“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god” (Dan 1.1-2).
We cannot move beyond verse 1 without answering some important questions. Who was Jehoiakim king of Judah and when was the third year of his reign? Who was Nebuchadnezzar king of Judah and why did he attack Jerusalem?
After King David, Israel formally divided into two kingdoms. This was due in part to David’s adulterous and murderous escapade with Bathsheba. The Southern Kingdom (a.k.a. Judah or Jerusalem) was comprised of two of Israel’s twelve tribes: Judah and Benjamin. Jerusalem was located in the Southern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom (a.k.a. Israel or Samaria) was comprised of the remaining ten tribes. The Southerners considered the Northerners half-breeds who left David.
Together the land/nations were a political football between the nations around them. And they became radically idolatrous because of it. God sent a litany of prophets calling the kingdoms to repentance. There would be brief periods of improvement but on balance the nations grew increasingly unfaithful to God.
So in 722 BC, God sent Assyria to wipe out Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Assyria then made a play for Judah whose king at that time was Ahaz. Ahaz chickened out and made Judah a vassal of Assyria, meaning he paid Assyria tribute in exchange for protection (2 Chron 28). Quite mafiaesque. Assyria left Judah alone as long as Judah kept them happy and worshiped their gods with contributions to the treasury.
All along God sent prophets to warn Judah. If they kept up their allegiance to and worship of foreign gods/powers then he would do to them what he did to Israel.
Ahaz died and his son Hezekiah became king of Judah. Hezekiah wasn’t crazy about his dad’s deal with Assryia. So he started restoring Yahweh worship in Judah. Obviously, this did not set well with Assyria so Ashurbanipal paid Hezekiah a visit to end this pesky rebellion. We learn from 2 Kings 19-20 that God miraculously protected Jerusalem.
Hezekiah died and his good-for-nothing 12-year-old son Manasseh assumed the throne. He was pathetic and restored idolatry in Judah for the next 55 years. Manasseh was the straw that broke the camel’s back with God. Because of Manasseh’s idolatrous “reforms” God promised to “wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down” (2 Kgs 21.13).
God remained an ever-patient God. There was some reprieve when an 8-year-old Josiah assumed the throne. He was a good king and restored faithfulness to Yahweh.
As Josiah grew stronger as a king, Assyria grew weaker until their stud leader died in 627 BC. With Assyria on the wane Babylon seized the opportunity to recover its prominence after a millennium of abject dormancy. So Babylon took its shot under Nabopolassar and eventually sacked the Assyrian capital Nineveh in 612 BC.
Enter Egypt, who bordered Judah to the south. Egypt knew if Babylon defeated Assyria (thus assuming control of Judah as well) then it would control everything up to its doorstep. Egypt therefore allied with a weakened Assyria to stave off Babylon in hopes of controlling the former Assyrian territories, including Judah. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Josiah (king of Judah) saw this as a prime opportunity to liberate Judah from anyone’s control. So while Babylon was busy with Assyria he tried to keep Egypt at bay. He died valiantly at Megiddo in a battle against Pharaoh Neco II (2 Kgs 23).
Neco installed Josiah’s son Jehoiakim on the throne as a puppet king to protect Egypt’s interests in Judah. Egypt could then focus on keeping Babylon on the other side of the Euphrates River in the north. Babylon proved too strong and finally defeated the Assyrian-Egyptian alliance in 605 BC.
Egypt retreated leaving Judah open to Babylonian invasion. Babylon’s Nabopolassar died shortly thereafter and his son Nebuchadnezzar assumed the throne. Nebuchadnezzar immediately marched south and invaded Jerusalem in 605 BC (Dan 1.1). This is where Daniel begins but let’s see how things played out so as to better understand the landscape.
Nebuchadnezzar did not want to unnecessarily risk his army on this little nation. He had bigger fish to fry and wanted to control Palestine as a means of getting to Egypt. A basketball coach wouldn’t risk his star player getting injured in the last game against a far lesser opponent when the playoffs begin next week. Nebuchadnezzar would need a strong, healthy army against Egypt. Therefore, he wouldn’t risk his troops against Judah if he didn’t have to.
So he sought to control it by taking out Judah’s influential people, making them Babylonians and using them to influence their countrymen. He would win Judah not by bloodshed but by indoctrination.
In 598 BC, Jerusalem got a little feisty and Nebuchadnezzar came back in for a second round of exiling Jewish officials. He installed his own puppet king, Mattaniah/Zedekiahk, to keep the peace (2 Kgs 24.17). In 589 BC, there was another grassroots rebellion and Nebuchadnezzar had had enough. He responded swiftly and marched again on Jerusalem (2 Kgs 25.1). Egypt helped Jerusalem hold Babylon for 18 months (Jer 37.5). But in 587 BC, Babylon breached Jerusalem’s walls and burned its palace and temple (2 Kgs 25.2-4, 8-9). Judah lost all hope of becoming an independent state and became a Babylonian province (2 Kgs 25.22).
All that to say, Daniel 1.1 is referring to the first deportation in 605 BC. It gives us the historical facts as the Babylonian Gazette would’ve reported them: “On this day in history, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem.” It’s how CNN and the local news would’ve broadcasted the event.
Verse 2, however, gives us a different angle. If v1 provides the historical detail then v2 provides the theological detail. Behind the historical event was a theological reason. Although Nebuchadnezzar did besiege Jerusalem (v1), it was because the Lord gave Jehoiakim into his hand. God stood behind Nebuchadnezzar’s victory. It was God who arranged every event and the smallest details so that Judah would be given over to Babylon.
Why would a loving God do such a thing? Because Judah sold herself out to foreign gods. She’s not held her grip on God’s law or believed God would protect and sustain them. They sought help from everyone but God. In so doing, she subjected herself to every other nation and worshiped their gods in exchange for protection and provision. Therefore, Daniel would reflect on Jeremiah 25.1-11 (Dan 9.2).
Daniel clearly asserts that King Nebuchadnezzar did not possess Jerusalem, and was not the conqueror of the nation by his own valour [sic], or counsel, or fortune, or good luck, but because God wished to humble his people” (Calvin, Commentaries: 86).
So Nebuchadnezzar rolled into Jerusalem, forced Jehoiakim into submission, and pillaged the temple. By taking various vessels and instruments of Jerusalem’s temple, Nebuchadnezzar was announcing that his gods were stronger than Judah’s God. Nebuchadnezzar would subjugate those things reserved for worship of Yahweh and use them to worship his gods. In a crude way, this was like one team stealing the other team’s mascot.
Uzzah touched the Ark of the Covenant with an honest heart and died (2 Sam 6.3ff.), but now Nebuchadnezzar has his grubby paws all over the temple goods with no repentance. God was giving Judah over in judgment because they insisted on being unfaithful. They refused to believe Yahweh would protect and provide so Yahweh refused to do so.
So Daniel 1.1 was the work of the historian, but v2 the work of the theologian. I will save the implications of that for the next installment.