Daniel - A Theology of History

Four Successive Empires
The first paragraph of Daniel introduces the key theme of the book:  God reigns over the kingdoms of the world. This is demonstrated by explicit statements and accurate predictions of changes in the world’s political order by God’s prophet, Daniel (1:22:212:31-454:175:17-2911:1-4).
Daniel opens with an announcement that the king of Babylon had overthrown the king of Judah and removed golden vessels from Jerusalem’s Temple to the “treasure-house of his god in the land of Shinar,” as a tribute to the superiority of his god. The destruction of Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple occurred because “the Lord gave it into the king’s hand” (1:1-2).
This created a theological dilemma for members of God’s chosen nation.  The Hebrew text repeats “house” three times and “his god” twice for emphasis. The name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ includes the Mesopotamian god Nabu or Nebo (Isaiah 46:1). From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon had triumphed over the God of Israel.
“Shinar” is the ancient name of Mesopotamia and the site of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10:10, 11:1-9). In Genesis, mankind was united by a single language and attempted to unite under one kingdom. Yahweh thwarted this first attempt at a global empire by confounding this language and scattering the resultant disparate groups across the earth (Genesis 11:1-9).
The new “king of Babel” was apparently reversing Yahweh’s earlier decree by seizing God’s “house,” gathering scattered nations back to Shinar and imposing the language of Babylon on one and all (1:4).  Israel’s tribute included high ranking Jewish exiles sent to Babylon to be educated in the wisdom, language and laws of Babylon, and then to serve it as civil servants.
This was a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation; it effectively lost its independence and in a few short years the kingdom and dynastic rule of the house of David came to an end, Jerusalem was destroyed, and its population deported to Mesopotamia.  Yet Daniel declares it was “the Lord” who gave all this into the hands of a pagan ruler and enemy of Israel.
The Hebrew verb rendered “gave” is applied this same way two more times in the first chapter of Daniel.  In verse 9 God gave Daniel “favor and sympathy with the prince of the eunuchs,” and in verse 17, He gave Daniel and his companions “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.” Further, Daniel was “given” understanding in all visions and dreams.
The king put Daniel and his friends to the test to “found them ten times better than all the scribes and enchanters that were in his realm” (1:20). Therefore, they were promoted to serve the king in his court (1:19). Despite the disaster that befell Israel, subsequent events demonstrate that God used the lowly exiles from Jerusalem to achieve His purposes and direct the course of history.
The events in chapter 2 transpired in the “second year of Nebuchadnezzar” before the completion of Daniel’s education (1:18). An inference is that Daniel’s successful interpretation of the king’s dream described in chapter 2 was not attributable to his Chaldean education but to the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given to him by Yahweh (1:17). The Prophet succeeded where the educated wise men of Babylon all failed.  Daniel’s triumph was due not to the “learning of Babylon” but to the revelation of God.
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a dream that deeply troubled him and he, therefore, commanded Babylon’s wise men to reveal its contents and their meaning. This they naturally were unable to do; “there is not a man upon the earth who can declare the matter of the king…there is none who can declare it before the king except the gods whose dwelling is not with flesh.”
The enraged king ordered the destruction of the wise men of Babylon. Daniel requested a time when he could make the interpretation known to Nebuchadnezzar, then prayed for the revelation of “this mystery” (2:13-18).
Yahweh responded in a night vision to reveal the king’s dream (2:19-23).  Daniel then praised the God who “changes times and seasons, removes kings and sets up kings…He is the One Who reveals the deep and hidden things…for the matter of the king have you made known to us.”  Daniel revealed the king’s dream and its interpretation (2:24-45). Thus, God showed Nebuchadnezzar “what things must come to pass in latter days.”
Nebuchadnezzar saw a large image with a head of gold, breast, and arms of silver, belly, and thighs of brass, and legs of iron with feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Next a stone “cut out without hands” struck the image on its feet and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, clay, brass, silver, and gold parts were broken in pieces to become like chaff blown by the wind…the remaining stone became a “great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
The golden head represented Nebuchadnezzar to whom God gave the kingdom (2:37). The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would succeed his domain, likewise, the brass belly and thighs would “rule over all the earth,” each in its turn.
The stone carved “without hands” represented a final kingdom established by God, which would “break in pieces and consume all” the preceding ones. In this “God had shown the king what things must come to pass after these things.”
Nebuchadnezzar prostrated himself before Daniel, gave him gifts and exalted him to rule over the province of Babylon (2:46-49). The king declared Daniel’s God to be “a God of gods, Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries.” The mighty pagan ruler thus acknowledged Yahweh’s sovereignty over nations and history.
The God of Israel reveals the future of kingdoms; He sets up and removes rulers to achieve His purpose. Through Daniel God laid out the future course of the global empire until its final overthrow by the kingdom of God. The rise and fall of empires and kingdoms are under the firm control of the God of Israel.
The story in chapter 3 is the sequel to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The king attempted to implement his dream by “making an image of gold” (2:37-38), but in his version, the entire image was gold rather than a composite of different materials. He intended to honor his gods, his achievements and declare to one and all that his kingdom was everlasting.
At the king’s command all the “satraps, nobles, pashas, chief judges, treasurers, judges, lawyers, and all provincial governors were assembled to the dedication of the image…and they stood before it.” All were commanded to fall down and “render homage to the image that “the king had set up”; any who refused were to be cast into a fiery furnace (3:3-6).
The image represented the king’s absolute sovereignty over all the “peoples, races and tongues” of the empire. He presumptuously demanded that all venerate his image that he had “set up.” The Aramaic verb rendered “set up” is the same one used in chapter 2 where God “sets up” kings (2:21), “set up” the image with the golden head (2:31), and “set up” His everlasting kingdom (2:44).
In Daniel 3:1-18, nine times it is stated that Nebuchadnezzar “set up” his image (3:1; 3:2; 3:3 [twice]; 3:5; 3:7; 3:12; 3:14; 3:18), a deliberate contrast to the claims of God in chapter 2. Nebuchadnezzar claimed authority and allegiance that belonged to Yahweh alone.
Some of the “wise men” of Babylon now used the situation to settle scores for their earlier demotion and loss of face (2:48-49). Though loyal to the king, the Jewish exiles could not worship the image because of their greater loyalty to Yahweh.
When Nebuchadnezzar heard that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego “refused” to worship his image, he gave them a stark choice:  give allegiance to the image or suffer a fiery death (3:13-18). After all, “who is the god that shall deliver you out of my hand?
The three exiles were cast into the furnace but miraculously survived. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” with a fourth figure described he described as “like to a son of the gods” (3:20-25).
With trepidation, the king summoned the three men to exit the furnace and addressed them as “servants of the Most-High God.”  Because they survived unscathed, he “blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego,” who “changed the king’s word” by delivering His “servants who trusted in Him.”
Nebuchadnezzar consequently issued a decree to “all peoples, nations and tongues” that anyone who spoke disparagingly of the God of Israel would be cut in pieces, “for there is no other god who is able thus to deliver.”
As in chapter 2, praise and acknowledgment of God are found on the lips of the powerful pagan king. The king earlier described Daniel as a servant of the “God of gods and Lord of kings” (2:47). Now he acknowledged the three Jewish exiles as servants of the “Most High God.” The ruler of the global empire once again acknowledged the superiority and sovereignty of Yahweh and the universal extent of His reign.
As he did for Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in “the province of Babylon.” The sovereignty of Yahweh over historical events was demonstrated again; the presumptions and machinations of even the world’s most powerful political machine could not thwart His Divine purposes.
Chapter 4 begins and ends with Nebuchadnezzar, the sole ruler of the world empire acknowledging the sovereignty of Yahweh over history, the central theme of the story.
Eight times the term “earth” occurs, usually in conjunction with Babylonian sovereignty over the earth (4:1; 4:10; 4:11; 4:15; 4:20; 4:22; 4:23; 4:35 [twice]).
But “heaven” occurs sixteen times in reference to God’s sovereignty (4:11; 4:12; 4:13; 4:15; 4:20; 4:21; 4:22; 4:23 [twice]; 4:25; 4:26; 4:31; 4:33; 4:34; 4:35; 4:37). The king learned that God alone truly rules over the course of history (4:26).
Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that caused him anxiety and he summoned the wise men of Babylon to interpret it. As before, only Daniel could do so.  In the dream, a large tree in the center of the earth grew until its height reached heaven. It was visible from the extremities of the earth. The animals of the earth were fed by it; the birds of the air sheltered in its branches (4:4-18).
Nebuchadnezzar saw a “holy watcher” descend from heaven who commanded the complete removal of the tree so that nothing of it remained visible above ground.  It was “cut down,” its branches “lopped off,” its leaves “stripped” and its fruit “scattered across the earth.” Only the “tip of it root” remained in the earth.
The king’s heart was changed from a man’s to a beast’s until “seven times passed over him.” He became a pitiful tethered animal dependent on others for care. In this way all “the living would know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he will, and sets up over it the lowest of men.”
Daniel interpreted the dream and thus Yahweh’s servant exercised sovereignty over king and kingdom. He gave true sovereignty to “the lowest of men,” Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar was little more than a pawn in the larger drama.
The tree represented Nebuchadnezzar whose “greatness and dominion extended to the end of the earth.” The command to cut it down was “the decree of the Most-High.” Men would drive the king out of society to live among wild animals for “seven seasons” until he learned that “the Most-High gives the kingdom of men to whomever he pleases”; afterward his kingdom would be restored (4:19-27). But the dream’s warning was soon forgotten.
A year later “all this came upon Nebuchadnezzar.” At the height of his power, he boasted of his accomplishments: “Is this not Babylon the Great that I myself built by the might of my power and for the dignity of my majesty?”  Immediately a voice pronounced: “O Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom has departed from you…until you come to know that the Most-High has dominion over the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever he pleases.” The king’s understanding immediately departed, and he was expelled to live like an animal for “seven seasons” (4:28-33).
After the restoration of the king’s mind, just as the dream foretold, Nebuchadnezzar declared, “Blessed is the Most-High who lives forever! I praise and honor the One whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Before Him, all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and according to his own pleasure, He deals with the Host of Heaven and the inhabitants of the earth.
History remembers Nebuchadnezzar as a great builder of magnificent buildings and a successful conqueror who established an empire from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Egypt, one mightier than any preceding kingdom. Scripture remembers Nebuchadnezzar as a tool employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends despite his own plans and whims.
In Scripture, Babylon symbolizes the world kingdom set in hostility to God (e.gRevelation 17:1-5). Chapter 4 provides an object lesson in the hollowness of the boasts of empires, emperors and kings. God alone installs and removes rulers and regimes as He sees fit.
Chapter 5 is set on the last evening of Babylon’s final ruler, Belshazzar. This chronological reference locates the event in 539 B.C. when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians.” It begins abruptly with no reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s successors who ruled between his and Belshazzar’s reign, a gap of about twenty-five years between chapters 4 and 5. Nebuchadnezzar was Babylon’s greatest king; unfortunately, his reign was followed by decline and internal strife.
In 550 B.C., the Persian ruler Cyrus II annexed the Median Kingdom to his own to establish the empire of the “Medes and Persians.” This set the stage for conflict with Babylon and the latter’s eventual demise. 
On a fateful night in 539 B.C., Belshazzar threw a feast during which he and his retinue drank wine from vessels previously removed from Yahweh’s Temple (1:1-25:1-4), and “praised the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.” In that same hour, a hand began to “write over against the lamp-stand upon the plaster of the wall.” Disturbed at the sight, Belshazzar summoned the enchanters, soothsayers and “wise men of Babylon” to interpret the writing, but no one was able to do so.
Daniel was summoned. Belshazzar offered rewards if Daniel could interpret the sign, but he retorted that he would interpret it regardless of any proffered gifts. Daniel reminded the king that Nebuchadnezzar had received “the kingdom, greatness, glory and majesty” from the Most-High God, and authority over “all peoples, nations, and tongues.” Nevertheless, when that king’s heart “was lifted up” he was deposed, deprived of his glory, and was driven from the sons of men, “until he came to know that the Most-High God rules over the kingdom of men and sets up over it whomever he pleases.” 
In contrast, Belshazzar had not humbled his heart, “though he knew all this,” but exalted himself against the Lord of heaven by profaning the vessels of His Temple. Rather than honor the Most-High God, he had praised false gods and idols “that neither see nor hear nor know.”
The supernatural writing read, ‘Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin,’ Aramaic words having to do with monetary weights; mene, the equivalent of the Hebrew “talent,” tekel of the Jewish shekel, and peres (from upharsin) for “half-pieces” or the “half-mina.” The last term was a double wordplay, first on the name “Persia,” the power about to overthrow Babylon, then on the Aramaic verb for “divide”(from the consonantal stem prs.
The terms signified that “God has numbered your kingdom and brought it to an end” (mene), “you are weighed in the balances and found wanting” (tekel), “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (peres). Yahweh’s sovereignty was on full display, as a global empire was transferred to the Medes and Persians.
Despite his dark prediction, Belshazzar ordered Daniel clothed with purple and a gold chain. The Prophet was proclaimed the “third ruler in the kingdom.” That night the Medes and Persians captured the city and slew Belshazzar. The first global empire fell; the next became ascendant. Through the words of a Jewish captive Yahweh deposed one mighty empire and set up another of even greater magnitude.
 Darius the Mede” appointed Daniel first among three ministers of state tasked with managing the governors and state fianc├ęs of the province of Babylon (Daniel 6:1-3), but certain officials envied Daniel and sought to discredit him. Unable to find fault with the execution of his duties, they strove to fabricate a charge of disloyalty to the Persian regime based on his religious practices. They devised a new law that forbade anyone from petitioning any “god or man for thirty days,” except Darius, which was signed into the “law of the Medes and Persians.” According to tradition, once written the law could not be altered by anyone. The trap was thus set.
Daniel did not alter his daily prayer routine and his accusers “found him making petition and supplication before his God.” They informed the king, “Have you not signed an edict that every man who shall petition any god or man within thirty days, save you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions?” The king acknowledged this to be so, “according to the law of the Medes and Persians that alters not” (6:12).
The trap being sprung, Daniel’s enemies accused him of disloyalty. This distressed Darius who valued Daniel’s services, so he determined to save Daniel if he could find a way. Despite his vast political power, he was only able to postpone the execution until sunset, being constrained by the “law of the Medes and Persians.” The king had no choice but to order Daniel’s execution.
The Prophet was thrown into a lions’ den and the pit was sealed shut. The king passed the night anxiously, rose early the next day and hastened to see if Daniel had survived: “is the God whom you serve able to deliver you from the lions?
Daniel was indeed still alive and answered the king. God’s angel had shut the lions’ mouths so they could do no harm. Daniel was found “blameless” before God and Darius. Daniel was removed from the den and his accusers cast in instead to die an immediate and horrible death. The ferocity of the lions demonstrated Daniel had not been spared because they were not hungry. Only Divine intervention spared his life.
Darius issued a decree to “all the peoples, nations, and tongues that dwell in all the earth,” that men ought to fear and revere the “God of Daniel” (6:25-28). He is the living God and His “kingdom shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end.” As a result, Daniel prospered even more under the reigns of Darius and Cyrus than he had under the Babylonian rule.
Darius had altered the unalterable Persian law due to Yahweh’s intervention. The plot to exploit the law of the “Medes and Persians” for evil ends, instead caused the demise of the plotters. The previous edict compelled all subjects of the empire to petition no god or man other than Darius. But in the end, Yahweh caused Darius to command all his subjects to acknowledge God’s everlasting sovereignty.
The first half of the book of Daniel demonstrates that Yahweh, the God of Israel, rules over the kingdom of man and the course of history. The plans, intentions, and dictates of even the most powerful rulers cannot thwart His purposes, and the defeat and humiliation of His people by pagan powers is no impediment to Him.


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