"[T]HE THIRD YEAR OF THE REIGN OF Jehoiakim king of Judah" (Dan. 1:1) is calculated on the Babylonian reckoning; the corresponding calculation in Judah would have made it his fourth year, i.e., 605 B.C.
The first round of deportations took place, then, in 605, and swept up Daniel; the second, including Ezekiel, Jehoiachin, the Queen Mother, the aristocracy, and skilled craftsmen, occurred in 597. The final crushing destruction of Jerusalem was in 587.
Almost twenty years before that took place, then, a number of aristocratic young Jewish men had been transported to Babylon. According to Daniel 1, they were well-treated. The imperial policy was not only generous, it was clever. The empire would pull in these gifted and well-bred young men and give them the best education and social formation in the world, with a string of perquisites to make the prospect still sweeter. In due course they would enter government service, intensely loyal to their benefactors while contributing their youth, skills, and knowledge of the imperial frontiers. The four Hebrew young men mentioned here would eventually become so Babylonian in their outlook that they would forget even their birth names: Daniel would become Belteshazzar, Hananiah would become Shadrach, and so forth.
But Daniel drew a line in the sand. It could have cost him his life. He did not object to the change in his name, nor to royal service on behalf of the Babylonian Empire. But he would not "defile" himself (Dan. 1:8) by eating food prepared in the royal kitchens. He knew that if he partook, he would almost certainly eat things from time to time that the Law of God strictly forbade. For him it was a matter of obedience, a matter of conscience. In the providence of God, the chief to whom he was responsible, Ashpenaz, was an understanding sort, and the result is reported in this chapter.
For many of us today, Daniel's stand is vaguely quixotic, but certainly not something to emulate. Why die over sausages? Come to think of it, is there anything worth dying for? Probably not—if all there is to life is found in our brief earthly span, and all that is important is what happens to me. But Daniel's aim was to please God and to conform to the covenant. His values could not be snookered by Babylon; on this point he was prepared to die. The trouble is that when a culture runs out of things to die for, it runs out of things to live for. A colleague in the ministry (Dr. Roy Clements) has often said, "We are either potential martyrs or potential suicides; I see no middle ground between these two. And the Bible insists that every believer in the true God has to be a potential martyr."