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Monday, January 29, 2018

Daniel 4 - Nebuchadnezzar's Madness

            Dream interpretation.  Giant statues of gold, silver, bronze, & iron. The fiery furnace.  The lions’ den.  Can you think of short stories anywhere as captivating as those in Daniel chapters 1-6?  On websites, on TV, on Twitter and Facebook, there’s so much noise.  There’s partisan division; a lot of shouting without much listening. 
            I wanted us to begin 2018 looking at stories in the Bible.  Stories hold our interest.  If the story is good, we listen, we absorb it.  We don’t need to talk or argue.  We can receive what the storyteller has to share.  If that good story is in the Bible, then we meet God in it.  And my hope is that we can focus less on the noise of angry politics and more on the God we meet in the stories of the Bible – the only true God. 
It doesn’t mean we ignore the world around.  God has something to say and God often speaks through His church who is meeting Him in the Bible and in worship and then speaking from that encounter. Current events are always on the table, but we speak to our day from God’s perspective and a primary source for God’s perspective is the Bible. 
We could have gone to the Gospels or great stories of David or some of the fascinating accounts in the book of Numbers or Judges, but, felt God leading us to Daniel.  Here’s a curious question.  Who was the first worshiping body to hear Daniel as Holy Scripture, stories of God, read in its worship gathering?  How did congregations before ours receive the word of God as we have it in Daniel?
The first group was the gathering of Jews in Jerusalem in the 2nd century, the 170’s – 150’s BC.  Israel was land God promised to the descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people, but they had not governed that land for a long time.  They were subjugated by the Assyrians in the 8th century, and then the Babylonians in the late 7th and early 6th.  Power passed to the Persians, and then the Greeks under Alexander the great.  It became really bad for the Jews in the second century as Alexander’s empire was divided among his four generals and Israel fell under the cruel hand of Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
He set up a statue right in the second temple, the temple of Haggai and Ezra.  In that space, holy to Jews, dedicated to God, he put up idols and performed abominable acts.  He persecuted and even killed Jews who would not renounce the way of Abraham and Moses.  The persecution under Antiochus was as bad as any the Jews had known.  In that context of humiliating oppression, Daniel was read as Holy Scripture for the first time.
Feeling powerless, worshipers could look to this Jewish hero who defied the might of Babylon and then Media and Persia.  While an exile, with no voice, Daniel and his friends stayed faithful in their worship of God and their refusal to participate in Pagan worship practices. 
In Daniel 1, they refused unclean food and ate only vegetables.  Maintaining proper dietary restraint as their tradition dictated, Daniel and his three friends outperformed all other Jewish conscripts and rose in wisdom and prominence before the Babylonian king.  In chapter 2, when death was the penalty for failure, Daniel successfully recited the king’s dream.  Daniel was praised even though he prophesied the king’s downfall. 
In chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship a statue of the king.  For such a brazen revolt against the king’s edict, the three young Jews were thrown into the furnace, and in an enraged act of overdoing it, the king demanded the heat be raised and it was to the point that some of the guards were consumed by flames; but not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Accompanied by an angel, they strolled around unharmed. 
Chapter 3 ended with the self-aggrandizing King, Nebuchadnezzar, declaring that anyone who blasphemed against the God of Israel would be ripped limb from limb.  Ironically, he couldn’t see that his own edict violated itself.  God didn’t need to make such macabre threats and God did not generally rip people limb from limb.  God allowed those who turned against him to fall into the destruction that came as a result of their own bad choices.  He needed no help from Nebuchadnezzar.
Chapter 4, this week’s Daniel story, continues the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar.  It is true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in Nebuchadnezzar’s case, absolute power also scrambled his own brain and completely distorted his perspective.
Essentially what happens is the king has another dream.  This time when his own palace wise men and wizards cannot interpret it for him, he does not kill them.  Instead he moves on to Daniel.  Why he didn’t start with Daniel is anyone’s guess considering Daniel’s previous dream interpretation abilities.  In the dream, the king sees a tree – the great tree of the world.  All the world was blessed under the great tree.
However, a holy watcher (v.13) descending from Heaven declared the great tree should be cut down leaving only the stump.  The great tree will be but a stump, unprotected against the elements for seven years.  The voice of the holy watcher declared this would happen so that all the world would see that God most High is sovereign over even the great kingdoms of the world (v.17).  Those who rule kingdoms are no better than the poorest peasants and anyone who has power, has it because God has allowed them to have it. 
Daniel knew this dream was about King Nebuchadnezzar.  He didn’t want to tell the meaning because he knew it was bad news for the king.  However, Nebuchadnezzar encouraged Daniel, so he told him.  “The tree that you saw – it is you, O King” (v.20, 21).  Daniel went on to explain that Nebuchadnezzar had become the greatest king on earth, but by decree of God (v.24), he would be reduced to madness.  Nebuchadnezzar would leave human society and roam the wild fields, sleeping out in the open like an animal.  He would grow his hair and nails long and unkempt.  He would graze on grass like cattle.  He would lose the power of speech and logical thought.  This insanity would last seven years.  That’s how long it would take for King Nebuchadnezzar to see that God and not he was the all-powerful one. 
We aren’t told how the king reacted to Daniel’s interpretation.  The next word from the story teller is that all happened just as Daniel said it would.  Striding in all his royal finery along the roof of the royal palace, the king heard a voice from heaven declare all that had been said in the dream.  He was immediately driven from human society, stripped of his vestments and robes.  He became an inhuman creature, a mindless beast, and he stayed that way for seven years. 
Please note the progression of the story in Daniel 4.  It begins with King Nebuchadnezzar openly praising God.  “The signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me I am pleased to recount.  How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders!  His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his sovereignty is from generation to generation” (4:2-3).  It is self-centered.  Look at what God’s done for me.  But it is praise directed toward God.  Then in the middle of the story, Nebuchadnezzar sings a different tune.  Verse 30, “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” 
What a pivot!  The king moves from praising God for his wonders to praising himself for his own might and power.  The story ends with the king once again praising God.  “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are truth and his ways are justice; his able to bring low those who walk in pride” (4:37).  It’s a true statement and of all people, King Nebuchadnezzar would know.
What moves the story from self-serving praise to an unabashedly arrogant boast to humble praise?  There comes an interruption – and we all have these interruptions in our lives.  We don’t know if King Nebuchadnezzar heard the interruption.  We aren’t told.  We know King Antiochus Epiphanes IV did not hear God’s warnings.  He relentlessly terrorized the Jerusalem Jews in the second century BC and is thus forever vilified by the symbolism in Daniel.  He ranks with the worst of villains, Antiochus Epiphanes IV right alongside Hitler and all the malevolent despots of history.  No one is worse. 
Setting aside Antiochus, the interruption we see in Daniel 4 should be an interruption in our lives.  What matters for us today is when God interrupts our stories, to remind us that He is God and we are not, do we listen?  See Daniel’s fearlessness in verse 27.  He says right to Nebuchadnezzar’s face, “Atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed.”  Daniel was in Babylon.  Back in Israel, people were starving to death because their cities had been toppled and left as rubble, and their crops had been burned.  The people were oppressed because of the way Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers acted.  Now Daniel tells him, it is time to atone. 
Have we benefited because others have suffered.  Do we drink coffee made from beans harvested by laborers who are paid slave wages?  Do we wear clothes made in sweatshops were workers don’t get paid enough and have no option of leaving?  “Atone … for your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed.”  That’s the message at the heart of Daniel 4.  Verse 27, to show that you know and honor and bow before God, show mercy to the oppressed. 
Daniel left the wicked king a way out.  He didn’t have to crawl about on all fours like an ox or cow.  He didn’t have to lose his mind.  That’s where self-obsession and power-obsession leads: mania.  Daniel, anointed by God, pointed to another path.  We, readers of the story have that path before us. 
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink.  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when, O Lord, was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?  And the [King of all kings] will answer, ‘truly I tell you whenever you did it to the least of these my children, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:37-40).
Do we see the interruption, hear the warning, and take the path opened before us by the word of God?  King Nebuchadnezzar did not.  He ignored the prophet’s word because he thought he was the ultimate one, the one favored by God.  He disregarded the warning, boasted of his own greatness, and ended up insane.  After his boast, he discovered that Daniel, whom he said he trusted, was right.  The prophecy Daniel gave came true. 
The crazy, grazing king returned to sanity when he lifted his eyes to heaven.  He strutted around when he should have bowed in humble worship, and so God, brought him low.  When, having been brought low, he raised his eyes in humble worship, God allowed him to stand once again.  The way we experience life is directly related to how we respond to what we know to be true about God.  
We know God through our knowledge of God’s son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Note the difference between Jesus and the evil king of Babylon.  Nebuchadnezzar was a man who thought he was on equal footing with God.  Jesus was God who had become a man. 
Philippians 2:5-11:
Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
            In life, when we are up against tremendous challenges, maybe under the heel of our own Nebuchadnezzar or Antiochus Epiphanes, we praise God because we know God is in control and will carry us through our hard times.  In life, when things are going well, and we find ourselves on top, doing the winning, we bow in humble worship and praise God, thanking Him for our successes as we work to be generous in uplifting those around us who wallow in their struggles.  When we’re up, when we’re down and at times in between, we praise God.
            Anne Lamott has write book titled Hallelujah Anyway!  The idea is that even when life is thoroughly crud-filled and painful, was praise because God is there.  Based on the idea that God is there and that we have the Daniel opportunity before us – to take the path of worship and mercy – I proposed a modification on her title.  God is God and we aren’t.  God is here and it is a good thing that God is here because God can and will help us. 
            Maybe on a hard day we say Hallelujah Anyway!  But, knowing God is with us, we say, Hallelujah Always.  God is in Babylon and God is here, and in control.  That’s good news, the very best of news. 


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