Daniel 10:1-19

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Chapters 10-12 of Daniel are the most challenging to understand and apply. It is some years later, during the third year of Cyrus – a time when things should be looking up for the Jews, because they have been given permission to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. However, not all the exiles returned, and life was never the same, even in the restored kingdom. These chapters explain what life was like and continues to look like for God’s people. In today’s passage we read the introduction to the vision.

Daniel was in mourning, probably for the sad and sorry state of his original home while he remained in captivity (cf Neh 1). During this time he stood on the banks of the great river, just as Ezekiel had stood 66 years earlier, and saw a terrifying vision of an awesome man. There are so many verbal parallels between Ezekiel’s visions and Daniel’s here that it is impossible to ignore the intentional link. The effect of the vision and accompanying sound was that Daniel fell on his face unconscious, weak with terror, to the ground.

Daniel is touched by a hand, and he is set on his hands and knees, trembling. Presumably the hand belongs to the man, who then speaks kindly, reminding Daniel once again that he is precious to God (cf 9:23), and asking him to understand the words the man is about to speak. Now Daniel is told to stand up, and he obeys, although still trembling. Observe how Daniel has been raised up: from flat on his face, to his hands and knees, to standing (just like Nebuchadnezzar in Chapter 4). The man tells Daniel not to be afraid, because he has come as a result of Daniel’s prayers, and his commitment to understand and humble himself before God.

Skip over verses 13-14 for a moment (we’ll pick them up tomorrow) and look at Daniel’s response in verses 15-17. He still looks to the ground and is mute. But the man touches his lips (cf Is 6:7), and Daniel is able to open his mouth to confess his weakness and anguish (the same word is used repeatedly in Isaiah to describe labour pains). Again the man touches Daniel and he is strengthened. He calls Daniel precious once again, and urges him to be not afraid, to be at peace, to be strong. Daniel feels strengthened and asks the man to speak. But we will hear the content in tomorrow’s reading.

What are we to make of this section? First of all, in its theological and literary framing, we must hear that the author is setting up the following speech in the context of biblical revelation. We have to keep that in mind as we read the next two chapters. He wants us to hear that this word about a great war is true (10:1), and stands in the trusted line of previous scripture. In fact, the word I translate as ‘war’ here is the same word used in Is 40:2, where Isaiah assures Israel that her warfare (NIV = ‘hard service’) is ended; this is important in light of Dan 9:24-27 and how it relates to Chapters 10-12.

Secondly, and perhaps less importantly but more powerfully, the character of Daniel in this chapter reveals something to us about our relationship with God. We sing songs about seeing God face to face, entering his presence, resting in his arms, etc, but let us never lose sight of the reality illustrated in this chapter: God is awesome, and when we really see him we will probably be knocked unconscious. Even so, he is tender and caring, not wanting us to fear, but wanting to strengthen us and have us understand his word. The man in linen (who is not characterized as God himself, yet clearly represents him as a divine being) acknowledges that he has come in response to Daniel’s prayer, commitment, and humility before God. God sees Daniel as precious, desirable, beautiful (it’s the same word used of the fruit in Gen 2:9; 3:6; God’s laws in Ps 19:10; the lover’s shade in Songs 2:3; and for coveting!). God wants to interact with his servants who humble themselves before him.

Prayer: Our God, you are an awesome God, reigning in heaven above. Forgive us for our lack of humility before you, and help us to understand who you truly are. Thank you for your mercy and your desire to have a relationship even with me, that you would deign to reveal yourself and share your word with me.

Daniel 9:20-27

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In this section we get the answer to Daniel’s prayer, which we read in the first part of the chapter. Daniel had prayed a prayer of confession and a petition for mercy from the great compassionate God he knew as Yahweh. His concern was for his people, Israel, and for Jerusalem specifically. Bear in mind, as we read, that within the story of the book, Daniel is in Babylon, under the rule of Medea around 550 BC, during the exile of the Jews which began in 597 BC. (Extra-biblical history has no account of a Darius the Mede at this time; the first known Darius in history, a Persian, reigned from 522 BC, and Darius son of Artaxerxes reigned from 423 BC.)

Gabriel comes to answer Daniel’s prayer with insight and understanding, for he is considered as precious. Gabriel then presents a mysterious vision. Before we get caught up in its intricacies, remember that the vision is meant as an answer to Daniel’s request for mercy. God hears Daniel’s prayer and responds.

How one translates verse 24 could suggest its interpretation, so I offer my own literal translation here: “Seventy sevens are determined for your people and for your holy city to complete the transgression, to seal sin, to atone for iniquity, to bring everlasting righteousness; to seal vision and prophet and to anoint the holy of holies.” Many people, including myself, have attempted to find dates to fit 49 or 490 years, and there are dates that kind of work. But another way forward, which I prefer, is to understand ‘seventy’ as referring to Jeremiah’s prediction (Jer 25:11; 29:10, cf Dan 9:2), and multiply it by ‘seven’, as suggested by Lev 26:24. This is then a symbolic number, seven lifetimes, the full number of years required to satisfy God’s wrath. Gabriel’s point is not how long the suffering lasts, but that it ends. As Isaiah also prophesied, Jerusalem will be comforted and her sin atoned for (Is 40:1-2). Then there can once again be righteousness and holy anointing, after the prophesied punishment has been fulfilled.

Verses 25-27 then spell out that 70 x 7 in a more detailed way: 7 + 62 + 1. Again, I wouldn’t press the numbers too hard into specific years, but it is not difficult to see how the events worked out in history. There was a decree to rebuild Jerusalem – that is probably Cyrus, but could also be Darius the Persian, as recorded in Ezra. After rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, the priesthood was restored and there was a leader in Israel once again – these are most likely the ‘anointed’ and ‘prince’ (which are not capitalized and have no definite article in the original Hebrew). But then this anointed one is ‘cut off’ and the holy city destroyed once more. Sacrifices and offerings cease and abominations bring desolation – until the end is poured out on the one who made it desolate. This makes a lot of sense when applied to the period of Antiochus Epiphanes’ rule 175-164 BC, which many scholars agree is the time the book was written. The anointed one would therefore be the high priest, Onias, who was murdered in 170 BC, three years before Antiochus desecrated the temple.

Of course, this is not to say that it can’t also apply to Jesus and/or the end times. Certainly Jesus was also an anointed priest who was cut off, and then forty years later the temple was destroyed yet again and Jerusalem razed during the war of 70 AD. In fact, the synoptic gospel writers all quote this passage with reference to Jesus and the destruction of the temple, and also possibly ‘the end times’. But I don’t think the author of Daniel had all that in his mind, nor is there any sense of instruction in these verses about what believers are to do in light of this revelation.

Rather, he was intending to convey to his readers that God knows the future; that bad things will happen, but that there is an end in sight; evil will be punished, and sin will be atoned for. Remember, this is an answer to Daniel’s prayer for mercy. Let us therefore be thankful that God hears our prayers, that he knows the future, and that he will deal with injustice in his own way and in his own time.

Prayer: Thank you, merciful Father, that you hear and answer prayer. Thank you that there is an end in sight to all suffering and injustice. Help me to trust that you will deal with it.

Daniel 9:1-19

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In this section, apart from the opening verses, it is like we have been transported out of the Book of Daniel and into some other Old Testament book (cf Neh 9, for example). Here we have no narrative, no foreign king acknowledging God’s sovereignty, no visions or dreams, nothing like the previous chapters. It is the only part of the book that uses the divine name, Yahweh (written as LORD in most translations). Some scholars think the whole Book of Daniel is a compilation from different authors; we will deal with the text as it stands, regardless of authorship or date.

The first verse gives the setting as the reign of Darius the Mede, as in Chapter 6 (which also focuses on Daniel in prayer). Daniel has been reading the word of Yahweh in Jeremiah’s prophecies, that Jerusalem’s desolation would last seventy years (cf Jer 25:11-12; 29:10). Presumably he also read that the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews was the threatened judgement on God’s people for disobedience. This is not only found in Jeremiah, but also in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, as well as other places in the prophets. He must also have read Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:46-53, the words of which are echoed so strongly here, urging God to hear when his people repent.

As a result, Daniel turns to prayer and penitent supplication. There are two themes in the prayer. Firstly, God: he is great, awesome, righteous, compassionate, forgiving, and faithfully keeps his covenant. God gave laws through his servants and prophets, especially Moses. He brought his people out of Egypt and thus made his name famous. In keeping with the promises he made, he has punished his people for their rebellion. Secondly, God’s people: they have sinned and rebelled against God’s command, they have not listened to God’s servants, and they have been shamed. They and their land are suffering because of their disobedience, yet they have failed to turn away from their sin and towards the Lord and his truth.

In verses 17-19, Daniel asks the Lord God to hear his prayers, see the desolation of his holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, and forgive. He does not give the reason as saving the people from their suffering, but honoring God’s own name. This is in accordance also with Ezekiel, where God acts to protect his own name and honor (eg Chapters 20, 36).

How shall we apply this message to ourselves? We are not in the same position as Daniel, and yet we can learn from him. We learn to read God’s word, appropriate and believe its message, and repent for our repeated failures to obey God’s commandments. We learn also to stand in the gap as an intercessor for our communities or our nation. Let us also not forget what we are reminded here about God: his compassion, forgiveness and faithfulness to his promises. In God’s economy and sovereignty, there is always space and time for repentance. How we act affects not only our own honor, but his also.

Prayer: Lord God, forgive me, and those I represent, for everything we do which brings shame to your holy name. Help me to live for your glory and honor. You are great and glorious.

Daniel 8

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Our chapter today is similar to yesterday’s, but on a smaller scale. It also takes place during the reign of Belshazzar, but about two years later. This time, however, there is a location for Daniel’s vision: the city of Susa, in the province of Elam, which is east of Babylon, south of Media, and west of Persia.

The vision is easily interpreted. The ram is the Media-Persian empire, and the goat that overwhelms it is Greece. The prominent horn is Alexander the Great, and the important one of the four horns that arise after it is broken off is Antiochus Epiphanes of the Seleucids. The ‘beautiful land’ that Antiochus dominates is Israel/Palestine, and it is the second temple in Jerusalem which he overthrows and desecrates. The 2300 evenings and mornings probably symbolize the time when the Jews were unable to offer sacrifices (cf 12:11), but it could also refer to the period in history from the time the high priest was killed to the time that the temple was restored – about seven years – as recorded in 2 Maccabees. Most of the vision is actually about the rise of the evil Antiochus, rather than God’s people or even God himself.

But couldn’t it be about some other evil person in history? Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump, the pope, the president of the EU, or the antichrist himself? Doesn’t Gabriel say it is for the ‘distant future’ and ‘the time of the end’? We must keep in mind that the setting of the vision is the reign of Belshazzar, about 550 BC, and that the time of Antiochus is 175-164 BC, that is almost 400 years later. So the time of Antiochus is the distant future from the time of Daniel’s vision (regardless of when it was actually written). Nevertheless, of course it may prefigure another evil figure in history, just as the Son of Man (7:14) prefigured Jesus, who was born 550 years later. My argument would be that it doesn’t really help us at all to identify someone else in history, except to say that God knows evil men rise to power, then stand against him and his people. Yet they will be cut off, destroyed.

Note Daniel’s response in verse 27. The vision caused him to be exhausted and lay ill, but then he got up and went about his business. The vision didn’t inspire him to action or rebellion or deep study. He didn’t understand it, so he went about his ordinary work, in service of the king. There is an implied faith without understanding in the passage. Not all the prophets understood all they saw, and neither do we. There is a lot in the Bible that I read and I don’t understand, or I read and I don’t particularly like. I can’t escape the fact that it is there, but I don’t need to act on it. There is no lesson in this chapter of ‘what to do in the light of this revelation’. The lesson is that bad stuff happens in this world, nation rises up against nation, some men are evil, people suffer, and God knows about it. It hurts our souls and sometimes lays us up in our beds for a few days. But then we have to get up and get back to our work.

Prayer: God, there is so much I don’t understand in this world, so much suffering and so much evil. Help me to trust that you have all this in your hand, Father, and that you will bring an end to it at the appointed time.

Daniel 8 — The Ram, The Goat, and The Little Horn Again » Kehila News Israel
https://news.kehila.org/daniel-8-the-ram-the-goat-and-the-little-horn-again/

Daniel 7

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The style of writing changes spectacularly in this chapter, but the message is the same. After the first verse which is still in narrative form, we now have Daniel writing in the first person about his vision / dream. It takes place during Belshazzar’s reign, so we have gone backwards in time, prior to Chapter 5 (where Belshazzar dies). The language is apocalyptic in the technical sense, full of weird imagery and symbolic numbers. This chapter parallels Chapter 2, where Nebuchadnezzar dreamt of the layered statue, but instead of a statue we have beasts rising up out of the sea.

Verses 2-8 describe the four beasts, and the interpretation of the dream comes not from Daniel himself (according to his telling of the story), but from someone standing in the heavenly court. Just like in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the beasts represent four kings, or kingdoms, the first of which is glorious and most likely indicates Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The second and third are probably Media and Persia, and there is significance in the small details which we won’t go into here. The last kingdom is Greece (culturally) which perhaps becomes Rome (politically), devouring the rest of the earth with violence. Another possible interpretation is that Media and Persia are conflated into the second beast, the third is Greece, and the final destructive one is Rome. The arrogant speaking horn is generally thought to be Antiochus Epiphanes, a Hellenistic (i.e. Greek) king of the Seleucid Empire in the second century BC, who persecuted the Jews mercilessly. If you are interested in more details about this historical interpretation, you can read this article. On the other hand, some people suppose that Daniel is not dreaming about kingdoms that existed during the time the book was written, but about other regimes, far away in the future, through prophetic gifting.

The most important part of the dream / vision, however, is not about the four kings and all the imagery associated with them, but the rule of the Ancient of Days. Although the other kings had been given dominion for a set time, it was removed from them, and the last beast was slain and destroyed. A new ruler emerges, one ‘like a son of man’. His dominion, granted by the Ancient of Days, is everlasting and will not end, and he is to be served by people of every nation and tongue. He is the king of all kings and the lord of all rulers. On this side of history, and with the interpretation we read in the Book of Revelation, it is impossible not to see Jesus here, the self-designated Son of Man, and his set-apart-ones (saints) against whom ‘the arrogant horn’ continues to wage war until he is completely obliterated.

But how did Daniel and his first readers understand it? It is interesting to see in verse 28 that Daniel was troubled and afraid, given that the vision was overwhelmingly positive. But perhaps he was thinking of the struggle the saints would have, the oppression that they would face, before the final victory. His intent was surely to encourage the saints, that even though they suffer, in the end, the Most High, whom they serve, will win; and that they will inherit not only his kingdom, but the wealth of every other kingdom which ultimately submits to God (verse 27).

Recently I heard a helpful sermon illustration about watching a recorded sports match after the event. The tension is taken out of it when you know the final result. Even though there are ups and downs, and sometimes your own team is losing, if you know that your team will win in the end, it is a lot less stressful. The Book of Daniel is just like that. If we know that we are on the side that wins in the end, why do we get so stressed about life in the mean time? Again, like 2 weeks ago thinking about Paul in the shipwreck, I am reminded of Gandalf in Minas Tirith, facing almost certain death and yet trusting that good will yet win in the end. (You can watch it here.) As we are assaulted by the forces of evil, let us continue to remember and trust that God will have the final victory.

Prayer: Thank you Lord my God, that I can trust you will win in the end. Help me to stick with you, no matter what assaults my faith.

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Daniel 6

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It has never occurred to me before that this chapter is actually about leadership, administration and integrity. I have always been too distracted by the lions.

Verses 1-9 focus on King Darius and his leadership team. The king instituted a devolved team, whereby there were three administrators under him, to whom were accountable another 120 leaders. Daniel was one of the three, but the ‘excellent spirit in him’ resulted in the king planning to make him top dog. The others, of course, were jealous. But they were unable to find anything wrong – no corruption, no negligence – in Daniel. So they influence the king to write and enforce a decree which they know will get Daniel into trouble. Take a look at their entreaty in verse 7: “All the royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers, and governors have agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce a decree that for thirty days anyone who petitions any god or man except you, O king, will be thrown into the den of lions.” It seems good to the king, so he agrees. Arrogant, weak-willed idiot, who foolishly believes he has to go along with what he thinks is the majority. May I never agree to something my team says without thinking its implications through carefully.

In verse 10 we get a look at Daniel ignoring the decree and continuing thrice daily to pray and give thanks to the God of Israel, as he had always done. However, the focus of this narrative is not Daniel, but the king and his team.

The team goes back to the king to inform him that Daniel has broken the newly-made law, just as they anticipated, and is subject to the death penalty. The king is distressed and tries to rescue him but his power is limited by the law. Daniel is thrown to the lions and, in a twist of cruel irony, the king’s own ring seals his fate. The king does not eat, sleep, or relax all night, but rushes at first light to the lions’ den in anguish. When he discovers that Daniel is unharmed, he is overjoyed and has Daniel released. But he commands the accusers and their families to be thrown in instead, and they are killed instantly.

I have kept all the theology in this passage for its own paragraph. Firstly, Daniel does not cease to pray and gives thanks to God, despite the risk to his life. Just as in the first chapter, his regard and respect for God takes precedence over his regard and respect for the earthly king. Daniel’s life is preserved by God’s angel shutting the lions’ mouths, because God found him innocent (verse 22), and Daniel trusted in him (verse 23). Darius describes Daniel as “servant of the living God” (verse 20), and he decrees that people of every nation and tongue in his kingdom should tremble before Daniel’s God. He is the living and eternal God; he rescues; he performs signs and wonders; he rules forever. The conclusion of the chapter is similar to Chapters 3 and 4, but now with Darius (instead of Nebuchadnezzar) recognizing that he is a mere vice-regent to the truly reigning sovereign lord of the universe.

The main message of this chapter is not: Be like Daniel and trust God (although that is visible too). It is, again, God is the king. The context is leadership and administration. Those of us who are leaders must take note of the warnings the author gives here: Do not be jealous of others when they are promoted. Have integrity; do not be corrupt; do not be negligent. Do not be swayed into signing things without thinking them through carefully. And most importantly, we lead only under God’s authority and by his provision. Let us not be tricked into thinking we make the rules. Fear God, the lord of all.

Prayer: Lord God, forgive me for my arrogance, foolishness, and desire for power. Help me to be a person of integrity, and to fear you always, above anyone else. Thank you that you have the power to save and to do miracles.

Daniel 5

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This chapter has a chill about it, very apt for the pre-Halloween season in which I am writing. Although this is not one of the Sunday School stories we know so well from Daniel, it is nevertheless familiar, drawing on moments from the chapters we have already read. It is from this story that is derived the English phrase, ‘The writing is on the wall’, which means that there are clear signs that something bad is about to happen.

The king now is Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, who seems to have forgotten Daniel in the intervening years. (In fact, archaeology indicates Belshazzar was probably Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, and ruled as Crown Prince around 550BC, about a decade after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, while his father King Nabonidus was away.) As sons in the absence of their wealthy fathers do, Belshazzar is having a great party with a thousand people and is drunk. In his frivolity, he brings in the holy vessels from the Jerusalem temple to use as wine goblets. While drinking, the people praise their own gods, idols made of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone. It is highly offensive to the Jewish writer of the narrative. Suddenly a disembodied hand begins writing on the wall, and the king is terrified.

As usual, none of the king’s regular wise men is able to interpret the message. Rather than ignoring it, Belshazzar becomes more frightened. But his (grand?)mother, Nebuchadnezzar’s wife (or daughter-in-law), remembers Daniel, the man with ‘the spirit of the holy God(s)’. Daniel is summoned, on her advice, and asked to read and interpret the writing, for which he will be handsomely rewarded.

Daniel does not want the rewards, for the opportunity to speak to the king is reward enough. Daniel does not waste his time in the spotlight. He asserts that the king’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, was a great and glorious king because God had appointed him to that position. However, as we heard in the previous chapter, when Nebuchadnezzar became proud and did not acknowledge that his sovereignty came from God as a divine representative, he was rejected from the throne, lost his glory, and even his position as a simple human in society. Knowing this story, however, Belshazzar his descendant did not take it to heart. He did not acknowledge the sovereign God, glorify him, or humble himself before the Lord of heaven, but exalted himself and insulted God’s honor. This very God has control over the life of Belshazzar, and he has decided to take away the kingdom and divide it between the Medes and the Persians.

The conclusion of the story is that Daniel is rewarded, as promised, for bringing this shocking news; that Belshazzar is assassinated; and the kingdom is given to Darius the Mede.

The author’s point is pretty much the same as the previous chapter: God is the true Lord of kings, and therefore of all. Anyone who takes pride in his or her own position, without acknowledging that it comes from God, is destined for a fall. Anyone who insults the majesty of God will be deposed of her or his own honor. The sin of Belshazzar – and each one of us, and all of humanity – is that he ‘failed to glorify the God who holds in his hand your very breath and all your ways’. We lose a significant aspect of the truth of biblical revelation when we think of sin as doing wrong – whether it is lying, adultery, or any other of the ten commandments. The essence of sin is failure to glorify God, to honor him as he deserves. Let us remember that in our telling of the gospel to ourselves and to others. We are all in dire need of his grace.

Prayer: Forgive me, Lord God, for my arrogance and the many ways I have insulted your glory. Give me your Spirit of revelation, that I may know you for who you truly are. You hold my breath and all my ways in your hands, sovereign ruler.

Daniel 4

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This chapter has a completely different form and style, although our main characters are the same as Chapter 2: Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, and even the content is familiar: a dream about the king’s future. Rather than the narrator telling a story, here we have Nebuchadnezzar writing a letter, looking back on his experience. It is not likely that this was a real letter which the great King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (r. 605-562) wrote; rather, it is how the author of the Book of Daniel imagines the king might have written an account of his conversion. There is no firm extra-biblical evidence that the events related here took place, but there are a few suggestions that something unusual happened during Nebuchadnezzar’s long reign of 43 years.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks and dreams – or rather a nightmare. The dream starts nicely: a wonderful tree providing for all the occupants of the land. But then someone comes down from heaven and commands that the tree be chopped down, leaving only a stump, and then somehow that stump turns into an ox, living out in the open with other oxen, drenched in rain and eating grass. Just like in Daniel 2, no one could interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream except Daniel=Belteshazzar, because he has ‘the spirit of the holy god(s)’ (or the Holy Spirit, whom the New Testament says gives revelation?). Just as the head of gold was Nebuchadnezzar in Chapter 2, so here, the tree is Nebuchadnezzar himself. Having been great and mighty, providing for all the creatures of the land as a representative of God’s sovereign power, he also will be cut down and turn into an ox. This very thing comes to pass a year later, when Nebuchadnezzar was admiring his city and lauding his own glory and majesty. A voice from heaven pronounces the sentence – this is now the third time we have heard the words – and it is immediately fulfilled: Nebuchadnezzar becomes like an ox and lives outside for seven years (or at least, until the times had reached their fulfillment, seven being a representative number of fullness). At the end of the allotted time, his sanity is restored and he is restored to the throne.

The result of this wild ride is not the end of the reign of Babylon, but that Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that his sovereignty is subject to the majesty of the King of Heaven. Any honor he has is only because it is granted to him by the God of all glory. The last verse is key: God is able to humble those who walk in pride. The application is praise, glory, and honor to the King of heaven, whose works are true and whose ways are just. But there is one more word to add, and this comes from the first three verses: This message about the most high God, his signs and wonders, must be declared to people of every nation and language. And it is in doing this that their prosperity may be multiplied, as they too honor God as the great and eternal king.

Is there anything left to say? Just note the crafting of this story. The author has us hear it ‘direct’ from Nebuchadnezzar, perhaps the greatest king of all history, far beyond even Solomon (who also gets the opportunity for similar literary reflections in Ecclesiastes 1-2). If even Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that God is his ruler and worthy of honor, how can we fail to do the same? If even Nebuchadnezzar can be brought so low, the same and worse can happen to us if we forget to honor him but live lives of pride and self-aggrandizement. We also, like Nebuchadnezzar, are duty-bound to communicate to every people group that God is the sovereign Lord of all.

Prayer: O Lord God, forgive me for my pride. Forgive me for seeking to elevate myself and honoring myself. Help me to live in humility and constant worship and adoration of you, true and just ruler of the universe. You are my king, now and forever.

William Blake's famous interpretation of the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar II.
Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake from 1795. Copper engraving with pen and ink and watercolour. {PD} Source: https://biblereadingarcheology.com/2017/09/25/the-madness-of-king-nebuchadnezzar/

Daniel 3

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Today’s passage is one of those Sunday School stories that most of us know well. The conflict is set up by Nebuchadnezzar making a huge golden statue, about 30 meters high, and demanding that people of every nation and tongue worship before it. The punishment for not worshipping the image is death in the fiery furnace. Some of the king’s wise men, perhaps feeling miffed that they were overlooked for the promotion which went to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, draw the king’s attention to the Jewish exiles’ failure to bow down before the idol. Nebuchadnezzar, whose personal relationship seems to have been with Daniel rather than these three, is outraged at their disobedience and summons them to his presence.

Nebuchadnezzar gives Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego the opportunity to renounce their commitment to the Israelite God. They are given one more chance to worship the idol, knowing that refusal to do so will result in death. Their response to the question, ‘Is it true … ?’ (3:14) is that there is no need to answer. But the second question, ‘What god will be able to save you?’ deserves more of a response.

If the God we serve exists, he is able to save us. Even if he doesn’t exist, we still won’t serve your gods or worship your statue.

Nebuchadnezzar is enraged further and the three faithful Jews are bound and thrown into the furnace, whose flames have been made seven times hotter than usual. Even the king’s servants who throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in are killed by the heat, but then the unexpected happens – as it happened in Chapters 1 and 2 already. The king himself sees them, unbound, and a fourth figure ‘like a son of god(s)’, walking around in the furnace. Nebuchadnezzar goes to the door and summons them once more, this time out of the fire instead of into it, and they escape completely unaffected by the flames.

The result is that Nebuchadnezzar himself blesses the God of Israel and acknowledges that He saved His servants who trust in Him, even though they violated the king’s own command to worship another god. He also decrees that no person of any nation or tongue may dishonor this saving God, and once again promotes the three Jews.

There are many ideas to explore and points of application in this story. The dominant culture imposes its values on the minority cultures. The jealous co-workers get their foremen into trouble by pointing out their failures and lack of respect to the boss. The faithful devotees refuse to worship a different God, even putting their own lives at risk by this action. How often do we see all these situations play out before our own eyes, especially in Asia?

The most resonant part of the passage for me is the Jews’ response in verses 17-18. Personally, I am occasionally plagued by doubts about God’s existence, especially because of the challenges in our dominant western culture. What if he is not really there? Have I thrown my life away, wasted it, for a fantasy? Usually, my counter-argument with myself is historical: Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead. But I also sometimes take refuge in the logical and experiential arguments. My experience is that he has saved me. The world’s experience is that believing in Jesus makes a difference to the lives of individuals, communities, and societies. (Read this book if you are in doubt about that last statement.) And Pascal’s wager: If it turns out that the whole God-thing is not true, really I have lost nothing, in fact I have a fulfilling life of purpose; but if it’s true, I have gained everything. So no matter which way you look at it, obeying and trusting in God is a wise thing to do, even if it’s just for the self.

Nevertheless, what the author of Daniel actually wants us to hear is the same message as the previous two chapters: God is King. He is able protect his servants who trust him whenever and however he chooses to do so. God’s demands for our loyalty outstrip every other idol or human’s demands.

One topic still remains: who was the fourth figure in the furnace? Of course, this side of history, the Sunday School answer applies: Jesus. But what was the author thinking? Yes, it could simply be that he was reporting historical fact, but this story is not that kind of genre. Who was he suggesting walked in the fire with the three heroes? One answer might be Daniel, the main hero of the book, but why would Daniel be there? It doesn’t make sense. Nebuchadnezzar implies the identity of the fourth man is God’s angel, a representative of the divine self. The author thus suggests that God walks in the midst of the fire with those who trust him; they are not left on their own to suffer, and God is not distant (contra 2:11). What an amazing picture for us to cherish when we are walking through our own trials by fire.

Prayer: Thank you God, that you are with me in the fire. Help me to trust you, even when I am not sure I believe in your existence. Give me the courage me to obey you, though it cost me everything. I have no other god apart from you.

Great Buddha of Thailand - Wikipedia
Thailand’s biggest Buddha statue is 92 meters high, 3 times the size of Nebuchadnezzar’s.

Daniel 2:24-49

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Today we get the conclusion to the story which began yesterday: the first dream of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel is our hero, saving all the wise men of Babylon at the eleventh hour, with his courage and trust in God’s miraculous providence. As Arioch the captain brings Daniel before the king, he informs Nebuchadnezzar that this exile from Judah will interpret his dream. The next verse reminds us that Daniel is a state ward in an assimilation program: his name is Belteshazzar. Is he able to not only interpret the dream, but even to know its content without being told?

No, Daniel declares, he is not able. No man is able to do the impossible. But God is able, because the dream actually came from God in the first place. And God has revealed the dream to Daniel also, not because of Daniel’s wisdom, but because God has chosen to reveal it to Nebuchadnezzar through him. I find verse 30 fascinating. Do you ever struggle to understand your own thoughts? Certainly, we may struggle to understand our dreams. God is ready to reveal the king’s dream now, so that he can understand his future (2:29).

The statue Nebuchadnezzar saw represents kingdoms: Babylon (gold), -Media-Persia (silver), then Greece (bronze), Rome (iron), and lastly a mixed kingdom (iron and clay). We will hear more about these kingdoms in Chapter 7, which parallels Chapter 2. The feet of the statue, made brittle by the clay, are smashed by a stone, which makes the whole statue topple and fall. The stone, cut out from the mountain, then grows as large as a mountain, filling the whole earth. This last kingdom, represented by the stone, will never be destroyed or conquered. Daniel could not have known what we know now. It is certainly possible that this book was written by someone who lived in the 2nd century BC, and therefore knew about the kingdoms that followed Babylon; but such an author could not have known, without the revelation of God, about Jesus and his eternal kingdom. Did he genuinely foresee what we have witnessed from the other side of history? It seems hard to argue against this interpretation.

Before we go on, look back to verses 37-38. Daniel acknowledges Nebuchadnezzar’s right to rule using language from Genesis 1:26-28 (cf Jer 27:5-6). Nebuchadnezzar is God’s choice to be his sovereign, powerful, glorious representative on earth – how mind-blowing is that!? But his time will come to an end, at the time the God of heaven chooses. As Nebuchadnezzar freely confesses to Daniel, this God is the Lord of kings (2:47). The king falls before his wise man as a sign of obedience and submission to his God, the revealer of mysteries.

Daniel is then rewarded with a promotion to chief administrator (think Prime Minister), just as Joseph was (Gen 41:40), along with gifts. And at Daniel’s request, his friends are also elevated to positions of power. However, this is just a personal footnote to the real message of the chapter.

The essential thing that the author wants to get across is that God is in charge. Even Nebuchadnezzar came to understand that, and the author asks us to make the same response of submission. To the Judeans in exile in Babylon, to the Jews suffering under idolatrous and iron-fisted Rome in the second century BC, to you and me, the Bible says this: no matter how bad things seem, God is in control. He knows the past and he knows the future. He has ordained the times and their rulers. And he has set up a kingdom, the kingdom of heaven ruled by the Son of Man, that will stand forever. In the end, God is always the ruler and he calls for obedience.

Prayer: Lord God, you are my king. Revealer of Mysteries, show me my past, my present, and my future. Help me to remember that my times are in your hand.

King Nebuchadnezzar's Dream - free-stories.net