Daniel 4 “Live Humbly”
In 1995, a Panorama interview aired on BBC that caused shock waves throughout the world. What was said in that staged press conference filled newspaper headlines across the planet for months, even years. It wasn’t just the content of the interview that made it such news, but the identity of the person speaking (Princess Diana speaking to Martin Bashir).
In Daniel 4 we have a press conference that is even more extraordinary than that. The most powerful man on the planet, the King of the mighty, conquering and advanced Babylonian empire, declares news to “the nations and peoples of every language who live on the earth (v1).” In this press conference, the identity of the person giving this news makes it worth listening to but the content of the news is even more incredible. It is a press release from a once proud king marked by humility and filled with gratitude and praise for another King. Listen again to the start and end of King Nebuchadnezzar’s declaration to the world;
v2 “It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation.”
V37 “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”
What an amazing confession for the ruler of the Babylonian empire to make, the man who once built a great statue for others to worship. What every human being desperately needs, Nebuchadnezzar has received; he has been humbled by God. Sin has made the human heart proud and self-reliant, it has fooled us into thinking we can rule ourselves and provide for ourselves what we need. Praise God who sits on the throne of the Universe, the throne of Grace, for in Daniel 4 we see that instead of ignoring our foolish arrogance, or wiping us out in our damaging pride, he is prepared to bring the proudest of us low so that we will lift our eyes to heaven and find salvation in Him.
1) Let God’s word disturb our proud contentment (1-18)
In verses 1-18 the word of God (via the words of Nebuchadnezzar) shouts out to us to allow God’s word to disturb our proud contentment. Nebuchadnezzar has already seen 2 great demonstrations of the power and reality of God (the dream Daniel interpreted and salvation in the fiery furnace) and so if the human heart wasn’t so prone to pride and self-rule then there is no way we would be reading verse 4; “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous.”
What’s wrong with him being contented and prosperous? He shouldn’t be content because his heart is still as hard as ever, he is still sitting on the throne of his own life. Despite those 2 awesome encounters with God, and despite the years of faithful witness Daniel would have been to him in the palace, what we find out in verse 27 is that his heart hasn’t been changed at all. He is still a wickedly ruthless King who prospers because he lives as he wants and oppresses those weaker than him (lemmings). And he is fine with that!
Despite the reality of the “God of gods and Lord of Kings” that he acknowledged in chapter 2, despite the reality of the “Most High God” that he proclaimed to his people at the end of chapter 3, there he sits in chpt 4 verse 4 in all his pride and sin, happy with his life. And if there were no true God then there would be no answer to that wrong (so often voiced in the Psalms as “why do the wicked prosper” and so often asked by Christians under trial as ‘why do people who live for themselves seem to have it so easy?’).
But there is a God in heaven. And his character is such that as Proverbs 3v34 says; “He mocks proud mockers but shows favour to the humble and oppressed.” The consistent truth that the bible reveals about God is that he will not let any one of us get away with proudly living our own way. Often on TV shows there is that moment where one person is saying some terrible things to someone else without realising that the person they are mocking is standing right behind them. That is bad enough, but imagine the horror of the day of judgement when so much of proud humanity will have to answer to the God they refused to believe in, the God they defied for the entirety of the lives that He graciously gave them, the God who has been right there the whole time.
There is a God in heaven in front of whom one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. But God is not inactive until the final day of judgement. He opposes the proud now. And so King Nebuchadnezzar once more faced problems sleeping, and problems getting his dreams explained. In his dreams he has a vision of this enormous, beautiful, fruitful tree, reaching to the sky, visible across the world, giving shelter and food to birds and animals. So far so good – sounds a bit like the dazzling head of gold from chapter 2.
But despite the amazing height of this tree, touching the sky, a holy messenger comes down from heaven (correct perspective already) and commands that the tree be cut down and stripped until it is just a stump and roots. Disturbing enough but then the vision gets really personal for Nebuchadnezzar because in verse 15 the holy messenger stops talking about a tree and starts talking about a ‘him’; “Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him.” Wow. The Holy speakers in the dream then finish with this reason for what is to come; “so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.”
No wonder Nebuchadnezzar sent for Daniel (via the bluffing astrologers first of course, he really hadn’t been changed at all), no wonder this dream disturbed him in his proud contentment. The truth that is so important for us to understand here is that Nebuchadnezzar is in a better position in verse 18 disturbed pleading for help than he was in verse 4 when he was feeling content. It is when people are at their most comfortable and contented that they are most in peril. Our hearts are so twisted by sin that every one of us would fit right into the Babylonian way of life (contented with ourselves); listen to the language of Gen 11v4&5 where the founders of the city of Babylon foolishly set themselves up against the God who is way above them; “Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth." But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.” No matter how high and mighty the achievements of man seem, God always has to step down if he wants to be on the same level as them. And so the call of verses 1-18 is to let God’s word rudely disturb any current contentment you have with ruling your own life or even ruling parts of your life. Be humbled when you realise just how high above you God is, be humbled when you realise that everything you are and have is completely dependent upon Him.
2. Genuine humility will lead to genuine obedience (19-33)
And if that truth does humble you then it will change you as well. In popular culture one type of person who is almost universally despised is the super-rich 20 year old who thinks that their money makes them very important even though they only have that money because their investment banker Daddy handed it to them on a silver platter. When we hear of them parking their Bentleys on disabled bays and see them expounding their great wisdom on Instagram and Twitter we react strongly because we can see how entitled they think they are even if they can’t. In verses 19-33 genuine humility gets rid of our entitlement and leads instead to obedience. Genuine humility will mean that God will not remain in your head simply as the ruler of the universe far away but he will reign in your heart as the ruler of every part of your being. When that happens, people don’t dance to your tune any more, rather you take your place willingly in God’s symphony.
Verse 19 and Daniel stands once more before the earthly king and once more in a very vulnerable position. He knows exactly what the dream means and this leaves him perplexed and terrified. (I looked through a few other translations for help with the word perplexed as we normally associate it simply with confusion and these are some of the words used in verse 19; appalled, astonished, dismayed, upset). Daniel knows that what he is about to say to the king is very dangerous for him but I think more than that Daniel is gripped by how great the consequences of God’s word are going to be for Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar can see Daniel’s hesitation and reassures him that he wants to hear the truth.
Here goes then; You are that tree O King. You are impressive and powerful and the peoples of this world can see that clearly BUT you are about to be cut down lower than you could ever imagine. You are going to go from dazzling to degraded and your humiliation is going to last until you realise your true position before God. What exactly does Nebuchadnezzar need to realise? Verse 25-27; He has to understand that God is in control of everything and not him, and that the only reason Nebuchadnezzar is a king at all is because God has given him a kingdom. He needs to be humbled. And not just in words but in deeds. Those 2 humbling realisations must have a huge impact on Nebuchadnezzar’s behaviour, he is to renounce sin and do what is right, he is to turn away from wickedness and instead show kindness to the oppressed.
This is a message about humility that is delivered in a very humble way. Daniel’s approach to the King in verse 27 is a really helpful model of how we can and should approach the people around us with the news of the gospel. He gives the hard truths in the right way and from what I think is a helpful position. (“Be pleased to accept my advice” – Not standing in place of God with pointed finger, but rather standing with arm round Neb in front of God). The gospel that humbles its hearers must first humble those who deliver it and Daniel, despite his huge wisdom and talents, is humbled by God’s rule.
But despite all of this, and in a verse that makes clear just how hard and proud sin makes our hearts, we read this in verse 28; “All this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar.” He hadn’t been truly humbled by God’s word, it only temporarily disturbed his prosperous contentment. His stubborn heart hasn’t changed at all because he behaves exactly as he always has. A year goes by and as he looks out from his roof over the amazing city of Babylon, his words seal his fate; “‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’” As the words are on his lips another voice is heard and these words are the ones that matter because God is the creator King and Nebuchadnezzar is simply a little creature, and one that goes from Beauty to Beast in a moment complete with hair like feathers, nails like claws and a diet of grass.
Conclusion: God humbles before he lifts up (v34-37)
But even then, in verse 33, driven away from his people and living like an animal, Nebuchadnezzar is in a better place than he was back in verse 4, contented and prosperous. And once again in Daniel, that is because of who God is. V34-37 show us that God humbles before he lifts up. Listen to this sentence that Tim Keller wrote back in 2008 when the world economy was in crisis (and think how well it applies to the current pandemic); “With the global economy in shambles, many of those idols that we have worshipped for years have come crashing down around us. This is a great opportunity. We are briefly experiencing ‘disenchantment.’” It is a merciful thing to be humbled by the God who reigns because it can bring us to salvation and that has got to be the main thrust of our prayers for our nation throughout Covid-19. (And we should pray similar things for the USA right now).
It works for Nebuchadnezzar who eventually “lifts his eyes to heaven” and he praises the Most High God whose “dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” Those truths should frighten proud little creatures like us, and they should leave us without any hope – far away from God and destined for destruction. And yet, this God who ‘does what he pleases’, reveals his heart to us in Jesus Christ. This God whose hand cannot be held back and whose ways cannot be questioned “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.”
God’s heart is filled with love for people who in their pride have no time for him. The God who humbles sinners is the God who humbled himself so that he can save sinners, so that he can lift sinners up in his gentle embrace out of the insanity of turning away from Him and imagining that we are masters of our own course in life.
Are you with Nebuchadnezzar when he says in verse 37 “I praise and exalt and glorify the king of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”? Are you with him not just in words but in deeds as well? Is the King of the universe reigning in every area of your life? What a wonderful, loving, comforting, mighty, powerful King Jesus is – everything he does is right and in him we are lifted up forever and set in God’s presence for eternity.
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