It’s a common assumption that Daniel is acting defiantly against the high officials who were conspiring against him in king Darius’ court. They had surely set up a trap in which Daniel would be the obvious recipient. He would face the lion’s den if he continued to pray in the way that he did!
Yet Daniel’s true act of defiance in this story doesn’t take the form of standing up to an unjust law.
As a high official himself, he could have used his own influence to publicly call out the bad decree. He could have petitioned the king. He could even have concocted a showy display of piety that went above his norm, a public faith-symbol in hopes to stir the political pot. Instead, though, the prophet merely continued to do that which he had already been doing before the decree was ever signed – he prayed and gave thanks to God.
In the face of sure consequence, and potentially even death, Daniel took time to give thanks.
How is this, by itself, defiant? Giving thanks is tactical truth telling. When we give thanks, we regard the world rightly, understanding it as God’s world and understanding ourselves as recipients of God’s great goodness. Gratitude helps us remember that we are in the Lord’s hands, and that He is the ultimate author of all. It is a lesson in humility and hopefulness.
And again, it’s defiant.
Expressing gratitude forces us to set aside the bitterness and discontentment that’s so addictive and normative. It forces us to imagine tough situations and tough people as gifts for our benefit. This doesn’t mean that we never have the right to complain, or that the trials in life we face can’t be unjust. It merely means that practicing thankfulness has the ability to help us see the through-line of redemption even in the midst of evil moments.
Expressing gratitude also forces us to stand up to the crippling fear that hopes to consume us in order to grasp the hand of the one who wishes to pull us through it. It isn’t a minimizing of risk or an elimination of feeling, but a reminder that even when we are afraid comfort is still possible. Daniel had no guarantee that God would spare his life from the lions, but he could be confident that the victory the high officials hoped to secure in his death wouldn’t be completely satisfactory. The penultimate win of the lion’s den was as nothing compared to the final resurrection of the saints (Daniel 12:2-3).
Thanksgiving, at least in Daniel’s story, isn’t sentimental. It has nothing to do with good cheer or politeness. But the act itself is good and virtuous. That’s because when we regard the world rightly, we discover that while things may be broken now, this will not always be.
This helps us orient ourselves correctly towards God and others. And it reminds us that even when lions are poised to devour us, our God has the ability to shut their mouths tight.