It is not as though Daniel and his friends in the biblical book that bears his name lack credentials. The book’s introductory narrative places them among the cream of the Israelite exiles.
Then (the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar) commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace … (Daniel 1.3–4 ESV)
These men come from good stock and have made the most of the opportunities that good circumstance affords. They are scholar-athletes who have not apologized for the exertions required to discover wisdom and cultivate knowledge. Our populist ideology might fault them for having ‘pursued learning’. The text, by contrast, considers this to be evidence of their honorable nature. They are socially poised. Put these guys in any situation and they’ll know how to handle themselves.
Their shoes are shined.
Indeed they were chosen because their innate promise augured even better things. Their already formidable intellect and emotional intelligence was to be honed still further.
They were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. (Daniel 1.4-5 ESV)
You don’t grow a bloke like this up over night.
And yet the book of Daniel is rigorously insistent that it is God who gives wisdom. Daniel, in his moments of center-stage testing, deflects the honor that rebounds back upon his penetrating insight. He claims it is all of God, almost as though he has done nothing, as though channeling heaven’s mysteries is as passive an activity as a lightning rod conducting to the ground the crackling charge of an August thunderbolt.
Biblical wisdom often stewards this dialectic between the active self-discipline of wise people and the all-or-nothing attribution of wisdom to God alone. This equilibrium is one of spiritual maturity’s late-blossoming trees.
The two poles of dialectic tension come together near the end of the book’s first chapter:
To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams … In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (Daniel 1.17, 20 NRSV)
It seems that God honored the diligence of these candidates for imperial favor, filling up the receptacle formed by the merger of innate ability, diligent study, and fervent prayer, and then piling more on top. The divine gifting seems not to demean the process by which ‘every aspect of literature and wisdom’ is necessarily brought under a person’s mastery. One can imagine a scenario by which divine revelation might fall upon a man or a woman independent of this demanding course of study. But this text can not.
Still, the dialectic demands that we penetrate deeper into its own enigma. For Daniel appears almost to refuse the notion that he holds any advantage over any other human being upon whom God might choose to bring special revelation. After doing the impossible—revealing in the face of the king’s absurd requirement not only the interpretation of the monarch’s dreaming but the very content of the dream itself—Daniel insists that anyone could have done it.
But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being, but in order that the interpretation may be known to the king and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind. (Daniel 2.30 NRSV)
Daniel is not above leveraging his success by persuading the king to elevate his three Judahite friends to positions of prominence. Yet his rhetoric is fiercely self-denying. No special wisdom of his has enlightened the pagan king; only the gracious intervention of the ‘god of heaven’, an ostensibly landless deity to whom landless Jewish exiles seem to enjoy privileged access, can accomplish that feat.
So what is it? Are Daniel and his friends Babylon’s most high-achieving honor students? Or are Daniel and company ordinary Joes whom God has chosen as instruments of his revelation?
The dialectic carefully nurtured by the text suggests that the answer must be some variant of ‘both’.
Learning, effort, and disciplined process are honored rather than despised. Yet these things are not credited with effecting God’s revelation on their own.
There is a further nuance in this richly textured story. It comes in the form of Daniel’s praise to the ‘God of heaven’ who has answered his friends’ fervent prayers to rescue them from the reckless sentence that Nebuchadnezzar has pronounced upon his stable of counselors.
This celestial deity, Daniel exults, ‘gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding‘.
But this is a mystery for another time.