The 20th Century saw its fair share of unreasonable despots who like figures from history even turned on their own families to maintain their power and authority. The 21st Century is no different with unreasonable despots in the Far East, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Nazanin Zahary-Radcliffe is the victim of a despotic government that is being unjust and unreasonable – representing so many people across the world who also experience the treatment she has received. Please pray for all those living under these sort of regimes and for our Christian brothers and sisters who suffer persecution from them.
History is littered with these power figures who are unjust, cruel and rule with a rod of iron to maintain their position and power. The UK has had its fair share. Nebuchadnezzar stands high in the despotic ratings and his unreasonableness, acting on a whim or how is feeling at the time, is demonstrated in this chapter.
There are three things for which the Book of Daniel is known: the fiery furnace, the den of lions and the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The latter has been the subject of speculation about which kingdoms the statue symbolises and how it fits with the return of Jesus, linking to the second part of Daniel which contains visions. Jesus was quite clear about such speculations: ‘About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ Matt 24:36
As we read this book – and I hope you will read round the sections we use each week – we need to keep in mind that it declares God as Adonai, Lord over all. This is even in the face of the most powerful despot who has taken the people of Israel into exile and destroyed their capital city and its temple. I am going to focus on three points to help us understand more about this chapter and apply it to our situation:
1. Kingdoms come and go
2. Daniel bears witness to God
3. The Eternal Kingdom
Kingdoms come and go
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Let’s begin with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about the statue. There is little point commenting on his totally unreasonable request that his diviners work out what the dream was and then interpret. His blanket death sentence, which included Daniel and friends, speaks for itself and reveals the injustice and despicable nature of Nebuchadnezzar.
We read that Nebuchadnezzar is fearful and anxious, troubled by the dreams he has had The most powerful emperor of the region cannot sleep at night, not because of the havoc he has wrought across his empire, but because of what the future – his future – might be. Secluded in his palace and surrounded by bodyguards, he is still fearful. The poem I read was written at the time Napoleon Bonaparte was marching through Europe bringing devastation as he built his empire.
The character described in the poem could just as easily be applied to Nebuchadnezzar with his ruthless disregard for the lives of ordinary people, just to fulfil his desires and ambitions. He is suspicious of those around him and those he has employed to advise and divine for him and in his suspicious rage in one fell swoop he orders to have them disposed of. There is nothing attractive about this man or anything to cause us to sympathise with him.
Even when he falls down before Daniel and declares that YHWH is the Lord of kings and God over all, this is no conversion as the next chapter demonstrates. Even after he does ‘Praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.’ I’m not sure I want the room next door to his in God’s mansion.
When we look at the statue, we tend to focus on the different parts. Incidentally, the different kingdoms seem to link to kingdoms of ancient history quite well, but focussing on the statue and it’s kingdoms leads us to overlook the rock, not cut out by human hands which brings the statue down and even the legacy of gold from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign are broken in pieces and become like chaff in the wind.
It seems to me Neb gets off lightly because he will finish his days as emperor un-deposed. However, the message of the dream is clear, the eternal legacy all these rulers sought would not survive, because there is only one eternal kingdom, represented by the rock cut not by human hand:
the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor
will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands – a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.
It seems to me there are two messages from the statue: 1. Kingdoms and empires have their time, but they will pass. 2. God’s kingdom will overcome them all. It reminds of the words of Isaiah 40, repeated in 1 Peter:
‘All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.’
This was the message to the exiles who had been defeated, demoralised and left without hope of returning to their homeland. God is Adonai, Lord over all and in his time his eternal kingdom will triumph over all others.
That does sound like pie in the sky, particularly when we continually see the rise and fall of empires, the struggle for dominance and the disregard for God expressed by all dominant cultures. However, this more than book called to rouse the people to hope and to look beyond the immediate.
In this book we see a rooted or intrinsic faith that is able to live and thrive in the parched land of exile, because Daniel knows that God the Lord over all does not depend on human circumstances to achieve his purposes, but does choose to use them. He does not depend on location and physical structures, because his kingdom comes through the people he has called and who are faithful to him.
This leads us into the second point:
Daniel bears witness to God
‘Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.
I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors:
you have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you,
you have made known to us the dream of the king.’
Think about the situation Daniel and friends find themselves in. The catch all decree has been issued and the soldiers are at the door to put them to death. What would you do? The writer records that Daniel spoke with wisdom and tact. Why on earth did Arioch give Daniel the time of day?
Daniel then somehow manages to speak with the king and makes a bold step of faith: give me a time and I will come and tell you your dream and interpret it. I would suggest that just as Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego did not know if God would preserve them in the fire, neither did Daniel know that God would reveal this mystery to him. How does Daniel manage this?
• He has a rooted or intrinsic faith in God the Lord of all irrespective of the circumstances in which he finds himself. His faith is not dependent upon things going well, but he has found God to be faithful.
• The friends gather to plead before God for mercy; that he would reveal this mystery, and very practically that they would be preserved from death. Incidentally, it wouldn’t have been swift. One of the things the human race has been successful at is devising ways in which people can be made to die painfully – and this was Neb’s decree.
• Then they worship God and what a great psalm of praise, certainly worth committing to memory.
The actions of Daniel speak directly to us as followers of Jesus Christ. We cannot expect to behave in the way Daniel behaved if we do not have that deep faith that comes from living closely to Jesus day by day. We cannot expect to be strong if we do not know and absorb God’s word into our lives.
We need the fellowship of believers to strengthen us and stand with us, so that when we are in the lonely place, we are not forgotten. Our prayer life needs to be vital and responsive to the situations we face, which comes from regularity and commitment in prayer. And worshipping God will not only strengthen us, but also acknowledge that whatever happens, he is Lord over all.
After prayer and worship and heart bursting stress, Daniel then effectively tells Nebuchadnezzar that Babylon is temporary but God’s kingdom is eternal. That is incredible. Daniel could have exploited this situation for himself as the mighty emperor falls prostrate before the captive Jewish exile. (At this point you might wonder why Daniel doesn’t react to this, but since Nebuchadnezzar clearly recognises that ‘God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery’ we can read this as an act of extreme gratitude and uncharacteristic humility.) Daniel’s response throughout has been to say that it is God who has revealed this and he never claims a personal power or ability.
So what of this eternal kingdom?
The eternal kingdom
What will this eternal kingdom that will overwhelm all others be like? Where will it be? These are big questions to which only general answers and pictures can be given. As to location, I think the Bible gives us indicators.
• Genesis tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and declared them good. The psalmist declares the heavens proclaim the glory of God and that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Jesus came to save the world and all that is in it.
• Revelation talks about the dwelling of God being with his people in a renewed earth
• This indicates that God has not written off his creation or the creatures in it. Larry Norman may well have sung that we were only visiting this planet in the ‘70s and there are those that think the world is going to hell in a handcart but believers will be zapped off. However, I think the Bible presents a different picture.
What will the kingdom be like?
As Christian believers, we follow a Saviour who died to bring in the Kingdom of God.
• We follow a Saviour who lived out the kingdom and showed that it was not built on the values that are usually the foundations of the world’s kingdoms.
• We follow a Saviour who went to the outcast, the poor and the needy; who removed the barriers preventing people from knowing God as their Father.
• We follow a Saviour who has delivered us from the fundamental problem of all would be rulers and emperors, as well as that of the whole human race: sin.
The church in the past has made the mistake of building the Kingdom of God on the principles of invaders and despots, and that time has come to an end. We are free from the responsibility of supporting an edifice called Christendom, and free to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and bring in the kingdom on his terms.
If we want to know what the kingdom will be like, we need look no further than the example of Jesus. In bringing in the Kingdom, God in Christ got down among the ordinary people of his creation and served them. The picture of Revelation 21 is of God who abolishes all that causes fear and brings comfort and peace to people.
The kingdom is pictured in the Sermon on the Mount and the actions of Jesus. As we are part of bringing in the kingdom, we need to be making the church more Christlike and not more like the pictures of success around us. In the kingdom which we experience now, we will find
• those who will welcome the stranger and the outcast, and even those with whom we don’t have a natural affinity;
• those who will stand with us in times of gladness and rejoicing, as well as times of sadness, failure and trauma;
• those who support and pray with one another and look to Christ;
• those who are growing in relationship with the saviour who has paid the price for everyone’s sin.
We experience the kingdom now in the body of Christ which wants to become more Christlike. We will experience the eternal kingdom through the sacrifice of Christ when we die. This is the kingdom that will have no end and all we see the kingdoms of the world bowing before the risen Lord.