A sermon on Daniel 2 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 29 May 2022
Daniel chapter 2 is a long passage. To make it easier to read and to listen to, I’ve split it into three shorter passages. The first passage is about the king. Nebuchadnezzar. The second is about Daniel. And the third is about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. But all of it, from beginning to end, is about God.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, two swindlers arrive at the emperor’s court posing as weavers. They promise to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The emperor hires them. A succession of royal officials visit the weavers to check their progress. Each sees that the looms are empty but pretends otherwise to avoid being thought a fool. Finally, the weavers report that the emperor’s suit is finished. They dress the emperor in his invisible new clothes and he sets off in a procession before the whole city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretence, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until a child blurts out the truth. The emperor is wearing nothing at all. His nakedness has been exposed.
In a similar way Daniel chapter 2 exposes the naked heart of Nebuchadnezzar. He was the king of the mighty Babylonian empire. But what we see in this story is not a great and noble man. What we see a small man, frightened by his dream, suspicious of his advisers, and easily angered by those who defy his will with their reasonable requests. A small, pathetic man, who nevertheless holds the power of life and death over those beneath him. A man who can do nothing to inspire people do what he wants except threaten them. It is the naked heart of empire, full of fear, anger and violence.
Nebuchadnezzar had a dream and his dream frightened him. Without giving too much away too soon, I’d simply say that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream threatened his legacy. It didn’t threaten his life or his wealth or his health, but it warned that in the great scheme of world history, Nebuchadnezzar’s achievements would come to nothing. They would leave no lasting impression. That Nebuchadnezzar and his great empire would come and go and largely be forgotten and ultimately replaced with something different and something better. But more of that later.
Nebuchadnezzar woke up afraid. He was frightened because he felt powerless. For a man who knew how to use power and used it to make other people feel like there was nothing they could do to stop him, it was an unusual feeling. And it terrified him. So he wanted answers. And called in his advisers, the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers who were trained in the arts of interpreting dreams.
But he found that he couldn’t trust them. He didn’t want any comforting lies. He didn’t want to be flattered or to be swindled. He needed to know what his dream meant so that if it was a true dream he could stop it from coming true. He didn’t want a safe textbook answer that was plausible but could be just as wrong as it was right and he didn’t want any vague mumbo jumbo that these astrologers would give him just to cover up the fact that they had no idea what his dream meant. He wanted to know the truth. And he was cunning and ruthless enough to come up with a plan that would ensure that what he got was the truth.
He wouldn’t tell his astrologers the dream. They would have to tell him the dream without him telling them first and then he would know that when they interpreted the dream, they were right. To back up his plan he used the ultimate threat. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t do what he ordered, he would kill them and turn their homes into rubble.
Before this frightened, unreasoning bully the astrologers were helpless. He was like a three year old with the power of a god. Twice they asked him to make their job easy for them. And not just for them but for him as well. Tell us, they said, so we can tell you. But Nebuchadnezzar refused and their stalling tactics made him even angrier.
Finally they had to admit that what he was asking for was impossible. They said to him,
There is not a man on earth who can do what the king asks! No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men.
And it’s true. No one can read minds. I might try to guess what you are thinking, but all I would tell you is what I think you are thinking or what I would think if I were you. But I’d be more likely to be wrong than right. No one can read minds. No one can tell someone the dream they’ve had unless the dreamer tells the dream. No mortal human being could possibly possess such power. Only the gods know such secrets and as the astrologers knew all too well the gods don’t live among human beings. The gods of wood and stone don’t care and they don’t share their secrets with human beings.
What we see in this story is that the king had feet of clay. Nebuchadnezzar may have conquered the world with his armies. He may have been an expert in using violence to get his way. But he was only human. He was only mortal. He was frightened by his dream. He could not inspire obedience among his servants without using threats. And he was afraid most of all that he will grow old and die and leave no lasting legacy.
It is a reminder that all our leaders, all our heroes, all our rulers are only human. However, great they are, they have feet of clay and ultimately they will topple and fall. Like us they are afflicted with weakness, with selfishness, at the mercy of their desires and fears, easily angered and easily manipulated. Even the most ruthless and fearsome of ruler grow old and die. They go mad and are replaced. Or they make mistakes that result in their own demise. They are not gods and should not be worshiped or feared as if they were. Just like you they are only human. The best of them need our prayers and support. And the worst of them will leave no lasting legacy.
As officials in the Babylonian public service the lives of Daniel and his friends were in danger too. But what did Daniel do? He remained calmed. He spoke with wisdom and tact. Although Nebuchadnezzar was being unreasonable, Daniel used reason and common sense. He asked for an explanation for the king’s harsh decree and then went to the king to ask for time. And he was successful.
Daniel shows us that the wise man does not fear the king because he fears the king of kings. The wise man tries to reason with the unreasonable. When others are afraid the wise man remains calm.
And then Daniel turned to prayer. Prayer may be the last resort of the ungodly, which they only turn to when there is nothing else they can do. But prayer is the first resort of the godly. Daniel asked his friends to pray, to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning the mystery of the king’s dream.
The gods of wood and stone do not dwell among human beings and they keep their secrets to themselves. But the true and living God answers prayer. And when God granted Daniel’s prayer, when he told Daniel not only what Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was but also gave him its interpretation, Daniel praised him.
Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. 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, O God of my fathers: 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.
In his prayer, Daniel acknowledges two key things about God. Firstly, that God is the king of kings and the lord of history. He changes times and seasons. Meaning that things don’t always stay the same. We want them to. We want life to be just as good as it was when we were children. We want a return to the good old days. But things never stay the same. They always change. Winter becomes spring and turns to summer, autumn and winter again. There are good times and bad. When they are good we never want them to change. When they are bad we are afraid that they will never change.
But God is the lord of every season. Of summer and winter. Of sunny days and foggy days. Nothing changes against his will and however bad things get, he can change them again. He can bring an end to evil and restore justice and prosperity. But even on the darkest day, the light of his goodness and truth still shines brightly.
More specifically, he sets up kings and deposes them. The Donald Trumps and Vladimir Putins have their brief time to strut on history’s stage. But their time ultimately comes to an end. And all of this is by the Lord’s hand. He allows it. He raises them up and he brings them down. Whether our Prime Ministers and Premiers are wise and good or foolish and self-serving, our God reigns supreme above them all.
The second thing Daniel affirms in his prayer is that wisdom belongs to God and it is his gift to his people.
Wisdom and power are his. 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.
It means that God not only knows the secrets of the universe because he made it but he wants them to be known, so that his people may live in harmony with his will. So that wicked may change and do what is good.
These two truths lay at the heart of Daniel’s calm. No matter how unreasonable Nebuchadnezzar behaved, a God of reason ruled above him. And no matter how mysterious the secrets that Nebuchadnezzar demanded from his astrologers, God already knew them and wanted them to be known. In fact, God had sent the dream to Nebuchadnezzar because he wanted the king to know its message. And therefore he would make the message known to him either through Daniel or without him.
It reminds us that we too can be calm around the foolish and can even have the confidence to try to reason with the unreasonable. God is the Lord and he is the giver of wisdom. And if we need that wisdom too we can have the same trust as Daniel to ask for it too.
Because the Lord answered his prayer, Daniel was able to tell Nebuchadnezzar his dream and to explain it. In his dream he saw a large statue of a man. Its head was gold. Its chest was silver. Its belly and thighs were bronze. Its legs were iron. And its feet were iron and clay.
The key to the dream’s interpretation lies in the fact that the different layers represent different empires and that from top to bottom the metals lower in value but increase in strength. Each empire will have its time in the sun. And each will end when they are conquered by a stronger and less noble people. The Babylonians will be followed by the Persians who will be followed by the Greeks who will be followed by the Romans.
Nebuchadnezzar was right to be afraid. Not only will his time as ruler come to an end, but his whole empire will fall to be succeeded by another to leave no lasting legacy. We don’t know what Nebuchadnezzar looked like. Nothing he built still stands. Everything has turned to dust and to us he is nothing more than a name in history.
But that is only half the story of Nebuchnezzar’s dream. Because not only will one empire give way to another and on and on through history with the Byzantine empire, the Mongol empire and the great British empire on which the sun never set. But this succession of empires will also ultimately end. Not only do our rulers have feet of clay. Not only does every empire. But the whole world in rebellion against God stands on uncertain footing. And when God acts, it will all come crashing down.
While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.
Which Daniel explained to mean that the only thing that will bring this succession of ruthless empires to an end is the coming of God’s kingdom. Daniel said,
In the time of those kings, 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.
God’s kingdom is not one of the succession of empires. It does not coincide with any human authority or rule. A Christian may enlist as a soldier, but we ought not to fight for God, king and country as if they mean the same thing. Nor should any priest or bishop turn a dictator’s invasion into a holy war. The identification of any worldly kingdom with the kingdom of God ends up making both worse.
For the kingdom of God does not develop naturally within the empires of the world. Instead, it comes like a rock from heaven, threatening all the empires of the world. The kingdom of God comes like the baby born in Bethlehem. A gift from heaven. The kingdom of God does not come through violence but through service and through suffering in the cross of Jesus. It does not evolve naturally through history, but springs up like the resurrection of the dead as an act of God who gives life. It is not won by armies marching but by the work of the Holy Spirit changing hearts and minds. It does not give its blessing to any one ruler, at the expense of other rulers and lesser people, but brings all people, whether great or small to account.
Nebuchnezzar’s dream came true when in the time of iron, in the time of the Romans, Jesus was born and lived and died and lived again for us and ascended to the right hand of God where he is king of kings. And so we who follow him live in this in between time. After the victory of Jesus on a Roman cross but before his triumphant return at the end of time. But in Jesus, a rock from heaven has been cast and the empires of this world will topple and fall and so we look forward to the coming of Jesus and the triumph of his eternal kingdom.
Daniel chapter 2 is a long passage. We looked firstly at Nebuchadnezzar and at the naked heart of the king full of fear and anger and violence. All the rulers of the world and all our heroes and great leaders have feet of clay.
We looked secondly at Daniel and the wise person of God who remains calm and reasons with the unreasonable who does not fear the king because he trusts the king of kings.
And we looked thirdly at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The kingdoms of the world come and go and succeed each other with growing violence and diminishing glory. But the kingdom of God has come like a rock from heaven. The empires of the world will crumble and fall, but God’s kingdom will last forever.
And so like Daniel we will not fear the king, or the Prime Minister or the President or the Premier, because we trust the king of kings.