Who rules? - Daniel 4

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 8th June 2003.

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The story is told of a Battleship which was cruising in a part of the Atlantic Ocean when all of a sudden there was a message on the radio: 'Adjust your position 30 degrees.' Well the commander was very indignant, so he radioed back: 'No, you adjust your position by 30 degrees.' So the reply came back: 'I insist, adjust your position by 30 degrees.' The commander was getting more angry, so he said: 'I am an Admiral. I command you to change your position by 30 degrees.' Again the reply came back: 'I am a first mate's assistant. I insist you change your position by thirty degrees.' By this time, the Admiral was about to blow his fuse, so he bellowed down the radio: 'I am an Admiral commanding one of her majesty's biggest destroyers. I order you in the name of her majesty to move!' There was a pause, and then came back the soft reply: 'Sir, you better change your position, for I am sitting in one of her majesty's lighthouses.'

Tonight we are looking at a chapter from the book of Daniel which is about seeing who is the boss, who is the real king. It is about one man having to make the confession that there is someone greater than him and that he needs to take humble action as a result. The man we are looking at is King Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon in the sixth century BC. He was the most powerful man in the world at the time. He was the George Bush of the sixth century. He had everything. Money, armies, power. And it was his armies that had dragged the Jews including Daniel and his friends into exile in about 605BC. But ever since the Jews arrived in Babylon Nebuchadnezzar has had a number of interesting run ins with the God of the Jews. In chapter one, when Daniel and his friends were just spotty teenagers, they had stood up for their God against Nebuchadnezzar and won their case. In chapter two, Nebuchadnezzar had a strange dream about the future, which only Daniel could interpret, and which foretold the collapse of the most powerful nations in the world in the face of the kingdom of God. And in chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar goes on a big ego trip building a huge statue of himself and then forcing all to kneel before him or face the fiery furnace. But when the three Jewish friends refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is astonished to see that they not only survive the fire, but that there seems to be a God walking with them in the fire. So Nebuchadnezzar has seen a thing or two about the true and living God. And yet he is still not a believer.

That is, until chapter 4. Because in this chapter we read an extraordinary tale. Nebuchadnezzar publishes his own testimony of how he came to bow the knee before God himself. If you like, it's his Christmas message he describes how, to quote the Queen, it's been an 'annus horribilis' but that God has brought him through it. And now he's a different man. It was undoubtedly the tabloid scoop of the decade! King Neb going mad and following some poxy God of a conquered nation. You can see the headlines now: 'King Neb off his Royal Rocker!' 'Babylonian King in loony shocker!' You can imagine how Hollywood would have been rubbing their hands with glee and the thought of their new film, 'The Madness of King Neb'. But for the readers of Daniel, this is no tabloid scoop or Hollywood money spinner. Here we see the God of the universe humbling the most powerful man in the world and so showing that there is only one true God. And when you're stuck in Babylon, then that is an terrific story to hear. And for us here in spiritual Babylon, then it is wonderful to hear that God is powerful enough to humble even the dictators of or day. For if he can do that, then he can certainly give us strength to stand for him, and he is able to bring even the most stubbornly resistant to know him. So let's turn to our story, and we'll find three lessons for us here as well as we see God deal with this arrogant and powerful man.

1) Accept the Warning (Vv 1-27)

And the first lesson this chapter teaches us is that we must accept the warning. Nebuchadnezzar begins his royal testimony in verse 2 by telling us that 'it is [his] pleasure to tell [us] about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for [him]'. This is Nebuchadnezzar's story told from his perspective about how God turned his life around. And it all began one sunny day, when no doubt Nebuchadnezzar was looking over his beautiful city he'd built with a lovely glass of Chateau Babel in his hand. Verse 4: 'I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous.' This man had everything. The power, the money, the empire. All a man could want. But it is at precisely this point that human beings are so vulnerable to pride. Because we begin to think, just when we are most secure and comfortable, that we have made it and the world revolves around us. We feel smug and self reliant. And that is when pride sets in. So the very moment we feel most impenetrable and content is actually our moment of greatest weakness. Because we have forgotten how weak and small we really are. During the Battle of the Wilderness in the American Civil War, Union general John Sedgwick was inspecting his troops. At one point he came to a parapet, over which he gazed out in the direction of the enemy. His officers suggested that this was unwise and perhaps he ought to duck while passing the parapet. 'Nonsense,' snapped the general. 'They couldn't hit an elephant at this distA moment later Sedgwick fell to the ground, fatally wounded. And it was just at Nebuchadnezzar's moment of apparent strength that God gave him a serious warning. Verse 5: 'I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in my bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me. So I commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me.'

So what was the dream about? Nebuchadnezzar sees a beautiful tree. It was large and strong and it gave food for all. Lots of animals and creatures sheltered under its branches and received food from the tree. But then something else happens. The king sees a messenger coming down from heaven who commands that the tree be cut down and stripped of its branches. Its fruit is scattered everywhere and the animals driven away. The tree is cut to its very stump and then bound with iron and left there. And then the messenger begins to make the meaning of the dream clear. This tree stump is a man. This man will lose his mind and become like an animal for a stretch of time. And the reason? Verse 17: 'that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.' So that was the dream! And where all the advisors in the king's courts fail, Daniel excels by interpreting the dream, because he relies on the God who gives wisdom to men.

But before we find out the meaning of the dream, it's important to notice in passing two characteristics of the way Daniel handles Nebuchadnezzar. First that Daniel is sensitive to Nebuchadnezzar. Verse 19: 'Then Daniel (also called Belteshazzar) was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him.' Why was that? Daniel says: 'My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries!' The reason he hesitates is because he is deeply concerned for the king. It was probably very shocking for Daniel to realise the content of this dream applied to the king. The king was being threatened with the fall of his empire and mental illness. And Daniel was worried. So Daniel dealt sensitively with the king. It was bad news and he felt the pain too as much as Nebuchadnezzar will. But not only was Daniel sensitive but he was also truthful. It must have been tempting for Daniel to water down the content of the dream, especially considering his concern for the king. But Daniel, though troubled by the message, was absolutely truthful and faithful to its content. Verse 22: 'You, O king, are that tree!'

And in these two ways Daniel is a model for us of how to share the message of the gospel with our friends. Because as we'll see in a moment God's message contains dire warnings of what will happen unless we take action. And we cannot share such messages without a deep personal burden for our friends. We recognise the dire situation they are in, enemies of God and separated from him. We pass on the warnings of the gospel with tears in our eyes. And yet we must be faithful to the message, as Daniel was. We do our friends no favours at all if we water down the message. If we ignore their sin, or fail to tell them that God is rightly a God of just anger, then we are deceiving them. No Daniel in this chapter teaches us to be both sensitive and truthful. We need both of those qualities in our evangelism.

So what was it that Daniel had to tell Nebuchadnezzar? Well God through Daniel makes it clear that Nebuchadnezzar is the tree. He is a mighty king with a huge empire. Verse 22: 'You, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.' And in chapter 5 we discover that God was the one who gave such greatness to Nebuchadnezzar. But his problem was that he'd failed to acknowledge that God was God and that all his success was divinely given. And so Daniel warns of the judgement to come. Nebuchadnezzar will be cut down and reduced to an insane shell of a man. He'll live like a beast with the beasts, until he acknowledges that God is God. And yet there is still an opportunity to repent. Verse 27: 'Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.' So that is Daniel's warning. Unless you repent, King Nebuchadnezzar, you are facing ruin.

And friends that is exactly what each one of us here must do if we too are not to face God's just judgement upon us. Because the fact is God is not simply warning us of removing our empires or sending us insane. Nebuchadnezzar faced punishment in this life if he didn't repent. But the Bible warns us of a much more serious punishment in the next if we don't accept the warning and repent. That is to be cut off from God forever. We too have been given much by God. Yet our natural inclination is to think that we have done it all. We are the kings. And we fail to acknowledge God as the King. But God declares that that is a blatant breach of his commands and an arrogant denial of his kingship. And unless we heed the warning and humble ourselves before God and come back to him, then we too will face God's just punishment. It is absolutely vital to heed the warning signs.

A U.S. Air Force transport plane with its captain and 5 crew members was flying over Alaska in the mid 1950's when they entered an unusually fierce snowstorm. The navigator contacted an air base only to be told that he had veered several hundred miles off course. Correct coordinates were given to the navigator, who continued to insist that his own calculations could not be that far off. Soon the plane ran low on fuel. The six men decided to abandon the plane and parachute to safety, but because of the -70 degree Fahrenheit temperature and winds that gusted to 50 mph, they were all frozen within minutes of hitting the ground. As a result of the navigator's failure to heed the warnings, six people went to their deaths.

The Bible tells us that 'the way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise'. And when it comes to God's warnings, nothing could be more important than to heed them and accept them. So don't ignore the warnings. Accept the warning. That's the first lesson we learn from Nebuchadnezzar's testimony.

2) Admit our Pride (Vv 28-33)

But the second lesson we learn from this testimony is that we must admit our pride. Pride is the enjoyment of self-sufficiency rather than God-sufficiency and the enjoyment of self-exaltation rather than God-exaltation. It seems that boxers, above all people, excel in pride. Mohammed Ali's autobiography is called 'The Greatest'. But one day he met his match. He was sitting in a plane about to take off when the air hostess asked him to put on his seat belt. He replied 'Superman don't need no seat-belt'. She replied 'Superman don't need no plane.' And pride was something Nebuchadnezzar excelled in and sadly failed to admit. Verse 28: 'All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, ''Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?'' Now roof tops were dangerous places for kings. They symbolised the place where the king could look out over the whole city and show himself to be above everyone else. It was a place of security and pride. And Nebuchadnezzar's words revealed where his heart really lay. 'Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?' He was so incredibly self obsessed and self centred. All he cared about was his glory and majesty. He'd taken no notice whatsoever of the warnings Daniel had given him the year before. And it wasn't as if this warning was anything new for the king. It's most likely that this event took place towards the end of his reign. Nebuchadnezzar reigned for about forty years. So he'd had as much as thirty years of Daniel's presence with him. He'd seen the amazing things described in chapters 1-3. He was certainly not ignorant of what God was like. In fact he admitted the existence of God at the end of chapter 3 and warned against anyone saying anything against God or his followers. Ignorance was no excuse. Rather it was his pride. He had refused to repent as Daniel had told him.

And so what happens? Well the dream comes true. Verse 31: 'The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, 'This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.' Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.' The one who sheltered the animals is now the one who becomes one. God takes away his sanity and reduces him to nothing more than a wild beast. When the chance to repent was there for the taking, Nebuchadnezzar proudly refused it.

And the lesson for each and every one of us is to admit we are proud and to come back in repentance to the living God. It may well be that you have not done that yet. Well can I urge you to see the example of Nebuchadnezzar and take this story seriously. History shows us this is what happened to the king. There is little doubt. And it's a picture of what happens to anyone who stubbornly refuse to come back to God and acknowledge that he is the King. Nebuchadnezzar's madness is actually a reminder that to be without God is sub-human. To refuse him as our God and king is to degrade our humanity. We were made for relationship with him. You might think you are actually liberated without God. But the reverse is true. You're enslaved. To be fully human is to submit ourselves to God and swallow our pride and admit our humble dependence on him. For pride, if we refuse to admit it, will be the death of us, not just physically, but spiritually, for ever.

In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn't a technology problem like radar malfunction, or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship's presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late.proud human beings and the living God are on a collision course. And God alone is king. And unless we admit our pride and come back to him, then we will have to face the consequences. Not just in this life but in the world to come. Either we bow the knee to God willingly in this life or begrudgingly in the next. And then there is no second chance.

But even if we have become Christians, there is still a lesson here for us to take away. For we too must be in the business of humbling ourselves before God. For pride can still be part of the Christian too. Yes we may have humbly come back to God, and yet pride still lurks deep in our hearts. You may proudly believe that you are very gifted and quite frankly you can do a better job than anyone else. You proudly tell yourself you are better than others. Whereas the truth is we are all sinners saved by grace and even your gifts are just that. Given by God. You may proudly believe that you can get through your present difficulties without praying to your heavenly Father. Prayerlessness is pride in action. We proudly think we can get by on our own, whereas in fact, we wouldn't be able to take one breath were it not for God sustaining us. Oh, yes, pride is still at work in the Christian's life. Admit it to God, and ask him to help you battle against it. Humble yourself before your God and king. Admit your pride, and come back to him today. That's our second lesson. Admit our pride.

3) Acknowledge who's King (Vv 34-37)

But there is one final lesson for us to learn and that is to acknowledge who's king. And amazingly that is just what Nebuchadnezzar did. Because having ignored the warning and failed to admit his pride, you might be forgiven for thinking that Nebuchadnezzar's time was up. But it was not quite the end of the story. For God as well as being a God of just and righteous judgement is also a God of mercy. And that is what Nebuchadnezzar discovered right at the end of his life. Of course, there does come a time when even mercy and patience runs out. Sometimes he says enough is enough. Whilst God was merciful to Nebuchadnezzar, we'll see next week in the mirror chapter to this, that Belshazzar, a later king, refused to repent. But for now, God is merciful to Nebuchadnezzar. Because in the dream there was a glimmer of hope. In verse 26, Daniel had said: 'The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules.'

And sure enough we read in verse 34: '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 honoured and glorified him who lives forever.' You may have noticed that in verses 28-33, the narrative was in the third person. It was as if Nebuchadnezzar lost everything including his personality. But now it is back, not because he's earned it but because he has acknowledged that actually there is only one King. And that is God. And what does he say about him? Verse 34: 'His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 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?'' This is the God of the Bible. The God of sovereign power, who humbles even the mightiest dictators like Nebuchadnezzar. And the thought we are supposed to be left with as we leave Daniel chapter 4 is what an amazing God we have.

What do you think this did for the exiles in Babylon? I mean, can you imagine going into the bookies in the centre of Babylon after Israel had just fallen and asking for odds on Nebuchadnezzar becoming a worshipper of Yahweh? They'd give you odds on Daniel becoming a Babylonian. But not the Babylonian Emperor bowing the knee to Yahweh, the God of this petty conquered nation. They'd have called in the men with white coats. But this is the God we are dealing with in Babylon. The God who makes the impossible possible. This is the God who gives power and takes it away. No-one is so powerful that they are immune from God's hand. No-one. And yet it is so easy to forget how awesome and powerful the God of the Bible really is. Surrounded as we are all around us by spiritual Babylon we forget that we serve the King of kings.

Listen to how Abraham Lincoln chastised his nation when he was President of the USA. It seems amazing nowadays, but he was actually declaring a Proclamation of a day of National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer, in 1863. He said: 'We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.'

I wonder if that is true for us Christians here today. Have you forgotten how powerful and great our God is? Maybe you've grown weary of praying for a friend who seems never to be interested in the Christian faith. Maybe a spouse who shows no signs of interest. Well look at what God did in Nebuchadnezzar's life. Even the most stubborn and proud can be brought low. Don't despair. God is able, though only he knows if and when he will do it. For Nebuchadnezzar it took thirty years! Maybe you're feeling simply overwhelmed by work or studies or a family situation. The battle is just so wearing so much of the time. It's so hard going against the tide in Babylon. Maybe you've grown weary of making a stand for God all these years. You wonder whether it is all worth it. Your stand in the office or at college or at home seem to have made no difference at all. Well don't despair. You serve the King of kings who sees all and will vindicate you at the last. How can we be sure? How was Daniel sure? Because he witnessed great and mighty wonders done by his God in the king's life. But we are far more privileged than Daniel. For we have seen far greater deeds and mighty wonders performed by our God. Because we live the other side of the cross, something we remember as we share bread and wine tonight. We know that Jesus humbled himself to death, even death on a cross, yet God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above very name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow. You can be sure that God will acknowledge your stand for him, because Jesus has claimed the victory. And through him we have the victory. God has shown himself to be the God of gods and King of kings ultimately in Christ. And one day he bring about the conclusion to his victory. The way to stand in Babylon is not by just grinning and bearing it. It's by acknowledging who is the real King and trusting the same God whose kingdom and power are everlasting whose shown it in Jesus. Don't give up the fight. Don't despair. For the true King is alive and well. Acknowledge who's king.

Well if you'd seen the film at the cinema, or read the scoop in the paper over breakfast in Babylon, you'd probably never have believed it. But that is the God we are dealing with. A God whose power is so great and whose kingdom is eternal. And the same God who humbled Nebuchadnezzar asks us just the same questions. Will you accept the warning? Will you admit your pride? And will you acknowledge who's king?


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