TALES OF THREE RULERS Daniel 4–6
“People must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For He is the living God and He endures forever; His kingdom will not be destroyed, His dominion will never end. He rescues and He saves; He performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth” (Dan. 6:26–27).Throughout his life Daniel consistently witnessed to the power of God, and left an indelible impression on a series of world rulers. People around cannot help taking note of the truly committed individual.
The Book of Daniel faithfully reflects the different customs of the Babylonian and Persian courts. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had absolute authority: His word was law. In Persia the ruler’s word had the force of law, but once an official pronouncement was made, it could not be altered. This difference sheds light on two elements of Daniel’s story. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2) portrayed the succeeding empires as progressively inferior to that ruler’s own. The inferiority is one of perspective: Nebuchadnezzar’s absolute power (vv. 37–39) was gradually diluted in each succeeding world empire. To the ruler of Babylon even gradual movement from absolute autocracy would seem a mark of inferiority. The change is also reflected in Daniel’s story of his bout with the lions. Even though the Persian ruler wanted to save Daniel, he was helpless to change the tradition that bound him as well as others to his pronouncements. Thus Daniel’s enemies were able to entrap and manipulate Darius, something impossible with Nebuchadnezzar. Yet Nebuchadnezzar was as bound by his arrogance as Darius was by his treacherous officials. No one, however powerful they may seem, is truly free. Every human being is subject in the last analysis to his own character, to his circumstances and, certainly, to God.
Daniel interpreted a dream portending disaster to Nebuchadnezzar (4:1–27), and witnessed its fulfillment (vv. 28–37). As an old man Daniel interpreted a sign indicating the fall of the Babylonian Empire (5:1–30), and became a valued administrator of the Persian Empire which succeeded it (6:1–3). God thwarted the plan of Daniel’s enemies and miraculously delivered him from a den of hungry lions (vv. 4–28).
Understanding the Text
“Until you acknowledge that the Most High is Sovereign” Dan. 4:1–27. Once again Nebuchadnezzar had an alarming dream and called Daniel to interpret. This time the dream was directed against him: It predicted that the king would become the victim of madness until he acknowledged the sovereignty of Daniel’s God. “The glory of my majesty” Dan. 4:28–37. God had twice shown Nebuchadnezzar His power, and the Babylonian ruler had been deeply impressed. However, he apparently thought of God as God of the Hebrews, and not a God sovereign over him. Arrogant people have this tendency. “Religion’s all right for you,” they’ll say condescendingly. “Some people need God.” Even those who think that God exists often fail to take the logical step of seeking a personal relationship with Him. This was certainly the case with Nebuchadnezzar. He was too great a man to need God. Why, see all he’d accomplished! The dream warned Nebuchadnezzar of his need to personally submit to the Lord. Daniel himself urged the king to repent, knowing that God’s announcements of judgment are contingent. But within a year the king, his heart swelling with pride, was struck with madness. Perhaps the greatest miracle here is that for “seven times,” a period which typically indicates seven years, the throne of Babylon remained empty. Finally, after months or years of living like a beast in open fields, the king’s sanity was restored, and he at last praised, honored, and glorified the Most High. Many, perhaps rightly, view this as Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion. At last the mighty ruler humbled himself, and took his place as a simple worshiper of the Lord of heaven and earth. How often it takes just this—some disaster—to humble a person before he or she is ready to seek God. I suspect that Nebuchadnezzar would agree: If that’s what it takes, the disaster is a blessing in disguise. “King Belshazzar” Dan. 5:1. For many years Daniel’s identification of “Belshazzar” as king was considered proof that the book was of late origin. Only a person ignorant of the history of the period would have “made up” such an individual. But then archeologists discovered documents that showed Daniel, not the critics, was right! The text’s report that Daniel was offered the third highest rank in government (v. 16) rings with authenticity, for Belshazzar was himself second, co-regent under his father Nabonidus! How then can Nebuchadnezzar be called Belshazzar’s “father” in the biblical text? One meaning of “father” is “predecessor.” The term is often used in genealogies to indicate an individual who may be a distant ancestor. “Father” was also used in biblical times with the sense of “predecessor” on a royal throne. Even a supplanter like Jehu, who murdered the family of Ahab to set up his own dynasty, is called in Assyrian records a “son of Omri,” the founder of the earlier royal line. A third consideration is that frequently a king like Belshazzar would marry a daughter of the founding line, and in this sense too be the “son” of the “father.” What impact does information like this have on our devotional use of the Bible? Perhaps little. But it does confirm our conviction that the Bible truly is the Word of God. And it reminds us that we not only can trust that Word, but that we must willingly subject ourselves to it. “You . . . have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this” Dan. 5:1–30. When a hand appeared and wrote on the wall at a feast Belshazzar held the 15th of Tishri (in September, 539B.C), the king almost fainted with terror. The queen mother urged him to call Daniel, who had explained dreams for Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel, now in his 80s, appeared and explained the mysterious words. The words were “numbered,” “weighted,” “divided,” and indicated that the end of Belshazzar’s rule had come (cf. vv. 26–27). Even though Belshazzar must have heard of Israel’s God and of Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion, the drunken king had brought the golden goblets dedicated for use at the Jerusalem temple to his table, to be used in toasts offered to pagan gods and goddesses. Daniel’s words tell it all. “You his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, even though you knew all this.” In setting himself against God, Belshazzar sealed his own doom and that of his kingdom. That very night, Babylon fell. Ugbaru, the commander of the Persian army that even then surrounded Babylon, diverted the waters of the river that flowed through Babylon. When the water level fell below that of the river gates, the invading force entered the city and captured the “impregnable” city in which Belshazzar had feasted. “It pleased Darius” Dan. 6:1. The “Darius” of Daniel 6 is most likely a viceroy who ruled the empire while Cyrus, its conqueror, was away on a military campaign. Nothing is known of him from the secular sources now available, but 9:1 says that he was “made [appointed] ruler” suggesting that, despite his title, he was subject to another higher authority, even as the kings of Judah were subject during their last decades to the Babylonians. Despite his advanced age, Daniel was appointed to an extremely high position in Darius’ administration, and aroused the jealousy (and perhaps fear!) of other, less honest officials. These officials tricked Darius into issuing a religious decree they knew Daniel would not obey. They then accused Daniel, and despite Darius’ best efforts, that ruler was forced to order Daniel thrown into a den of lions. The deliverance of Daniel persuaded this ruler too of God’s greatness, and he decreed that people “in every part of my kingdom” must “fear and reverence the God of Daniel.” I suspect that the royal command did little to create faith in Israel’s God. After all, faith can’t be commanded! What did create faith, at least in the king, was Daniel’s faithfulness to the Lord. Despite the threat to life itself, Daniel continued to worship God openly. God’s faithfulness to His loyal servant, like His faithfulness to us, nurtures budding faith in others. You and I cannot command others to believe. But we can encourage them to believe—by an open, unashamed, and unpretentious witness to our Lord.
Keep Your Gifts(Dan. 5)
I love the picture this chapter brings to mind. There’s Belshazzar, so scared that “his knees knocked together and his legs gave way” (v. 6). He stood there, trembling, in front of a suddenly sober mob of officials, trying desperately to look kingly. And in came Daniel, walking a little stiffly on his 80-year-old legs, but calm and dignified. Struggling to keep his voice from squeaking, Belshazzar begged Daniel to interpret the miraculous writing that appeared on the wall. And then he promised, if Daniel could do this, “You will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made third highest ruler in the kingdom” (v. 16). You have to hand it to ol’ Daniel. He didn’t laugh. He remained sober, accused Belshazzar of arrogance, and announced that his kingdom would fall to the Medes and Persians. Daniel didn’t even laugh. Can you imagine? Daniel told the king to “keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else.” But the king insisted. And even when they brought out the promised gold chain and looped it over Daniel’s neck, and draped his spare body in purple, the old prophet didn’t laugh. I’m afraid I might have in Daniel’s place. It was so ridiculous. Here was Belshazzar, handing out rewards, and that very moment the level of the river that flowed through Babylon was falling! That very moment Persian troops were massing, ready to plunge through the shallows, under the river gates, and walk unopposed into impregnable Babylon. And pimply young Belshazzar, expecting Daniel to be impressed, was royally distributing largess that in the morning would be worth just about as much as, well, as Monopoly money is at the bank. And Daniel didn’t even laugh. Probably we don’t laugh enough. You see, the world is always holding out rewards, expecting us to be impressed. There’s wealth. Status. Power. Acceptance. And all the time, just outside the gates, God is preparing to invade earth. When He does, and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God, all that earth has to offer will be worth-well, less than Monopoly cash. So the next time some earthly reward is dangled in front of you, and your heart starts pounding with excitement, remember Daniel at Belshazzar’s feast. Tell the world to keep its gifts for itself. Or, if others insist, and hand you some golden chain or a purple robe, chuckle inside, as Daniel must have done. They can’t bribe you. You know that tomorrow, when this world crumbles as it must, its gold and robes will turn to dust.
Serve God, for His rewards only will last.