Who Am I?
Who are we? What makes you, you and me, me?
About 2,617 years ago, the President of Iraq led his troops into Israel and smashed his way into the city of Jerusalem. Some of the locals were able to escape, but thousands of old men and women were slaughtered. Many more women were raped and then thrust through with bayonets, and hundreds of little kids were cut down in the streets. All of the young men were rounded up and most of them were executed, but the very best of them were kept alive and forced to march back to Iraq, naked, and chained together.
When they arrived in the ancient Iraqi capital of Babylon, the very best of the young men were castrated (2Ki 20:18), then sent to university for 3 years.
They had just lost so many things, and now life was completely different to what they were used to. Their homes and neighbourhoods, their families, their culture, their religion, their names, their short-term plans for getting married and having a family of their own, and their long term plans for the success of their nation—all were now gone.
They lost their short-term future (wife and family) with their castration. Daniel was probably a descendant of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, and if so may very well have been included in a prophecy made years before by Isaiah to King Hezekiah:
2 Kings 20:18 ‘And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’
They had also lost their long-term future—Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon, so the coming of the Messiah was no longer possible. The kingdom of Israel had been destroyed 100 years earlier by the Assyrians in 722BC, and now the Judeans had been wiped off the map. There is nothing left for God’s people.
The Judeans had lost everything, so, humanly speaking, there was no point in keeping their old identities. But the fact that they did, and the fact that they ended up being 10-times-better than their peers who caved in and followed the crowd demonstrates that only by being true to God can we achieve our true identity and true potential.
Their names were exchanged for names that were similar in meaning, but related to heathen gods
Daniel God is my Judge Belteshazzar May Bel protect his life
Hananiah God is Gracious Shadrach Follower of Aku (Sumerian Moon god)
Mishael Who is like God Meshach Who is like Aku
Azariah God is my helper Abednego Servant of Nego/Nabu (god of wisdom)
But it is uncertain that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were actually the names given by the Babylonians. There was a bit of mischief going on here. Evidently the captives played games with the names. Nebuchadnezzar, for example, was not really Nebuchadnezzar. He was really Nebuchadrezzar, (predominantly in Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and corresponds to the Akkadian nabu-kudurru-uṣur — “Nabu protect(s) the eldest son.” Kudurru also refers to boundary stones which mark grants of land, so an alternative reading could be “Nabu protect(s) the boundary markers.” But the name Nebuchadnezzar is from the Akkadian Nabu-kụdanu-uṣur, which means “Nabu protect(s) the mule,” a corruption devised among opposition groups in Babylon which would naturally appeal to foreigners such as Jews.
In other words they had lost their identities. They were now faced with a completely different landscape, so why not just go along with everyone else—in the discos and nightclubs of Babylon, watching the DVDs of Babywood, forgetting the values of their parents and culture. They were in a totally new place and their were no friends or relatives to check up on them—they were all dead anyway, so who would even care?
But Daniel saw no future in losing his identity. He was Daniel and he was not going to accept the new persona thrust upon him. Although he had no choice in any of these things there was one thing remaining that he still had control over—his food. He was a prisoner of his circumstances, but that was not going to be the means of ignoring all the values he had been taught. So he asked for the simple food of his homeland.
This is not just a matter of diet, and Daniel is not a “come-what-may” health reformer. The fact that he had won the favour of the chief steward (who was prepared to risk his life to grant Daniel’s request) demonstrates his ability to relate to others in a civil manner. Yes, what we eat is important, but this chapter is more about identity than health reform. And notice the outcome of this—Daniel and his 3 friends kept their identity by being true to God, while the dozens of others with them just went with the flow. The irony is we never knew their names. They wanted the freedom to do what everyone else was doing and they were lost to history. But Daniel and his friends have their identities established in history because they found their true identity in being true to God.
The other story of identity I want to share with you is that of Solomon. At the end of his life, after making some very sorry decisions in life, he came to the conclusion that most, if not, all that he had done in life was just a puff of vapour (the literal meaning of his enigmatic term, “vanity.”) I do not agree with many commentators who see the book of Ecclesiastes as the discouraged rant of a partied-out seedy old womanizer. I see it in more of a positive light than that. I agree with Jacques Doukhan who says that the book of Ecclesiastes of all books of the Bible, is the one that speaks most to the secular mind in the postmodern world—to today’s Nihilism, Skepticism, and Humanism.
The word חבל ḥebel is a trademark for the book, and it has the meaning of a puff of wind or a cloud of vapour—and is the same word used for Abel’s name—the ones who’s life is only for a moment, then he is gone like a puff of wind.
The word is also the key to understanding the book
Problem addressed Reference
1 Vanity of human effort 1:12 – 2:26
2 Vanity of ignorance of the future 3:1-15
3 Vanity of injustice 3:16-22
4 Vanity of pursuit of wealth 5:9-19
5 Vanity of unpunished wickedness 8:10-15
6 Vanity of fate common with animals 9:1-10
7 Vanity of brevity of human life 11:7 – 12:7
1. The Vanity of human effort (1:12 – 2:26)
“What’s the use?” is the question posed in v.3. Nothing seems to change despite all the labour and all the pain, and it seems that whatever you try to do to change the world makes no difference. Instead it just seems like the meaningless repetition of the cycles of nature—with all the energy expended, there is still nothing new to show for it.
Solomon had tried it all: comedy [2:1–2], alcohol/substance abuse – partying [v. 3], real estate [v.4], capitalism [v. 5–8], the entertainment industry [v. 8], political influence [v. 9], and hedonism [v.10]—i.e. “whatever my eyes desired.”
And he concludes that it is all grasping for a handful of wind or mist. But his conclusion at the end of this section is that God gives pleasure despite the seemingly useless toil 2:24.
2. The Vanity of ignorance of the future (3:1-15)
This is the famous passage that shows the importance of time. It affirms that time is not to be killed or pushed aside while eagerly anticipating something in the future. Whatever happens in the present is a gift of God, and the way we use time now is a gift of God. It promises us that God has placed eternity in our hearts [v. 11], an idea related to Creation and being created in God’s image. The climaxing verse for this section is 3:12 that speaks of a calm assurance in the face of an uncertain future.
3. The Vanity of injustice (3:16-22)
The God who creates, is the God who gives, and is the God who judges. In contrasting the righteous and wicked, he parallels the contrast between humans and animals—they share the same fate making death the great leveler. The key verse is 3:22—rather than chasing rainbows (which usually leads to crime) be satisfied with your hard work, for it is a gift of God.
4. The Vanity of the pursuit of wealth (5:9-19)
The context is chapter 4:
4:6—better to have one handful with rest than 2 hands full with tension
4:8, 9—2 people are better than one
4:13—a poor wise child is better than an old stupid king
5:10 will never be satisfied with silver
v.11 when riches increase, there are more people to consume them
v.12 the working man can sleep well, but the rich man cannot sleep
v.15 we came into this world with nothing and will leave it with nothing
In other words, the accumulation of wealth does not bring happiness. The key verse is 5:18—enjoying our own labour is better than great wealth.
5. The Vanity of unpunished wickedness (8:10-15)
When the wicked die all their accomplishments are counted as nothing v.10. The wicked seem to get what they want, and what the righteous deserve, while the righteous miss out on what they want, and get what the wicked deserve. The key verse is 8:15—in the midst of unpunished/unchallenged evil, enjoy the simple pleasures that God has given you, and that result from your work.
6. The Vanity of a fate common with the animals (9:1-10)
This passage continues the theme of justice. The challenge in this, according to Heschel, is for us to make our life a masterpiece. Compare this to the post-modern attitude of “I couldn’t care.” In contrast, Ecclesiastes affirms that we have a destiny. The key verse is 9: 7–10. In the face of death, make the most of life while you still have it.
7. The Vanity of the brevity of human life (11:7 – 12:7)
There is overt optimism in this section—rejoicing is linked with remembering—but youthful enjoyment will not last forever, so remember God during the process of enjoying. Compare this with the world’s idea of fun—lets enjoy ourselves and forget everything else. The key verse is 11:9–12:1—Enjoy life, AND remember.
12:13—14 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter
1. Fear God
2. Keep/guard His commandments
a. For this ALL of humanity
b. In other words, what it means to be human
3. God will bring everything that has been done into judgment/justice whether good or evil
A reflection of Eden that addresses the forgotten people—both forgotten good and forgotten evil. It addresses the 2 foci of judgment: deliverance for the oppressed and destruction for the destroyers.
The fact that what it means to be human is defined here is significant. Of all the possible activities available to humankind, only the safeguarding of the law of God distinguishes us from the animals. It is only as a human being that I can serve God as a grateful sinner, saved by grace, choosing to conform my lifestyle choices to the Law of God.
And as Daniel found, staying, or not staying true to God and standing on God’s eternal principles, determines who we are—a person lost in the crowd and lost to the pages of divine history, or a person of faith looking with confidence to the eternity just before them.