The whole story, in addition to proving the vanity of idols, shews how God watches over the fate of those who bravely discharge his work; while idolaters and persecutors meet with punishment. Religious fraud, deceit under mask of piety, is dealt with very severely. Retribution is not to be escaped. Even J. M. Fuller (S.P.C.K. Comm. Introd.), who regards the story as |essentially apocryphal,| admits |an edifying element.| This element might perhaps be used with advantage more than it is by missionaries to idolatrous peoples.
The sordidness and trickery of heathen priests is contrasted with the uprightness and single-minded devotion of Daniel. His God moreover delivers him, but their gods do not deliver them. The Bel of this history is as dumb as the Baal of I. Kings xviii.; their names and characters quite agree.
The once flourishing temples of iniquity are conspicuously brought to nought, affording a lesson of confidence and patience to those who fear the Lord. Thus the angry opponents, who made certain of slaying Daniel, were disappointed, and judgment quickly overtook them.
With v.6 Arnald, in loc., finely contrasts the P. B. V. of Ps. xvi.2 -- the God who was estimated by the amount of provisions he consumed, and the God to whom earthly goods were nothing. But the Hebrew will hardly bear the P. B. V. rendering.
The character of Daniel, without fear or, reproach, is not out of keeping with that displayed in the canonical book, and in the companion story of Susanna. He affords an example of:
(a) Courage in his fearless attacks upon idolatry, attacks which as the event proved, could not be indulged in with safety. He faces terrible crises at much personal risk, with decision and absence of self-distrust, as in the canonical chapters and in Susanna. He boldly defends his religion when it is called in question, and ousts rival worships.
(b) Resistance to temptation in refusing to worship as the king wished. No half compliance is suggested, such as worshipping Bel and God together. Observe how he claims for God to be ton zonta Theon, while Cyrus only claims for Bel to be zon Theos (vv.5, 6, Th), as noticed under 'Theology.'
(c) Wisdom, of the serpent,' in his plan for detecting fraud, and in his skill and versatility in choosing suitable means for unveiling each kind of imposture; of which another striking instance occurs in Susanna. He was a man of right understanding, clear insight, and practical sagacity, as shewn by his methods of dealing with opposing forces, moral or physical. As a man of great resource he rapidly adapts himself to fresh conditions.
(d) Endurance of persecution for righteousness' sake. One trial overcome, a yet greater presents itself; but with unflinching constancy he faces it and passes unharmed, Ps. lvii.3, 4.
(e) Perseverance, in not resting upon his laurels, won over Bel, but proceeding against the Dragon. His promptitude of resource is not mere rashness, but is combined with steady determination in pursuing his task. As an active and diligent worker he is far-sighted and firm of purpose.
(f) Gratitude. On receiving Habakkuk's visit he at once acknowledges God's faithfulness, and addresses himself to the great First Cause immediately (v.38), as the ever-watchful shaper of events.
(g) Mindfulness of faith and duty, by being ever foremost, even in association with a heathen king whose eyes he opens and to whom he sets as a missionary, in shewing hatred of falsehood and love of truth (as in Susanna). Absence of selfishness and willingness to undertake responsibility are manifested.
(h) Disinterested service of God in clearing away two great obstacles to his worship. His aims are realised without any trace of self-aggrandisement; for those aims are directed to his Maker's rather than to his own glory.
(i) Pleasure in God's service. The tone of the whole story implicitly conveys the idea that Daniel enjoyed, and was happy in the achievement of these works, because they were designed to honour God and to benefit man. Thus he finds his tasks thoroughly interesting and congenial.
It is to be observed that Daniel's character is in contrast with that of everyone in the story, except Habakkuk.
Per contra, Daniel might perhaps be accused of cruelty in his method of slaying the dragon, especially as described in Gaster's Aramaic, and by Josippon ben Gorion, given by Arnald, in loc., from Selden.
In Habakkuk we see obedience to a divine command, apparently impossible of execution, for which the way is suddenly made plain. He becomes instrumental in alleviating such a state of affairs as he deplores in i.4 of his Prophecy: |for the wicked doth compass about the righteous, etc.| So in the hymn |Warum betrübst du dich mein Herz?| doubtfully attributed to Hans Sachs, we find the seventh stanza bearing upon this matter:
Des Daniels Gott ihm nicht vergass,
Da er unter den Löwen sass:
Sein Engel sandt er hin,
Und liess ihm Speise bringen gut,
Durch seiner Diener Habakkuk.
Habakkuk's obedience served God's purpose.
In Cyrus' character we see something of the impulsiveness of the despotic monarch, giving hasty directions on the spur of the moment as to matters of much importance. But the events of the story exert an educative influence upon his mind, culminating in his sentiments as expressed in v.41, which apparently imply that Daniel's God was to be his God. Certainly the monarch's testimony proves that his religious opinions had been corrected, and raised above the stage represented in v.6.
Probably some allegoric, or more strictly tropological,' instruction may be drawn from the story. In Bel we are taught to fight against crafty deception however generally believed in; in the Dragon, against fierce, repulsive, and terrifying adversaries. This kind of interpretation is sometimes strained however, as when in Neale's edition of the Moral Concordances of St. Antony of Padua (p.125, n. d.), v.27 is given as applicable to St. Bartholomew.
An unexpectedly adverse opinion on the use of Bel and the Dragon as a lesson (Nov.23, matins, old Lectionary) is expressed by J. H. Blunt in his Directorium Pastorale (1864, p.59): |I confess I can see no good which can arise from the public reading to a congregation, composed principally perhaps of young persons, of such lessons as Bel and the Dragon, or Lev. xviii., Deut. xxii., xxv.| Then he adds the following curious note: |It is a fact that a man was once sent into a fit of loud and uncontrollable laughter, although he was honestly preparing for holy orders, by hearing this lesson (Bel and the Dragon) read for the first time in the chapel of a Theological College.| One cannot help thinking that this gentleman must have had an abnormally developed sense of humour under exceptionally bad control.
John Wesley exhibits in his Journal (July 5th, 1773) an equally low opinion of the story, though free from ill-timed mirth: |St. Patrick converting 30,000 at one sermon I rank with the History of Bel and the Dragon| (Quoted in Church Quarterly Review, Jan.1902, p.323).
These opinions seem too contemptuous and inimical to a narrative which yields many valuable lessons. Indeed it may be said of this, as in the Bishops' reply at the Savoy Conference to the Puritan objection to reading the Apocryphal lessons in general: |It is heartily to be wished that sermons were as good| (Procter-Frere, Hist. of P.B.1902, p.174).