Daniel 4:1–18 (ESV)
I have a sneaking suspicion that Instagram and TikTok would have been very tempting and dangerous for King Nebuchadnezzar.
Can you imagine Nebuchadnezzar on Social Media?
I (Nebuchadnezzar) laid the foundation of the gates down to the ground water level and had them built out of pure blue stone. Upon the walls in the inner room of the gate are bulls and dragons and thus I magnificently adorned them with luxurious splendour for all mankind to behold in awe.
Here are some of his actual accomplishments:
These were actual things he did build, according to Goldingjay in the Word Biblical Commentary. One scholar has compiled 126 pages of text and translation of his building inscriptions.
Based on what we read in our text, I think Nebuchadnezzar might have been tempted to take his social media boasting a little further:
Eventually, he’s going to say something like this:
Daniel 4:30 (ESV) — …“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?”
Things are going to change for Nebuchadnezzar at this point. This will be the beginning of his 7 year break from social media for his own good, and for the good of the nations.
This morning we are continuing in our series in the book of Daniel which we are calling “Faithful: God’s Character, Our Calling.” We will be in Chapters 4 and 5 today, which cover two separate scenes in the history of Babylon and those taken captive from Judah in the 6th century B.C. In both chapters we will see egregious sins against God, revelation from God to the two Kings, prophetic warnings and interpretations from Daniel, and then two very divergent conclusions. Just as a heads-up, we will be spending more time reading the text than normal today. There is a lot of it, so you’ll want to make sure you have your bible out and opened to Daniel 4-5.
Though there are several key lessons that each of us should heed today, let’s not forget the broader context of what Daniel is doing in this book. It is not merely moral lessons that we should heed as individuals, but rather an encouragement for God’s people in exile. Daniel is reminding God’s people that the LORD, the one true God, is sovereign over all things and able to tear down and to raise up, to bind and to loose, to judge and to show mercy. He is over all earthly kingdoms. His Kingdom is what matters, and His Kingdom is unshakeable.
As we work through the sermon today we will see:
We have already read the opening setting for Nebuchadnezzar’s Pride. It is interesting how Daniel sets up Chapter 4, though. The opening three verses almost seem like a conclusion to the events of Chapter 3. But, it is correct to see them as the opening to Chapter 4. In fact, they are actually the conclusion to the events of Chapter 4. He is telling the end at the beginning.
One of the clues that this is not the ending of the events of Chapter 3 is the last two words in vs. 2. “For me.”
Daniel 4:2 (ESV)
In Chapter 3, the King witnessed what God did to deliver Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But now, he is telling what God has done for him.
We should also note that this is more than a mere personal reflection, which would still be encouraging. It is actually a royal decree from a pagan, Gentile King to the whole world about the worship of the one, true God. Clearly, the events we are about to read about had a significant impact on this man. It is quite astounding how positively Daniel is portraying this Gentile King who carried him and many of God’s people away captive.
There are certainly some similarities between Chapter 4 and Chapter 2. Both involve a dream, the failure of the king’s magicians to interpret the dream, and Daniel’s accurate interpretation.
The first 18 verses of Chapter 4 are told in the 1st Person by Nebuchadnezzar himself. Then, the narrator takes over through verse 33, and then the King speaks in first person again through the end of the Chapter.
Daniel 4:4 (ESV)
We will see again later that this prosperity and ease was not particularly helpful to Nebuchadnezzar. We don’t know when during the King’s reign this dream took place. He reigned in Babylon from 605-562 B.C.
What we do know is that things seemed to be going well and his empire was prospering.
There is a spiritual danger for us when things are going well and we are at ease.
Proverbs 30:8–9 (ESV) — … give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.
There is a real sense in which, “Give us this day our daily bread” keeps us grounded and dependent upon the Lord.
However, even in the midst of his prosperity God wanted to get a message through to Nebuchadnezzar in the form of a dream.
The central image in his dream was a tree that was so strong that its top reached heaven and was visible to the whole earth.
This image of a tree goes beyond merely being “alive” to being “life-giving.” It is presented as the center of reality itself and somehow a connection between earth and heaven. We can’t help hearing echos of Eden and the Tower of Babel in these references.
The dream included some kind of angelic figure, a “watcher” coming down from heaven and cutting down the tree. He didn’t simply cut it down, but lopped off the branches, stripped the leaves, and scattered the fruit. It will no longer provide shelter or food.
In an unexpected twist, the this angelic arborist leaves the stump and puts an iron band around the stump.
As Nebuchadnezzar reveals the dream, Daniel is a bit fearful to reveal its meaning.
Daniel 4:19–22 (ESV)
The text continues to put Nebuchadnezzar in a fairly good light. We are not exactly sure why Daniel is concerned to share the interpretation, though it’s not difficult to imagine. It’s difficult to advise perhaps the most powerful person on the face of the earth at the time. We may think of the President of the United States as the most powerful person, but consider all of the legal restrictions and accountability that the President has today. Nebuchadnezzar had none of that. He could do whatever he wished.
Daniel continues his interpretation in vs. 24.
Daniel 4:24–27 (ESV)
This is indeed a strange warning—that he will be driven into the wilderness to eat grass like an ox. Some have tried to associate this behavior with particular mental illnesses. Though an interesting thought, we must remember that this is not the point.
Daniel has some hope that this could be avoided, and encourages the King to amend his ways and break off his sins. He doesn’t point out specific sins that must be repented of, but gives general exhortations to do what good rulers should do—practice righteousness and show mercy to the oppressed.
We aren’t sure if the King heeded Daniel’s warning or not.
Daniel 4:28–31 (ESV)
It took 12 months for God to bring the judgment on Nebuchadnezzar. I’m not sure if that was twelve months of the King being on his best behavior according to Daniel’s warning, or if God was patiently giving him more time to repent.
It appears that the King was again at his leisure, and that things were overall going splendidly.
The specific sin requiring discipline is the sin of Pride.
What exactly is Nebuchadnezzar’s sin here? It is not merely delighting in the beauty and wonder of his accomplishments in the city, which were in fact impressive by all accounts.
C.S. Lewis can help us with some insight from his chapter titled, “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity.
Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 122.
Do you find yourself comparing yourself to others? Beware of pride. Nebuchadnezzar was not only comparing himself to others but using language that compared him to deities. Dangerous stuff! This temptation goes all the way back to Eden, “You’ll be like God…”
One of the great challenges with the sin of Pride is that we so easily recognize it in others, and so rarely see it in ourselves.
Daniel 4:33 (ESV)
Instead of Nebuchadnezzar humbling himself, God humbles him to the point of humiliation. He is not merely lowered beyond other kings or great ones; he is lowered below humanity itself.
But, this is not the end of the matter for this Gentile King.
Daniel 4:34–37 (ESV)
A proud man never looks up. He sees himself as above other and is regularly looking down at them. But after some extended period of time, we think 7 years perhaps, Nebuchadnezzar lifts his eyes to heaven. He looks up. He acknowledges God as being above him in glory and majesty and greatness. God, in his mercy, returned the King’s reason to him.
Daniel 5:1–4 (ESV)
There is quite a change in context when we get to Chapter 5. It is unexplained by the writer, but suddenly Nebuchadnezzar is out of the picture and we have a new ruler, Belshazzar.
The history is interesting and complicated, but briefly I’ll just point out that at least 23 years has passed since the end of Chapter 4. After ruling for 43 years Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 B.C. and there were several rulers between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, and it is likely that Belshazzar was merely a co-regent with Nabonidus.
We should remember that Daniel is not attempting to give a history of the Babylonian captivity. He is bolstering God’s people in the midst of captivity with the truth that God is in control and able to deliver them.
Whereas Nebuchadnezzar’s sin was pride, Belshazzar’s was idolatry. He is throwing a pretty large party—1,000 people. This, by itself is not a problem, but he calls for the golden vessels plundered from the temple in Jerusalem. This is blasphemy to take the vessels intended for worship of Yahweh and use them in such a manner. It seems that Nebuchadnezzar didn’t even dare to use them in this fashion.
Then, Belshazzar takes it even further. Not only is he profaning the golden vessels with such a use, as they drink wine in them, they praise their own false gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
As Phil mentioned last week in his sermon on Chapter 3, sometimes it is difficult for us to relate to the sin of idolatry in the Bible since we do not typically bow down to physical idols.
But, in this context, the idolatry of the Babylonians was celebrating and attributing their success to gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. This is not so far out of reach for us to imagine.
What would be the created things which we might praise and celebrate today? How about liberty, autonomy, economy, political power, technological innovation?
Do we celebrate with the vessels of God’s gifts (all things are for him, there is no sacred/secular divide anymore) for the glory of God or to the glory of our idols?
God doesn’t speak to Belshazzar in a dream to confront him. It is much more sinister.
Daniel 5:5–6 (ESV)
Awkward moment! The King is terrified. Consider how you’d respond in such a moment. Goose Bumps! Fear!
The Aramaic is a bit interesting in vs. 6 for “his limbs gave way.” It literally says, “The knots of his loins were loosed.” It is quite possible this means he messed his pants in fright.
It is strange enough to have a bodiless hand writing on the wall, but his fear continues since he doesn’t know what it means.
Like Nebuchadnezzar before him, Belshazzar calls for all the wisemen and magicians in the kingdom to interpret the message from God…and they can’t. He’s getting desperate now.
Daniel 5:9–12 (ESV)
We’re not sure why Daniel wasn’t included with the earlier group of wise men brought before the King. Perhaps, Belshazzar has disassociated with the leaders from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. You know, the whole live like an ox stuff was pretty weird.
Daniel 5:13–14 (ESV)
Daniel would be between 80-85 years old at this point. But, he is brought before the king and offered gifts and power (which are unwanted by Daniel at this point—he doesn’t need them).
And he will interpret the writing for Belshazzar, but not before he gives him a history lesson—just like an older man might do!
Daniel 5:17–23 (ESV)
This is a stinging rebuke to Belshazzar. It doesn’t have the flavor of patience and deference which Daniel gave to Nebuchadnezzar at all. I wonder if Daniel didn’t have near the respect for Belshazzar that he might have had for the former King. It’s obvious Nebuchadnezzar actually was an accomplished ruler. We just see Belshazzar partying.
The KEY for us to notice is in verse 22. It is a warning to us:
“You should have known better.” Or, put more accurately, “You knew better, but you didn’t change.”
This is a danger to us, who have a rich heritage of knowing God’s word and his work, both in the scripture, and through the testimonies of those around us. Do not deceive yourself into thinking that God will not hold us to account for what we have heard and seen and known.
Daniel then does interpret the message for Belshazzar.
Daniel 5:24–28 (ESV)
We’re not entirely sure why the Chaldeans couldn’t read the message or interpret it. It seems that each of the three words with three consonants each could be understood as nouns as units of money (the mina, shekel and half-mina). Daniel seems to apply different vowels to make the words verbs and comes up with a different meaning via wordplay.
In the end, the message is one of judgment on Belshazzar. In the words of one commentator,
God has got Belshazzar’s number (26), that he is a light-weight (27), and his kingdom will split (28). In short, ‘You are finished, flimsy and fractured.’
- Dale Ralph Davis, The Message of Daniel, The Bible Speaks Today, 77.
Daniel 5:29–31 (ESV)
What a sobering end to Belshazzar! We have been accustomed to God showing mercy to Nebuchadnezzar, but he takes swift judgment this idolatrous king.
One of the ironies is that Belshazzar was holding a huge feast while his enemies were knocking on the door. The Medes conquered the city that very night, and the Babylonian Empire was finished.
Mercy through Providence
Mercy through Revelation
Mercy through prophetic warnings
Mercy through discipline and difficulties
Mercy through the example of others
Mercy through a different tree stretched from earth to Heaven
Mercy through another King
Don’t hide idolatry. Confess and forsake it.
We know better than to practice theological idolatry. We don’t physically bow down to or praise gods of gold or silver or stone.
But, what are our functional idols? What do we look to to get happiness or purpose or fulfillment? What areas of our lives, if threatened, cause us the most consternation?
The answer for Nebuchadnezzar was to take his eyes off his accomplishments, and off his circumstances, and off the opinion of others—off himself completely. He lifted his eyes to heaven, and “his reason returned to him.”
At the end of God’s loving discipline, Nebuchadnezzar’s social media feed was very different.
Daniel 4:37 (ESV)
Daniel 4:34–35 (ESV)
God is offering his mercy to you this morning.
John 3:14–18 (ESV) — And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
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