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It’s tough being a diviner in the Babylonian Empire. The demons you rely on for insights into the future are frustratingly fickle. One minute they’re making you look good with some dramatic prophecy, and the next minute they’re leaving you high and dry with no inspiration whatsoever. When you’re just manipulating the common people, you can come up with a bunch of phony excuses to hide the fact that you’re really not as wise as you pretend to be. But when you’re working as the advisor to a moody king, it’s a lot harder to get away with the usual baloney. Sure, the king is highly superstitious and he’ll swallow a lot of malarkey about what the gods think and why the gods aren’t talking. But there’s always the danger that he might come up with a test that you can’t talk your way out of. Like maybe he’s had a crazy nightmare and he wants you to interpret its meaning. Normally that would be a cake assignment. But what if the king refuses to tell you what his dream was about? What if he expects you to tell him? How can you fake your way out of this one? You can’t.
One night during the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had such disturbing dreams that he couldn’t sleep. He called in his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers, and he demanded that they tell him what he had dreamed. As they stood before the king, he said, “I have had a dream that deeply troubles me, and I must know what it means.”
Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic, “Long live the king! Tell us the dream, and we will tell you what it means.”
But the king said to the astrologers, “I am serious about this. If you don’t tell me what my dream was and what it means, you will be torn limb from limb, and your houses will be turned into heaps of rubble! But if you tell me what I dreamed and what the dream means, I will give you many wonderful gifts and honors. Just tell me the dream and what it means!”
They said again, “Please, Your Majesty. Tell us the dream, and we will tell you what it means.”
The king replied, “I know what you are doing! You’re stalling for time because you know I am serious when I say, ‘If you don’t tell me the dream, you are doomed.’ So you have conspired to tell me lies, hoping I will change my mind. But tell me the dream, and then I’ll know that you can tell me what it means.”
The astrologers replied to the king, “No one on earth can tell the king his dream! And no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician, enchanter, or astrologer! The king’s demand is impossible. No one except the gods can tell you your dream, and they do not live here among people.” (Dan. 2:1-11)
It’s just as Nebuchadnezzar suspected—he’s surrounded by fakers and fools! Well, he’ll have no more of this. He puts out the order to have all the wise men in Babylon executed. It’s an extreme response, but Nebuchadnezzar is in an extreme mood.
Arioch [AIR-ee-awk] is the commander of the king’s guard and he sets out at once to start killing people. Those four Jewish men that Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed with—they’ve been lumped into the “wise men” category, so they’ll have to be killed along with the rest. Bummer, because they seemed nice. But Arioch has his orders.
So what do you do when you like a guy but you have to kill him? We aren’t told how Arioch greeted Daniel, but he must have said something like, “Hey, Dan. Sorry, but I have to kill you now.” We know he didn’t just burst in with his sword swinging because Daniel has the chance to ask “Why has the king issued such a harsh decree?” Arioch then tells him the whole story. Daniel then hurries to the king and politely asks for a little more time. Nebuchadnezzar agrees because he really does want to know what his dream meant and he forgot to include Daniel in his earlier meeting with his advisers.
Now Daniel hurries over to his three buddies and urges them to pray and ask God to tell them something that will save their necks. That night, Daniel has a vision in which God shows him what the king dreamt as well as what it means. Whew! What a relief! Daniel does some praise and worship.
Quickly locating Arioch, Daniel tells him to hold off on the mass slaughter until he can talk to the king. Arioch is happy to oblige and he rushes the young Jewish slave in to see Nebuchadnezzar.
Now because Daniel is a reverent fellow, he wisely gives God all of the glory for telling him the dream. He doesn’t try to pinch off any credit for himself. We would be wise to follow his example.
“It is not because I am wiser than anyone else that I know the secret of your dream, but because God wants you to understand what was in your heart.” (Dan. 2:30)
It turns out that Nebuchadnezzar dreamt of a huge, scary statue. But it wasn’t a normal statue, it was very strange in that it had sections made out of different materials. The head was gold, the chest was silver, the waist was bronze, the legs were iron, and the feet were a mix of iron and clay. In real life, you’d never put all of these materials together in one image. If you did, you certainly wouldn’t put the clay mix last, for it is the weakest. So what on earth does it all mean?
Well, it turns out this is God’s creative way of showing off the fact that He knows the future. As we look back over human history, we see a series of kingdoms rising and falling. Nebuchadnezzar is very familiar with the concept of kingdoms rising and falling—he was the one who helped conquer the Assyrian Empire. Now he’s the big man on campus, but of course the glory of Babylon won’t last forever. Eventually it will fall to someone else and there will be another world power. (Remember that these people are only thinking of their little piece of the world when they think of world powers—they aren’t talking about global domination). In this dream, God is prophesying about the next four empires that will rise up after Babylon. He doesn’t name the empires, but we can now because we live so far in the future and can see what happened after Babylon fell. Here’s a basic summary (click on the image to enlarge it):
God’s prophecies have always been a great source of debate within the Church, and different sources will attach different names onto these sections of the statue. There’s a lot of agreement about the first sections, but when it comes to the toes, there are some very wild theories. Some want the statue to represent the entire history of mankind, so they decide that the toes must represent world powers that are battling it out today. But this simply doesn’t work. God does certainly speak about the end of the world in the Bible, but when it comes to discussing specific kingdoms, the Book as a whole stops with Rome. It’s rather interesting the way this works out. Daniel lived centuries before the Roman Empire would get off the ground, and yet he will have several visions of Rome in his lifetime. At the very end of the Bible, the disciple John’s vision of Revelation is focused on the Roman persecution of the Church. We don’t find detailed descriptions of any modern nations in the Bible because God simply didn’t feel the need to discuss these things. Does this mean that God has never prophesied about modern nations? Not at all. The Bible is not a comprehensive collection of everything God has ever said about the future. Today there are legitimate prophets of God who are receiving detailed visions about what is going to happen to various modern nations, but we hardly ever hear about these visions because we’re so busy listening to the liars. False prophets receive a new “word” from God every time they experience a shift in mood, so with them blabbering on constantly and Christians being so lazy about praying for discernment, we don’t pay attention to the real guys. And of course real prophets don’t go around working the title “prophet” into every conversation they have, nor do they seek the glory of men. The real guys are humble, and humble is very easy to overlook. So, yes, God is giving us specific warnings about what is in our near future. But as usual, what God is actually saying about the end times is quite different than the popular theories of the end time drama that you hear in the mainstream Church.
Today the Church is filled with fools who insist that the Bible provides us with a detailed description of what the end times will be like. No, it doesn’t. Not even close. But what we do learn from studying biblical prophecy is that God exalts God, not the powers of evil. So any theory which has you fearing Satan and his human helpers more than you fear God Almighty is an obvious fraud (see Identifying False Prophecy About the End Times).
Now let’s get back to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Anytime we see God giving a vision or prophecy, we expect Him to be in there somewhere. So far all we have is a reference to future kingdoms of men. Well, that’s fine, but what about God? Isn’t He going to take the opportunity of this dream to flaunt His power a bit? Of course He is. We can always count on our God to promote Himself. Describing the second part of the dream to the king, Daniel says:
“As you watched, a rock was cut from a mountain, but not by human hands. It struck the feet of iron and clay, smashing them to bits. The whole statue was crushed into small pieces of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold. Then the wind blew them away without a trace, like chaff on a threshing floor. But the rock that knocked the statue down became a great mountain that covered the whole earth.” (Dan. 2:34-35)
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. It’s so like God to go smashing down the triumphs of man. And just what does this rock symbolize? Daniel explains:
“During the reigns of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed or conquered. It will crush all these kingdoms into nothingness, and it will stand forever. That is the meaning of the rock cut from the mountain, though not by human hands, that crushed to pieces the statue of iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold. The great God was showing the king what will happen in the future. The dream is true, and its meaning is certain.” (Dan. 2:44-45)
So God gives Nebuchadnezzar a dream of coming kingdoms and those kingdoms seem impressive until God smashes them all to bits and demonstrates that His kingdom is supreme over all of them. This new kingdom that God establishes during the Roman Empire is of course a reference to Christ coming and establishing His Church. This is more like it. Here’s a key marker of legitimate prophecy: God always exalts Himself. He might talk about other people and nations, but He doesn’t step out of the spotlight for anyone. This means that when you hear some prophet prophesying that so-and-so is God’s anointed superstar who we should all exalt and ooze over, you know you’re listening to an ego trip, not the Holy Spirit. Yes, God does compliment people, but He compliments Himself more. God isn’t going to tell us that we should all be tripping over ourselves to exalt some mortal. He is going to tell us that we should be exalting Him, and if we’re commended by Him, it will be because we did a good job of exalting Him in front of others, or honoring Him in our hearts, or serving Him faithfully. It’s always about God and He doesn’t share His glory with anyone.
Well, let’s think about this dream from Nebuchadnezzar’s perspective. It’s talking about future events that don’t seem to have much relevancy to his personal lifetime. He really likes the part about his kingdom being a glorious head of gold. And if Daniel’s God wants to say He’s better than anyone else, Nebuchadnezzar can live with that. After all, he believes in gods and he has no problems with the idea that gods are superior to mortals. The real takeaway for him in all of this is that he’s found a truly trustworthy advisor. This Daniel kid really knows his stuff. He’s obviously got some impressive spiritual hookups to be able to describe someone else’s dream, so Nebuchadnezzar wants to keep this guy on his side.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar threw himself down before Daniel and worshiped him, and he commanded his people to offer sacrifices and burn sweet incense before him. The king said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is the greatest of gods, the Lord over kings, a Revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this secret.”
Then the king appointed Daniel to a high position and gave him many valuable gifts. He made Daniel ruler over the whole province of Babylon, as well as chief over all his wise men. At Daniel’s request, the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be in charge of all the affairs of the province of Babylon, while Daniel remained in the king’s court. (Dan. 2:46-49)
Well, things have sure taken a turn for the best for our four Jewish exiles. They’ve gone from being nobodies to having power and respect. Notice how Daniel helped his three buddies out by putting in a good word for them—there’s a man who knows how to share. We like Daniel.
BARUCH, Jeremiah’s Scribe
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, Jeremiah is a fountain of negativity as he goes around predicting doom and disaster on everyone. He’s already told off evil King Jehoiakim—predicting that the man would die a disgraceful death and that no one would mourn for him. Now he’s starting to rail against all of the surrounding nations: Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Elam, blah, blah, blah—well, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch is fed up! Day after day it’s the same miserable routine: get woken up by a crazed prophet who’s all fired up with some new word from Yahweh, and then struggle to write fast enough as Jeremiah goes shouting at people and making embarrassing scenes. It’s like being trapped in a theater that only plays depressing movies. Baruch [bar-RUKE] is frustrated. Jeremiah’s messages are draining the life out of him. He’s tired of all the doom and gloom. And yes, he’s been griping. But he didn’t really think anyone was listening—especially not Yahweh. So when Jeremiah gets that look on his face and Baruch grabs a fresh piece of parchment to write the new message on, he is completely caught off guard by the way it starts.
“This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You say, ‘Woe to me! Yahweh has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ But Yahweh has told me to say to you, ‘This is what Yahweh says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. Should you then seek great things for yourself? No, do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares Yahweh, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’” (Jer. 45:2-5)
Oh. So Yahweh’s been eavesdropping. He’s been hearing what Baruch’s been muttering under his breath and He’s been listening to his pining thoughts. And now He’s telling Baruch to stop wishing for better days because they aren’t coming. Well, that’s not very inspiring. But Yahweh does say that He will be watching over Baruch and protecting him. It’s nice to know He isn’t giving all of His attention to the important prophet. Baruch must matter, too, if Yahweh is going to look out for him. Well, it wasn’t the cheeriest message, but it helps. Baruch carefully writes it down so he can keep rereading it. After all, it was HIS message from Yahweh. Imagine Yahweh speaking to one lowly scribe. Baruch didn’t think he was anyone special—usually all of God’s messages are for the important people. Well, now Baruch’s important, too, and he has the proof of it. Yahweh cares about the little people. What’s that, Jeremiah? You want to review your message to Egypt? Let’s see…I believe that came right after my message from Yahweh—you know, the time He spoke about me and said He’d watch over me wherever I go. The message to Jehoiakim? Oh, that was a while back—long before Yahweh spoke to me. Anyhow, remember that time He gave you a message just for me? He said He would protect me wherever I went. Yep, Yahweh knows I’m down here, working hard to preserve all of His messages. Scribes matter, too, you know. God looks out for us while you prophets are putting our lives in danger with all of your doomsday preaching. Gee—what did He say to me, again? It’s a little fuzzy—oh, here it is: the message to Baruch, right on top of the pile. Funny how it’s always right on top. Oh, alright, keep your tunic on, I’ll get the one you want…
EGYPT vs. BABYLON
King Nebuchadnezzar isn’t the only king with a lust for land. Pharaoh Neco of Egypt has dreams of grandeur as well, and when he succeeds in keeping Nebuchadnezzar from invading his land, he to starts to think that perhaps his time has finally come. How irritating, then, to hear that one of Judah’s prophets is speaking against him.
“Egypt rises like the Nile, like rivers of surging waters. She says, ‘I will rise and cover the earth; I will destroy cities and their people.’ Charge, you horses! Drive furiously, you charioteers! March on, you warriors—men of Cush and Put who carry shields, men of Lydia who draw the bow. But that day belongs to Yahweh, Yahweh Almighty— a day of vengeance, for vengeance on His foes. The sword will devour till it is satisfied, till it has quenched its thirst with blood. For Yahweh, Yahweh Almighty, will offer sacrifice in the land of the north by the River Euphrates.
Go up to Gilead and get balm, Virgin Daughter Egypt. But though you try many medicines, there will be no healing for you. The nations will hear of your shame; your cries will fill the earth. One warrior will stumble over another; both will fall down together.” (Jer. 46:8-12)
Every year the Nile River floods its banks. The Egyptians depend on their massive river to support their economy. When God speaks to a specific nation, He uses metaphors and references that are meaningful to that group of people and we’ll find the Nile coming up a lot whenever Egypt is mentioned. God’s prophecies are personal.
In this poetic passage, Yahweh is prophesying that when Egypt and her allies gear up for war, He is going to make sure they lose. This is not what Pharaoh Neco wants to hear. Why can’t Judah’s God mind His own business?
Yahweh Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “I am about to bring punishment on Amon the god of Thebes [Theebs], on Pharaoh, on Egypt and her gods and her kings, and on those who rely on Pharaoh. I will give them into the hands of those who want to kill them—Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and his officers. Later, however, Egypt will be inhabited as in times past,” declares Yahweh. (Jer. 46:25-26)
Thebes is an important city in Egypt. Many cities were believed to have their own gods, hence Amon was the god of Thebes. Here Yahweh declares supremacy over all of Egypt’s gods as well as over Pharaoh himself. How arrogant. And then He says He’s going to hand the whole lot of them over to King Nebuchadnezzar. Over in Babylon, they love this message. In Egypt, they hate it.
EGYPT WILL DESTROY PHILISTIA
At least Yahweh is going to give Egypt a little victory. When Neco faces off with Nebuchadnezzar on Philistine territory, the Philistines are going to get mowed over by the Egyptians. It would be a satisfying victory if Yahweh wasn’t pompously taking credit for the whole thing.
“Yahweh is about to destroy the Philistines, the remnant from the coasts of Caphtor [CAFF-tor]. The city of Gaza [GAWZ-ah] will shave her head in mourning; the city of Ashkelon [ASH-keh-lawn] will be silenced. You remnant on the plain, how long will you cut yourselves?
‘Alas, sword of Yahweh, when will you finally rest? Return to your sheath; cease and be still.’
But how can it rest when Yahweh has commanded it, when He has ordered it to attack Ashkelon and the coast?” (Jer. 47:4-7)
Gaza and Ashkelon are key cities in the coastal nation of Philistia. Many idol worshipers shaved their heads and cut their bodies with knives as a way to show mourning and solicit help from their gods (To try and keep His followers separate from idol worshipers, Yahweh specifically forbade them from doing either of these rituals in Leviticus 21:5). The pagan Philistines are going to be doing a lot of self-slashing in the near future as their land is getting ravaged by the Egyptians.
For us, the important lesson in all this is to notice how Yahweh is taking credit for everything that is happening in the world. Today when we see two nations warring together, we get so focused on the human agendas that we fail to see God’s hand at work. Yet all throughout the Bible, God teaches us that He is always the One who is ultimately directing the affairs on earth. When Pharaoh Neco [NEH-ko] attacks Philistia, he thinks it’s his own idea—he thinks he’s just trying to expand his own kingdom. Yet this isn’t how Yahweh sees it. To Him, greedy Neco is a convenient tool to use to spank rebellious Philistia. Everything that happens in this world is furthering God’s Divine agenda. This is one of the main themes that He hammers over and over again in the Bible. Be sure you don’t miss it.
When you pull up the latest news on your computer screen, you’ll have current events explained to you solely in terms of human agendas. But regardless of what explanations are given, you know that God is really the One directing all of the events you read about. From company mergers, to distant wars, to accidents, to murders, to the rise and fall of media stars and politicians—everything is being directed by God. Everything is furthering His Divine agenda for individuals as well as for the entire human race. God is always in control. We never get to do anything entirely on our own, and nothing we do is just about us or the people we are focused on. As it says in Proverbs 16:9:
The mind of man plans his way, but Yahweh directs his steps.
God is always directing us. If He doesn’t like our ideas, He blocks them from going forth. If He sees that our plans will further His personal agenda, He enables them to succeed. But at the end of the day, it’s always about God and what He wants to happen down here. It’s never just about us.
When Nebuchadnezzar’s scuffle with Egypt doesn’t go as well as he’d hoped, he has to pull his battered army back to Babylon to recover. Meanwhile, several of the nations he’s conquered decide to take advantage of his weakness and stop paying tribute to him. Well, that’s annoying. Judah is among those who rebel, and King Jehoiakim goes three years without giving Nebuchadnezzar a cent. Such defiance must be punished if Nebuchadnezzar is going to keep his empire intact. In our next lesson, we’ll learn what happens when Nebuchadnezzar brings his army back to Judah for a second attack.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 30: The Yoke of Babylon
Click here to see all the lessons in this series.