The Old Testament book of Daniel has a lot to teach us about resolving the tension of whether to resist or adapt as we engage with the culture around us.
Do you ever have weird dreams where everything is muddled? Where people you know are doing things they just don’t do, and things are happening in places you remember from way back?
Sometimes my dreams make no sense at all! Sometimes I’ll have a weird dream and wake to find my mind and body are telling me it was real. I find myself suddenly wide awake, my heart pounding and an ominous feeling hanging over me.
This was the experience of King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter two. He had a dream that left him so troubled he just couldn’t get back to sleep. In those days, people expected the gods to communicate through dreams. Indeed, throughout the Bible God revealed special messages to people as they slept—and even today stories are told of people who have never heard of Jesus, who have come to faith in him because he came to them in their dreams.
Nebuchadnezzar knew his disturbing dream meant something, but he didn’t know what. So he called on the wise men who he kept on hand for such emergencies.
The way these things usually worked was that the king’s wise men would hear his dreams and turn to their ‘dream books’, which catalogued the symbols that appeared in dreams and explained their meaning. The key thing here is that the wise men had to be told the dream first, and only after that could they explain its meaning. But Nebuchadnezzar had other ideas. He refused to tell the wise men the dream. Instead he wanted them to tell him both what the dream was and what it meant.
Some scholars believe Nebuchadnezzar refused to recount his dream because he couldn’t remember it, but it’s more likely he was testing his wise men. In Daniel 2:8–9, Nebuchadnezzar says: ‘I am certain that you are trying to gain time’. And later: ‘You have conspired to tell me misleading and wicked things, hoping the situation will change. So then, tell me the dream, and I will know that you can interpret it for me.’ Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar thought his wise men were frauds, just in it for what they could get out of him and without any special abilities at all.
To help persuade the wise men to tell him the dream and its meaning, Nebuchadnezzar gave them a little incentive. If they did not tell him what his dream was and its interpretation, he would have them cut into pieces and their houses turned into piles of rubble. On the other hand, if they did as he asked, they would receive gifts, rewards and great honour.
This could either go very well or very, very badly for the king’s wise men!
The wise men were stumped. They weren’t used to problems like this and couldn’t come up with any answers— which made Nebuchadnezzar furious. It was curtains for all the wise men employed by the king, including those who hadn’t even been present when Nebuchadnezzar made his demands. That meant it was the end for our Jewish friends Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, four gifted young Jewish men who had been taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, trained by him and kept on at the palace.
When Daniel heard he was to be executed, he understandably had a few questions. The main one being that he wanted to see the king himself to ask for some more time. Time that might allow him and his friends to solve the problem of the king’s dream so their lives might be spared.
Daniel was granted time, and immediately he and his friends set about praying. I imagine they prayed like they’d never prayed before! They knew that God knew everything and could reveal knowledge to people. In the past God had given them special abilities—now they needed his wisdom more than ever.
God heard and answered their prayer, and the next day Daniel went to visit Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was careful to make clear to the king that it was his God who had revealed the dream to him before he told him what the dream was about.
In his dream, Nebuchadnezzar had seen a great statue. Its head was gold; chest and arms were silver; belly and thighs were bronze; legs were iron; and its feet were iron and clay. In other words, the statue was top heavy—and as iron and clay don’t bind together, the whole structure was unstable.
Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar he had seen a ‘rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.’ (Daniel 2:34–35). What a weird dream!
Daniel went on to explain the dream’s meaning. He told the king that he and his empire were the head of gold and that Nebuchadnezzar had been placed in that powerful position by God. The other precious metals represented empires that would come after Nebuchadnezzar’s.
There is much speculation as to which empires these were. The main two theories are that they were the Medes, Persians and Greeks, or the Medes/Persians, Greeks and Romans. But understanding this dream doesn’t depend on knowing which empires they were. The important thing is that these empires were all destroyed—completely and utterly—by a supernatural force. Daniel then went on to explain God’s plans to set up his own eternal kingdom.
Nebuchadnezzar immediately recognised Daniel spoke the truth. He ‘fell prostrate before Daniel and paid him honour and ordered that an offering and incense be presented to him’, saying: ‘Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.’ (Daniel 2:46–47)
And so Daniel and his friends were moved into a high position in the king’s service. They had gone from teenage captives, to excelling in their Babylonian training (Daniel chapter one), to now being in a place where they could influence the most powerful man in the world. And they would influence him.
The four had already told Nebuchadnezzar about their God. The king had learnt this God could reveal knowledge hidden from man. He had learnt Daniel’s God was the King above all kings, able to put other kings in their place. He had learnt that, ultimately, it was this God’s kingdom that would be the greatest.
Jeremiah chapter 29 carries a letter written to early exiles like Daniel and his friends. It seems some of them had been saying that their time in Babylon would be short, but Jeremiah the priest told them a different story. He said they would be in Babylon a while, so they ought to build houses, get married and plant gardens. In other words, they were to settle down into normal life. Jeremiah went one step further and even asked the Jewish captives to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon and to pray for her. (See Jeremiah 29:5.)
Now, surely that was pushing it?!
After all, Babylon was destroying their homeland and had forcibly taken them from it! Why would they seek her good? Well, because like it or not they were now part of Babylon—it was their home. And if Babylon prospered, so would they.
This must have been quite something for these exiles to get their heads around. Seeking the best for their enemies? Thinking of Babylon as home? This wasn’t the message they’d been hoping for. They hoped God would rescue them and that they would be back in Jerusalem in no time. But God had other plans.
And as we’ll see as we continue to journey through Daniel together, part of that plan was for Daniel to be in a unique position with the king, one where he really could be an influence for the good of Babylon.
by Carla Lindsey (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 26 August July 2017, pp20-21
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