Some time ago, back in the 20th century (!), I sat in Linguistics lectures at the Australian National University with a student from Queensland. He had flowing, blond hair then, and wore colourful shorts and thongs. He gained a reputation for himself in the Asian Studies faculty, and I remember on graduation day, he was awarded several academic medals, which literally jangled around his neck. He entered the Department of Foreign Affairs, and climbed the ladder, becoming an Australian diplomat in Beijing. He then worked with the Queensland government, before moving into politics. He won the 2007 federal election, becoming the most popular prime minister Australia has ever elected. But he wasn't able to lead effectively, and in 2009 Kevin Rudd was struck down by his own party, to save Labour from losing the next election. How the powerful fall.
The great man
In Daniel chapter 4, King Nebu, as I'll call him, is at the height of his power, enjoying his successes at home and his dominance in the region. He's the most powerful man in the Middle East of his day. And he's struck down. This is such an important experience for him, that much of his story is written in the first person, 'I Nebu..' v4. This is immediately personal and draws us right in. In addition, the chapter begins: 'King Nebu, to all the peoples, nations and languages that live in the earth!' Its in fact a royal letter – dictated from his lips. This story's clearly of great significance to him. And it concerns the God of a nation he'd defeated! Whose God he'd therefore supposedly defeated! He'd captured vessels from the house of this God, and stowed them in the treasury of his gods. But this Most High God has worked signs and wonders for King Nebu, which have led him to a sobering conclusion – that this God's kingdom is far superior to his, and he owes Him, worship.
The focus before we even hear his story, is not King Nebu, but the Most High God. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and his sovereignty from generation to generation.
But what's happened to change him from the egocentric, volatile ruler of the last two chapters? Another terrifying dream. This time of a cosmic tree...beautiful and abundant – the harvest and home for all living things. But there's something worrying about 'its top reaching heaven'. Like Babel? Then a 'heavenly being' or 'holy watcher', commands its felling – have you seen a giant tree felled? Its branches removed, disfigured, then the rush of wind and thud, as the mighty trunk falls from vertical to horizontal...followed by silence....
But if its stump and roots are left intact, compared to being uprooted in a storm, it may re-grow. So this felling, is a severe pruning! The stump's also given extra protection by a band of iron and bronze. But look at verse 15 – the 'it' suddenly becomes a 'him'! The tree represents a human, a great provider for the animals, but he becomes an animal, even to the point of being given an animal mind, v16. And its for a limit of 7 times, not forever. Its a 'sentence', we're told in v17. A heavenly court has ruled, but there'll be an end to the serving of this sentence.
After being coaxed, Daniel, who has a good reputation with the king, interprets the dream, confirming that the tree represents the great King Nebu himself. He will be humiliated and lose his human mind, becoming animal-like.
Many have tried to explain what actually happened to him. But perhaps all we need to know is that he's struck down from being the most powerful ruler of his day, to being lowlier than any other living person.
But we discover in v 29 that he does nothing to avert this catastrophe, he doesn't seem to take it seriously. He gets distracted by important things, and one day says to himself: 'Is this not magnificent Babylon that I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?' v 30. And at this point he's gone too far. A voice from heaven declares that his kingdom has been stripped from him. Immediately v 33...he becomes a beast. 'Cos he's not acted as one made in the image of God, but like an unwitting animal, which he's now handed over to be. How the powerful fall. He'll remain like this until he's learned a single message – that 'the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdoms of mortals, and gives it to whom he will' v 25. All will be restored when he learns that Heaven is sovereign v 26.
The lesson he is taught
We've taken a look at the great man. Now let's look at the lesson he's taught.
When words are put to music they are easy to memorise, so the words arranged into lyrics at the start and end of the chapter, are the heart of what Nebuchadnezzar was taught: That God's kingdom is supreme and infinite, and He's free to hand it to anyone he chooses. King Nebu seems to have learned this lesson well, at a rote level at least, because it is repeated at the end of the dream as well, in v 17, 'so that all the living may know that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he wills, and sets over it the lowliest of human beings'. And its repeated again in v 32, '...the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he wills'.
This lesson does not mean that King Nebu doesn't have real power, but that his authority is delegated, and if so, he's responsible, accountable, to the giver, the Most High God for his actions. And must exercise his delegated power in ways that reflect the giver.
In fact Daniel tries to give him some advice about how he might do this, v 27. Daniel says, 'atone' or 'break from' your sins with righteousness, such as showing mercy to the oppressed. Mercy, compassion and steadfast love are at the core of God's nature, and his exercise of power. But King Nebu ignores this advice, so the humiliating episode becomes necessary.
But did you notice when the restoration began? When in his animal state, his eyes acknowledged heaven. That's all it took for God to restore him! When he humbly looked upwards, in contrast to standing on his palace roof scanning all below him.
Then his reason returned, and what was the first thing he did? He praised God, v 34..'I blessed the Most High...' That's significant don't you think? That praise is his first act of sanity? But it was a baby step - to look up and figurativelyspeaking, smile and gurgle at God. Erina has been good at this since she was a couple of months old!
Did he grow in humble service of this God, who mercifully restored him to even greater glory? Did this experience change him lastingly? Its easy to praise the boss when you've just heard you're not being made redundant.
I'm not convinced. In v 35, one line in the last song jangles – 'All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing...' apparently, by this God. Really? This could just be hyperbole. But surely this hasn't been his experience. And then, look at v 36: 'At that time my reason was returned to me; and my majesty and splendour were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom. My counsellors and my lords sought me out, and I was re-established over my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me'. He's pretty self-focussed still. He'd faithfully communicated his lesson to the whole Babylonian Empire, but we are left wondering if he'd learned it himself.
The message to the audience
We've looked at King Nebu and the lesson he was taught, so now to the message for the audience.
This chapter has three audiences. Remember who's being addressed in v.1? '...peoples, nations and languages that live throughout the earth', v1. The most obvious group within this wide audience is the Israelite people who lived at the time, probably in the 6th century BCE.
And there are certain phrases in Nebu's story that would have grabbed their attention. The phrase 'signs and wonders' for instance. In the Old Testament, this was a loaded term, a bit like when an Aussie or New Zealander hears the word 'Anzac'. A whole swag of memories are activated, from school history lessons, to TV programs, movies, perhaps a family member who was a digger, and the Anzac Day holiday each year. 'Signs and wonders' for an Israelite was loaded like this. It reminded them of the mighty acts God performed when he led their forefathers out of Egypt where they were foreigners..away from slavery to King Pharoah, through the Red Sea, guiding them by the pillar of cloud and fire, providing water and manna in the desert. For their forefathers, those 'signs and wonders' revealed to Israel, and to the nation of Egypt, that this God was the true God.
So for Israelite nationals, living as foreigners in Babylon, (when they received their royal in the mail), they might just begin to hope that something similar's happening again. Behind the stage of human history, stood the true God, after all. There's a glimmer of hope that he'd lead them back to Israel one day. There's reason to trust that he hadn't abandoned them, despite their failure to be his people. There's reason to place themselves in His care again.
The second audience is the rest of the entire Babylonian Empire who like Egypt, come to hear about this Most High God through the witness, via royal letter, of their greatest ruler.
God's consistently revealed himself to all peoples through all historical time, both through unexpected powerful individuals like King Nebu, but also through what happens to his representative people, the Israelites. Remember, they were supposed to be a 'light to the nations'! The empire (like us) may not like the way God does things...may not even acknowledge his role, but he has communicated and that communication either becomes salvation or condemnation.
The third audience is those, like us, who read this ancient text. In fact, in multicultural Melbourne, we are the modern equivalent of the original multi-ethnic audience. Here at St Tom's we reflect this, with our three language services! We're proof that the worship of this God is transferable across culture and language.
Although 2500 years have passed, the message of this chapter is still relevant. Whom do we worship?
Remember how a voice from heaven spoke to Nebuchadnezzar. Can you think of the next time a voice from heaven spoke to a human audience? It was when a humble king was dunked under water, like Erina was, to symbolise his coming death – and the voice said: 'This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased'. His kingdom, Jesus' kingdom was not suddenly stripped from him. He had willingly given it up already. He went on to suffer, not a humiliating episode, but a humiliating death. Not on account of his own pride, but on account of ours, of King Nebu's, of Israel's, of nations, of common individuals like you and me.
How do we reflect on our own accomplishments? At school, uni, work, voluntary service, retirement, family, ministry. Where do we notice our pride? What honour do we give God in our lives? Like King Nebu, how do we get distracted, despite a seemingly direct message being given? How do we handle situations when God allows bad stuff to happen to us, or our friends? How even, do we see God at work in our own political and historical stage?
Will we place ourselves in the hands of the Most High God, who lifts up, and sets down? Will we allow the direct message we've heard from King Nebu's story, to shape us towards greater mercy and compassion, or garner our courage to glance upwards in a baby step of acknowledgement. Will we trust in the Most High God even when hard things happen? Even rail against him, but keep looking upwards. Will we view the political landscape with fresh eyes? Will we worship Him? This is the faith into which Erina has been baptised today.