Darius and the Lions' Den

The account of Daniel 6 has been long labelled “Daniel and the lions’ den.” But what if, in actuality, this narrative has little to do with Daniel?

B.B. Warfield famously quipped:

The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted: the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or not at all perceived before.[1]

By this Warfield encourages us to read backwards: to use the lenses of the New Testament as spectacles through which we read the Old Testament. Again, the New Testament does not add anything to the Old Testament that was not intrinsically present beforehand. Rather, it illuminates and makes plain a layer of meaning that was previously obfuscated because the mystery, i.e., Christ, had not yet been revealed (Col 1:26).

Daniel 6

Daniel, a godly young man[2], faithfully served his king to the point that his honest, hard work was being recognized—he was going to get promoted. His fellow satraps, however, grew jealous that Daniel was quickly becoming the king’s favorite. They wanted to depose him by exposing his faults. Unfortunately, they could find nothing. They conspired to trap him, and knew the only way to do so was to tread on Daniel’s religion. They tricked the king into signing a law that forbade prayer to anyone other than him for an extended period of time. Daniel, after realizing this had happened, went to his home to showcase his civil disobedience by opening his windows and praying so that all could see.[3] He was found out, and sentenced to death by lion.[4] To the dismay of the king, Daniel was thrown in the lions’ den. The king came to check on Daniel the next morning. To his surprise, Daniel was unharmed; an angel closed the lions’ mouths. The evil satraps were then judged, and Daniel “prospered” (v. 28) during the reign of Darius.

The end.

At this point, we ask questions like: What is your “den of lions”? Is it your boss/coworkers? Are you putting your faith in God to rescue you and deliver you? Truthfully, I am not trying to pooh-pooh moral, practical, and relevant applications of this text. What I would prefer, however, is a better reading of the text that leads to the next level of application.

Reading Backwards

Before we begin to read backwards, I do want to point something out. After analyzing the narrative, I would suggest that the main character in this story (outside of God) is not Daniel, but Darius. Daniel’s fate is tied to the law of the Medes and Persians, and the climax of this narrative is whether Darius would rescind his unjust injunction. Does this seem like a stretch? I don’t think so. How do you determine the main character in a movie? It’s the character the camera follows in the apex of the crisis. After Daniel is thrown in the lions’ den, the author follows Darius home recording his emotional constitution, thereby choosing not to depict this supernatural deliverance—creating a disparity between Daniel 6 and its chiastic twin, Daniel 3 (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s deliverance in the fiery furnace). Therefore, we can confidently state that Darius—not Daniel—is the main character of this scene.

So what? How does that change anything when it comes to our reading of the text? Paul alludes to being rescued from the lion’s mouth in 2 Timothy 4:17–18. After informing Timothy that he had been abandoned and harmed, he gives thanks to the Lord who stood by him and strengthened him, with the end that he was “rescued from the lion’s mouth” (2 Timothy 4:17). Though this was the result of God’s saving effort, Paul does not present this as the purpose of God’s saving effort. Paul says that the Lord stood by him and strengthened him, but he adds this purpose clause: “so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Timothy 4:17, emphasis added).

Along with the greeting, final instructions are often seen as the crust of the epistles. We typically glaze over them: “Grace and peace, yeah, we get it Paul. I know, you want to say hi to some friends, ask for a favor, and end with a benediction.” But I believe that Paul’s usage of this metaphor gives us insight into the true purpose of Daniel’s salvation from the lion’s mouth. Paul says that although he was persecuted and abandoned by all, the Lord stood with him and rescued him from the lion’s mouth, with the intent that the message of the gospel would be proclaimed to Gentiles.

When we bring Paul’s purpose clause back to Daniel our angle shifts. It evolves from “God delivers his faithful servant who refused to commit idolatry” (which is true!), to “Darius the Mede (a gentile), king of the known world, witnesses the saving power of our God, and then from his own hand proclaims it ‘to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth.’” (Daniel 6:25)

Now the application questions break free from our personal solar system, where we are the sun and moon, and the gravitational pull is our joy alone. How can we suffer in a way that magnifies God’s name, and makes him known to those around us? Knowing that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him—that means his glory and our joy—how does this change the way you see your past/present trials? How can we break free from the cycle of Darius, Herod, and Pilate of seeking the approval of men over God?

After the resurrection, Jesus walked alongside the road to Emmaus and taught two of his disciples how to do exactly this: reading backwards (Luke 24:13–31).[5] The reality is that we are just scratching the surface.[6] With the light of the New Testament, we can walk through the once “dimly lit chamber” and look behind the armoire, under the bed, and on top of the dresser.


  1. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfied, Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 141–2.  ↩

  2. Though in reality, he was likely in his late eighties when this account took place.  ↩

  3. Daniel is oft cited as the paragon of civil disobedience. It is noted that his act was civil (both in scope and method) and public (he opened his windows). Despite the frequency of this claim, however, Daniel did not open his windows to showcase his civil disobedience. The text points out that he is doing what he has always done (v. 10). That it becomes a matter of civil disobedience is the satraps’ issue, not his. We know that by this time, some of the Jews in exile had been permitted to return to their homeland under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Daniel longed to dwell in the Lord’s land, with the Lord’s people, and he opened his window “toward Jerusalem” to look out to the holy city (cf. 1 Kings 8:46–48).  ↩

  4. It is my contention, as well as a great deal of other commentators, that this incident with Daniel and the lions was an ordeal, and not an execution. An execution is an immediate death sentence of a condemned person. An ordeal, on the other hand, is a fatalistic test of sorts to determine culpability. Longman reminds us that there was a biblically sanctioned ordeal set forth in Numbers to determine whether a woman suspected of adultery was guilty (Num 5:11–31). An individual suspected of a crime is thrown into a river. If he or she dies, they are guilty. But if they survive, they are innocent and set free. One proof that this was not an execution: executions do not have time limits. Another proof is the language Daniel uses when Darius comes to ascertain the state of his friend. Daniel reports that the angel stopped the lions’ mouths “because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm” (Daniel 6:22, ESV). He attributes the fact that he is unharmed as a proof of his innocence. And lastly, this explains why the satraps and their families were subsequently tossed to the lions: to ascertain their guilt. The glorious irony of it all, this law of the Medes and Persians “which cannot be revoked” (v. 8, 12) fails, and God’s law prevails. In Deuteronomy, God’s law states that if someone brings a false charge against a person, and his or her testimony is found to be false, then the punishment pronounced on the innocent party is carried out on the false witness (Deuteronomy 19:18–19). In Daniel 6, the instrument of ordeal assigned for Daniel was turned against those who first set out to trap him. As the law of the Medes and Persians flounders in impotence, God’s law is fulfilled.  ↩

  5. For more on reading backwards, I would highly recommend Hays’ book, Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014).  ↩

  6. Daniel being thrown into the pit of lions evokes the account of Joseph being tossed into a pit (Gen 37:24). The irony of Daniel’s accusers suffering the instrument of torture they had intended for him mirrors the story of Haman being hung by the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. Daniel laying with lions unharmed illustrates “My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts— the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords…They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves” (Psalm 57:4–6, ESV). Daniel laid unharmed by these wild beasts, and Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:13, ESV emphasis added). The satraps and officials plotted against Daniel, though he was said to be innocent. The pharisees and sadducees plotted against Jesus. Pilate, like Darius, sentenced an innocent man to death through much consternation. Before he was arrested, Daniel spent his time praying in an upper room (Daniel 6:10). On the night before Jesus was arrested, he, too, went into an upper room to have the Passover with his disciples (Mark 14:15). Daniel is said to have been placed in a pit, which was subsequently sealed by a stone: “And a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den” (Daniel 6:17, ESV). So, too, the Son of man, after his death was placed in a tomb and it was secured by “sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27:66, ESV) . In Daniel 6:19, Darius is said to have made haste to this sealed tomb at the break of day. In Matthew 28:1, at “dawn of the first day” the two Marys made haste to “see the tomb.” Finally, notice that when Darius addresses Daniel, there is no mention of a stone. It appears as though, the angel rolled the stone away. We know Jesus’ stone was rolled away, serving as a symbol that communicates the reality that the grave could not hold him. The fundamental difference in the two accounts: Jesus really did die and was raised, whereas for Daniel an angel shut the lions’ mouths and when he emerged from the den “no kind of hurt was found upon him, because he had trusted in his God” (Dan. 6:23). Jesus trusted God, too, but he was bruised and pierced for our transgressions, and God’s victory over his wounds and death was all the more overwhelming.  ↩