. 5 So they concluded, “Our only chance of finding grounds for accusing Daniel will be in connection with the rules of his religion.” 

A Blameless Life

Daniel was so blameless that they realized they were going to need to find a way to turn his faith against him. His loyalty and service to his God was clearly evident, so it’s not like he was hiding it! But it was the one thing that set him apart, as a Jew, from the Babylonians and Medes and Persians. So that was what they would use to single him out and plot against him.

Psalm 15:2–5 (CSB) — 2 The one who lives blamelessly, practices righteousness, and acknowledges the truth in his heart— 3 who does not slander with his tongue, who does not harm his friend or discredit his neighbor, 4 who despises the one rejected by the LORD but honors those who fear the LORD, who keeps his word whatever the cost, 5 who does not lend his silver at interest or take a bribe against the innocent— the one who does these things will never be shaken. 

At second glance at this section of verses you cannot help but see the irony of what is taking place! Daniel is NOT corrupt, so he is being promoted. THEREFORE those that want to be promoted act even more corruptly to try to discredit Daniel so they can be promoted? How is that ever going to work? If you are going to promote someone to oversee all the leaders and “protect the kings interests” it certainly could NOT be a person who plots against the innocent for hopes of personal gain. This set of verses proves just how woefully deficient the other leaders were – which would not give me a lot of hope in the Mede’s holding on to this kingdom!

6 So the administrators and high officers went to the king and said, “Long live King Darius! 7 We are all in agreement—we administrators, officials, high officers, advisers, and governors—that the king should make a law that will be strictly enforced. Give orders that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human—except to you, Your Majesty—will be thrown into the den of lions. 8 And now, Your Majesty, issue and sign this law so it cannot be changed, an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.” 9 So King Darius signed the law. 

Plotting & Deception

Notice that verse 7 says “ALL the administrators of the kingdom” which is a flat-out lie! Daniel is one of those administrators, and obviously he was not in on this plan. So, they deceived the king, and he went along with it. This edict, this law, says that nobody is allowed to pray directly to any god or man, except through king Darius. This would put him in a sort of high-priestly role, but not one which was appointed by God and therefore not a legitimate role. So, what does Daniel do?

10 But when Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God. 11 Then the officials went together to Daniel’s house and found him praying and asking for God’s help. 12 So they went straight to the king and reminded him about his law. “Did you not sign a law that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human—except to you, Your Majesty—will be thrown into the den of lions?” “Yes,” the king replied, “that decision stands; it is an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.” 13 Then they told the king, “That man Daniel, one of the captives from Judah, is ignoring you and your law. He still prays to his God three times a day.” 14 Hearing this, the king was deeply troubled, and he tried to think of a way to save Daniel. He spent the rest of the day looking for a way to get Daniel out of this predicament. 15 In the evening the men went together to the king and said, “Your Majesty, you know that according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, no law that the king signs can be changed.” 

No Way Out

The story is very specific that Daniel heard the news and THEN prayed (as he always did). There is no doubt that Daniel knew what he was doing. And, if I had to guess, he knew he would be in trouble and probably was praying about that!

The other detail that we might easily miss is that he faced Jerusalem. Why? Well, that goes back to our story of Solomon and the temple:

1 Kings 8:46–50 (CSB) — 46 When [your people] sin against you— for there is no one who does not sin— and you are angry with them and hand them over to the enemy, and their captors deport them to the enemy’s country— whether distant or nearby— 47 and when they come to their senses in the land where they were deported and repent and petition you in their captors’ land: “We have sinned and done wrong; we have been wicked,” 48 and when they return to you with all their heart and all their soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and when they pray to you in the direction of their land that you gave their ancestors, the city you have chosen, and the temple I have built for your name, 49 may you hear in heaven, your dwelling place, their prayer and petition and uphold their cause. 50 May you forgive your people who sinned against you and all their rebellions against you, and may you grant them compassion before their captors, so that they may treat them compassionately. 

1 Kings 9:3 (CSB) — 3 The LORD said to him: I have heard your prayer and petition you have made before me. I have consecrated this temple you have built, to put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there at all times. 

Solomon, in his dedication prayer of the temple, was prophesying of the days to come, that Daniel is now in. God removed the people from his presence (the temple) but promised to hear the people if they would look to him. Daniel took this quite literally, as to Jews to this day. 

So they’ve trapped Daniel with this irrevocable law. We can see that Persians held to this irrevocability later on in the story of Esther, as well as through other historical sources. But the king is NOT happy about it. It says the king was “deeply troubled” or “displeased” or “distressed” but…he wasn’t upset that Daniel had broken the law, he seemed to be pretty indifferent about that…rather, he was distressed because he was being forced to enforce this law.

16 So at last the king gave orders for Daniel to be arrested and thrown into the den of lions. The king said to him, “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully, rescue you.” 17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den. The king sealed the stone with his own royal seal and the seals of his nobles, so that no one could rescue Daniel. 18 Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night fasting. He refused his usual entertainment and couldn’t sleep at all that night. 

Now, I think everyone knows what happens, but we’re going to pause here for suspense anyway to point out a few things.

Darius’s Anguish

First of all, I think the statement from Darius is so interesting…it’s almost a prayer to God, but not quite, but he’s saying “I really hope that you get rescued by that God you serve so faithfully.” So he’s acknowledging God, though he himself doesn’t serve this God, he has been able to see that Daniel serves him faithfully. And by bringing that up, it’s almost like saying…”well, let’s see if all that faith and service was worth it!” or “well, here’s a chance for your God to prove himself!” But he’s not saying this flippantly, or hoping to see this test fail, this is an emotional, genuine, and fervent expression…he is just absolutely terrified and sad for Daniel.

The second thing to notice is that entrance to the den was covered by a stone and sealed, to prevent Daniel from being able to escape, or for anyone to come and rescue him. 

It was sealed by both the king and the nobles! 

So, just as we talked about Solomon being a type of messiah, so is Daniel. Remember, these stories are pointing to the Messiah. In the book of Daniel we have a man who is blameless, being falsely accused on the grounds of his faith, sentenced to death and the entrance to his place of death was sealed with a large stone and government ring. Does that sound familiar to any of you?

Imagining the Scene

This is also the part of the story where it gets kind of fun to use our imaginations and try to picture what it was like for Daniel. We don’t know how many lions there were, but even one would have been pretty scary, and we know there were multiple, probably several. 

I’m curious, how many of you have actually seen a lion in person?

Lions are HUGE cats, and they are REALLY strong! I think being thrown to a den of lions is so fearful that this is really one of the main reasons this story has captured imaginations for hundreds and thousands of years.

In fact, there is a very famous painting depicting this moment, called “Daniel In the Lions’ Den” by a Flemish artist named Peter Paul Rubens:

peter paul rubens

This was painted in the early 1600’s and now is on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Mike and I actually got to see this painting in person a couple years ago, and it was definitely one that really stood out to me. It’s stunningly beautiful, and I love this style of theatrical realism. And one reason it stands out, that you really can’t tell by looking at it on the screen, is for the sheer scale of this painting. It’s huge! The whole thing is full, life-size scale, so when you’re standing in front of it, those lions are HUGE. There’s actually a photo of me looking at it from a distance:

photo 2020 07 04 11 25 45

It kind of helps a little to get a sense of how large it is, especially compared to those other smaller ones, but it still really doesn’t do it justice, there’s nothing like standing in front of it in-person.

So, this painting showcases the ferocity of the lions and the immediacy of Daniel’s danger. But, despite how real and detailed it looks, it’s also very unrealistic in a couple ways. Does anything stand out to anybody else about what’s wrong with this picture?

The BIGGEST inaccuracy is Daniel’s age. Here, he’s depicted as a young man, whereas we know Daniel would have been in his eighties when he was thrown into the den. Not this young, strong guy. Yet, I’ve seen so many depictions of Daniel in the lions’ den as a young man, in storybooks and paintings. I’m not sure where that misconception came from, but I think images like this have influenced a lot of us. I know I’ve often pictured Daniel being much younger. But you can also find paintings where he’s depicted as an older man with white hair, and that’s definitely more accurate. I think realizing his age, in some ways makes you feel even more concerned, and makes it seem even more cruel…to throw an old man to a den of lions, there’s just no chance he would be able to fight them off.

He also looks way too European and not enough like someone who lived in Jerusalem!

But even if he WAS a strapping young man in his prime, he really wouldn’t have stood a chance. There’s a really cool video you can watch on YouTube, of 3 huge, strong body builders putting their whole weight and strength into pulling a rope…then the camera pans to show what they’re trying to pull, and it’s just one single female lion holding the rope in her teeth and standing, kind of crouched back on the ground, not even budging a hair…she barely even seems to be trying. So Peter Paul Ruben’s painting is effective, I think in depicting the raw power of a lion…They’re big, their muscles are crazy, and their jaw strength is formidable. And several of them together can take down huge animals many times their size and weight…they are an apex predator.

One other thing to think about, which really can’t be capture in a painting…is how dark it would have been once the entrance was actually sealed. We don’t know what this “den” actually looked like, whether it was a cave or a hole in the ground or a structure made out of bricks and mortar, but in all likelihood it was pitch black once it was sealed, or at least nearly so. Lions have exceptional night vision compared to humans, so they would be able to see their victims, without the victims being able to see them. That thought alone is pretty terrifying, don’t you think? Daniel had to spend the entire night in there, and the king fasted, denied any entertainment, and just thought about Daniel all night long, hoping by some miracle he would be ok. Let’s read what happens next:

19 Very early the next morning, the king got up and hurried out to the lions’ den. 20 When he got there, he called out in anguish, “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God, whom you serve so faithfully, able to rescue you from the lions?” 21 Daniel answered, “Long live the king! 22 My God sent his angel to shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, for I have been found innocent in his sight. And I have not wronged you, Your Majesty.” 23 The king was overjoyed and ordered that Daniel be lifted from the den. Not a scratch was found on him, for he had trusted in his God. 24 Then the king gave orders to arrest the men who had maliciously accused Daniel. He had them thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. The lions leaped on them and tore them apart before they even hit the floor of the den. 25 Then King Darius sent this message to the people of every race and nation and language throughout the world: “Peace and prosperity to you! 26 “I decree that everyone throughout my kingdom should tremble with fear before the God of Daniel. 

For he is the living God, and he will endure forever. 

His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rule will never end. 27 

He rescues and saves his people; he performs miraculous signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. 

He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.” 

28 So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.  

Darius: we know he did not want to throw Daniel in the den, but he had to keep his law. However, he was up early to see if Daniel could be spared! I wasn’t just early, it was VERY early!

I also think that it is probably Daniel’s interpretation of the kings words to get the description of “the living God” in there, but it is effective. We should probably NOT consider this the conversion of Darius, but rather that he acknowledged Yahweh alongside all his other gods. Polytheism was the most common practice of the non-Jewish world; monotheism was unique to the Jews. 

So Daniel WAS saved by a miracle…he attributes his life to the intervention of God, and points out that he has neither sinned against God, NOR done anything to wrong the king, and therefore has been found innocent, not worthy of such a brutal execution as the other officials were hoping for.

Verse 24 proves that the lions were not defective…the king orders the malicious men be arrested and thrown into the den, and the lions tore them apart before they even hit the floor of the den.

Other translations read that their bones were crushed before they hit the floor! That is power! 

The king then not only acknowledges Daniel’s God, but decrees that everyone should tremble with fear before him. And then he launches into this poetic verse, declaring that Daniel’s God is the living God and will endure forever, that his kingdom will never be destroyed, his rule will never end, he rescues his people in miraculous ways, just like he rescued Daniel from the lions.

This sounds familiar doesn’t it? It’s very similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s response to seeing God’s power, and contains echoes of the Davidic covenant and rings with the truth of God as a rescuer…he has proven himself as such from the time of the exodus onward.

IT is common for us to talk about Daniel and the lions’ den and to teach our children the lessons like:

"God protects/rewards those that trust Him"

But there are many other takeaways. God does not promise to always protect us – Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego understood that! Rather than focus on what God *may* choose to do, we should focus on what we CAN do and what we know God WILL do. 

If there is a lesson to apply to you and me today, I do NOT think it is, “God will protect you from your enemies”. He might, but there are many martyrs that did not experience that type of protection because it was not part of God’s plan. I think it would be to make sure that your life is defined by your faith so much that others, even those you work with, cannot help but notice. 

This is the 3rd time we have a story that mentioned that Daniel had an exceptional spirit and that he served faithfully the living God. 

DANIEL – was committed to praying, habitually (3 times a day) His commitment to God and talking to God was important enough in his life that those that wanted to do harm to him knew that he was a person who prayed regularly to Yahweh. 

Does your relationship with God define you with those you work with?

GOD – God was once again reminding his people that there is a bigger story. God is the only one that is eternal and it is HIS kingdom, not that of Babylon, nor that of the Medes, or even the Persians (who are introduced at the end of this chapter) will last forever. Even the dream that Daniel interpreted about the statue in chapter 2 was a reminder that the kingdoms of this world are temporary. The Messiah would come to establish God’s eternal kingdom here on this earth, and it will free people from captivity and grant them access to the very place that God dwells, the very presence of God. 

This is what Isaiah talked about in Isaiah 61:

Isaiah 61:1–2 (CSB) — 1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, 

The Messiah would come and lead God’s people out of captivity! He rescues and saves his people is how Darius put it!

Jesus, the Messiah, enters the synagogue and we read about this event in the gospel of Luke:

Luke 4:16–21 (CSB) — 16 [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. As usual, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, and unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written: 18 The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 20 He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” 

Jesus came to release captives – not physical but spiritual. He came to free us from the bondage that we are been in to sin and death. He was innocent, accused, falsely convicted, sentenced to death and sealed in a tomb. Oh, and just before he was sentenced to death guess what he was doing? Praying. 

Daniel escaped death; Jesus conquered it. Now, all those that fear God will be free from bondage to sin. Pulled up from the pit to newness of life. 

Daniel in the Lions' Den