Theology of History

Synopsis The book of Daniel demonstrates the absolute sovereignty of Yahweh over the course of history and empires.

Starry night Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash
Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash
The first paragraph of the book of Daniel introduces a key theme of the book:  God reigns over the kingdoms of the world. The theme is presented in the explicit statements and the accurate predictions of the prophet Daniel (Daniel 2:21-454:175:17-2911:1-4).

The book opens by announcing the overthrow of the king of Judah and the removal of the golden vessels from the Temple to the “treasure-house of his god in the land of Shinar” by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. All this occurred because “the Lord gave it into the king’s hand

(Daniel 1:1-2) – “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon to Jerusalem, and laid siege against it; and the Lord gave into his hand Jehoiakim king of Judah, and a part of the vessels of the house of God, and he brought them into the land of Shinar, into the house of his gods,—and the vessels brought he into the treasure-house of his gods.” – (The Emphasized Bible).

The Hebrew text of this opening paragraph repeats “house” three times, and “his god” twice, all for emphasis. The name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ includes the name of the Mesopotamian god Nabu or Nebo, a deity associated with literature, learning, and wisdom.  From a human perspective, the pagan gods of Babylon had triumphed over the God of Israel (Isaiah 46:1).

Stone Tower Photo by Angelika Spanke on Unsplash
Shinar” is the ancient name of Mesopotamia and the site of the Tower of Babel. In the book of 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 the language and scattering the resultant disparate groups across the earth (Genesis 11:1-9).

Apparently, the new “king of Babel” was reversing the earlier decree of Yahweh by seizing His “house,” gathering the scattered nations back to Shinar, and imposing the language of Babylon on one and all.  Israel’s tribute included many high-ranking Jewish exiles sent to Babylon to be educated in the wisdom, language, and the laws of Babylon, then to serve the empire in its civil service (“and that they should be taught the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans”).

This was a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation. Effectively, it lost its independence and, in a few short years, the kingdom and the dynastic rule of the house of David ceased. Jerusalem would be destroyed, and its population deported to Mesopotamia.  Yet, Daniel declared it was “the Lord” who gave all this into the hands of a pagan ruler and an enemy of Israel.

The Hebrew verb rendered “gave” is applied this 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.” Furthermore, Daniel was “given” understanding in all visions and dreams.

The 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 the king in his court. Despite the disaster that befell Israel, subsequent events demonstrated that God used the lowly exiles from Jerusalem to achieve His purposes and direct the course of history (Daniel 1:19-20).

The events in chapter 2 transpired in the “second year of Nebuchadnezzar” before the completion of Daniel’s education. 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, instead, to the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given to him by Yahweh. The Prophet succeeded where the educated wise men of Babylon failed.  Daniel’s triumph was due to the revelation of God, not to the “learning of Babylon” (Daniel 1:17-18).

Nebuchadnezzar dreamed a dream that troubled him deeply, and therefore, he commanded the wise men of his court to reveal the contents and the meaning of the dream. Naturally, this they 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 all the wise men of Babylon. Before this could be carried out, Daniel requested a time when he could make the interpretation known to Nebuchadnezzar, then he prayed for the revelation of “this mystery.” Yahweh responded in a night vision to reveal the king’s dream (Daniel 2:13-23).

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.”

The next day, Daniel revealed the king’s dream and its interpretation. In this way, God showed Nebuchadnezzar, “What things must come to pass in latter days” (Daniel 2:24-45).

In his dream, 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 its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. Next, he saw a stone “cut out without hands” that struck the image on its feet and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, clay, brass, silver, and gold parts of the image were broken in pieces to become like chaff blown by the wind, and thus, the remaining stone became a “great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

The golden head represented Nebuchadnezzar to whom God gave the kingdom. The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would follow 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.”

In response, Nebuchadnezzar prostrated himself before Daniel, gave him gifts and exalted him to rule over the province of Babylon. 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 (Daniel 2:46-49).
The God of Israel had revealed the future of world kingdoms. He is the one Who sets up and removes rulers to achieve His purpose. Through Daniel, God laid out the future course of the world-power 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” six cubits wide and sixty cubits high, but in his version, the entire image was covered in gold rather than just its head. He intended to honor his gods, his achievements, and to 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 “render homage to the image that the king had set up.” Any man who refused to do so was to be cast into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:1-6).

Ancient Babylon -
The great golden image represented the king’s absolute sovereignty over all the “peoples, races and tongues” of the empire. Presumptuously, he demanded that all venerate the image 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, Who “set up” the image with the golden head, and Who “set up” His everlasting kingdom (Daniel 2:21-44).

In Chapter 3, nine times the text states that Nebuchadnezzar “set up” his image, a deliberate contrast to the claims of God in Chapter 2. The king of Babylon claimed authority and demanded allegiance that belonged to Yahweh alone. (Daniel 3:1-18).

Some of the “wise men” of Babylon now used the situation to settle scores for their earlier demotion and loss of face. Although loyal to the king, the Jewish exiles could not worship the image because of their greater loyalty to Yahweh.

When Nebuchadnezzar heard Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego had “refused” to worship the golden image he gave them 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?” (Daniel 3:13-18).

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” (Daniel 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 had “changed the king’s word” by delivering His “servants who trusted in Him.” Consequently, the king 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, the praise and acknowledgment of God are found on the lips of the powerful pagan king, who earlier described Daniel as a servant of the “God of gods and Lord of kings.” Now he acknowledged the three Jewish exiles to be servants of the “Most High God.” The ruler of the World-Power 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 once more - 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-Power, acknowledging the sovereignty of Yahweh over history. Eight times the term “earth” occurs, usually in conjunction with Babylonian sovereignty over it. In contrast, “heaven” occurs sixteen times to refer to God’s vastly superior sovereignty. Once again, the king had to learn that God alone truly rules over the course of history.

In Chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar had another dream that caused him anxiety; again, he summoned the wise men of Babylon to interpret it. As before, only Daniel could do so.  In the dream, a large tree at the center of the earth grew until its height reached heaven. So much so, 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 (Daniel 4:4-18).

The king 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 human heart to that of a beast, 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, again in this way, the servant of Yahweh exercised sovereignty over the king and the kingdom. God 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 drove 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 was restored (Daniel 4:19-33).

After his restoration, just as the dream had 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, a realm mightier than any previous kingdom. Scripture remembers him as a tool employed by Yahweh to achieve His ends, despite the plans and whims of the pagan ruler.
In Scripture, Babylon symbolizes the World-Power set in its hostility to God. Chapter 4 provides an object lesson in the hollowness of the boasts of empires, emperors, tyrants, and kings. God alone installs and removes rulers and regimes as He sees fit. 
Chapter 5 of Daniel is set on the last evening of the last ruler of Babylon, Belshazzar. This chronological reference locates the event in 539 B.C. when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians.” Abruptly, the story begins with no reference to the successors of Nebuchadnezzar who had ruled between his and the reign of Belshazzar, a gap of about twenty-five years. Nebuchadnezzar was Babylon’s greatest king; unfortunately, his reign was followed by less capable rulers, internal strife, and decline.

In 550 B.C., the Persian ruler Cyrus II annexed the Median Kingdom to his own and established the empire of the “Medes and Persians.” This set the stage for conflict with Babylon and the latter’s demise.

On a fateful night in 539 B.C., Belshazzar hosted a feast during which he and his retinue drank wine from the vessels removed previously by Nebuchadnezzar from the Temple of Yahweh, all while “praising 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 by the sight, Belshazzar summoned the enchanters, soothsayers, and the “wise men of Babylon” to interpret the writing. As with the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, none of them could interpret the writing.

Daniel was summoned. Belshazzar offered him rewards if he could interpret the sign. In response, Daniel retorted that he would interpret it regardless of any proffered gifts. He reminded the king how 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 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, instead, he 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, equivalent to the Jewish shekel, and Peres 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 p-r-s). The terms signified:

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).

Once more, the sovereignty of Yahweh was on full display as the World-Power was transferred from Babylon to the “Medes and Persians.”

Despite this dark prediction, Belshazzar ordered Daniel clothed with purple and given 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. One World-Power fell; the next arose on the world scene. Through the words of a Jewish captive, Yahweh deposed one mighty empire and set up another of even greater magnitude.

In Chapter 6, the governor of the new World-Power appointed Daniel first among three ministers of state tasked with managing the governors and state finances of the province of Babylon. However, certain officials envied Daniel and sought to discredit him. Unable to find fault with the execution of his duties, they fabricated 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 Persian tradition, once written, the law could not be altered by anyone, not even by the king. Thus, 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,” and so informed the king. His enemies accused him of disloyalty. This distressed Darius who valued his services, so he determined to save Daniel. 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 the execution of his faithful servant.

The Prophet was thrown to the lions, the pit sealed shut. The king passed the night anxiously, rising early the next day to hasten to see if Daniel had survived the night - “Is the God whom you serve able to deliver you from the lions?

Indeed, Daniel was alive and answered the king. God’s angel had shut the lions’ mouths so they could do him no harm. He 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 that Daniel had not been spared because they were not hungry. Only Divine intervention had saved him.

Darius issued a decree to “all the peoples, nations, and tongues that dwell in all the earth” - men ought to fear and revere the “God of Danielkingdom shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end.” Consequently, Daniel prospered all the more under the reigns of Darius and Cyrus (Daniel 6:25-28).

Darius altered the unalterable Persian law due to Yahweh’s intervention. The plot to exploit the law for evil ends, instead, caused the demise of the plotters. The first edict compelled all men to petition no one other than Darius, however, God caused Darius to command all his subjects to acknowledge His everlasting sovereignty.

The first half of the book of Daniel demonstrates the absolute sovereignty of Yahweh over the course of history. The plans, intentions, and dictates of even the most powerful rulers cannot thwart His purposes.


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