Text: Daniel 2
Once a year, in late October or early November, a very British event takes place in London: the State Opening of Parliament. Her Majesty the Queen is taken by horse-drawn carriage from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster and into the House of Lords. There she delivers her speech from the throne, informing the great and the good of her plans for her government and for her people.
Looking at that scene, with all its pomp and circumstance, you should have no trouble working out who is in charge. It’s the woman sitting on the throne with a crown on her head.
But, of course, it’s not like that at all. The Queen has very little real authority. That lies with the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Or, perhaps we should say that it lies with the people whose votes elected them to Parliament in the first place. Or maybe with the newspapers whose reports of dodgy expenses claims has led to the downfall of so many ministers and MPs in recent weeks. Or maybe real power lies in Brussels, or Washington. Who is in charge?
Turn now to Daniel ch 2. Who is in charge here? Well, it’s Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, isn’t it? He is, after all, the most powerful man on the planet. Chapter 1 began with him visiting the great city of Jerusalem and saying, “I’ll have that.” He went into the temple of God, saw some precious articles he liked and said, “I’ll have them as well.” He recruited the most gifted young men from among the Israelites and says, “I’ll have them too.” And he brought them – Daniel included – back home and indoctrinated them in all things Babylonian. Yes, King Nebuchadnezzar is very much in control.
But, by the time we reach chapter 2, things are already beginning to look a bit shaky for Nebuchadnezzar. The young king isn’t sleeping too well. In fact, he keeps getting this recurring dream. It is a disturbing, unsettling, troubling dream. Luckily, he’s got a whole army of magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers, and he pays them handsomely to deal with this kind of thing. “I command you: tell me what my dream means.”
“Certainly, your majesty. If you would be so kind as to describe your dream to us, then we will consult our extensive library of dream manuals, and come back and tell you what it means.”
But there’s a problem. The king either can’t, or won’t, describe his dream to them.
“Well, your royal highness,” say the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers. “how can we possible explain to you a dream that you are unable to first describe to us? Only the gods could do that. And, obviously, the gods do not live among men.”
“Call yourself wise men! You tell me what my dream was, and what it means, or I’ll have you cut in pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. I’ll show you who’s in charge around here.”
Well, of course, they can’t do it, and the now-desperate king orders the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. And this, of course, included Daniel and his friends.
When Daniel hears about this, he goes home and tells his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. “Let’s pray about it,” says Daniel. And that night, the mystery of the dream was revealed to Daniel. “Let us give thanks to the God of heaven,” says Daniel.
Daniel reports his findings to Nebuchadnezzar. He begins by describing the dream to the king.
“This is what you saw, O king: There was this statue – enormous, dazzling, awesome. Its head was of shining gold. Its chest was of glittering silver. Its belly and thighs were of lustrous bronze. Its legs were of silvery-grey iron, and the feet were of iron mixed with clay.
“And then this stone appeared. It smashed into the feet of the statue and the whole thing came crashing down. And as for the stone itself, it grew and grew and grew, eventually becoming a mountain so huge that it filled the whole earth.”
Nebuchadnezzar says, “Yes, that’s what I dreamt alright. But what does it all mean?”
Daniel explains. The statue, with its gold, silver, bronze and iron mixed with clay represents four successive empires, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar’s own empire, the Babylonian. This would be followed by three others. Each successive empire would stand mighty and victorious for a while, but none would last. Eventually, they would all come crashing down.
Well, it’s true, isn’t it? Earthly kingdoms are inherently unstable. None of them lasts for ever. ‘The shores of history are strewn with the wrecks of empires.’ Churchill.
Sometimes, empires fall virtually overnight. Only a few years previously, the Assyrian empire had fallen to the Babylonians as Nineveh went up in smoke. Then, Nebuchadnezzar’s own Babylonian empire would fall to the Medo-Persians in a single night (this is the famous ‘writing on the wall’ incident in Daniel 5). And then again, we can give an exact date for the fall of the mighty Roman Empire: 24th August AD 410.
And so it has continued throughout history. Mighty empires rise, only to be toppled and replaced by others.
When Soviet cosmonauts went into space in September 1989 the Berlin Wall was intact, Chauchesku was in power, and all was quiet in the USSR, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. When they returned to earth 6 months later, the Berlin Wall was down, the Romanian revolution was under way, the Soviet Union was in turmoil, and the Hungary and Czechoslovakia were no longer communist.
The same it true of our own little empires. We set up our domestic, social, business, financial or ecclesiastical empires in the midst of which we sit enthroned. We may fool ourselves that we are invulnerable. But out of the blue, an unexpected medical diagnosis, the sudden news of redundancy, an economic down-turn, a failed exam, a moment of sexual unfaithfulness. And everything comes tumbling down.
But that’s only half the dream, the statue that was toppled by a stone. What about the stone itself? The stone that topples empires grows and grows, until it becomes a huge mountain and fills the whole earth, v35.
That stone speaks of a higher throne. It speaks of a lasting empire. It speaks of the kingdom of God.
V44 – “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure for ever.”
The stone was much more powerful than the awesome statue. This tells us that it is God’s kingdom from which all others are derived, and to which all others are subservient. This is clear throughout the book of Daniel, not least here in ch 2. Nebuchadnezzar never was in charge. It was God who caused Nebuchadnezzar to dream his dream in the first place, and then God who gave Daniel the ability to interpret it. In fact, Dan 2:21f God changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.
The stone was hewn, but not by human hands. This reminds us that God’s kingdom, is distinct from earthly kingdoms, it not built with human hands. “My kingdom,” said Jesus, “is not of this world.”
The stone became a mountain which finally filled the whole earth. This speaks of the beginnings of God’s kingdom as tiny and unpromising, but it keeps on growing. Just like a grain of mustard seed.
The stone destroyed the statue, but was itself indestructible. Earth’s proud empires rise and fall. God’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. The gates of hades will not overcome it.
In the mean time, we followers of Jesus Christ find ourselves, like Daniel, with dual citizenship. We are members not only of an earthly kingdom, but also of the kingdom of God.
What does that mean? Two things in particular, from this passage:-
It means involvement without compromise: Daniel had no choice but to accept a Babylonian name, language, education, culture, and high-ranking job. But he would not defile himself, 1:8.
Jer 29: 5-7 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Yes, we are exiles, for ‘here we have no lasting city’. But our earthly citizenship will be no worse, in fact it will be better, because of that.
And to be citizens both of both kingdoms – a fragile earthly kingdom and also of God’s indestructible kingdom – means proclamation without triumphalism. Daniel was equipped and empowered by God to speak face to face with a tyrannical king and his brutal henchmen, yet he did so with wisdom and tact, v14. We are commissioned to proclaim Christ as king. To a world of uneasy dreams, to its crumbling empires, to its petty tyrants with their feet of clay, we proclaim a kingdom of truth, righteousness, justice and love. Christ is “a stone that will make men stumble,” and “a rock that will make them fall.” But he is also the precious cornerstone of a building, not made with human hands. We ourselves are living stones in that building. And that building is not a castle, to be defended with military might and self-seeking arrogance, but a temple, the dwelling place of the living God. A place where prayer can accomplish in a moment what human ability could not do in a lifetime.
Who is really in charge? There is a God in heaven, who gave Nebuchadnezzar all his power and authority in the first place. There is a God in heaven, who is building his own righteous and lasting kingdom. There is a God in heaven who has visited this planet in the person of his own dear Son, Jesus Christ, and who now works powerfully by his life-giving Holy Spirit so that his will may be done here on earth, as it is in heaven.
Heb 12:28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
[Credits: I am indebted for some thoughts and expressions to the exposition of Ronald Wallace, in the Bible Speaks Today series. The Opening of Parliament illustration is adapted from the spoken ministry of Vaughan Roberts, and the Soviet Cosmonaut illustration from that of Richard Bewes.]