The story of Daniel in the lion’s den and its meaning

Someone who goes into the lion’s den takes a big risk. Daniel took a risk when he stayed true to his faith and continued to pray to his God at the open window. While King Darius had just issued a law that forbade praying to anyone other than the king himself. Daniel is arrested and as punishment he is thrown into the lion’s den. This story from the Bible has been carefully constructed. Daniel’s courage to stay true to what he believes in, to stay true to what was important to him, has inspired many, including Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

The story of Daniel in the lion’s den

Daniel was taken from Jerusalem to Babylon at a young age. The Babylonians had subjugated the city of Jerusalem and took its inhabitants as exiles to Babylon. Daniel comes to work in the king’s court there. He is successful. So much so that his colleagues, the government administrators, become jealous of him. They cannot have Daniel standing head and shoulders above them. When King Darius considered appointing Daniel over the entire kingdom, they concocted a trick.

The ruse: worship only the king

Speculating on the vanity of King Darius of Babylon, the rulers of the empire manage to persuade him to issue a command that only he may be worshiped for a month. The king will be a kind of god for a month. Praying to anyone else was strictly forbidden that month. Anyone who did so could expect the death penalty. The rulers of the empire assume that Daniel will remain faithful to the God of Israel. This way they might be able to get him out of the way.

Daniel remains faithful

Daniel does not hesitate to abandon his prayers to the God of Israel. He also doesn’t do it in secret to protect himself. In front of the open window with a view of Jerusalem, Daniel prays to his Lord. Daniel perseveres in prayer three times a day. His jealous colleagues go to the king and accuse Daniel. The king tries to save Daniel, but in vain. Too late, King Darius realizes that he has fallen into the trap of his own vanity. There is no way out anymore. Making an exception to a law of the Medes and Persians was absolutely impossible.

Source: After Briton Rivière, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Daniel in the lion’s den

Then the king ordered Daniel to be thrown into the lion’s den. That night the king could not sleep. At dawn he went to the den and cried out, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve so steadfastly, been able to save you from the lions?” To his surprise, Daniel answered. His God had protected him. Then the king took Daniel out of the lion’s den and commanded that the men who had accused Daniel be thrown into the lion’s den. King Darius recognizes that God has remained faithful to Daniel. The king orders a decree to be distributed throughout his kingdom: ‘I hereby command that everyone in the power of my kingdom should respect the God of Daniel. For he is the living God who exists forever. His kingdom never comes to an end and his reign is without end. He saves and delivers, gives signs and works wonders in heaven and on earth; he saved Daniel from the clutches of the lions. (Daniel 6:27-28).

The structure of the story from Daniel 6

The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is described in the Bible book of Daniel, chapter 6. It is a carefully constructed story. The story is constructed as a chiasmus. A chiasm is a literary style in which the rhyme scheme ABB’A’, as it were, provides structure to the story. In this structure, elements A belong together, elements B and elements C, and so on. The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is made up of four elements that belong together. The structure is then ABCDD’C’B’A’.

The structure of the story of Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6)

  • A. Introduction: Daniel is successful (verses 1-3)
  • B. Darius’ command and Daniel’s faithfulness to God (verses 4-10)
  • C. Daniel’s opponents plan his death (verses 11-15)
  • D. Darius hopes for freedom for Daniel (verses 16-18)
  • D’. Darius witnesses freedom for Daniel (verses 19-23)
  • C’. Daniel’s opponents punished with death (verse 24)
  • B’. Darius’ command and glory to Daniel’s God (verses 25-27)
  • A’. Conclusion: Daniel is successful (verse 28)


The meaning of the story: God saves

A classic story like that of Daniel in the lion’s den can be meaningful in several ways. One possibility, for example, is to see which word occurs frequently in the text of this story. Then it turns out that ‘liberating/rescuing’ is an important theme in this story. King Darius says of the God of Daniel that “He saves and delivers” (Daniel 6:28). The words deliver or save occur in verse: 15, 17, 21 and 28 (twice). Through this story the writer wants to show that God saves and liberates.

The meaning of the story: Daniel’s steadfastness

The story of Daniel in the lion’s den can be read as a story of someone who is true to his own beliefs. Daniel is steadfast. He does not allow himself to be lectured by unjust laws. For him there are higher values than the laws of politics. Daniel resists the king’s law by continuing to pray as he always did. While the king’s law forbade him to do so. Daniel’s resistance is nonviolent and public. He is not ashamed of his beliefs. He continues his prayer in front of the open window, three times a day. Daniel’s steadfastness has inspired many people.

Martin Luther King on Daniel

Source: Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

The American preacher Martin Luther King (1929-1968) fought against racial segregation in the United States. He became known for his nonviolent resistance against discrimination against people because of their skin color. On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King wrote an open letter from Birmingham prison in which he defended his nonviolent resistance to racial segregation. In this letter, King quotes a story from the book of Daniel. It is the story from Daniel 3 in which Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, refuse to follow King Nebuchadnezzar’s law to bow down and worship his image. A more important law applied to them. A higher value made them disobey the king’s law. Likewise, Daniel disobeyed the king’s law and was thrown into the lion’s den. The three friends are thrown into a fiery furnace because of their steadfastness. For Martin Luther King, these stories are an example of personal faith and resistance against unjust laws, political oppression and social exploitation. Daniel refuses to conform to the king’s laws or the political system. He is also prepared to accept the consequences of this, suffering. According to Martin Luther King, this shows that in this way the injustice of the laws and the political system is exposed.

Mahatma Gandhi on Daniel

The Indian fighter against English oppression Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was an advocate of non-violent resistance. Gandhi felt touched by Daniel’s non-violent resistance to follow the law of King Darius. For Gandhi, the core message of the story of Daniel in the lion’s den was found in verses 10 and 11. Mahatma Gandhi was confirmed by Daniel’s example in his belief that active nonviolent resistance is the way to expose injustice.

King Darius then put the ban in writing. When Daniel heard of the decree that had been written, he went to his house. In his upstairs room he had windows open toward Jerusalem. There he knelt down and prayed to his God and praised him, just as was his custom three times a day. (Daniel 6:10-11)


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