Yesterday, we read most of the way through the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 4:1-33). The king dreamed of a tree – the symbol of created order, given by the gods and maintained by the king. (In other words, he dreamed of himself.) But the tree was cut down, sent mad, and forced to live like a wild beast, in one of the weirdest mixed-metaphors of the Bible. The message to Nebuchadnezzar was: because you’ve been proud- thinking that your status, power, and wealth is all your own doing – you’ll be cut down, sent mad, and driven out of your position and away from human society. And you’ll live like that until you repent of your pride, and acknowledge the sovereignty of God.
As one writer puts it: “A man who thinks he is like a god must become a beast to learn that he is only a human being” (Danna Nolan Fewell, Circle of Sovereignty, p.101).
So what happens? We’re back in first-person narrative, here:
Daniel 4:34-37 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”
36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, 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.
After a time madness, Nebuchadnezzar repents, and acknowledges God’s sovereignty. (Even to the point where he sends the story of his experience to his whole empire.) And God, in his grace, restores both his sanity and his kingdom.
So as we asked yesterday, what are we to make of that? It’s a warning against human pride. But is that all it is?
For 2nd century Jews to think about
So far, we’ve just looked at the story in terms of the lesson Nebuchadnezzar learned. But if we look at it through the eyes of Daniel’s audience in the second century BC (see the second post in this series, if you’ve come in late and wondering why), our point-of-view shifts. It’s not just a message of warning to a powerful, arrogant ruler to be humble before God, but also a message of reassurance to those who are subject to a powerful, arrogant ruler. (Like Antiochus IV, for example.) In fact, that may be the dominant message, in the context of the whole book of Daniel.
To faithful Jews who were suffering under the rule of a powerful, ruthless, and polytheistic empire, this sends the message: Hang in there! God has this under control. If he can humble the arrogant Nebuchadnezzar whenever he chooses, he can humble Antiochus – and whatever other proud ruler turns up next. If he can force an oppressive, Gentile king to acknowledge his sovereignty, he can do it to the Gentiles who are currently oppressing you. His kingdom will be like a rock that crushes all the other kingdoms of the earth (remember the previous dream?), so just be patient.
For us to think about
We often look at our Godless world the same way Judah’s exiles would have looked at Babylonian society, or the Jews would have looked at their Seleucid conquerors. We see their arrogance, thinking that their own hands have made what they have; their pride in refusing to acknowledge God’s provision of food, water, companionship – even life itself. And we start to think that there’s no way of getting through to them. That they’re beyond changing.
This story reminds us that what God could do to Nebuchadnezzar, he can do to anyone. He can bring even the powerful down from their lofty position in an instant, and in so doing bring them to a new understanding of their place in God’s world.
Although I’m hesitant to use the story (since it’s become somewhat of a preaching cliche), the experience of Chuck Colson is just one example. He was a powerful figure in the Nixon administration, brought down by the Watergate scandal in 1973. His rapid fall from power brought him to his knees before God – to repentance and faith in Jesus. His time in prison led him to establish a ministry to prisoners, and he went on to become a well-known Christian political activist, speaker, and author. I’m sure you can think of other stories like that as well.
The point is: if God can reach the rich and powerful – snapping them out of their pride and bringing them to the point of acknowledging him as God – he can reach your family, friends, and co-workers, too.
And finally, we’re reminded of the example of Jesus. If anyone had cause to be proud in his position, it was Jesus. Yet, as Paul reminds us, he embraced humility voluntarily (not having it forced upon him, like Nebuchadnezzar), after which God exalted him to the highest place.
What’s more, he brought in the first-fruits of God’s kingdom – the one that would crush all other kingdoms – through humility, not arrogance; self-sacrifice, not violence. It’s his example we follow, as we wait for the kingdom to arrive in full. We follow Jesus…
Philippians 2:6-11 …who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.