Daniel 2 to 4
As Randy told us last week, we are spending five Sundays in the book of Daniel. Sometimes I have avoided this book, perhaps because it has been hijacked by those who work out end-time charts, or because I find it simply confusing. In fact, Daniel is a reasonably clear book to interpret, provided we listen for what God wants us to do rather than using it just to make charts. So a couple of introductory comments.
When we hear the book read for our morning Scripture, we don’t hear the shift of language that takes place. Chapter 1 and chapters 8 to 12 are in Hebrew, and chapters 2 to 7 are in Aramaic, a closely related language. Hebrew was the language of the Jewish people, in exile in Babylon. Aramaic was the language of the royal court, the language of the Empire. It’s as if we’re listening to a Russian Mennonite preacher 50 years ago, preaching in German to his Mennonite congregation—then he switches into English for some English visitors who are listening to the sermon, and then back to German as he speaks to the Mennonite congregation again. So chapter 1 sets the stage in Hebrew. Chapters 2 to 7 speak to the Gentiles around the Jewish people, and chapters 8 to 12 speak to the Jewish people.
We’re in chapters 2 to 7 this week and next. These chapters have a chiastic structure: The theme of Chapter 2 matches chapter 7, the theme of chapter 3 matches chapter 6, and the themes of chapters 4 and 5 match each other.
Chapters 2 and 7 tell us that there will be four great world Empires, declining in goodness and glory until a fifth World Empire (God’s perfect reign) sweeps them away. This idea was held not only among the Jews, but also among the Babylonians and Persians who owned the earthly empires. It gives us a basic direction in which history moves—from the best human efforts you can find, to a decline of order and goodness, for which God’s rule is the only solution. I have watched a movie of 6,000 years of Chinese history told by Chinese Christians that uses the same basic pattern to understand their own history. It is, I suggest, the basic pattern of human history: A series of four human empires leading to chaos. We may have a revival that starts the series over, but the final resolution of troubles comes only when God sets up his eternal kingdom.
As a side note, you see that history is played out on earth and in the courts of Heaven. History is not a set of purely natural events, but a story with supernatural components. Chapters 8 to 12 develop this side of the story more fully.
Chapters 3 and 6 tell us that God protects his servants as they live in these human empires, so that God’s servants can live according to God’s reign. We serve God, not the Empire, wherever and whenever we live. Chapters 4 and 5 stand at the centre of this structure, which tells us that the point they make is Daniel’s primary concern in chapters 2 to 7. Their point is simple and direct: God is king over all kings, even the most powerful rulers of this earth. In chapter 4 God shows his reign over Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar responds by confessing God’s greatness and goodness and calls on all people to worship God alone. He is restored to his kingdom Beltashazzar responds with fear and defiance, and he is judged and destroyed.
From this outline a basic point emerges, with a basic question for us. The point: God reigns over all the earth. Daniel and his friends show us how to live in the Empire as God’s people. You notice that they do not consider the historical Anabaptist option. They are quite willing to work within the Empire; they do not insist that God’s people separate from this world politically as well as spiritually. I wonder, in fact, if even our Mennonite colonies might fall under the category of “Empire” when they run the affairs of the human community. Daniel may speak even to our own Mennonite Empires, not just to the country in which they live. The question, then, that arises: Given that we live in the Empire—whether a benign and friendly or a malignant and hateful Empire, how do we live as ones who serve God alone?
Living in the Empire
In Daniel the Empire is sometimes friendly and sometimes the enemy. In chapter 1 the Empire is willing to give the best youth of the conquered people a chance to participate in the Empire. And in chapter 2 the ruler honours Daniel for telling and explaining his dream. But in chapter 3 the Empire demands full worship and seeks to destroy those who do not give it. Again in chapter 5 the Empire passes a law that for 30 days people may worship only the Empire. This demonic quality is always present in the Empires of this world. They can be friendly one moment, as Canada is for us today, but they can also demand full and total allegiance, seeking to supplant God. The message of Daniel suggests a basic stance towards God and the Empire that is the same in both cases. We serve God and God alone.
So how do we do this?
1) We serve God in community.
In chapter 1 Daniel and his three companions stand together. Sometimes we have read this book as though is tells us how to stand alone.
In chapter 2, when Daniel takes up the king’s challenge to tell and interpret the dream, Daniel begins by going to his friends for help.
In chapter 3 the friends stand together as they are condemned to the “burning fiery furnace”.
When I was young we used to sing, “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose true, dare to make it known.” But Daniel did not only stand alone. Even when he stood alone against the king in the Lion’s Den, he stood with his friends and with God. He responded to the Empire from within the community of faith.
2) We remain faithful to God, no matter what the consequences.
The great line for this point is found in the three friends response to Nebuchadnezzar when he threatens them with the fiery furnace. “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’” (3:16-18)
The RSV puts their reply abruptly: “But if not!” We do not calculate first of all the prospects of success of the response of the Empire. We ask first, what does God want us to do? Then we do it.
One hundred years ago the European nations fought the First World War. Canada and the USA were pulled into that war. My wife’s paternal grandfather was drafted to serve in the American army, but he refused to put on the uniform. The consequence was time in jail during that war, during which his health was vitally affected. He was never physically strong again, so that during World War 2, when his sons were forced to serve in Civilian Public Service, he had to sell the family farm. But the consequences were not his first question. The first question for grandfather—and for us—is always, “What does God call me to do?”
3) We spend time in the Scriptures.
This point is less clear in chapters 2 to 4, but surfaces more in the chapters intended to speak to the Jewish people directly—especially chapter 9, in which Daniel prays based on what he has been reading as he searches the Scriptures. We can speak more about this point when we come to those chapters. For now, if we wish to follow God’s reign and not become slaves of the Empire, we must immerse ourselves in God’s Word.
I said in the introduction that we sometimes avoid Daniel because we find it confusing. Let me note what I think is the way we should approach this book, and all books of the Bible. We read the Old Testament through the eyes of the New Testament. And we read the whole Bible through the person of Jesus Christ.
So, for example, when we read the visions in this book, we see the way that the NT uses them. The final kingdom in the sequence of four human kingdoms followed by the rock that destroys them (chapter 2) is God’s reign, which comes to us in the person of Christ. We never use these visions, or any other part of the OT, to contradict Jesus and his teaching, but rather we interpret these passages through Jesus and his teaching. So when we meet the Son of Man in Daniel, we are meant to think of Jesus, who intentionally described himself as the Son of Man (especially in the gospel of Mark).
4) We spend time in prayer.
This truth is found throughout the book of Daniel. In chapter 2 Nebuchadnezzar threatens all of his wise men with death if they do not tell him what his dream was. The back and forth is almost amusing, and quite deadly. “Tell me my dream!” “Well, tell us what it was and we will interpret it.” “No! I said, tell me what I dreamed—and interpret it!” When Daniel finds out that all of them stand in danger of their lives, he goes to his friends and exhorts them all to go to God in prayer (3:17-23).
This impulse to prayer was basic to their lives. It should be so also for us. We tend to pray most when we are in trouble, but for Daniel prayer was simply a habit, as we see most clearly in chapter 6 and chapter 9. When Daniel had a question about life he prayed. When he got up in the morning, he prayed. Whatever he was doing Daniel prayed.
Sometimes I wonder if we have relegated prayer to be what older people do, once their more active contributions to church life is over. That is not a bad thing: When we can do nothing else, we can still pray, and God often hears the prayers of those who pray and trust, rather than trying to fix things themselves. But of course God wants us all to devote ourselves to prayer. Daniel prayed regularly, three times a day. There is no magic in the number three, but there is great power in praying regularly. Paul tells us that we should pray continually, all the time (1 Thessalonians 5: 16f). Such regular prayer works best if we use some set prayers to give them structure—such as the Lord’s Prayer, which we can summarize thus; “Your name—your kingdom—your will” (with thanks to my friend, Ed Neufeld).
5) Confess God as King of the Universe.
This is the central truth of chapters 2 to 4. God reigns. Chapter 4 is quite unique in Scripture. It is set in the form of a letter from a pagan ruler to the pagan world, exhorting everyone to recognize that the God of Israel is the God of the universe.
We are called to live under God’s authority no matter what the Empire in which we live says. Canada may call us to love one thing or another more than God; we follow God. Whether we are Americans or Canadians or from some other country, we find sometimes that our country calls us to do the right. When that happens, we serve both our God and our country. But sometimes the Empire wants us to worship something other than God—its own economic system, or rules and laws that the Empire sets in place, something other than God.
In that moment we hear Daniel and his friends, and we refuse to bow to the image. We refuse to worship anyone or anything other than God. Our full and final allegiance is given to God, and to God alone. That is why the first and earliest Christian confession in the New Testament is “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).
At our best we have known that God reigns, and we have lived out that truth. Although we sometimes fail and fall short of God’s reign, we sing it in our hymns and say it in our prayers. I like Hymn #38 in the old brown Hymnal (#122 in the new blue one). I have never heard it sung in church, just when I am at home at our piano. I like especially verse two:
We praise, we worship Thee, we trust
And give Thee thanks forever,
O Father, that Thy rule is just
And wise, and changes never;
Thy boundless power o’er all things reigns,
Done is whate’er Thy will ordains;
Well for us that Thou rulest.
As God’s servants, even more as God’s children, we gather in community, read God’s Word, pray continually, and serve God faithfully. The Lord reigns. God is King!