Babel, Empire,Arrogance

Presumption to empire is the legacy of the Tower of Babel found in Daniel, humanity’s first attempt at universal rule and World-Power

World Reach - Photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash
In the opening paragraph of
Daniel, Babylon is called the “land of Shinar,” an allusion to the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis. The same story is reflected in the third chapter, where Nebuchadnezzar gathered all the nations to pay homage to the great image that he “set up” in the Plain of Dura. Thus, the Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar was not a new political creature - [Photo by Kelsey Knight on Unsplash].

In Daniel, the city of Babylon was the latest incarnation of an imperial effort which had been underway since the commencement of human civilization. In Genesis, God stopped the completion of the high tower in Shinar, diversified the single language spoken at the time, and distributed the resultant groups across the earth. The story of the Tower of Babel provides the origins of the Babylonian Empire from the biblical perspective - (Genesis 11:1-9).

In the Genesis story, the “whole earth was of one language and one speech.” The descendants of Noah had migrated to Mesopotamia and dwelt “in the land of Shinar,” the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Sumer.’ There, the people began to build a city with a high tower to “reach the heavens and, thus, make us a name, lest we be scattered across the whole earth.”

Originally, God commanded Adam to “multiply, replenish and subdue the earth,” a command reiterated to Noah after the Flood. Nevertheless, instead of heeding the divine directive, humanity moved to Mesopotamia and built a new civilization to “make a name” for itself. In the Hebrew Bible, ‘Babylon’ is characterized by its presumptuousness - (Genesis 1:289:1, Isaiah 14:13-14Jeremiah 32:20).

If humanity united under one language, its wickedness would know no bounds. By confounding languages, God caused the nations to spread throughout the earth; moreover, he thwarted the first attempt to form a centralized World-Power.

The Bible called the Mesopotamian city ‘Babel’, the place where “Yahweh confounded the language of all the earth.” The name may be related to the Hebrew word balal, meaning “confusion,” though in the ancient Akkadian language of Mesopotamia, bab-ili or ‘Babel’ meant the “gate of god.”

In Genesis, the “whole earth spoke one language” and men began to dwell in Shinar, where they built a city with a tower of “great height” in the “plain of Shinar,” all to mark their achievements and prevent the dispersal of humanity.

Similarly, in Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar attempted to reverse God’s judgment against Ancient Shinar by gathering representatives of various ethnic groups, cultures, and nations to be educated in the language of Babylon, the “tongue” of the World-Power. He also commanded all nations to render homage to the “great image” that he had “set up in the plain of Dura,” then decreed that “all peoples, races, and tongues” should render homage to it. The whole earth was to be united under Nebuchadnezzar and his image - (Genesis 11:2, Daniel 3:1-7).

Theology of History. The Book of Daniel begins by presenting its key theme - God reigns over the kingdoms of the world and grants rulership to whomever He pleases - (Daniel 1:1-2, 2:20-21, 4:17).

Nebuchadnezzar overthrew the king of Judah and removed the golden vessels from the Temple to the “treasure-house of his god in the land of Shinar,” a tribute to the superiority of his god, or so he thought. But the destruction of Judah occurred because “the Lord gave it into the king’s hand.”

The overthrow of the nation of Judah created a theological dilemma for members of God’s chosen nation, for the Neo-Babylonian Empire had destroyed what remained of the kingdom of Israel. The name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ includes the Mesopotamian god Nabu or Nebo. From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon had triumphed over the God of Israel by taking sovereignty over Judah and ransacking His Temple.

The latest “king of Babel” was reversing the ancient decree of Yahweh by seizing God’s “house,” gathering scattered nations back to Shinar, and imposing the language of Babylon on one and all.  Judah’s tribute to Nebuchadnezzar included high ranking exiles sent to be educated in the ways of Babylon. This was a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation, yet Daniel declares that it was the Lord who gave all this into the hands of the pagan enemy His people - (Daniel 1:4).

The Hebrew verb rendered “gave” is applied several times in the first chapter.  First, God gave the kingdom of Judah into the “hand of Nebuchadnezzar.” Second, Daniel was “given favor and sympathy with the prince of the eunuchs.” Third, Yahweh gave Daniel and his companions “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.” Furthermore, Daniel was “given” understanding in all visions and dreams.

The Babylonian king put Daniel and his friends to the test and “found them ten times better than all the scribes and enchanters that were in his realm.” Therefore, they were promoted to serve in his court. Despite the disaster that befell Israel, subsequent events demonstrated that God was using the lowly Jewish exiles to achieve His purposes and direct the course of history - (Daniel 1:17-20).

In chapter 2, events occurred in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar, well before the completion of Daniel’s Babylonian education, which suggests that his successful interpretation of the king’s dream was not attributable to his newly acquired knowledge; rather, it was through the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given to him by God.

Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed a dream that troubled him; therefore, he commanded the wise men of Babylon to reveal its content and significance. This they were unable to do, which enraged the king, who then ordered the destruction of the wise men of his court. Daniel intervened and requested a time when he could make the interpretation known, then he prayed for the revelation of “this mystery” - (Daniel 2:13-18).

Yahweh responded by revealing the king’s dream.  Daniel then praised the God who:
  • 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.”
He then revealed the dream to the king, and its interpretation. Thus, through Daniel, God showed Nebuchadnezzar “what things must come to pass in latter days” - (Daniel 2:19-45).

Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a large image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet, partly of iron and partly of clay. A stone “cut out without hands" struck the image on its feet and broke it into pieces, after which the stone became a “great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

The golden head represented Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler to whom God had given the World-Power. The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would succeed his domain, likewise, the brass belly and thighs. The stone carved “without hands” represented a final kingdom established by God, one that would “break in pieces and consume all” the preceding regimes. In this, “God had shown the king what things must come to pass after these things” - (Daniel 2:37).

Consequently, Nebuchadnezzar prostrated himself before Daniel and exalted him to rule over the province of Babylon. The king declared Yahweh to be “a God of gods, Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries.” Thus, the mighty pagan ruler acknowledged God’s sovereignty over nations and history. The king’s mighty power was derived from the “Most-High God.” In this way, Yahweh revealed the future of the World-Power. The rise of empires was under His firm control.

The story recorded in chapter 3 is the second half of the same drama. The king next attempted to implement his dream by “making an image of gold.” However, the entire image that he “set up” was covered in gold, not just its head. He was determined to magnify his achievements and declare to all mankind that his kingdom was an everlasting realm. Had he not dreamed it?

World Power - Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

At the command of the king, 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 “render homage to the image that the king had set up,” and any who refused were cast into a fiery furnace - (
Daniel 3:1-6).

The “great image” represented the absolute sovereignty of the Babylonian ruler over all the “peoples, races and tongues.” Presumptuously, he demanded that all men venerate the image that he had “set up.” The Aramaic verb rendered “set up” is the same one used in chapter 2 for the God who “sets up” kings. Nine times the text states that Nebuchadnezzar “set up” his image, a deliberate challenge to the claims of God.

Some of the learned “wise men” used the situation to settle scores for their earlier loss of face. Though loyal to the king, the Jewish exiles could not worship the image because of their loyalty to Yahweh. When Nebuchadnezzar heard this, he gave the three men a stark choice - Give allegiance to the image or suffer a fiery death. After all, “Who is the god that shall deliver you out of my hand?

Consequently, the three Judean exiles were cast into the furnace but miraculously survived. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” with a fourth figure, one described he described as “like to a son of the gods. With trepidation, he summoned the exiles to exit the furnace and addressed them as the “servants of the Most-High God.”  Because they had survived unscathed, he “blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego,” for He had “changed the king’s word” by delivering His “servants.” The king then issued a decree to “all peoples, nations and tongues” that anyone who spoke disparagingly of the God of Israel would be cut in pieces - (Daniel 3:13-25).
As before, praise and acknowledgment of God were heard on the lips of the powerful pagan ruler, and Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the three Jewish exiles to be the servants of the “Most-High God.” Once more, the ruler of the World-Power acknowledged the universal sovereignty of Yahweh.

As he did for Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, and thus, the sovereignty of Yahweh over historical events was demonstrated. The presumptions and machinations of even the world’s most powerful political machine could not thwart His purposes.

Similarly, chapter 4 begins and ends with Nebuchadnezzar, the sole ruler of the World-Power, acknowledging the sovereignty of Yahweh, thus, reiterating the theme of the book.
  • 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 and military conqueror who established an empire from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Egypt, a realm mightier than any preceding kingdom. In contrast, Scripture remembers him as a tool employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends, despite the plans, pretensions, and whims of the Babylonian king.

Chapter 5 is set on the last evening of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, before its conquest to the kingdom of the “Medes and Persians.” Babylon’s last king, Belshazzar, gave a feast in which his retinue drank wine from the vessels that had been removed from Yahweh’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, and while “praising the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.” In that same hour, a hand began to write on the wall. Disturbed, Belshazzar summoned the enchanters, soothsayers, and the “wise men of Babylon” to interpret the writing, but no one was able to do so.

As before, Daniel was summoned to interpret the writing - ‘Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin.’ The clause represented Aramaic words that have 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 that overthrew Babylon, then on the Aramaic verb for “divide” (from the consonantal stem p-r-s).

The Aramaic phrase 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, and the World-Power was about to be transferred from Babylon to the “Medes and Persians.”

That night, the army of the “Medes and Persians” captured the city and slew Belshazzar. The first World-Power fell, and the next became ascendant. Through the words of the Jewish exile, Yahweh had deposed one mighty empire and established another of even greater magnitude.

Thus, the first half of Daniel demonstrates that Yahweh rules over the kingdoms of men and the course of history. The plans, intentions, and dictates of even the most powerful ruler cannot thwart His purposes, and to Him, the defeat of His people by a pagan power is no impediment. God uses both good and evil rulers to achieve His ends. Rulers of any persuasion who assume they rule and conquer through their own wisdom and power ignore history and arrogate to themselves prerogatives that belong to God alone.




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