The Old Testament book of Daniel has a lot to teach us about resolving the tension of choosing whether to resist or adapt as we engage with the culture around us.
US psychotherapist Bill Blanton promotes a lifestyle called ‘radical honesty’. He believes the best way to live is to tell absolutely no lies, not even little white ones. You must be completely honest and transparent with everyone to the point that if a thought enters your head, it has to come out your mouth.
We live in a world where white lies are a normal part of life. Often, we tell them to protect other’s feelings (‘You look great in that!’) or to protect ourselves (‘Sorry I’m late, the traffic was terrible’, when we mean ‘sorry I’m late, I’m just really disorganised’). But what would happen if we really were direct and honest with others in a gentle, loving way? I suspect our relationships would grow and we would grow as individuals.
Telling the truth is not always easy. It can be uncomfortable, inconvenient, embarrassing and career limiting. In the case of Daniel, it could have also been life ending. In Daniel chapter four, we see Daniel choose to deal honestly with King Nebuchadnezzar when it might have been safer—and certainly more comfortable—for him to have fudged the truth.
The fourth chapter of Daniel is unique in that Nebuchadnezzar narrates the story. We get a glimpse into the way this king (the most powerful man on the planet at the time) saw the world and his place in it. The chapter takes the form of a royal decree in which Nebuchadnezzar spreads word around his huge empire about something that has happened.
Nebuchadnezzar begins with the typical greeting for such a decree, and then gets straight into the story. He tells everyone, ‘I was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous’ (Daniel 4:4). All was going well for the king. He was basking in his great achievements. But in a moment that blissful feeling turned to terror. He had a dream and knew it meant something bad. So, as kings did in those days, he called on all his wise men to interpret the dream. But they were no help. This dream had them stumped.
Daniel, who by now had been promoted to ‘chief of the wise men’ (4:9), arrived after everyone else had failed to interpret the dream. This made him the king’s last hope. Daniel was under a little bit of pressure!
Daniel listened while Nebuchadnezzar recounted his dream. He had seen a huge and beautiful tree. It was laden with fruit and provided food and shelter for many creatures. But a messenger from Heaven declared that the tree would be stripped and cut down, leaving only the stump and roots. Then a strange switch happens in the words of the messenger. The tree stops being referred to as an ‘it’ and it is referred to as a ‘he’. This ‘he’, we are told, was going to be become like an animal for seven years.
Now, not only is Nebuchadnezzar troubled by the dream, but Daniel is dumbstruck by fear. He knew what the dream meant alright, and didn’t want to tell the king. In fact, Daniel told the king he wished this dream was for Nebuchadnezzar’s enemies—a surprising thing to say given that Daniel might well have considered the king his enemy, since Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Daniel’s city and taken him prisoner! Daniel might well have thought, ‘You deserve what you have coming, Nebuchadnezzar!’ But we sense from this interaction that a friendship had formed between the two men.
Daniel’s response indicates conflicted emotions. Where was his loyalty, to his God or his king? What might it mean for him if the King reacted badly to God’s message? After all, kings had been known to execute the messenger. But as hard as it would be for Daniel to deliver God’s message, it was in the king’s best interest to hear the truth so he could change his ways.
So Daniel broke the news: ‘Your Majesty, you are that tree!’ (4:22). Most likely Nebuchadnezzar had suspected that was the case, as in Mesopotamian literature the tree often served as a symbol of divine world order and the king was seen as the one who kept that order on behalf of the gods. So, if the king was the tree, that meant not only would he be cut down, but he was also going to lose his mind and live with the wild animals until he acknowledged God.
Daniel reminded Nebuchadnezzar that God was ‘sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes’ (4:25). Nebuchadnezzar thought of himself as god-like. He thought he held all the power and had achieved success by his own strength. He failed to realise God had put him in power and that ultimately God was in control. Everything Nebuchadnezzar had was a gift that could be taken away in a moment.
Daniel’s courage seems to build as he relays the dream’s interpretation, and as he gets to the end he becomes very direct. He instructs the king to act now to avoid this happening. Nebuchadnezzar could change his behaviour, do what was right and be kind to the oppressed. Doing so would not only save him from insanity, but would benefit his whole kingdom.
But did the king listen? It seems not.
‘Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” ’ (4:29–30). And it was a great city, with walls 13 km around and four chariots wide, amazing buildings and hanging gardens that were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It must have been a spectacular sight. Yet when God looked, he saw was a man whose heart was full of pride.
And so the dream came to pass. The great king ‘was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox … his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird’ (4:32–33). At the end of that time, Nebuchadnezzar raised his eyes toward heaven and his sanity was restored.
Now, all this might seem far-fetched, but a disease called ‘lycanthropy’ was well known in the ancient world. It was characterised by the acute onset of insanity and delusions of thinking one was an animal. It would often last a year or two before complete sanity was restored. Perhaps this was what happened to Nebuchadnezzar?
In addition, a fascinating document called the Prayer of Nabonidus was found among ancient documents at the Qumran Caves. In this, King Nabonidus (who reigned shortly after Nebuchadnezzar) finds himself afflicted with an illness at God’s command. He was sick for seven years until he prayed to the Most High God and had a Jewish exorcist pardon his sins.
Some interesting similarities, don’t you think? Some scholars wonder if Nabonidus was Nebuchadnezzar, since kings often had more than one name. Perhaps this Prayer of Nabonidus is an account of the Daniel chapter four from a different perspective?
Nebuchadnezzar’s final words in the book of Daniel are praise to Daniel’s God. He acknowledged God was sovereign and that ‘those who walk in pride he is able to humble’. (4:37). The king finally got it. Quite a hard way to learn, though!
It’s been said that ‘sanity begins with a realistic self-appraisal’. It starts with being honest with ourselves. That might be the most difficult type of honesty. To accept the things we are good at and the mistakes we’ve made.
To accept that we are valuable to God but that we are not God.
by Carla Lindsey (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 23 September, pp20-21
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