Pastor Steve Mechem
Daniel 6:16-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Then the king gave the command, and Daniel was brought and thrown into the den of lions. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” A stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, so that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no food was brought to him, and sleep fled from him.
Damnatio ad Bestias. That is what the Romans called it. The mode of execution that called for human beings to be killed, destroyed, torn apart by wild animals.
Unfortunately, the Romans turned Damnatio ad Bestias into an art form. Hundreds would gather in arenas to watch and cheer and salivate as those convicted of crimes like murder, theft, speaking badly about the government, practicing an outlawed religion, would be led into the center of the arena. As they stood there, paralyzed with fear, weeping openly, wild animals, often lions, would be set loose upon their human prey to the outlandish cheer of the crowd. In a matter of moments, it was over. Spectators walked away satisfied. Lions had full bellies. And justice was served.
It appears that our own apostle Paul may have had an experience with the Damnitio ad Bestias. In Second Timothy 4:17, the writer, identified as Paul, claims that he was rescued from the Lion’s mouth. Now he may be using that phrase metaphorically, or he may be describing a literal event.
In the apocryphal book, the Acts of Paul, there is an account written about Paul encountering a lion in the wilderness. As the lion attacks Paul, Paul begins to pray. He prays and he prays and he prays. When he opens his eyes the lion is standing in front of him. The lion asks that Paul would pray for him and baptize him in the name of Jesus. Paul does.
They part ways as Christian brothers but sometime later Paul is arrested and sentenced to death in the arena. Paul stands in the center if the ring as a fierce lion is about to attack.
But the lion recognizes Paul and Paul recognizes the lion. The lion, a grateful convert, thanks to Paul, refuses to attack, but rather, defends Paul against other lions as they try to pounce on Paul.
In the midst of the chaos a hail storm commences. People in the arena scatter and Paul and the lion escape.
Now obviously this is a legend. But quite often, legends are based in some reality. So perhaps, along with all his other travails,The apostle Paul had faced the Lions and had come out unscathed.
The Romans were not the first to practice this extreme form of execution. They actually learned the practice from nations they conquered who had learned the practice from nations they had conquered. All the way back to the Babylonians and the Persians.
And that brings us to story of Daniel and Lions Den.
Daniel was a young Jewish man when Judah was conquered. He was one of the people sent to live in Babylon. In exile. Once there, Daniel prospered.
Like Joseph in Egypt, he rose up and became a leader of the nation. Some would say he was second in command of the entire empire. And He did this while remaining true to his faith, his culture, and his heritage.
His status, along with his ethnicity and religious sensibilities, created jealousy and resentment among the other leaders of the nation.
While the king held Daniel in high regard, the king’s counselors couldn’t stand him.
So they hatched a plot.
They went to the King and said, “O King, live forever! All the presidents of the kingdom, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions. Now, O king, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed.”
They did this because they knew Daniel’s religious conviction would never allow this as he faced Jerusalem three times a day and prayed to Yahweh, his God.
The king signed the law, not thinking about what it would mean to Daniel.
Daniel continued in his tradition.
The king’s counselors turned Daniel in, and while the king was vexed, the law was set, and Daniel’s fate was sealed.
So, ”then the king gave the command, and Daniel was brought and thrown into the den of lions.”
Just as an aside, it should be noted that the only reason for the king to have a den of lions at his disposal was for this specific purpose of destroying his enemies.
After a sleepless night, for the king really cared for Daniel, the king returned to the pit in which the lions were kept. He expected to find well fed lions and pieces of Daniel.
Instead he found a very alive Daniel and some disappointed lions. It doesn’t say this, but in my imagination, Daniel is sitting on the ground the with one of the lion’s resting his head on Daniel’s lap as Daniel shouts up to the king.
“O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.” Then the king was exceedingly glad and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.
Good story. but it is not just a story about a guy in a lions den.
It is metaphor, a parable about life in the world.
It was the story about
Daniel’s life in Babylon and Persia.
While he may have prospered, he was always seen as the other, the stranger, the exotic, and he was always on the precipice of destruction, if only his enemies could figure out how!
People were mean, ornery, cruel and looking for ways to do Daniel in. Always.
Daniel lived in the lions den, only the lions wore human skin.
Daniel’s popularity, and kind treatment were a facade perpetrated by the human lions who were ready to strike whenever the opening appeared.
Truth be told, all of us live in the lion’s den.
There are always people out there ready to do us harm, physically, emotionally, spiritually.
The “me too” movement has pulled back the curtain that has hidden sexual harassment and abuse for decades. We have been forced to recognize that some people, especially men, have used power and authority to exploit people in vulnerable positions.
There are narcissists among us who place themselves above everybody and everything and will crush anybody they see as a threat.
There are bigots among us who are always finding fault with us, our skin color, our ancestry, our choice of career, the person we love. They discriminate against us because of who we are and what we look like.
There are bullies among us who take pleasure in causing us pain. It is almost always because of their own pain, and sadly, they find satisfaction in making others as miserable as themselves.
There are hatemongers among us who choose darkness over light, cruelty over kindness, hate over love.
There are connivers among us who take advantage of us for their own personal gain. They will walk on us as they climb over us to get what they want.
There are scammers among us who take advantage of our weaknesses.
There are evil people in our midst, who like lions prey upon us in hopes of devouring us.
We are surrounded by lions.
But here is the good news! Many of the Lions in the den are good, kind, and full of grace.
It is not by accident that one of the great characters in literature is the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ children’s classic.
Aslan the Lion sacrifices himself and brings justice to a Narnia where it has been always winter but never Christmas.
When the children in the story first learn that the One who would rescue them was a lion, they were visibly shaken. Lions are killers, Lions are predators, Lions stalk.
How could they trust a lion?
So they ask Mr. Beaver, “Is he safe?”
His response, “course he isn’t safe. But he is good.”
There are lions out there, as we journey through the den, that are helpful and kind.
And first among them is our beloved Savior, Jesus who is depicted in the book of Revelation as the Lion of Judah- strong, fierce, full of grace, full of mercy, full of life.
We are in the lions den every day.
And we must be aware of the lions who seek us harm.
But we must also celebrate those lions who walk with us, stand for us, who have our backs.
And we must realize that we are lions too.
The question is simply, which kind of lion will we be.
Do we choose to be harsh, to be bullies, to practice meanness?
Or will we be kind, will we be good, will we stand together to make a positive difference in this lion’s den?