God’s angel in the lions’ den

In addition to the angel of the Lord’s appearance in the fiery furnace of ancient Babylon, we should briefly review the well-known story of Daniel in the lions’ den, paying particular attention to Daniel’s report to Darius the Mede, the ruler of Babylon, “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths” (Dan. 6:22). Who is this angel? Could it be the angel of the LORD?

You may recall that Daniel has distinguished himself among Darius’ appointed leaders. In fact, he is one of three administrators who oversee the work of one hundred twenty satraps, or provincial governors, and Darius now plans to set Daniel up over the entire kingdom (6:3). This arouses jealousy among the satraps and the two other administrators. They try to find grounds for charges against Daniel but discover he is neither corrupt nor negligent (6:4). 

So, they hatch a plan to use Daniel’s devotion to Yahweh against him. They convince Darius to sign an irrevocable edict that anyone who prays to any god or human over the next thirty days shall be thrown into a den of lions. In effect, this makes Darius the only priestly mediator during this period. Prayers to the gods are to be offered through him rather than through the kingdom’s pagan priests. Perhaps Darius believes this to be a unifying decree among his subjects in the Middle and Near East. Or, he may be convinced this is a good test of loyalty for the people, especially his appointed rulers. 

In any case, punishment is severe for anyone who breaks the law. The Assyrians and Persians are known to capture lions and keep them in cages, so a large natural or manmade pit into which lions are placed is one particularly gruesome venue for those who displease the king. Further, the Persians are known to employ an array of ghastly forms of execution, including crucifixion. Tossing humans into a pit of ravenous lions is as certain to cause death as crucifying them, although the latter method could prolong the excruciating pain by a matter of days.  

Darius signs the edict in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed (6:8-9). Daniel learns of the decree and promptly goes home to his upstairs room where windows open toward Jerusalem. He continues the routine of praying three times each day, giving thanks to God (6:10). As Stephen Miller points out:

Likely Daniel was praying just as he had always done, unconcerned about the consequences of his actions. He was over eighty years of age and may have felt the way Paul did when faced with death as an old man – willing to stay on earth if God willed it so but preferring to go to heaven and be with the Lord (cf. Phil. 1:21-24).

The administrators and satraps find Daniel praying and immediately report it to the king, who is greatly distressed. He now sees extreme jealousy, not a desire for unity, as the motive behind the leaders’ push for the edict. Nevertheless, he issues the order. Daniel is whisked to the lions’ den and thrown in. The entrance is sealed with a large stone and secured with the king’s seal (6:11-17).

There is little doubt Darius is fond of Daniel. He grieves at the verdict he must hand down, telling Daniel, “May your God, whom you continually serve, rescue you!” (6:16). The king then spends a sleepless night in his palace, worrying about Daniel’s fate. At first light, he rushes to the lions’ den and cries out in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you continually serve, been able to rescue you from the lions?” (6:20).

The king is overjoyed to hear Daniel’s response: “May the king live forever. My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths; and they haven’t harmed me, for I was found innocent before him. And also before you, Your Majesty, I have not done harm” (6:21-22). 

The king orders Daniel lifted from the pit. Just as quickly, he commands Daniel’s false accusers, along with their wives and children, to take his place. Before they reach the floor of the den, the lions overpower them and crush their bones (6:23-24).

The chapter ends with Darius issuing a new decree to all people everywhere:

May your prosperity abound. I issue a decree that in all my royal dominion, people must tremble in fear before the God of Daniel: For he is the living God, and he endures forever; his kingdom will never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He rescues and delivers; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth, for he has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.

Dan. 6:25-27

So, who is the angel God sends to protect Daniel? No doubt, this heaven-sent messenger assumes a visible form – perhaps that of a human – for Daniel attests to his presence. It’s possible this messenger is a member of the angelic host, a created spirit being Yahweh sends to deliver his faithful servant Daniel. But even though details are scarce, it seems more likely this is an appearance of the angel of the LORD. The Septuagint (or LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) interprets this text to mean that “God” saved Daniel from the lions, prompting one commentator to write, “It is nothing other than the very presence of God, as the LXX has well understood.”

Stephen Miller adds, “The angel was evidently visible to Daniel, and it is comforting to think of the faithful old prophet spending the night in fellowship with the Lord during this trying ordeal.”

The writer of Hebrews alludes to this passage when he writes about great heroes of the faith. He tells of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets (presumably including Daniel) who:

… by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight.

Heb. 11:33-34, emphasis added

Daniel’s faith was not in angels but in Yahweh, who sent his angel – the preincarnate Christ – to rescue his faithful octogenarian servant. What did God’s deliverance of Daniel accomplish beyond sparing the prophet’s life? It resulted in a mighty king sending out a global decree to declare Daniel’s God the living God who endures forever.

Next: A Man Dressed in Linen (Dan. 10)

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.