Under God's Thumb
Puppets of God
[Article is written by David Ettinger for "Zion's Fire" Copyright 2003 published bimonthly by Zion's Hope, Inc., P.O. Box 690909, Orlando FL 32869-0909, as part of the ministry Zion's Hope Inc., a Bible-believing, faith ministry to the Jewish people and the world God so loves. Our desire is to be evangelistic in fervor, conservative in doctrine, and loving in attitude. The Holy Land Experience is also part of this ministry, and can be visited online at http://www.theholylandexperience.com or by visiting it in person in Orlando Florida.]
The saber-rattling ramblings of the like of China's Jiang Zenim, North Korea's Kim Jong II, and Libya's Mohammar Quaddafi--to name just a few--are mere exercises in vain futility. These oppressive world-leader musclemen bully their own people at will and have designs on spreading their dastardly dictatorial deeds throughout the entire world--if only they could. Woe to any one of their subjects who even thinks of opposing them. Harsh punishment--usually a swift death sentence--awaits any citizen of these regimes who chooses to speak out against their strong-armed dictators. In the delusional minds of such arrogant men, the power to destroy life or preserve it lies in their own clammy hands and, indeed, their very depraved wishes are the commands of their puppet underlings and henchmen.
And yet, the lone Authority of the universe--the God of heaven and earth--has something much different to say about such pompous, prideful, and pig-headed power-mongers: "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed" (Psalm 2:1-2). As evil world leaders rage against man and against God, the Lord's response is simple: "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision" (Psalm 2:4).
Without a doubt, the most vivid example in history of God's laughing at and deriding a world leader is exhibited in one of the world's most powerful monarchs, king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Though the king considered himself the ultimate sovereign of his empire, he was no more than a marionette whose strings were manipulated from above--a mere puppet under God's mighty thumb.
Instrument of God
Born to be king: Nebuchadnezzar's royal credentials are impressive. Born about 630 B.C., he is the oldest son of Nabopolassar--no slouch himself. All Nabopolassar did was found the Babylonian Empire. Obviously, being the oldest son, Nebuchadnezzar would one day inherit the empire from his father. But the new king was far more than just the heir of the throne of Babylon. He was also a great general
in his own right, leading his people's western campaign in Syria, Israel, and Egypt and adding those land masses to his empire's ever-expanding holdings.
Becoming a king: Nabopolassar died in the year 605 B.C., thereby making his son king and ruler of the empire. Earlier that year, Nebuchadnezzar led his father's army against the Egyptians and defeated them, establishing Babylon as the Near East's most powerful nation. Now as king, he would stay on the throne until his death at the age of 68 in the year 562 B.C. Though Nebuchadnezzar would wreak havoc and mayhem on much of the Near East, he would be best known for the damage he inflicted upon Israel, especially its capital, Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar's torment of Israel came in three stages, with major deportations of Israelites to Babylon in 605 B.C., and 586 B.C. And it was in that final exile that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and set the temple on fire (Jeremiah 52).
A mere instrument: Nebuchadnezzar's accomplishments are pretty impressive, but one thing he could never have known at the time is that he was no more than a mere instrument of God. Consider God's words to the people of Israel as spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the Lord, and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant" (Jeremiah 25:9). How interesting. No doubt Nebuchadnezzar thinks that he is in control, but alas, it is actually the God of the people he has just conquered who raised up the king for this very purpose.
Messenger of God
Know your place, O king: As the Book of Daniel--where we learn quite a bit about King Nebuchadnezzar--begins, we find out immediately who is in control of this book, the king's life, and, ultimately, history itself: "In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it. [Historic note: When Israel is spoken of here, it is referring to the kingdom of Judah, much of the population of the ten-tribed northern "kingdom of Israel" having been taken captive and deported by the Assyrian Empire's army in 721 B.C., and becoming lost historically. Since that time, historians and the Jews themselves have often referred to the ten northern tribes as "the Ten Lost Tribes." The southern kingdom of Judah, then took on the name of Israel, as they were the last remaining "tribe" from the whole 12 tribes that came from the patriarch Israel. The tribe of Levi and part of Benjamin are also a part of the remaining southern kingdom of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom had just previously driven the Assyrian Empire into defeat and retreat, so that the Empire itself kind of disappeared historically. So that is where we are as this story unfolds.] And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand" (Daniel 1:1-2). Message to Nebuchadnezzar: You really didn't conquer the people of Israel, O king, God gave them to you--for now.
Welcome to Babylon, young man: As mentioned earlier, there were three deportations--605, 597, and 586 B.C. And it was in that first one, 605 B.C.--that the most influential person in Nebuchadnezzar's life arrived in Babylon. The king ordered that "certain of the children of Israel" (vs. 3) be brought to Babylon, among them "Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah" (vs 6). All four of these young men would have a profound effect upon Nebuchadnezzar, but none as much as Daniel.
Dream specialist: The four young Israelites--all about the age of 16 when they were brought to their new home--are indeed gifted. In fact, they are given ample supplies of "knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom" (vs. 17). But Daniel is special, and he is granted something more than the others: "and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams" (vs. 17). The importance of Daniel's gift cannot be too strongly overstated. His astounding gift of dream interpretation would give to the world among the greatest prophecies mankind would ever know. And as far-reaching as these prophecies would be, Daniel's ability to interpret dreams would play a key role in totally transforming the heart of a powerful monarch from one of overbearing and abusive power to one of contrite and penitent humility. And from the mouth of this king would emanate some of the greatest words of praise for God recorded in all of Scripture.
Troubled By God
Must have been something he ate: Nebuchadnezzar had a really bad night. How he tossed and turned! "Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams, wherewith his spirit was troubled, and his sleep brake from him" (2:1). The food in Babylon is rich, but not that rich. No, it was not something that Nebuchadnezzar ate, but rather, God beginning to work through His chosen servant. The king did not conjure up his disturbing dreams from his own imagining. It was the God of Israel who placed them in his head.
No one is safe! What Nebuchadnezzar wants, Nebuchadnezzar gets! He howls for his magicians and sorcerers, who dutifully gather around their monarch (vs. 2). The king wishes to know the meaning of the dream--fair enough. But he also tells his officials that he wants them to reveal to him his dream--hardly fair at all! You see, Nebuchadnezzar can't remember his dream--"The thing is gone from me" (vs. 5). And furthermore, if the magicians and sorcerers can't reveal the dream to their king, they will "be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill" (vs. 5). My, aren't we touchy! Don't forget, Nebuchadnezzar is the supreme human power on the earth, and, unfortunately, he's in a really bad mood.
Daniel to the rescue: The magicians and sorcerers stall for time, but to no avail. What the king asks is impossible, and they fearfully tell him so (vv. 10-11). The king explodes: "For this cause the king was angry and very furious, and commanded to destroy all the wise men of Babylon" (vs. 12, italic added). At the end of his wits, Nebuchadnezzar orders that every wise man in the land be exterminated. And, unfortunately, he has the power to carry out such an irrational decree. Just when things are looking bad for the wise men, an official, Arioch, tells the king: "I have found a man of the captives of Judah, that will make known unto the king the interpretation" (vs. 25). Enter Daniel--and Nebuchadnezzar's life will never be the same.
Introduced to God
Nebuchadnezzar, meet the God of Israel: The king is all ears as young Daniel stands before him. Nebuchadnezzar asks him if he can interpret his dreams. Daniel says, "no," but, someone else can: "...there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days" (vs 28). The king has at least heard of Israel's God, but, he might be thinking, I just conquered His people. How powerful can He actually be.
A dream of dizzying proportions: The king's head must be spinning as Daniel begins interpreting his dream [and don't forget, Daniel had not been told what the dream was, no description of it!]. Basically, the dream consists of a "great image" (v. 28), or statue, whose head is made of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of brass (v. 32), the legs of iron, and the feet partly of iron and partly of clay (v 33). Daniel continues to explain that this image represents future kingdoms. It is very doubtful that Nebuchadnezzar understands anything that is being told to him--after all, such lofty things are not easily grasped by mere mortals--particularly heathens.
Tickling the ears: As Nebuchadnezzar tries to absorb all of Daniel's words, imagine what he must have thought when suddenly Daniel declares, "Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory" (v. 37). If Nebuchadnezzar was not a fan of Israel's God before, perhaps now he is beginning to see Him in a brand-new light. Whether he believes that God actually gave him his kingdom is questionable, but there is little doubt that, in his vanity, he likes what he hears. It gets even better when Daniel tells him, "Thou art this head of gold" (v. 38). Nebuchadnezzar's arrogant cup of egotistical delight must be overflowing as he hears these words. In fact, it is a wonder whether he even hears anything else that Daniel says afterward. Though Daniel speaks words of profound truth, all the king likely hears is "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
Moved by God
Wrong feet, O king: Nebuchadnezzar is overwhelmed by everything he has just heard and does a very unmonarch-like thing: "Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face, and worshipped Daniel" (v. 46). The king's bout of emotion is understandable, but he worships at the wrong person's feet. Daniel is just a messenger, he warrants no worship. It is God whom the king should be bowing before, but his confusion is understandable. After all, how many people has Nebuchadnezzar bowed down to in his life?
Beginning to get it right: After getting up off the floor, Nebuchadnezzar finally begins to recognize that this God of Daniel is more powerful than he might have previously given Him credit for. "Of a truth it is," the king says, "that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets" (v. 47). It's a start, but not a very good one. What Nebuchadnezzar does not yet realize is that the Almighty is not "a" God of gods and Lord of lords, but "the" God of gods and Lord of lords. The thought of just one supreme deity is a foreign concept to the polytheistic monarch, but at least his acknowledgement of Him is a start in the right direction. And besides, whether this God of Israel is "a" god or "the" God, He nonetheless calls Nebuchadnezzar a "head of gold." How bad could that be?
You're a good man, Daniel: The king recognizes a good man when he sees one and is wise to enlist Daniel into his service. Daniel is able to do what none of his wise men are able to do--both reveal and interpret the king's dream--and this sets Daniel apart from everyone else. Nebuchadnezzar knows that this young Israelite is better than any man in his kingdom and shows him so by making Daniel "ruler over the whole province of Babylon" (v 48). Daniel reacts charitably, requesting that his three friends be promoted as well. The king is more than happy to grant the request.
"I thought it good to shew the signs and wonders that the high God hath wrought toward me. How great are his signs...how mighty are his wonders"
Trying to be God
It went to his head: Though Scripture does not state definitely that Chapters 2 and 3 are related, a pretty good case can be made for the fact that Nebuchadnezzar's actions in Chapter 3 are direct results of his experiences in Chapter 2. It is no coincidence that after being dubbed the "head of gold" (2:38) that he goes out and erects "an image of gold" (3:1). Nebuchadnezzar's head is big enough without hearing such lofty praise. Now it is outright bloated. The God of Israel has proclaimed him a "king of kings" (2:37), and he wants the whole world to know it.
No exceptions: Nebuchadnezzar puts out word that all significant officials come to the plain of Dura (vv. 1-2) to pay homage to his statue--which may not resemble him, but probably does. Then, when the music starts playing, all in attendance must immediately "fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up" (v 5). And that's pretty much what happens--with the exception of three notable men.
A rare second chance: Nebuchadnezzar must have been bursting with pride as the assembled masses are bowed low to the ground. Imagine his agitation when he hears the unfortunate news, reported to him by his advisors, that there are "certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (v. 12). It should come as no surprise that Nebuchadnezzar is filled with "rage and fury" (v. 13). He has the three Hebrews brought to him, and questions them. The king surprisingly displays rare tolerance by giving them a second chance to bow down to him the next time the music starts. Failure to do so, he tells them, will cause them to be thrown into the fiery furnace and killed. He then challenges them by asking, "...and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?" (v. 15). Bad question, O king.
Encounter with God
What nerve! Nebuchadnezzar, we can safely assume, had never in his life received the kind of reply given him by the three Hebrews. They tell him that they do not fear the furnace because their God "is able to deliver us" (v.17). If that isn't nervy enough, they also tell the king that even if God chooses not to save them, they still will "not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image" (v. 18). The three are neither disrespectful nor arrogant, they simply refuse to profane God.
The heat rises: Nebuchadnezzar, as expected, pitches a fit. No one has ever spoken to him like this before. You can almost see his face turn bright red with rage He is so enraged, in fact, that he orders the furnace to be stoked seven time hotter than usual. The furnace is so hot that the flames fly out and instantly kill the men who threw the three Hebrews in. You kind of get the feeling that Nebuchadnezzar spends little time mourning over the loss of his men.
Seeing is believing: The anticipated smell of charred Jewish flesh never comes. Instead, Nebuchadnezzar sees a sight that so astonishes him that he flies off his throne in bewilderment. The king, capable of doing simple math, knows that three men were thrown into the furnace. How then, he asks, does he "see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt"? (v. 25). Many scholars believe--and rightly so--that the fourth being in the fire is the pre-incarnate Christ. It is He who has kept the three Hebrews alive. Nebuchadnezzar orders the Hebrews out of the furnace and, utterly shocked, he sees that they are totally unscathed. In Chapter 2, the king had only heard of the God of Israel, now, he sees Him in action. Once again, Nebuchadnezzar's reaction is the correct one. He decrees that "every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces" (v. 29).
Worldwide proclamation: The king has something to say, and, if you're part of his empire, you had better stop and listen. In this case, the message comes by way of proclamation, so you had better take the time to read it. The king's message is all-inclusive, written to "all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth" (v.1). You can feel the excitement in his tone. And, in a foreshadow of good things to come, Nebuchadnezzar starts his message by writing, "Peace be multiplied to you" (v.1). This is a very positive beginning for a man known for his brutal violence and quick temper.
Surprising words: It is obvious that something wonderful has happened to the king, and he benevolently wants to share it with his subjects. You can only imagine the surprise that greets the people as they read the words, "I thought it good to shew the signs and wonders that the high God hath wrought toward me" (v.2). Again, don't forget, this is a heathen king talking. Why then, many must be thinking, is he talking so reverently about the God of those conquered people, the Hebrews?
Let the praise flow: It is as if the king can barely contain himself. First, the monarch speaks about God's greatness--"How great are his signs!" (v.3). Next, the king speaks of the Lord's workings--"how mighty are his wonders!" (v.3). And finally, Nebuchadnezzar, just a temporary king, talks about the eternality of the God of the Hebrews--"his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation!" (v.3) The very fact that Nebuchadnezzar is the supreme leader of the Babylonian Empire means that he pays homage to no on Yet, Nebuchadnezzar actually admits that there is a power somewhere out there that is greater than he. Simply amazing. What could have possibly happened to cause the king to speak of the God of Israel in such glowing terms?
Shaken by God
Content and prosperous--bad combination: Like any good storyteller, the king begins where he should--at the beginning: "I Nebuchadnezzar was at rest in mine house, and flourishing in my palace" (v.4). It is good when Christians are content in the Lord, but it is not good for people to be content with their own achievements. This is what Nebuchadnezzar is, and, unfortunately, he is thankful only to himself.
Sweet dreams? No way! Once again, the Lord invades Nebuchadnezzar's happy world. Just as He did in Chapter 2, so the Lord does again. As Nebuchadnezzar tells it, "I saw a dream which made me afraid, and the thoughts upon my bed and the visions of my head troubled me" (v.5). And just as he did the first time, the king summons his wise men, who, as expected, cannot interpret the dream. He then calls Daniel, who can. Why Nebuchadnezzar does not simply call for Daniel from the start and dispense with the amateurs is a mystery. However, the king is definitely mellowing--at least he's not threatening to cut anyone to pieces for failing to interpret the dream.
A tree-mendous vision: Nebuchadnezzar then tells Daniel the dream, which goes something like this: The king sees a massive tree, that "reached unto heaven" (v.11). The tree provides both food and shelter to all living things (v.12). Suddenly, a messenger, or "holy one" (v.13) descends from heaven with the instructions that the tree should be cut down, and its leaves and fruit scattered (v.14), thereby being no good for anyone. However, it should be noted that the tree should remain in its slightest form: "Nevertheless leave the stump of his roots in the earth" (v.15). If that is not bad enough, there is more. The heart of the "stump" is to "be changed from man's, and let a beast's heart be given unto him" (v.16). There is a lesson in all this, which the messenger proclaims in the dream: "...that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will" (v.17).
Warned by God
Woe is you, O king: Heavy is the head that wears the crown of interpretation. After the Lord reveals the dream to Daniel, he is greatly troubled. Nebuchadnezzar notices this and tells his faithful official to "let not the dream or the interpretation thereof, trouble thee" (v.19). Daniel replies that he wishes the dream applied to Nebuchadnezzar's enemies and not to the king himself. Daniel's incredible compassion and loyalty to the heathen monarch is admirable, but it will not change the truth of the interpretation.
You are the tree! Daniel briefly reviews the dream for Nebuchadnezzar, then bluntly proclaims, "It is thou, O king" (v.22). The proclamation is eerily similar to Daniel's earlier proclamation that, "Thou art this head of gold" (2:38). And just as in Chapter 2, so here does Daniel review the king's earthly glory: "...that art grown and become strong: for thy greatness is grown, and reacheth unto heaven" (v.22). However, Nebuchadnezzar's greatness is about to be stripped away. Daniel tells the king that God is about to drive him from men and make him "eat grass as oxen" (v.25); that is, he will live like an animal for "seven times" (v.25), or years. The curse will only be lifted when the king acknowledges that "the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men" (v.25).
Take heed, O king! Daniel rightly sees the cause for the king's coming affliction--his great sins of pride and cruelty. In his tenderness and compassion, Daniel offers the king some unsolicited advice. "Break off thy sins by righteousness," he tells Nebuchadnezzar, "and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor" (v.27). It's as if Daniel is telling the king, There is still time. Try mending your ways. Perhaps God will relent of what He has threatened to do. If Nebuchadnezzar does this, Daniel hopes, then "it may be a lengthening of thy tranquility [prosperity]" (4:27). Did the king take Daniel's advice? Take a look at what verse 28 has to say: "All this came upon the king Nebuchadnezzar.
Afflicted by God
How great I art! God's longsuffering is not an excuse for further sin, but for repentance. Nebuchadnezzar has no concept of that truth. A full 12 months (V.29) pass since his dream about the tree. If he was fearful following the dream, then all such trepidation vanished as the year dragged on. On this particular night, the king goes for a little walk and reflects on all that he has done. "Is not this Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?" (v.30). Yikes! Even for Nebuchadnezzar this is excessive arrogance.
God strikes back: If this were a game show, buzzers would have sounded and the king would have been yanked off the set. No sooner are the words uttered--in fact, while the words are still being spoken (v.31)--that God strikes back! "O king Nebuchadnezzar," a booming voice from heaven resounds, "The kingdom is departed from thee" (v.31). It is now Nebuchadnezzar's time of reckoning and it's not going to be pretty.
Clawing around for a bite to eat: Once the voice finishes speaking, God afflicts the king. And what a horrible sight it must have been as Nebuchadnezzar wreaks havoc around the palace, what with racing around maniacally, ripping clothes from his body, and probably destroying every piece of pottery he can get his hands on. It must have taken a posse to hold him down and get him outdoors, where he will live for the next seven years as "he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws" (v.33). Medically, the condition is called "boanthropy," the delusion that one is an ox. Over the years, some historians have questioned this incident in the king's life since there is no recorded account of it. However, what royal Babylonian historian would risk his life by recording such a thing? However, it is fascinating to note that there is no historical record of the king's royal activity for the seven-year period between 582 and 575 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar was between the ages of 48 and 55. Coincidence? Hardly. Bible skeptics lose again!
Humbled by God
Lesson learned: It takes seven years, but Nebuchadnezzar finally learns his lesson. It is interesting to think about what was going on in the beastly king's head during his madness. Was he conscious of what was going on, or was he completely out of it? Chances are the latter, but when God restores the king's sanity, He also gives Nebuchadnezzar a full understanding of what has occurred. The praise flows from the king's lips like water bursting from a dam. He cannot contain himself as he praises and honors "him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation" (v.34).
Behind the scenes: With the restoring of Nebuchadnezzar's mind comes the restoring of his kingdom (v.36). And that brings up an interesting question: Who ran the show, i.e. the Babylonian Empire, while the king was munching down grass? Some scholars believe the king's young son, Evil-Merodach, looked over things. Others say Nebuchadnezzar's top advisors kept an eye on the kingdom. Regardless of who served as stand-in head honcho, you can be sure that Daniel had a huge part in the daily oversight of the empire. He was God's man at the right time in history, and the empire was secure so long as he was around.
A true humility: This time, the lessons learned by Nebuchadnezzar stick. Years before, when the king learned that he was "the head of gold" (2:38), he sought to magnify himself and show the world his vast glory. Now, years later and with this humiliating experience behind him, Nebuchadnezzar is exuberant about his newfound knowledge regarding the God of Israel and wants to share it with the whole world. "Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase" (v.37). Nebuchadnezzar would reign another 13 years over the Babylonian Empire, but he is a far different man at the end of his reign than the arrogant war hero he was when he first ascended the throne. He has learned humility and records it for all the world to see and from which to learn. His rivers of praise that are written in Scripture still flow in abundance to the millions who have read his story down through the ages.
Under God's Thumb
God pays homage to no one, and the works of man are nothing but dust in God's eyesss. King Solomon, after building his magnificent Temple, learns this valuable lesson and is humbled by it. "But will God indeed dwell on the earth?" he asks. "Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" (1 Kings 8:27). All world rulers--both good and bad--would do well to learn this lesson. And they will. However, the question is this: Will they learn this lesson while they still have the breath of life in them, or when it's too late--when they stand before God's awesome seat of judgement? So long as man fears God, he has no need to fear man. Nebuchadnezzar thought he was the supreme sovereign of the world of his day. Evil world leaders today believe they control the course of human history. But they are gravely mistaken. For the truth is, just as Nebuchadnezzar was, so are the present crop of world leaders, tyrants, and dictators: mere puppets firmly entrenched under God's mighty thumb."