The first chapter of Daniel is an integral part of the book. There is no disconnection (as some imagine) between the historical introduction to Daniel, and the prophecies that follow. What we get in chapter one is essential, because it is a description of the moral condition suited to enlightenment in the ways and counsels of God.
We find there four young men faithfully maintaining a state of separation to God from all the defilement that was characteristic of the kingdom of Babylon. To such God could communicate His mind. I believe it is important to dwell upon this, because in our own day there has been a tendency to let head knowledge of God’s Word run ahead of personal communion and walk with the Lord. Daniel and his friends were instructed in the mind of the Lord because they sought His honour and were separate from the iniquity that surrounded them. In a similar way, we shall only make progress in divine things if we walk apart from all that is defiling and incompatible with the holy God with whom we have to do.
The name of each of the four friends contains some form of the name of God in Hebrew and indicates their pious ancestry. But this did not suit the prince of the eunuchs into whose charge they were given. Instead, he gave them new names that contained the titles of heathen deities. But though labelled as servants to false gods, Daniel and his companions remained faithful to the true God and refused to dishonour Him by compliance with a demand that would have rendered them unclean in His sight. Daniel thus "purposed in his heart that he would not pollute himself with the king’s delicate food, nor with the wine which he drank" (Dan. 1: 8). Now as the king had given the command, it might appear as though the four friends had no choice in the matter. Indeed, many would have said just that, and, in any case, Nebuchadnezzar's authority was derived from God and God had put them in his power. But Daniel and his companions did not reason this way. Instead, they looked upon the king’s command as a trial of their faith—would they stand firm and keep themselves from defilement in the very home of idolatry?
They stood the test in a most marked way. Daniel besought the prince of the eunuchs that he would give them pulse to eat. Fearing the result upon their physical constitutions, the prince objected, dreading to incur the king’s wrath. But these devoted young men pleaded that an opportunity be given to prove whether they could not thrive as well upon pulse as the rest of the company did upon the king’s meat. To this the steward consented, and at the end of ten days Daniel and his friends were fatter and fairer than any who were fed the regulation diet. Permission was accordingly given to continue the same fare, and thus the four friends were able to maintain a position of separation even in Babylon.
Now to many Jews this might have seemed to be a trivial matter, a silly quibble on the part of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. But it brings out a principle that should appeal to the heart and conscience of every believer, namely, that the only way to go on with God is by being faithful in little things. He who honours the Lord by conscientious adherence to His Word in what some would call minor details is likely to be properly exercised about greater things as well. I have heard Christians refer to certain precepts in the Scriptures as nonessentials, but we may rest assured there are no nonessentials in our Bibles. How could it be when "The words of Jehovah are pure words, silver tried in the furnace of earth, purified seven times" (Ps. 12: 6). It is well to remember that in everything the believer is sanctified to the obedience of Christ (see Rom. 6: 22; 2 Cor. 5: 15). We are not at liberty to pick and choose what parts of the Bible we obey and what parts we ignore. We are to be devoted to God and His Word.
Anything that defiles the conscience breaks the link of communion with God at once and hinders our advance in spiritual things. "Maintaining faith and a good conscience; which [last] some, having put away, have made shipwreck as to faith" (1 Tim. 1: 19) is a solemn word worthy of being carefully pondered. It was because of their carefulness in maintaining a good conscience that Daniel and his three friends were given spiritual enlightenment above all the men of their times. God does not usually impart His secrets to careless men, but to those who are devoted to His interests: it remains true in all dispensations that "the things of the Spirit … are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2: 14). Yes He may, in His sovereignty, use a Balaam or a Caiaphas to utter divine truth, but such cases are extraordinary. The rule is that the "secret of Jehovah is with them fear him" (Ps. 25: 14).
It is of grave importance that we bear this principle in mind in these Laodicean times when everything that once was deemed important is looked upon as a matter of indifference. "Every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21: 25) is the prevailing order, and few ask, with intention to obey, 'What saith the Scripture?' Is it any wonder that a host of false teachings are coming in like a flood and that thousands are being swept away from their moorings?
If you do not maintain a good conscience, you will not advance in the truth. Allow one thing in your life that you know to be contrary to the Word of God, and you will soon find your spiritual eyes becoming darkened. But where there is faithfulness in separation from that which is opposed to the mind of God and where His Word is allowed to sit in judgment on words and ways, then you will find that "the path of the righteous is as the shining light, going on and brightening until the day be fully come" (Prov. 4: 18).
It is written of the four young men that "God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams" (Dan. 1: 17). In this he reminds us of Joseph, who also purposed to keep himself pure—as proved by his resistance to Potiphar’s wife (see Gen. 39: 8). And just as it was with Daniel, who was brought into "favour and mercy before the prince of the eunuchs" (Dan. 1: 9), so Joseph, exhibiting the godliness of his life and the transparency of his nature, came into favour with Pharaoh’s prison keeper (see Gen. 39: 21). To crown it all, we find God opening his understanding as with Daniel and giving him wisdom in the interpretation of dreams and visions. What a lesson for us—that purity of heart and faithfulness to God come before enlightenment in divine mysteries! If you attempt to reverse these things—if you try to put a grasp of Scripture truth before conscientious living in the presence of God—you are almost certain to come to grief.
Thus this first chapter of Daniel, coming as it does on the threshold of a book of prophecy, is a serious reminder to the reader of the necessity of holiness in the things of God. But this principle applies to the reading of all Scripture. It reminds us that if we want to make real progress in our souls then we need first to stop and ask ourselves, 'Am I seeking to live so as to honour God in everything?' There is no other way. May we who are redeemed by His precious blood ever remember the word "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the compassions of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, [which is] your intelligent service" (Rom. 12: 1).