Many of God’s people through the ages have been called to endure times of hardship, loneliness, and suffering. Some, such as Daniel and Esther, were even members of a race carried away to a foreign land that had never heard of the God of Israel. Their lives were not easy, but even in the midst of trials, these men and women discovered that God was with them—and that He was actively leading the events in their lives.
In this study, John MacArthur guides readers through an in-depth look at the historical period of Israel’s exile beginning with the prophet Daniel being carried off to Babylon, continuing through the rise of the Persian Empire, and concluding with Esther’s reign as queen. Studies include close-up examinations of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Esther, Haman, and others, as well as careful considerations of doctrinal themes such as “Standing Boldly for God” and “God’s Sovereignty Over the Future.”
The MacArthur Bible Studies provide intriguing examinations of the whole of Scripture. Each guide incorporates extensive commentary, detailed observations on overriding themes, and probing questions to help you study the Word of God with guidance from John MacArthur.
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About the Author
John MacArthur has served as pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, since 1969. His ministry of expository preaching is unparalleled in its breadth and influence. In more than five decades of ministry from the same pulpit, he has preached verse by verse through the entire New Testament and several key sections of the Old Testament. He is Chancellor of the Master’s University and Seminary, and can be heard daily on the Grace to You radio broadcast (carried on hundreds of radio stations worldwide). He has authored numerous bestselling books, including Twelve Ordinary Men and One Perfect Life.
For more details about John MacArthur and his Bible-teaching resources, contact Grace to You at 800-55-GRACE or gty.org.
Read an Excerpt
Daniel & Esther
Israel in Exile
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
Carried into Captivity
What is the most difficult situation you have ever had to face? What did that situation reveal about your faith in God?
From the foundation of the nation of Israel, God warned His people that if they turned away from Him and served pagan idols, He would send foreign enemies to destroy their cities and take them captive (see Leviticus 26). Nevertheless, the Israelites persisted for generations in running after false gods and indulging in all manner of immoral behavior. The Lord was patient, offering His people opportunities to repent, but eventually the time came for Him to discipline him.
In 722 BC, the Assyrians overran Israel and carried the people into captivity, leaving only the tribe of Judah living around Jerusalem. Judah vacillated between obedience and idolatry for a time, but eventually they, too, were taken into captivity by Babylon. This captivity took place in several stages. The first group to be taken to Babylon included Daniel in 605 bc, and it is at that time that our study opens. When Daniel was taken away, he was a young man, probably around fifteen years old. He found himself in a foreign culture, surrounded by powerful slave-masters who worshiped false gods and ate foods that were forbidden to God's people.
From a human perspective, there would seem to be no hope. A young man, cut off from his people and powerless to resist the forces around him, must certainly compromise his standards or be destroyed. Yet Daniel firmly believed that God was in complete control of his circumstances. He trusted that the Lord would always be faithful to His people if they would just be faithful to His Word. Daniel, therefore, resolved in his heart to obey God, and the Lord rewarded his obedience with stunning success.
Keys to the Text
Read Daniel 1:1–21, noting the key words and phrases indicated below.
Carried to Babylon: Daniel relates how King Nebuchadnezzar's army besieged Judah as the Lord carried out discipline on His people. Daniel and others were carried into captivity.
1:1. The third year of the reign of Jehoiakim: This was the third year by Babylonian dating (606–605 BC), which did not count a king's initial (accession) year, but began with the following year. So the "third year" is in harmony with the same year labeled as "fourth" by the Judean system of dating (see Jeremiah 46:2). Jehoiakim was one of the last kings of Judah who ruled when Nebuchadnezzar first plundered Jerusalem.
2. The Lord gave ... Judah into his hand: The Lord had warned His people that He would send them into captivity if they did not obey His commands (see Leviticus 26), yet the people of Israel (and Judah after the nation of Israel split in two) persisted in idolatry and all manner of disobedience. (Israel had been taken into captivity more than a hundred years earlier.)
Shinar: That is, Babylon, located in present-day Iraq.
to the house of His God: The Babylonians worshiped a number of false gods, notably one called Bel (also known as Marduk or Merodach). King Nebuchadnezzar was effectively making an offering to his false god, thanking him for the victory that (he believed) his god had given him over the God of Judah. However, as we will see in both Daniel and Esther, the Lord was not defeated or even faced with a setback. He was absolutely sovereign over the affairs of people and of nations, and this captivity was part of His plan.
Training Program: The king sets aside a group of gifted young men and grooms them for his special service. Powerful jobs are offered, and there is likely much competition.
4. Young men in whom there was no blemish: Nebuchadnezzar's stipulation referred primarily to the physical appearance and accomplishments of the young men. Qualifications included being free from physical blemish or handicap, handsome, mentally sharp, and socially poised and polished for representing the leadership. The Old Testament law also called for sacrifices in which there was "no blemish," which provides a picture of God's final sacrifice for sins: Jesus Christ, the holy Lamb of God, in whom there was no sin.
whom they might teach: The Babylonians intended to indoctrinate the young men into the teachings of their culture and pagan religions. Daniel and his friends, however, would prove to be strong in the Lord and able to assimilate to the fashions and learning of the Babylonians without taking on any of their pagan beliefs.
the language and literature of the Chaldeans: The Chaldeans (or Babylonians) and Assyrians had produced a large body of literature in all genres, much as Great Britain did for modern Western literature. The language commonly spoken in Babylon was Aramaic, which remained a universal tongue in the ancient Near East until the time of Christ.
5. A daily provision of the king's delicacies: These promising young men lived and ate well, literally enjoying the fare of kings. Yet the term delicacies in the Old Testament generally carried a negative connotation, indicating self-indulgence in the finer things of the world. King Nebuchadnezzar undoubtedly meant to earn the favor and loyalty of these young men by seducing them to abandon their foreign ways and embrace Babylonian culture and paganism.
7. The chief of the eunuchs gave names: The act of giving someone a new name demonstrates complete authority over that person, so in this instance Nebuchadnezzar was establishing his authority over the young men of Judah. But more than this, the names also indicated the young men would become subject to the gods of the Babylonians. Their Hebrew names were based on faith in the Lord: "God is my judge" (Daniel), "Yahweh is gracious" (Hananiah), "Yahweh is my helper" (Azariah), and "Who is like the Lord" (Mishael). Their new names, however, invoked the names of the false Babylonian gods: Bel, Marduk, and Nebo.
Belteshazzar ... Shadrach ... Meshach ... Abed-Nego: Belteshazzar means "Bel protect the king," Shadrach means "command of Aku" (another Babylonian god), Meshach means "who is what Aku Is," and Abed-nego means "servant of Nego," also called Nebo, a god of vegetation.
A Steadfast Purpose: Daniel determines in advance that he will not disobey God's commands, even if it sets him apart from the culture around him — and even if he must disobey the king.
8. Daniel purposed in his heart: Daniel was determined to be faithful to God even before he was faced with making any decision. The Hebrew might be translated, "he fixed his will" or firmly resolved himself on that course of action.
would not defile himself: The king's diet included food that had been sacrificed to idols as well as things the Lord had commanded His people to not eat (such as pork). To eat such things would have publicly identified Daniel with the false gods, and it would have placed him contrary to God's commands. Moses had taken this stand (see Hebrews 11:24-26), as had the psalmist (see Psalm 119:115). Daniel and his friends were determined not to be seduced into pagan practices, even while obeying the king's will whenever it did not conflict with God's Word. They were striving to be in the world but not of the world (see John 17:14-16).
9. God had brought Daniel into the favor and goodwill: It is interesting that this verse does not read, "Daniel found favor," but that God specifically brought him into favor. Daniel had suffered a tremendous calamity when he was carried forcibly away to Babylon, yet God had not abandoned him. The captivity was part of His deliberate plan, and He was using those who remained faithful to accomplish His purposes. All that was required of Daniel and his friends was for them to remain obedient to His Word, and the Lord would take care of the details.
10. I fear my lord the king: We should understand that Daniel also respected King Nebuchadnezzar as the Lord's appointed leader over Babylon, under whose authority the Lord had placed him and the others from Judah. He was, however, in a difficult predicament, as he wanted to obey the king's edicts while not disobeying God's Word. Yet the Lord was in control, and He would reward Daniel's faithfulness.
Then you would endanger my head before the king: Daniel's request also placed the chief of the eunuchs in a difficult position. He was responsible to carry out King Nebuchadnezzar's plan for grooming these young men for positions of responsibility, and he feared that a change of diet might prove detrimental. However, the Lord had already given Daniel favor in this man's eyes, and the eunuch decided to embrace Daniel's proposal.
12. Please test your servants for ten days: Daniel did not simply go to the steward with a complaint and demand a change of diet. Rather, he went with a specific plan in mind that would offer the steward a way out of his dilemma while also enabling Daniel and his friends to obey God's Word. This allowed Daniel to demonstrate his respect for the king's wishes while also publicly declaring his obedience to the Lord.
vegetables to eat and water to drink: The Hebrew construction here suggests that the "vegetables" may also have included grain products. The young men chose to drink water rather than the king's wine because it, too, was probably offered to idols prior to being placed on the table.
13. Then let our appearance be examined: Daniel was fully confident that obedience to God's commands would lead to healthful results. He had no doubt that the Lord would bring the experiment to a successful conclusion.
as you see fit, so deal with your servants: Daniel once again reiterated his willingness to submit to earthly authority. He took pains to make it clear that he wanted to obey both God and the king, and his alternate suggestion was intended merely to remove the conflict.
God Takes Care of the Details: Daniel's faithfulness to God's Word bears remarkable fruit, and the Lord blesses His servants.
15. Better and fatter in flesh: God gave success to Daniel's proposal and made the four young men healthier and fitter than their peers — and in the brief period of just ten days! This was a remarkably short time for a change of diet to produce visible results, but Daniel's faith and obedience gave God the opportunity to work a miracle for the entire court of Nebuchadnezzar to witness.
17. God gave them knowledge and skill: All gifts and blessings come directly from the hand of God, including those innate talents and abilities with which humans are born. The Lord blessed Daniel and his friends with skill and success in all their endeavors under their captivity. Their faithfulness to God's commands permitted Him to demonstrate His faithfulness to them.
Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams: In addition to his intellectual prowess, the Lord also gave Daniel a specific gift for interpreting visions and dreams. God had a job for Daniel to do, and He provided the skills he would need to accomplish it.
19. The king interviewed them: This was an important job interview, as the king was examining all the young men to find out which were most fit to serve him in demanding official capacities. It is quite likely there was fierce competition within the ranks of the young men — though the Scripture text does not bring this out — since all would have been vying for the most important positions.
20. He found them ten times better: It is significant to remember that Daniel and his friends did nothing special whatsoever in preparing for their interview with the king — nothing except to steadfastly obey God's commands. It was not their special diet that enabled them to vastly excel over everyone else in the king's service but God's blessing of gifts and success. Daniel took care to obey God, and the Lord took care of the rest.
21. First year of King Cyrus: Cyrus of Persia would conquer Babylon in 539 BC. Cyrus' "third year," mentioned in Daniel 10:1, is the latest historical year the prophet mentions.
Unleashing the Text
1) Why did God allow the people of Judah to be taken captive? If you had been Daniel, how would your slavery have affected your view of God? ______________________________________________________
2) What qualities did the Babylonians look for when selecting candidates among the Jews? What was the purpose of Nebuchadnezzar's plan to set apart the young men?
3) Why did Daniel not want to eat the diet of the king? What would the implications have been if he had done so? If you had been in his place, what would you have done?
4) What does it mean that "Daniel purposed in his heart" not to defile himself (verse 8)? How is this done? Why is it important?
Exploring the Meaning
The Lord may allow hardship, but He is still in control. The nations of Israel and Judah had persisted in idolatry and disobedience to God's commands, and the time had come for God to send His discipline against them. The nation of Israel was carried into captivity by the Assyrians, and years later the people of Judah suffered the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. The walls of Jerusalem were torn down, the temple was razed, and the people's homes were plundered and burned. Those who survived became prisoners of war and were carried away to a distant land — a land whose people neither feared God nor knew His Word.
Yet the Lord was still in control over all these circumstances, and He had not abandoned His people. He was sending a time of suffering to the Jews, but that hardship was intended for their purification and their strengthening, and it was all part of His plan. Furthermore, the Lord promised through His prophets that it would only be for a limited time. At the end of seventy years, God would call some of His people to return and rebuild Jerusalem.
Throughout the course of these studies, we will see that God is in complete control over all circumstances in the lives of His people — even during those times when life seems to be spiraling out of control. Just as He directed the steps of Daniel and his friends, He will do so in our lives as well. As Samuel's mother, Hannah, said, "The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and He has set the world upon them. He will guard the feet of His saints" (1 Samuel 2:6–9).
We must resolve in our hearts to obey God's Word. Daniel and his three friends were young men, probably in their mid-teens, when the Babylonians carried them away into exile. We can only imagine the temptations and fears they faced as they found themselves living in a pagan culture with strange gods, traditions, and practices. They were wrenched from their homes and family and sent far away from those who knew and worshiped the true God of Israel. It would have been easy in such circumstances for them to fall into despair, hopelessness, and any number of sinful practices.
However, Daniel instead demonstrated great wisdom by making a firm resolution in his heart to obey God's commands, whatever might come. He recognized he was faced with temptations and threats that would lead him into behavior unpleasing to God, and he determined in advance not to be led astray. For him, this meant not eating the food set before him, as it included meats and drink that had been sacrificed to idols and various "unclean" meats — things the Lord had expressly forbidden His people to consume.
Excerpted from Daniel & Esther by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2016 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Carried into Captivity Daniel 1:1–21, 1,
2. A Disturbing Dream Daniel 2:1–49, 13,
3. The Fiery Trial Daniel 3:1–30, 25,
4. The Madness of the King Daniel 4:1–37, 37,
5. The Handwriting on the Wall Daniel 5:1–31, 49,
6. Daniel's Stand for God Daniel 6:1–28, 61,
7. God's Sovereignty Daniel 7:1–28, 73,
8. A Queen Deposed Esther 1:1–22, 87,
9. God's Chosen Queen Esther 2:1–23, 99,
10. A Deadly Conspiracy Esther 3:1–4:17, 111,
11. Salvation for Gods People Esther 5:1–7:10, 123,
12. Reviewing Key Principles, 135,