A sermon on Daniel 4 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 12 June 2022
Daniel chapter 4 is written like a proclamation by king Nebuchadnezzar to his subjects. But it is in the Bible because its message is for us. Its message is for you. And it makes two simple points. Firstly, the true and living God is the king of kings. He holds the presidents and prime ministers of the world in the palm of his hand. He raises them up and brings them down to teach them to be humble.
Secondly, trouble is temporary, but the kingdom of God is forever. Sometimes, you just have to bow your head, say a prayer, weather the storm, and trust that this too shall pass. But the wise person can do more than just weather the storm.
In Daniel chapter 4 Nebuchadnezzar tells us that he had a dream. Dreams are important in the book of Daniel because through them God communicates his will to his creatures, especially to those who aren’t listening. In his dream Nebuchadnezzar saw an enormous tree.
Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the beasts of the field found shelter, and the birds of the air lived in its branches. From it every creature was fed.
In his dream an angel called for the tree to be cut down, its leaves to be stripped off and its fruit to be scattered. But the stump and its roots were to be left in the ground. It would be brought down but it would have a chance to regrow.
But the angel makes it clear that it isn’t a real tree it is talking about. The angel said,
Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal till seven times pass by.
And by “seven times” the angel means seven years. The angel isn’t talking about a tree, an it. The angel is talking about a person, a he, a him, whose mind will be changed to that of an animal. A person who will go mad. All this will happen, said the angel,
so 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.
Understandably, the dream troubled Nebuchadnezzar.
He asked his wise men to interpret it, to explain to him what it meant. But no one could except Daniel. Daniel was at first reluctant to tell the king what it meant. Daniel expressed the wish that the dream applied to the king’s enemies. But it didn’t. Daniel said,
You, O king, are that tree.
The tree that provided shelter and food for the creatures in its neighbourhood. In the same way, Nebuchadnezzar was the king of a vast empire. His rule provided peace and prosperity for all its subjects. Yes, that empire had been built on Nebuchadnezzar’s army. He crushed revolt and rebellion with violence and force. In the same way that a big tree, when it was a smaller tree, out competed and out grew and overshadowed all the other small trees until only it was left.
Nebuchanezzar was a giant tree in the forest of humanity. But just as the tree in the dream was cut down, so Nebuchadnezzar would be brought down low. He would be driven mad for seven years, Daniel said,
…until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.
Then, like a tree that regrows from its stump, Nebuchadnezzar’s madness would end and he would be restored to his kingdom.
For Daniel the moral of the dream was clear. He boldly said to the king,
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.
Advice that reminds us firstly, that prophecy in the Bible or in dreams is not about predicting the future but is about warning people what will happen if they don’t change. It reminds us secondly, that true, genuine, lasting prosperity in God’s good and wise world is only the result of living in harmony with God’s will. The wise person does what is good and right. The wise person looks after the weak and the vulnerable. And so the wise person prospers not at the expense of others, like a giant tree overshadowing all the smaller trees, but only along with others.
It was good advice which the king just didn’t take. Sadly, the kings of the earth never change. Twelve months later, Nebuchadnezzar was walking on the roof of his palace when he said to himself,
Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?
It doesn’t require a Nobel prize to work out what is wrong here. Nebuchadnezzar praised what he had built by his own power for his own glory. It is the very opposite of the wisdom that Daniel was trying to advise him to follow. Changing his behaviour, looking after others. It is instead, the folly, the madness, the willful stupidity of the self-made man who imagines that he has acquired all that he has solely by his own effort, rather than seeing his own prosperity as a gift from God, contributed to by the hard work of others.
Like the statue in the picture which imagines that it is sculpting itself, when it didn’t make the stone and was itself made by a sculptor and will only ever move by a miracle of God. To believe that we and we alone are sculpting ourselves is the best definition of madness.
No sooner were his words of self-praise uttered than Nebuchadnezzar’s dream came true. He went mad and forgot himself and ate grass like a cow. It reminds us that to forget God, to refuse to acknowledge him, to fail to give him thanks or to take him into consideration is to make ourselves no better than animals. Or worse. Because the dog knows its master. The horse responds to its rider. But the self-made man refuses to admit the truth.
For seven years Nebuchadnezzar’s family and advisers kept the empire running, until, as he put it himself,
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.
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?”
The message for us is that sanity is acknowledging God. Acknowledging his power. Acknowledging his gifts. Acknowledging the extraordinary privilege of living in his world under his care and in his strength. God is not our invisible friend that we talk to so we don’t feel lonely. He is the Most High. While we are temporary, he lives forever. While earthly rulers come and go and empires are conquered and replaced by others, his dominion is eternal. He is greater than the tallest giant of the forest. His love is higher than the sky and his arms stretch further than the limits of the universe. From his vantage point of heaven, the rulers of this earth only look like slightly bigger ants than all the others. Their reign of terror is brief, their glory explodes like a firework and then fades into darkness. Alexander the Great conquered the known world and died at the age of 32. Napoleon lost at Waterloo and died in exile. Hitler gambled on war and lost and shot himself. Stalin had a stroke. Pol Pot died in prison. Millions suffered under the passing storm of their rule. But after each storm the sun shone again. The true and living God is the king of kings and he rules the rulers of the earth. No one can rise up and bring God down.
The truth is, however, no storm is pleasant. Suffering is real, and justice is often too easily postponed or denied. Sometimes it is important to weather the storm. But the wise person, like Daniel, does more than just weather the storm. Daniel served the king. Nebuchadnezzar’s distress caused him distress. Daniel didn’t undermine him or organise a rebellion against him. He didn’t rejoice that the king’s dream foretold his downfall.
On the other hand, Daniel didn’t slavishly follow his decrees either. Instead, he told the king the truth he needed to hear and advised him towards wisdom and justice and charity. We too can serve the king or the queen or the Prime Minister. We can serve for or in any level of government with honour and justice and integrity as a service to God and to our neighbours. In a democracy, we get to choose our leaders and it is natural that we take sides in that competition as one side or the other better aligns with our own values. As long as we remember to pray for both sides and that God takes no sides.
From time to time wicked people will rise to power. They will do the wrong thing either because they can get away with it or because it is popular. The weak and vulnerable may suffer. Goodness and truth and justice may suffer. We may suffer and the people we care about it. But we can weather whatever storm comes. And we can do more. Because then, like Daniel, we must tell the truth that people need to hear even if they don’t want to and we must advise them towards what is good and right and fair. For we can not only give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God but we must, as Jesus told us to.
And we can do it confidently and cheerfully, because Jesus is the king of kings.