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Grown-Up Bible Stories

The Decision

He was a victim. When the great Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar, came from what we now call Iraq, deposed the Jewish king, and took whatever promising young noblemen he could prisoner, the young man in question got swept up in his net. There wasn’t a Geneva Convention to keep the rising emperor from killing his P.O.W.’s, so the young man did fare better than some of Nebuchadnezzar’s captives. Still, he was little more than a slave, a lifetime servant of a sometimes-brutal dictator.

He was victimized at an intensely personal level. His new master changed his name and changed it to one a man from his culture would find offensive. His nice Jewish name that recognized his God was changed to honor Nebuchadnezzar’s patron deity. He was now called Belteshazzar. Bel was a pagan god. It doesn’t take an awful lot of imagination to understand how that name felt to a young man whose religion forbid him to have anything to do with Bel.

Belteshazzar wasn’t the only one taken prisoner that day. When Nebuchadnezzar did things, he did them up big. He took many promising young men from Jerusalem. While this move stood to weaken the potentially rebellious puppet government Nebuchadnezzar left in his wake, remember that the Chaldean was also building an empire. Drafting the future leaders of conquered lands was one way to surround himself with the best and brightest. Belteshazzar and his fellow prisoners would be members of the royal court—provided they lived up to their new lord’s expectations.

Belteshazzar entered Babylon, the Chaldean capital, with three friends, who like him, received pagan names, names you’d recognize readily if we mentioned them. There were obviously others, and they weren’t necessarily all Jewish. Even the Jewish prisoners weren’t all observant. Lack of faithfulness to God was a national problem.

Devout or not, the prisoners faced a new agenda. The agenda included education to the impressive Chaldean standards. Free tuition and free room and board were part of the package, and the board was outstanding. They were to eat from the king’s table. In ancient times, eating at the royal table was a particular honor and guaranteed quality food at no cost to the beneficiary. If they kept their grades up, the king had some high-profile careers waiting.

Fancy dining room or otherwise, they were still essentially slaves and therein lay a problem. As an observant Jew, Belteshazzar was limited to a kosher diet. God had forbidden his people to eat pork, rabbits, reptiles, bats, etc. Such things were considered "unclean" and strictly off limits. Nebuchadnezzar, of course, didn’t care two pork rinds about a young prisoner’s scruples. He had plans for these young men, and religious doctrine wasn’t going to get in the way.

Belteshazzar faced a choice. He was, after all, very much a victim. He’d been captured by an enemy. He was in a foreign country essentially as a slave. His life wasn’t particularly valuable to his lord. Further, the ancient mind had a tendency to see the gods of a victorious nation as superior to the gods of the conquered nation. Belteshazzar was up against it, and the smart thing would be to fudge on the rules of his religion and focus on keeping his head attached to his shoulders. He could justify doing whatever it took to stay alive under the circumstances.

It was at this point that the young prisoner made a decision. He wasn’t a free man. He wasn’t allowed to make decisions, but he decided anyway. Looking beyond the beginnings of a world empire, Belteshazzar’s faith saw a Ruler bigger than Nebuchadnezzar. The Bible records this decision simply enough. It says that he "purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank". This decision was dangerous. It stood not only to get Belteshazzar dead, but his friends and supervisors as well. Smart people didn’t decide to go against Nebuchadnezzar.

Perhaps fortunately, Nebuchadnezzar had better things to do than micromanage the diets of his prisoners. Details were left to a man named Ashpenaz. Below him was a guy called Melzar, who was personally responsible for Belteshazzar and his friends. Any appeal for an adjustment in diet could go to the underlings rather than the short-tempered tyrant they all worked for.

Being rather politically astute, Belteshazzar didn’t stage a hunger strike. Prisoners in old Babylon didn’t do things like that. Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the guard guaranteed hunger strikers would die of something other than hunger. Belteshazzar went through channels. He approached Ashpenaz with a request that he and his friends be given vegetables and water rather than the wine and "unclean" meat of the king’s table.

But politeness didn’t work. Ashpenaz also knew the ropes. He was responsible for the outcome of the training program. He believed that a vegetarian diet would lead to poor health. The future leaders of the world were at stake. Poor health wouldn’t go over big with the boss, and there was always the captain of the guard hanging around to deal with officials whose actions didn’t go over big with Nebuchadnezzar. Ashpenaz refused. He very literally wasn’t risking his neck.

Belteshazzar had still purposed in his heart. When Ashpenaz refused his request, he went down the line to Melzar. This time, he didn’t ask for a permanent exemption. He asked for a ten-day trial. Let him have his kosher diet for ten days. (Apparently, Chaldeans didn’t do much "kosher" with their meat as Belteshazzar went strictly vegetarian to stay kosher. Normally, he could have enjoyed well-bled beef, poultry, and mutton.) If after ten days, he was starting to look sick, well, he lost. He could be expected to go with the program.

Apparently, the ten-day thing didn’t scare Melzar too badly. He agreed to the test. It must have also been a test of faith. Belteshazzar didn’t know he and his friends weren’t going to catch cold. He didn’t have any way of knowing the virtues of a low-fat diet. Ten days stood to prove very little one way or another. Belteshazzar had given it his best shot. The rest was up to God. Humanly speaking, he had only two things going for him. One was faith in God. The other was the power of a decision. The decision was ultimately about more than food. Belteshazzar had decided to be true to his God no matter what. The outcome of this test would prove whether he did well to believe in a God Who could handle the impossible or not.

The ten days came and went. It was hardly enough time to show the superiority of one diet over another. It was hardly enough time to do anything except get Belteshazzar ready to face the inevitable and start eating pork. Everybody else was going with the king’s plan. Everybody else was behaving like a sensible victim and making the best of things. Everybody else was doing quite well in training to become a leader in a great empire. Everybody else was literally feasting royally.  Everybody else did his best to stay out of trouble and in good with those in authority. Belteshazzar and his friends drank water and ate vegetables. Belteshazzar’s group stayed under the eye of Melzar who had to wonder how the captain of the guard’s sword felt every time one of the vegetable eaters hiccupped.

Inspection time came, and the results were astounding. In but ten days, Belteshazzar and his friends had actually come to appear healthier than their comrades. The vegetables stayed.

It is at this point, the first working out of Belteshazzar’s decision, that something changes. Until now, you’ve known of Belteshazzar the prisoner. You’ve known of Belteshazzar the slave. You’ve known of Belteshazzar the victim. But with this one decision, everything is different.

Belteshazzar and his three friends came out at the very top of their class three years later. Next to Nebuchadnezzar’s spiritual advisers, next to the wise government counselors, next to all the promising young politicians, Belteshazzar and his friends were the smartest. In a world that prized spirituality and intellect, they were off the top of the charts. They did ten times better on their graduation exam than the others. And the story is just beginning.

You likely are not familiar with the name Belteshazzar. That is because, in the aftermath of his decision, the servant of God emerged with the right to his Jewish name. You don’t know about Belteshazzar the victim. You do know about Daniel. You know about Daniel the chief of the wise men. You know about Daniel the statesman. You know about Daniel the third ruler of the empire. You know about Daniel one of three men who were over the rulers of much of the known world under Darius the Mede. You know about Daniel the man dearly beloved of God. You know about Daniel the prophet. You know about Daniel one of history’s greatest heroes.

You know about this Daniel, not because he was a victim or because he was part of the Jewish royal family. You know about him because as a young prisoner he decided to be the kind of man that the God of the universe cared to talk with and through. We don’t remember Daniel because he was a brilliant leader in an all but forgotten empire. Rather, we remember him because a boy prisoner called Belteshazzar made one decision. Belteshazzar the victim chose to obey and trust God. As they say, the rest is history.

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

To learn how to make a decision to belong to God, click: How to Have a Relationship with God

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How to Have a Relationship with God

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