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"A Tale of Two Kings"



          This morning we conclude an important phase of God’s activity recorded in the book of Daniel.  In the first four chapters of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar, who God used to judge his rebellious people in Judah, is the reigning king of Babylon.  As we saw in chapter one, in his first invasion of Judah, the king marches into the sacred temple of Israel and plunders its choicest sacred articles. He carts them back to Babylon where he places them in service to his pagan Babylonian gods.  He also deports the best and the brightest of Judah’s youth who he then places in his Royal Academy to be groomed for leadership within his Babylonian government.  His two subsequent invasions result in the complete conquest of Judah and seal his dominance over Israel and this entire region of the world.  We have seen that this kind of military conquest, from an Ancient Near Eastern worldview, communicated to the masses that the gods of Babylon had defeated the God of Israel.  Within that worldview, Nebuchadnezzar was the undisputed king of the world.

          That, of course flies in the face of the Biblical worldview as taught in the Old Testament and creates a not unanticipated challenge for God.  One challenge for God in this context is—he must fulfill his covenant curse to exile his rebellious people from the land because of their repeated, unrepentant sin.  But how does he do that without his own people as well as the surrounding nations concluding that He, as the God of the Hebrews, has been defeated by this foreign nation and foreign king?  How does he, as the recognized God of a country that has now become a conquered vassal state under the rule of Babylon, manifest his own sovereign rule?  Or, to put the question the way the conquered Jews might have been asking it in light of their defeat and deportation—“who is King-Nebuchadnezzar or Yahweh?” The first four chapters of Daniel are in some measure written to show God’s response to that question.  In chapter one, the challenge is introduced with the temple being plundered and these four choice teenagers being deported to Babylon and placed in the service of this pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar. 

We see the first part of God’s response to this context in the rest of chapter one by the supernatural favor and enabling grace he gives to Daniel and his three friends.  They miraculously advance far beyond their Babylonian peers in the Royal Academy even though they are handicapped by a diet that was not as fortifying as the food eaten by the other students.  In chapter two, God demonstrates his supremacy even more forcefully.  He enables his servant Daniel to know and interpret a dream of the king that his own best pagan magicians could not.  Beyond that, the dream itself testified to the fact that it is the God of Israel, not Nebuchadnezzar who establishes world kingdoms and will continue to raise up kings long after Nebuchadnezzar is dead and his Babylonian kingdom is toppled.  Last week, we saw God press this truth of his supremacy still further in chapter three.  He shows through his deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace that the king of Babylon was not able, in spite of his most zealous attempts, to harm one hair on the heads of God’s servants apart from his sovereign will.  At the conclusion of both chapters two and three, Nebuchadnezzar mouths words of praise to the God of Israel, indicating at least some recognition of the supremacy of Yahweh over his own rule and the pagan gods of Babylon.

His behavior in chapter four however, proves that he was far from fully convinced of the uniqueness of God’s sovereign reign.  The truth is--Nebuchadnezzar was much more enamored with his OWN royal glory as he takes all the credit for the glory of his kingdom. He wasn’t living a life or treating his subjects in any way that showed any heart felt allegiance to the Hebrew God, whose supremacy he had earlier proclaimed.    Nebuchadnezzar, in spite of all the evidence God had provided to him of his own vastly superior sovereign power, refused to genuinely submit to the God of Israel as the sovereign King.  And so in chapter four, God confronts Nebuchadnezzar with a final and conclusive display of his sovereign reign over him.  In chapter four, God, in his intensely personal rebuke of Nebuchadnezzar, conclusively reveals himself as the indisputable King over all the earth. 

          As we begin this story in chapter four, we see that this account is told from the perspective of King Nebuchadnezzar.  That makes this chapter, as Gleason Archer says, “the only chapter in Scripture composed under the authority of a pagan.”  God is able to write this completely inspired and inerrant account by the hand of this pagan king.  The king begins the chapter by issuing a proclamation written after, and in response to, the events he will subsequently unfold for us.  He praises the God of Israel and says, “King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you!  2It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me. 3How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.”

          He declares that God is the “Most High God” and that title speaks to the supremacy of God’s sovereignty—God is King over all things.  He says that “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom (in sharp contrast to his own) and “his dominion endures from generation to generation.”  Nebuchadnezzar had, in a most unpleasant manner, met the matchless King and discovered he was indeed NOT the one whose face stared back at him in the mirror.  After this proclamation, the king proceeds to relate the story and the beginning is familiar to us.  As in chapter two, the king has a dream.  On this occasion, Nebuchadnezzar vividly remembers the dream and it “alarmed” him and “made [him] afraid.”  He has some sense that the meaning of this dream was not pleasant. 

          As in chapter two the king calls in his pagan, occult advisers and they are once again powerless to interpret the dream.  Once again, we see the supremacy of God over the pagan gods because Daniel hears the dream and by the power of God, instantly knows its meaning.  It’s important to note what the king says in verse eight in reference to Daniel.  He says, “At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar, after the name of my god…”  Notice that the king still refers to his god, Belteshazzar.  He doesn’t say, “the god I formerly served until I recognized the God of Israel as the one, true God worthy of my worship and service.”  There is no record of him ever working to tear down the pagan temples or to persuade his people to turn from paganism and serve the God of Israel.  That tells us that even after these repeated revelations of the supremacy of the God of Israel, the king is still a pagan.  His heart remained hardened. 

The dream involves a fairly familiar Old Testament symbol--a large tree.  The Old Testament on several occasions uses this figure of a large tree to represent either an individual or a nation that has become powerful and proud.  Isaiah 2:12 says, “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; 13against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan;” The tall cedars of Lebanon and the impressive oaks of Bashan are representative of all the proud people in those two dominions.  In Ezekiel 31, the prophet says in verse three, “Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches and forest shade and of towering height, and its top in the clouds.”  The prophet goes on for the next six verses to speak of the majesty of Assyria using this image of a tree.  In verse 10 he says, “"Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height,  11I will give it into the hand of a mighty one of the nations. He shall surely deal with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out.  12Foreigners, the most ruthless of nations, have cut it down and left it. On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, and its boughs have been broken in all the ravines of the land, and all the peoples of the earth have gone away from its shadow and left it.”  The parallels to the tree in this dream are obvious.

          The dream is of a massive tree that is fruitful and offers protection and food to man and beast.  Suddenly, a “watcher”—a heavenly being, an angel of some sort appears and issues a proclamation to “Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit.  Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches.  But leave the stump of its root in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field.  Let him be wet with the dew of heaven.  Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth.  Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him.” [v.14-16] This large tree symbolizing the king will in a moment be removed and stripped of what once made it glorious. 

The metaphor is mixed because it refers to the tree as a “him,” indicating that the dream was about the king and not a literal tree.  Nebuchadnezzar would be changed into an animal, fit to be bound with bronze and iron.  He would act, think and eventually look like an animal, but the stump would remain.  The tree stump in Scripture symbolizes future fruitfulness.  Isaiah 11:1 is the most familiar example.  There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”  That speaks of the coming Messiah who would spring up from the felled stump of David’s royal line.  The stump in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream indicates that this gruesome transformation from man to animal would not spell the end of the king’s reign-there would be a miraculous come-back from this ignominious fate.

Verse 17 tells us why he was stricken with this condition.  It says, “to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.”  That statement gives three reasons for this judgment on the king.  First—so that all the living will know that “the MOST HIGH RULES the kingdom of men.”  This was done to establish once and for all that there was no further need to ask the question—who is King, the God of Israel or Nebuchadnezzar?  When one “King” is able to instantly reduce the other to the status of a dumb ox, the argument is settled.  GOD is KING! 

Second, this statement reaffirms the lesson from chapter two.  That is—God is not only King, he is sovereign over all kings and He places on all thrones or oval offices in all nations the person HE sees fit.  He sovereignly controls the movement of every piece on the chess board of international politics.  Finally, this statement testifies to the true nature of all those people God places in power.  He says they are “the lowliest of men.”  This is not a jab at Nebuchadnezzar in particular.  In fact, history tells us that this king was an enormously gifted and dominant monarch.  This speaks more to the fact that ALL fallen humans are of the lowliest sort when compared to God.  What happened to Nebuchadnezzar simply exemplifies that lowliness.  In an instant, this man whose glory was greater than any living human, was transformed into a totally demented, mangy, long-haired, grass-eating, bestial creature—without sense, without clothes and without even the slightest sliver of common dignity.  Much of what outwardly separates man from animal was stripped from Nebuchadnezzar and in that sense he like us, is the lowliest of men.

There is not a person alive who might not be one moment away from a crippling stroke, a mentally disabling brain disorder, a flesh-eating infection, or 100 other maladies to which we in our fallen state are vulnerable.  We, who can split the atom and land on Mars and build impressive monuments of comparably massive proportion, can be instantly felled by a blood clot no larger than a small pebble.  Only a very tiny change in our brain chemistry renders us completely out of touch with reality—responding to our surroundings far more like a tiny baby or an animal than a mature human being.  We are all frail and feeble and vulnerable people who desperately need to spend more time in nursing homes and Alzheimer’s units to remind us that tomorrow WE could be lying in that hospital bed having our diaper changed by a complete stranger.  As impressive as we can dress ourselves up to appear to be, in the end, we are embarrassingly weak.  We are vessels of clay that easily and quickly chip or crack or are rendered functionally useless.  And God sets these vulnerable people on the thrones of the kingdoms of this world.

God leaves the king in this “manimal-like” state for “seven periods of time” and that probably means seven years.  He does this for two reasons.  First, because the king failed to heed Daniel’s warning of verse 27 to “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”  Second, because of the self-glorifying attitude he expressed in verse 30.  As he was walking on the roof of his royal palace, the king surveys his impressive kingdom and says, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty.”  In other words, the king says, “This glorious place that I have built on my own I have constructed because it is place fit for the likes of someone like me and it will serve as a lasting testimony to the glory of my majesty.”  In spite of all he had seen and all he himself had even testified about the sovereign power and glory of God, Nebuchadnezzar here breathes out the true sentiments of his self-serving, vain heart and God judges him for it even before he is able to get all these blasphemous words across his lips.

Amazingly, for seven years Babylon keeps this utterly humiliated king around and no one ascends to power in his absence.  God restores his reason at the end of seven years when, according to verse 34 he “lifted [his] eyes to heaven.” The phrase, “lifted my eyes to heaven” connotes not simply a physical looking up into the skies, but according to one scholar, it expressed an attitude of “seeking God’s aid.”  At some point, by God’s grace Nebuchadnezzar is able in some very simplistic manner, to cry out to God and God graciously responds.  Nebuchadnezzar’s response to his restoration is far more substantial than his previous expressions of worship to God.  He says, “…I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;  35all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?"

          This response differs from the previous ones.  In chapter two, the king says the reason he worships God is because, “for you have been able to reveal this mystery.”  God reveals the dream that no one else can and he is worthy of worship.  In chapter three, the king’s ultimate motivation for worship is in verse 29, “for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.”  Do you hear how much weightier and broader this final blessing of God is than the other two?  Though it is certainly prompted by God’s judgment of him, it is far more a testimony to God’s comprehensively sovereign nature than simply a response to a single supernatural act.  It is also a testimony to the impotence of humanity and human kings in comparison to the God of Israel.  No one can stay his hand—no one can block him or distract him or divert him or change his mind.  No one can say to him, “What have you done?”  That is—no one looks at anything God has done and edits it or corrects it or in any way improves upon it.  Everything God decrees is permanently etched in titanium and is subject to NO ONE!  He does not seek our approval and he does not need our blessing.  He is God and there is no other.  He is God—there is none like him!

Let’s close with three brief words of application.  First, God is not satisfied with our acknowledgement of his glorious acts.  He requires lives of worship marked by joyful submission to his will.  Nebuchadnezzar, more than most people in human history had seen the glory of God, but he wasn’t willing to serve him as God or lead his kingdom to worship the God of Israel.  As inconceivable as that may seem to us, so often we are just like him.  We have seen God work in our lives in powerful ways and can rattle off all sorts of theologically accurate statements about him but our threadbare spiritual lives don’t match our glowing testimonies. His glory mandates that we give ourselves totally to him in joyful submission to his revealed will.  That is far more important to him than a thousand hymns of eloquent praise sung with lips that belie lukewarm hearts that are far from him.  The difference between the king and Daniel is not in their testimonies about God—those are remarkably similar.  The difference is--Daniel loved God with all his heart.  Nebuchadnezzar, while acknowledging God’s glory, in the end refused to give up his dead idols.  There was no consistency between his profession and his performance.  That is the case of so many of us in Christ’s church today. 

Second, God is willing and able to humble those who live as if they were the king of their lives.  Nebuchadnezzar’s final tribute to the God of Israel is in verse 37.  Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”  We see this humbling work of God time after time in the Bible.  Pharaoh would not submit to God as King, even after he had seen his power and glory and so he dramatically humbled him.  Nebuchadnezzar is another example as we have seen from this chapter.  God’s own people are certainly not exempted from this humbling.  The Jews are miraculously delivered from Pharaoh’s Egypt, having seen his awesome power. Yet, because of their rebellious unbelief they refuse to fight God’s enemies and enter the Promised Land.  As a result, God allows them to languish for 40 years wilderness.  One reason for that was to humble them so that they would learn that God is King and they must trust in him, not their own puny abilities.  Deuteronomy 8:3 describes part of God’s motivation in the wilderness experience, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” 

When we live as if we are the king of our lives, trusting in our own capacities, our own ability to provide wealth or success or acceptable service to God, the Father loves us far too much to allow us to labor under that arrogant delusion too long.  So, according to Hebrews chapter 12 he comes into our lives and disciplines us.  He shows us just what we frail, sin-riddled, weak, pathetic people can do apart from him.  For you here today who are trusting in your own strength to please God or provide for your needs, this is a word of warning:  humble yourself so he will not be compelled to humble you.  For those who are living in the wilderness right now, living with a continual sense of emptiness and frustration at your own powerlessness, seek after God and discover whether he is humbling you.  If you have been trusting in your own feeble efforts, repent and place your trust in God.  He can restore you just like he did Nebuchadnezzar.

Finally, in this story we saw a tree representing this great human king who provided for the needs of all kinds of animals and people.  But like all such human “trees,” he was cut down and showed himself to be completely unworthy of trust.  All those who had depended on Nebuchadnezzar were cruelly disappointed.  There is however another tree that will never disappoint, never falter and never fail to do what it was intended to do. There is a tree that symbolizes, not the pride of an arrogant king, but the humility of a Servant King.  That tree---as Ernest Lucas says, the ultimate “tree of life,” is the cross of Jesus Christ.  Our final point is—The cross of Christ is the never-failing tree of life where we alone find life that satisfies.  The only tree worthy of our trust—the only tree worthy of our boasting—the only tree that is worthy of glorying in is the cross of Jesus.

That tree will always provide what it promises—when we are full of self-absorbed, self glorying pride, we can come to that tree and find forgiveness and cleansing.  When we are starving, it feeds us—when we are thirsty, it quenches us.  When we are feeling self sufficient, it reminds us of the awesome ransom price that God required to release us from the shackles of our guilt and sin.  It pours contempt on all our pride and shows us the utter wickedness of our sin—our sin that put God incarnate on the cross and turned him into a heaving, bloody sacrifice.  And yet, this cross not only brings us down in humility, it also lifts us up to God—enabling us to stand before his holiness with the righteousness of Christ.  As we come to the Lord’s Table, may God give us the grace to humble ourselves before the cross for his glory and so he will not, out of his great love for us, have to humble us by other means.


Page last modified on 11/12/2006

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