In the Lion’s Den

by Ed Gallagher

So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him.

Daniel 6:4
Briton Rivière, Daniel’s Answer to the King, 1890, Wikimedia Commons

What will you do when push comes to shove, when you’ve got to make a decision, when you’re either in or out, no more fence-sitting? The Bible presents such a choice pretty frequently … because people like to sit on the fence. We like to hedge our bets. We like to be lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. But Jesus hates it (Rev 3:16). God wants us to pick a side. “Choose you this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15). Elijah asks the Israelites, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21). We want to serve two masters, but Jesus says we can’t (Matt 6:24). Jesus says there are two paths, two ways on which to travel (Matt 7:13–14), and what he really wants to know is, “Are you gonna go my way?” 

Daniel 6 shows us a man who has spent a lifetime choosing to be faithful to his God. When the decree came down forcing him to choose sides, he didn’t flinch. He maintained his faithfulness, forged through many years of religious habits. Though disobeying the new law meant certain death, Daniel accepted his fate and defied the king. In the face of adversity, he did the boldest thing he could: he got down on his knees and prayed. 

Daniel is now an old man.1 Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire has now passed away, and still Daniel survives. He had been taken into captivity with his friends at a young age, he had faced many challenges, but he had always maintained his faith in God and had served faithfully in his new-found home. Whether or not Daniel had been privileged to read the letter that Jeremiah had sent to the Judean exiles in Babylon, he certainly had lived out Jeremiah’s council to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). And Daniel had lived a good, prosperous life, mostly comfortable (we might imagine) despite the few occasions in which his life had been threatened (e.g., Dan 2:12–16).2 He had earned his position as a trusted adviser to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:8–9), and he had also been honored by the later Babylonian king Belshazzar (Dan 5:29). Well past retirement age, he now serves in a new empire and a new king. He had been in the (metaphorical) lion’s den nearly all his life, and now finds himself there more than ever. 

The King

The king in this chapter is someone named Darius the Mede, who had become king at the end of the previous chapter after the death of Belshazzar (5:30–31). As Daniel had predicted, Belshazzar’s kingdom had been handed over to the Medes and Persians (5:28), and Darius is the king of this new kingdom. But Darius the Mede is unknown outside of the book of Daniel. The book of Daniel also mentions a king named Cyrus the Persian (6:28; 10:1), and other sources inform us that it was Cyrus who defeated Babylon and who released the Jews from their captivity (cf. Ezra 1:1–4). Different theories have sought to account for the appearance of this (otherwise unknown) king, Darius the Mede. Some ancient interpreters suggested that he was known in Greek sources and ancient Near Eastern sources under some other name.3 Daniel himself had two names (1:7), so there is some precedent for the idea that Darius might have two names, but it’s just a guess. At any rate, the exact identity of Darius the Mede is largely irrelevant to understanding and benefiting from this story in which he is one of the main characters. 

The Plot 

In the new regime, Daniel quickly stood out, again. Remember, as Belshazzar’s final act as king (5:29), he had appointed Daniel to high position in the Babylonian court, over a third of the kingdom (or in third position in the kingdom; translations differ). When the rule passed from the Babylonians to the Medes and Persians, Daniel was one of the three chiefs under the new king Darius, and soon he would be not just one of three but the highest official under the king (6:1–3). The other officials started their plot against him. 

The text does not precisely say why the other officials had it in for Daniel, but it’s not hard to guess. Pretty obviously they were jealous of Daniel’s prestige, and maybe even of his competence. The Septuagint (the Greek translation) specifies that the leaders of the opposition against Daniel were the other two chiefs in the triumvirate under Darius (6:3). When Darius decided to appoint Daniel as their boss, they got jealous. It may also be that racism played a part. After all, these men do describe Daniel to the king—as if the king didn’t know who Daniel was!—as “one of the exiles from Judah” (6:13). Do they say these words with a sneer? After how many decades away from Judah, Daniel is still thought by these men as “one of the exiles from Judah.” They do not appreciate this foreigner coming in and taking their job. 

And they also might be spiteful, because they don’t like the fact that Daniel is a goody-two-shoes. As Christopher Wright (p. 133) puts it: “We live in a world which is in rebellion against God. So it will show all the marks of that rebellion when faced with anyone who stands for the values of God’s kingdom—truth, honesty, integrity, goodness, and even plain competence. Such things are not welcome in our world.” 

But mostly they’re jealous, envious of this man who so easily wins the favor of people in power. So they plot to destroy him. (This sounds familiar; Mark 3:6.) Their first plan was to figure out some way to accuse Daniel of being a bad government employee, but they couldn’t come up with anything (Dan 6:4). Time for Plan B: they knew how committed Daniel was to his religion, so they figured out a way to get his religion to conflict with his job. 

They convinced King Darius that all the other officials agreed that for a solid month no one in the kingdom should pray to anyone other than Darius (6:6–8). Darius signed it into law (6:9). 

What was Darius thinking? Why would he make such an idiotic law? As you read through the entire chapter, it looks like Darius is a pretty good guy, certainly rooting for Daniel. He certainly didn’t intend to put Daniel in a difficult situation (6:14). Apparently, he didn’t think through the implications of this new law. The problem was that this new law was very flattering toward Darius. It was a great honor, especially because other people had thought it up and not Darius himself. The approach of these officials to Darius reminds me of a used car salesman, effusive with his compliments about how smart you are and how great you look behind the wheel of this car. Darius fell for it.

Daniel’s Response 

Daniel learns about the new law and changes nothing about his routine. He goes into his room and prays toward Jerusalem three times a day (6:10). Why does he look toward Jerusalem? There is no law that mandates this position, but perhaps Daniel was reflecting on what Solomon had prayed at the dedication of the temple. At the end of his long prayer in 1 Kings 8, Solomon acknowledged that there would probably come a time when God exiled the people of Israel away from their land due to their sin (8:46–53). Solomon asked that in that situation—the very situation Daniel now finds himself—if the people repent and turn toward the temple and the city for prayer, that God will hear them and restore them to their homeland. Of course, when Daniel offered his prayers in Daniel 6, there was no temple in Jerusalem, since it had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. But Daniel prayed toward the city where the temple had been.4 

What do you think he was praying about? I imagine his prayers at this particular time have a little added urgency. The text explicitly says that he had heard about the ordinance banning such prayers. No doubt this situation entered into Daniel’s prayers; surely he was, in part, praying for God’s protection. Perhaps also Daniel was doing what Paul would later encourage Christians to do, to pray for their political leaders (1 Tim 2:1–2). Daniel was probably praying for Darius. And maybe Daniel was also doing what Jesus told his audience to do (Matt 5:44), and what Jesus himself did (Luke 23:34). Maybe Daniel was praying for his enemies. 

The text says that this is something Daniel had already been in the habit of doing, praying three times a day (6:10). He didn’t start praying only when he found himself in a dire circumstance. In fact, he wouldn’t even be in this dire circumstance if he weren’t a man deeply committed to prayer. One of the lessons of this chapter is that prayer is essential to the life of faith, and indeed committed, routine prayer is essential, not simply spontaneous, when-I-feel-like-it prayer. Daniel prayed three times a day whether he faced a tough situation or not. 

I appreciate Pete Greig’s advice on prayer: “Keep it simple. Keep it real. Keep it up.”

I guess the Bible doesn’t really tell us whether Daniel kept his prayers simple and real, but it certainly tells us that he kept it up. Did Daniel always enjoy praying? Did he always know exactly what to say? Well, he was a person, like us, so … probably not. Here’s Greig again: 

There are definitely days I’d prefer a set of personal superpowers to slogging away at the slow, confusing business of prayer. God knows that we don’t always find it easy to string a sentence together in his presence. “He remembers,” as the psalmist says, “that we are dust” (Psa 103:14). He understands that we sometimes get tongue-tied, distracted, overwhelmed, and confused. He doesn’t get insecure if we occasionally doubt his existence. He sees our bruised and broken hearts and accepts that prayer hasn’t always seemed to help. He isn’t in the least bit annoyed that we occasionally find talking to him a bit boring. Or that we would sometimes prefer to scale the Empire State Building covered in spandex than merely, meekly to “go into [our] room, close the door and pray to [our] Father, who is unseen” [Matt 6:6]. 

But the thing is this: He likes us. A lot. 

Pete Greig, How to Pray, ch. 2.

And if I may quote Greig once more—

I don’t want to put anything heavy or unsustainable on you as you seek to grow in prayer. But here is the great and inescapable truth—taught in Scripture, modeled by Christ, and advocated without exception by all the heroes of our faith: You cannot grow in prayer without some measure of effort and discomfort, self-discipline and self-denial.

Pete Greig, How to Pray, ch. 2

The story in Daniel 6 certainly encourages its readers to be like Daniel, and that means being committed to prayer. 

Saving Daniel 

We all know what happens next: Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den and suffers no harm. The next morning Daniel reports to the king: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me” (6:22). Even the king suspected, or hoped, that the situation would turn out this way: when executing the punishment the day before, the king had exclaimed, “Your God … will deliver you,” or, perhaps, “My your God deliver you” (6:16). [ Both translations are possible, but the first one is traditional, represented in ancient translations (Septuagint, Latin Vulgate) and the KJV. ] That’s a far cry from Nebuchadnezzar’s boast, “What god is able to deliver you out of my hands?!” (3:15). In chapter 6, Darius actually issues a decree at the end of the story requiring his entire kingdom to acknowledge the God of Daniel as the living God who is sovereign. 

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,

for in you my soul takes refuge;

in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,

until the destroying storms pass by.

2I cry to God Most High,

to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

3He will send from heaven and save me,

he will put to shame those who trample on me. Selah

God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

 4I lie down among lions

that greedily devour human prey;

their teeth are spears and arrows,

their tongues sharp swords.

5Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.

Let your glory be over all the earth.

 6They set a net for my steps;

my soul was bowed down.

They dug a pit in my path,

but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah

7My heart is steadfast, O God,

my heart is steadfast.

I will sing and make melody.

8Awake, my soul!

Awake, O harp and lyre!

I will awake the dawn.

9I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;

I will sing praises to you among the nations.

10For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;

your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

 11Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.

Let your glory be over all the earth.

Psalm 57

Daniel went down into the pit, but he came up again. The word for the “den” of lions (6:7, 12, etc.) is often translated “pit,” as in the story about Joseph being thrown into a pit by his jealous brothers (Gen 37:20).5 Sometimes this same word, “pit,” is used as a synonym for Sheol (or Hades), the place of the dead. 

O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. 

Psalm 30:3

He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

Psalm 40:2

Answer me quickly, O LORD! My spirit fails! Hide not your face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit.

Psalm 143:7

Daniel was certainly a dead man being thrown into the pit of lions, but miraculously God brought up his life from the pit. 

That sounds familiar. Remember what Peter said on the day of Pentecost? 

But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him,

(And then Peter quotes Psalm 16…)

I saw the Lord always before me,

for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;

26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;

moreover my flesh will live in hope.

  27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,

or let your Holy One experience corruption.

  28You have made known to me the ways of life;

you will make me full of gladness with your presence.

Acts 2:24–28; cf. Psalm 16:8–11

God did not abandon the soul of Jesus to Hades, and neither did he abandon Daniel to the pit. In this way, Daniel becomes a type of Christ, and his deliverance from the pit of lions becomes a type of the Resurrection. 

This similarity helps us to see more similarities. Daniel was condemned to death by a government beaurocrat (King Darius), even though the beaurocrat knew he was innocent. The king knew that Daniel’s accusers were motivated by jealousy (cf. Mark 15:10). Before being sentenced to death, Daniel prayed alone three times, perhaps asking that God let this cup pass from him. Daniel’s prayers take place in an upper room. When Daniel is finally cast into the pit, a boulder closed over the pit and the king sealed the entrance (Dan 6:17; cf. Matt 27:62–66). 

When Daniel emerges from the pit unscathed, delivered from death by his God, he might have proclaimed the words of Hosea: 

O Death, where are your plagues?

O Sheol, where is your destruction?

Hosea 13:14; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:55

Daniel 6 presents to us a picture of our Lord, and just like Jesus, Daniel had to endure death (or close to it) before he could experience the victory over death. We remember that Jesus told his followers that they would have to take up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). Following Jesus sometimes means making the tough decision to suffer for your commitment to God. Peter puts the matter this way. 

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 

1 Peter 2:21

Peter repeatedly mentions the possibility that his readers might suffer even though they have done nothing wrong. In this way they can also imitate Jesus (2:15; 4:16, 19). 

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.

1 Peter 3:13–17

In Daniel 6 there is also the unpleasant business of judgment upon the wicked (6:24). This is a chapter that reminds us of many aspects of the Christian religion: commitment to prayer, suffering for doing right, judgment upon the wicked, and resurrection. God will set things right. Daniel 6 reminds us how. 

Discussion Questions 

Why did the presidents and satraps want to get Daniel in trouble in Daniel 6? What did they have against Daniel? 

How did they convince Darius to pass this new law? 

From this chapter as a whole, how would you characterize Darius? What kind of king is he? What kind of person is he? 

Why do you think Daniel prayed toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10)? See 1 Kings 8:46–53. 

What sort of proclamation did Darius issue after God saved Daniel from the lions? 


(1) The Book of Daniel (9:2) cites Jeremiah’s prophecy that the exile would last seventy years (cf. Jer 25:11; 29:10), so even without any outside information other than the storyline presented by the (final form of) the book, we must think of Daniel as an old man in ch. 6, something like 85-90 years old. 

(2) Aside from the story about the lion’s den (Daniel 6), the only time Daniel had found his life threatened in the book was in Daniel 2, before he had become well-known as a wise man. Presumably his life was threatened also in Daniel 3, but he is unmentioned in that chapter, which focuses instead on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 

(3) See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 10.248; Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, trans. Gleason Archer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), p. 55. 

(4) Jerome already suggested this connection between Daniel’s prayer posture and Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication; see Jerome, Commentary on Daniel, trans. Archer, 65–66.

(5) Here I am referring to the Greek word in the Septuagint (λάκκος, lakkos). The oldest form of Daniel 6 is Aramaic, and since so little Aramaic appears in the Bible, it doesn’t do much good to search for the Aramaic word.  

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