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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)Psalm 99
Hymn 2:5 (after the law)
Reading: Daniel 4
Text: Daniel 4:28-37
Beloved congregation of Christ our Lord,
Chapter 4 of Daniel is an entirely unique passage in Scripture. This chapter is a letter to the world (to us!), from an ancient king. Sure, elsewhere we do have letters and writings of ancient kings. But nowhere do we have a letter from an ancient king written to us, nowhere other than here in Daniel. Even more remarkably, this is not a letter from an Israelite king, but from a Gentile, a Babylonian king. Moreover, as if that wasn’t enough, we have a letter from an ancient Gentile king written to us and inspired by the Holy Spirit. And so, what we read here in Daniel 4 is not merely a word to us from King Nebuchadnezzar, most importantly of all, it’s a word from God.
A word from God that takes the form of a letter from an ancient Babylonian king. The first verse makes it clear that Nebuchadnezzar was writing to a general audience. You could say that this is an open letter. The King wants to tell of all that the Most High God had done for him. He has words of praise for this God in verse 3. Then verse 4 launches into the account of how he came to those words of praise. It started with a dream that couldn’t be interpreted by the King’s wise men. Then Daniel came and he was able to interpret the dream. It was a dream of a tree being cut down. Even though Daniel didn’t want to be negative before Nebuchadnezzar, the plain fact was that the dream was about him. The dream, however, also held out hope. When the King repented, he would have his kingdom restored to him. In verse 27, right before our text, Daniel encouraged Nebuchadnezzar to repent immediately – the possibility was held out that he could avoid the fulfillment of this prophecy. It was a conditional prophecy, meant to be a warning to King Nebuchadnezzar. It could be that Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s advice, at least for a time. But soon the dream was fulfilled. As was prophesied, God laid King Nebuchadnezzar low. We’ll see that he did that, not merely to make a point to the King, but to make a point to God’s people then, and by extension also to us today. The point was that God was teaching his people the right way to think about him and the right way to think about themselves.
One year after Daniel had made his prophecy, Nebuchadnezzar was out on the roof of his palace. We might think that somewhat strange, but we have to keep in mind that roofs in that area of the world are often flat and people, even today, often use their roofs as part of their living space. So, the King looked out over his great city of Babylon. And what did he see? Well, he would have seen incredible beauty. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world was there: the Hanging Gardens. These were very beautiful terraced gardens in Babylon. Not only that, but there were also a good deal many beautiful buildings. Nebuchadnezzar is remembered in antiquity primarily for being a renovator and builder. The ancient walls of Babylon were another one of his spectacular building achievements. And, of course, we can’t forget that Babylon was a mighty military and political power in the seventh century before Christ.
Knowing that, if you were coming at this situation from a worldly perspective, you could hardly blame Nebuchadnezzar for feeling proud of himself. Unbelieving people then and now would look at this situation and probably encourage Nebuchadnezzar to have these thoughts and say these words. “Go ahead, King, feel proud of yourself. You deserve it. You did all this hard work. You’re the man. You should get the glory for this. Go ahead, you need to build up your self-esteem.” Not that Nebuchadnezzar would have really needed this encouragement, just like most of us don’t need it either. The words of verse 30 just flowed naturally out of his heart, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” In the original Aramaic of this verse, the King is even more emphatic about bringing glory to himself. “Is not this great Babylon which I, I have built…”
He hadn’t even finished speaking when a voice fell down on him from heaven. It was God speaking and declaring that the prophetic judgment was now to be executed. His kingdom was going to be taken away. People wouldn’t have anything to do with him; he would live with the animals out in the field and eat grass like them. God tells him that seven times will pass by before Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges God’s sovereign power. The exact meaning of seven times is ambiguous. It could be any period of time involving seven, but more likely longer rather than shorter. So perhaps seven months or maybe seven years.
It is worth noting that the reason for this judgment is not explicitly given. Why not? Probably because it doesn’t take too much thought to figure it out. Especially if we keep in mind that this book of Daniel, as a whole, was originally composed for God’s people. God’s people know enough about God from elsewhere in the Bible to know that Nebuchadnezzar’s pride is a sure recipe for judgment. It is simply not in God’s character to tolerate a man lifting himself up in this blatant way. And given the address of this particular letter from Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples everywhere, we could make the argument that all peoples everywhere know that there is a supreme, most High God. And if he is really the Most High God, and he is holy and just, then to take on airs like Nebuchadnezzar did, that can’t be a wise or good thing to do.
So, God leveled his judgment on Nebuchadnezzar for his monumental hubris. Immediately after this, all that had been said came to pass. Nebuchadnezzar became an outcast. He looked and acted like an animal. He ate grass like cattle. This is a documented medical condition called boanthropy. Though rare, it still happens. God afflicted Nebuchadnezzar with this mental illness which made him less than a man. One commentator summarizes what happened here by saying, “A man who thinks he is like a god must become a beast to learn that he is only a human being.” Nebuchadnezzar’s hair grew very long and so did his nails – again, this is suggestive that the seven times are a longer, rather than a shorter period of time.
In verse 34, we find that the end of the seven times came around and finally the King lifted up his eyes towards heaven. That’s another way of saying that he finally cried “Uncle” and acknowledged God’s sovereign power. The King realized that Nebuchadnezzar is not the King of kings and Lord of lords, but a mere man. The result was that his sanity or his understanding was returned to him. This indicates that the King was indeed mentally ill, incapable of carrying out his office.
Verse 34 goes on to tell us the first thing that he did when was back to his own mind. He praised the Most High. Notice the words that the King uses to describe God. He calls him the “Most High.” This is not just a manner of speaking, this is a recognition of who God is and what he’s like. He’s not only the Most High, he is also the immortal God, the one who lives for ever. Nebuchadnezzar honours and glorifies this God. He acknowledges that his dominion is eternal and his kingdom extends through all the generations of men. In verse 35, Nebuchadnezzar states that the before this God, people are nothing. This God does whatever he wants with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can stand in his way or question him.
The result of all this praise, according to verse 36, was that Nebuchadnezzar was able to get back in the royal saddle. He was able to start ruling as a king again. Most likely, his staff had been carrying out his rule while he was ill. But now he was back and he grew in might and power. In verse 37, he acknowledges the King of heaven as worthy of praise. God does what’s right and all his ways are just. And then he adds a sort of summary at the end of his letter, “And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”
So, what was God teaching his people Israel through this letter and this story of a Babylonian King? To answer that, we need to remind ourselves briefly of the historical context. For instance, why was Daniel in Babylon? He didn’t decide to go there on a vacation, after all. He didn’t apply for a new job, for a career move to Babylon. No, he was brought captive to Babylon against his will along with many others of the people of Israel. This was part of what we call the Babylonian exile – a major historical event in the Old Testament. Because of the sins of the people, God brought his chastising hand down upon them. Because of their blatant and unrepentant covenant-breaking, they were punished by being removed from the Promised Land.
Nevertheless, God promised to preserve a faithful remnant. Even through all this adversity, there would always be a number of people who were holding to the promises and living in faith and expectation of God’s deliverance. For that remnant preserved by God’s grace, there would have been comfort in this chapter. Their world had been turned upside down. Everything in the Promised Land that they had known and loved had been stripped away from them. They were shipped off to Babylon. It seemed like the world was out of control. But in what happened with King Nebuchadnezzar, the faithful among God’s people would be reminded that he is still in control. He is still the Sovereign God, the God who can lift up and cast down. God has not been emasculated. And that gives hope for the future. Because those same prophecies which predicted the exile also predicted a return and a glorious fulfillment of all God’s promises. We think particularly of the messianic promises in Isaiah and elsewhere. God still has the power and he will be faithful. He can and he will bring it to pass.
For us today too, we might sometimes wonder whether things are out of control. Maybe it seems that our lives spin from one thing to another, maybe even from one disaster to another. But we can look back in history and we can see what kind of God we have. How did he act during the time of Nebuchadnezzar? You might say, “But that was such a long time ago!” But we know from his Word that God doesn’t change. We know from his Word that he kept his promises to bring a Messiah. Through his mighty work in our lives, we have believed in this Messiah. We know the wonderful promises that God has given to us through him. Will he ever relinquish his sovereign power over this world? Will he ever give up on you and just let your life reel out of control? What is God like? If we take our text seriously, we know that he is a personal God who cares; he is a personal God who has the sovereign power. And the knowledge of this is meant to give us comfort and hope.
Even more so when we reflect on the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ himself. Here is the great King who rules us sovereignly by his Word and Spirit. Here is the great King who bought us for himself with his own precious blood. Here is the great King who defends and preserves us in our salvation. Here is the great King who will return to judge the living and the dead. The people of God at the time of the exile caught a glimmer of him through the promises of the old covenant, but we are richly blessed with the full IMAX picture of who he is and what he’s like. And if they were comforted with a mere glimmer, how much more shouldn’t we be comforted with the full picture? Christ reveals to us the sovereign God and his power exercised in love. All the kings of the earth are in his hand. All the peoples and nations are in his control. All the events that happen in our daily lives are under his dominion. Even the mundane and little things. He promises to work all things for our good – sovereign power exercised in love.
It’s in those ways that this text brings us to think in the right way about who God is and what he has done and is doing. But this text also brings God’s people to think about themselves in the right way. Let’s now consider how it does that.
We know from our text that Nebuchadnezzar was humbled in spectacular fashion. At the end of the episode, we see the great Babylonian king uttering praises for the Most High God. Some have read this passage and spoken of Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion. As if, through this episode, he had come to a saving faith. That is probably saying too much. A couple of thoughts: we don’t read that Nebuchadnezzar abandoned the worship of other gods. Yes, he may have acknowledged the true God and praised him as being in control, but nowhere do we read a confession that he is the one and only God. It would be difficult to speak of a saving faith in that context. Second, we don’t have any reference here to Nebuchadnezzar believing the messianic promises. A saving faith in the Old Testament period requires faith in the promises. Now perhaps that faith was there, but the point is that we don’t read about it here. To say that Nebuchadnezzar had saving faith is simply speculation.
We know that he acknowledged God’s power and sovereignty and that was surely a good thing. The fact that this letter is addressed to other peoples and nations indicates that Nebuchadnezzar wanted to share what he learned about God. He did not learn about God’s salvation, but he did learn something about God’s character and who he was in relation to this God. In that way, what he discovered was a sort of preparation for the gospel message, even if it was not the gospel message itself. In this limited sense, we can speak about Nebuchadnezzar’s letter as being a sort of missionary letter. The Babylonian King is telling the other nations to get down and humble themselves before this great God – and we know that such a posture opens hearts to receive the good news about a God who saves.
But of course, this missionary letter, if we can call it that, was included in the book of Daniel and intended to be read by God’s people in exile. What did it say to them about how they should think of themselves? Here again, we need to think about the historical context. I mentioned earlier that it was the sins of the people that led to the exile. God didn’t arbitrarily decide to do this to his people. There were a lot of reasons leading up to it. But for our purposes, just consider the sin of pride. Zephaniah 3 and many other passages inform us that the pride of the people was a major reason why they were exiled. They thought very highly of themselves, you could say that they had lots of self-esteem, and that led them to do whatever they wanted. God’s Word was ignored and so self-willed worship reigned supreme. The almighty self was lifted up in the place of almighty God. Self became an idol. So God sent them into Babylon, out of the Promised Land, away from the temple, out of his presence, the place where he had made his Name dwell.
As they lived in Babylon, some of the people repented and called out for deliverance. As mentioned earlier, there was a faithful remnant. But there were others who continued in their sinful and prideful ways. For these people, our text served as a warning.
God was saying, “Look at this pagan, King Nebuchadnezzar. He didn’t grow up in a Jewish family. He had never been instructed in the Scriptures.” Apart from his innate knowledge of God, you can hardly blame him for doing what he did. But then, God says, “Look at what happened to him.” God says, “I laid him low. He had to live apart from civilization and from all things good. He had to live like an animal. And in due time it brought him to his senses. This pagan King could come to his senses. Now what about you? You people of Israel, you’ve been given so much. You know so much about God and what he’s like. You too have been laid low through the exile, sent away from everything you regard as good. And yet there’s so many of you that just don’t get it. This pagan King puts you to shame!” In this way, God was speaking through Nebuchadnezzar to his own people in that day. God was earnestly trying to shake them up so that they would repent of their pride and submit themselves to him and him alone. He wanted to vaporize the mirage of self on the throne.
For us as believers today, we can hardly read this passage without thinking of what Philippians 2 says about Christ and his humiliation. Another great King who was humbled. Philippians 2:8 says that he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross. You see the difference between Nebuchadnezzar and Christ? Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God because of his sin. His shame led him on the pathway to redemption, even if he did not have a saving faith, he was moving in the right direction. Christ humbled himself because of our sin, including our pride. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that he took the shame of the cross. His shame led us to redemption, not merely moving us in the right direction, but actually accomplishing the salvation of all of God’s people. Christ humbled himself but was later glorified. Today, he sits in glory at God’s right hand.
The pattern of his life is to be the pattern of we who are in him by true faith. In this way, the story of Nebuchadnezzar teaches us to be who we are in Christ. It is a reminder and warning to humble ourselves before God and before one another. The Christian life does not consist of building yourself up and bringing glory to yourself. It’s about being Christ-like and bringing the glory to God alone. Believers are to be recognized for their Christ-like humility and lack of pride. We need that reminder. Perhaps we sometimes try to rationalize that it is acceptable to have pride. Or maybe we just haven’t really been convicted of this yet. Loved ones, wherever you are on this, let’s remember the words of 1 Peter 5:5, where Peter is in turn quoting Proverbs 3:34, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God specializes in bringing down the proud. There is absolutely no place for pride in the Christian life. Pride means having yourself and others on the throne. In other words, pride is idolatry.
At its root, that’s what Nebuchadnezzar was guilty of. He had placed himself on the throne of life, the universe and everything. He was rightfully the King of Babylon, but he had no right to the eternal throne of everything. Only God belongs on that throne. So, it is for us today as well. As those who are in Christ, idolatry is to be something we hate and forsake. So, whenever we well up with pride over anything today, we’re missing the point of what it means to live in Christ. We’re missing the point of the biblical pattern of living through humility and suffering, one day to attain to the glory of God. A life of humility in this age comes before exaltation and glorification in the age to come.
Brothers and sisters, pride is the ancient serpent’s poison. Let’s repent of it by turning to the divine antivenom. This poison’s antidote is humility, a frame of mind where we have the proper estimation of who we really are. That humility expresses itself in two ways. The first way is seen explicitly in our text and it’s the way of all-out praise for God. We give credit where credit is due at every moment and every opportunity. The second way is closely related and that is the way of thankfulness. Just imagine what it would sound like if every time you’re tempted to say the word “proud,” you would say “thankful” instead. Just imagine what it would look like for you to be directing the attention away from yourself and to God from whom all blessings flow.
In Romans 15:4, we read these words, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” In our passage we read about the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar. In Matthew 12, the Lord Jesus spoke of another pagan ruler, the Queen of Sheba, arising at the judgment with his generation to condemn them. Rather than let Nebuchadnezzar’s letter stand against us at the last judgment, let it be one of those passages spoken of Romans 15, a passage that has taught us. Let it be a passage that has encouraged us to endure with our life in Christ and have the hope eternal. AMEN.
Father in heaven,
You were the one who humbled the Babylonian King. We praise you for magnifying your glory through that act. You were the one who sent your Son to humble himself so that we might be lifted up. We praise you for bringing us to your Son in faith. Help us to live out of our union with him. We pray, Father, that your Spirit would work in us so that we would be a humble and thankful people, always intent on giving you the credit and the glory. Please help us to see ourselves and you rightly, in agreement with your Word. Correct our vision and transform our lives.
Father, we also bring our intercessions and supplications to your throne...
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
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