Imperial Hubris

Human presumption to empire is the legacy of the Tower of Babel, humanity’s first attempt at World-Power

World Dominion - Photo by Slava on Unsplash
The ancient story of the Tower of Babel is reflected in
Daniel when the ruler of the “land of Shinar,” Nebuchadnezzar, gathered all nations to pay homage to the great image that he had “set up” in the “Plain of Dura.” His empire was not a new political entity, but the latest incarnation of the imperial effort that has been underway since the start of human civilization - [World Dominion - Photo by Slava on Unsplash].

In Genesis, God stopped the completion of the “high tower” in the “plain of the land of Shinar” by diversifying the single language spoken at the time and dispersing the resultant linguistic groups across the earth. That story provides the origins of the Babylonian Empire, at least, from the biblical perspective - (Genesis 11:1-9).

Originally, 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,’ and there, they 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.”

In the beginning, God commanded Adam to “multiply, replenish and subdue the earth,” the very 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. And 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 human languages, God caused the nations to spread throughout the earth, and He thwarted the first attempt to form a centralized imperial government.

The Bible called this 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.” At that time, the “whole earth spoke one language.” When began to dwell in “Shinar,” they built a city with a tower of “great height” in the “plain” to mark their achievements and prevent the dispersal of humanity.

Likewise, in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar attempted to reverse God’s judgment against Ancient Shinar by gathering representatives from every nation 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’s rule, the Babylonian “tongue,” and the worship of the “image he had set up” - (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 subjugation of Judah created a theological dilemma for members of that nation, for the Babylonians had destroyed what remained of the kingdom of Israel. The name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ includes the name of the Mesopotamian god Nabu or Nebo. From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon had triumphed over the God of Israel by conquering 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” in Mesopotamia, and imposing the language of Babylon on one and all.  Judah’s tribute 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 Judah, subsequent events demonstrated that God used 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. 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 dreamed a dream that troubled him, and therefore, he commanded the wise men of Babylon to reveal its contents and significance, which they were unable to do. Enraged, the king ordered the destruction of all the wise men. However, Daniel intervened and requested a time when he could make the interpretation known, then he prayed for the revelation of “this mystery.” Yahweh responded by revealing the king’s dream to him, and its interpretation.  In response, Daniel then praised 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.”
Daniel then revealed the dream to the king and its interpretation. Thus, through the prophet, God showed Nebuchadnezzar “what things must come to pass in latter days” - (Daniel 2:19-45).

Nebuchadnezzar had 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, part iron and part clay. Then a stone “cut out without hands" struck the image on its feet and shattered it into pieces, after which the stone became a “great mountain that filled the whole earth.”

The “golden head” represented Nebuchadnezzar. The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would succeed him, likewise, the brass belly and thighs. The stone carved “without hands” represented the 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 “the God of gods, Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries.” And so, the mighty pagan ruler acknowledged God’s sovereignty over nations and history. His sovereignty was derived from the “Most-High God,” and in this way, Yahweh revealed the future of the World-Power. The rise of empires was under His firm control.

In chapter 3, 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 one. Had he not dreamed it?

At his 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 “render homage to the image that the king had set up,” and anyone who refused to do so was cast into a fiery furnace - (Daniel 3:1-6).

The “great image” represented the absolute sovereignty of the Babylonian emperor 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 very deliberate challenge to the sovereignty 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. 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 exiles were cast into the furnace but miraculously survived. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” with a fourth figure, one he described as “like 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 slain - (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, and 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 conqueror who established an empire from the Persian Gulf to the gates of Egypt, a realm mightier than any preceding one. In contrast, Scripture remembers him as a tool employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends, despite the plans and pretensions of the Babylonian king.

Chapter 5 begins on the last evening of the Babylonian Empire, just prior to its conquest by 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 his predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar, and all 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 none was able to do so.

Handwriting on the Wall
Handwriting on the Wall

As before, Daniel was summoned to interpret the writing - ‘
Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsin.’ The clause represented Aramaic words associated with monetary weights - Mene, the equivalent of the Hebrew “talent,” Tekel from the Jewish shekel, and Peres from upharsin for “half-pieces,” the “half-mina.” The last term provides a double wordplay – First, on the name “Persia,” the power that overthrew Babylon; second, 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), and “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (peres). Yahweh’s sovereignty was on full display as the World-Power was transferred from Babylon to the “Medes and Persians.”

That night, 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 a king and his mighty empire and established another realm 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 to His plans. God uses both good and evil rulers to achieve His ends. Rulers of any persuasion who assume that 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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