Theology of History

SYNOPSIS - The book of Daniel demonstrates the absolute sovereignty of Yahweh over the course of history and nations

USA Map - Photo by Morgan Lane on Unsplash
The first paragraph of Daniel introduces the key theme of the book - God reigns over the kingdoms of the earth – Both the wicked and the just. This theme is presented in explicit statements in the narrative and demonstrated by the accurate predictions of the prophet Daniel to the rulers of the World-Power - Babylon and Persia – A political entity dating back to ancient Babel in the “land of Shinar” - (Genesis 11:1-9, Daniel 2:21-45, 4:17, 5:17-29, 11:1-4).

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 the passage 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).

Shinar” is the ancient name of Mesopotamia and the site of the Tower of Babel. In the book of Genesis, humanity was united by a single language and attempted to unite under one political order. Yahweh thwarted this first attempt at a global imperial order 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 against “Babel” 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 for education in the wisdom, language, and the laws of Babylon where they would serve the empire - (“And that they should be taught the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans”).

This development was a national catastrophe for the Jewish nation. Effectively, it lost its independence and, a few years later, the kingdom itself and the dynastic rule of the house of David. 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 the enemy of Israel.

The Hebrew verb rendered “gave” is applied in this fashion two more times in the first chapter of Daniel.  In verse 9, God gave the young Daniel “favor and sympathy with the prince of the eunuchs,” and in verse 17, He gave him and his Jewish companions “knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.” Furthermore, Daniel was “given” understanding in “all visions and dreams.”

Tower of Babel
Nebuchadnezzar 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 had befallen Israel, subsequent events demonstrated that Yahweh was using the lowly exiles from Jerusalem to achieve His purposes by directing the course of history - (Daniel 1:19-20).

In the “second year of Nebuchadnezzar” events transpired before the completion of Daniel’s education that demonstrated his prophetic insight was not derived from the “learning and wisdom” of Babylon but, instead, from the “discernment in all visions and dreams” given him by the “Most-High God.” He succeeded where the “wise men of Babylon” failed - (Daniel 1:17-18).

The king dreamed a dream that troubled him, and therefore he commanded the wise men of his court to reveal the contents AND the meaning of his 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” – (Daniel 2:1-12).

Enraged, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the destruction of all the wise men of Babylon. Before this command could be executed, Daniel requested an audience before the king so he could make the dream and its interpretation known to him. Next, he prayed for the revelation of “this mystery.” Yahweh responded in a night vision and revealed the dream to Daniel. He 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 2:13-23).
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, Revelation 1:1-3).

In his dream, the king saw a large image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, and legs of iron. Its feet were 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 into pieces. Then the iron, clay, brass, silver, and gold parts of the image were likewise broken into pieces to become like the chaff blown by the wind. Thus, the remaining stone became a “great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

The golden head represented Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler to whom God gave the “kingdom,” singular. The silver breast symbolized an inferior kingdom that would succeed him, 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, one that would “break in pieces and consume all” the preceding realms. In this, “God had shown the king what things must come to pass after these things.”

In response, the great Babylonian ruler prostrated himself before Daniel, gave him gifts, and exalted him to govern the province of Babylon. He declared Daniel’s God to be “a God of gods, Lord of kings and revealer of mysteries.” Thus, the mighty pagan king acknowledged Yahweh as sovereign over nations of the earth - (Daniel 2:46-49).

The God of Israel had revealed the future of the World-Power. He is the one Who “sets up and removes” rulers to achieve His purpose. Through Daniel, Yahweh laid out the future course of empires until the final overthrow of the World-Power and its replacement by the kingdom of God. The rise and fall of political powers are under the firm control of the God of Daniel.

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” measuring six cubits wide and sixty cubits high. However, in his version, the entire image was covered in gold, not just its head. He intended to glorify his achievements and to declare to one and all that his kingdom was everlasting.

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 to fall down and “render homage to the image that the king had SET UP.” Any man who refused to do so was cast into a fiery furnace - (Daniel 3:1-6).

The great golden image represented the absolute sovereignty of the Babylonian king over all the “peoples, races and tongues” of the earth. Presumptuously, he demanded that all 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, 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 prerogatives attributed to Yahweh by Daniel. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar claimed authority and demanded allegiance that belonged to God alone - (Daniel 3:1-18).

Some of the “wise men” of Babylon used the new situation to settle scores for their earlier demotion and loss of face. Although loyal to the king, the three Jewish companions of Daniel could not worship the idolatrous image – Their loyalty was to Yahweh.

When Nebuchadnezzar heard that ShadrachMeshach, and Abed-nego had “refused” to render homage to his 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 men were cast into the “fiery furnace” but miraculously survived. Nebuchadnezzar saw them “walking in the fire” accompanied by a fourth figure he likened 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 had survived unscathed - He “blessed the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego” - The same God of Daniel 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 this God 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 Yahweh are found on the lips of the powerful pagan king, the one who previously 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.” Once again, the ruler of the World-Power acknowledged the sovereignty of God and the universal extent of His reign. As he did for Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in “the province of Babylon.”
Once more, the reign 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.
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 in reference to the vastly superior sovereignty of Yahweh. And once again, the king has to learn that God alone rules the course of history.

Nebuchadnezzar had another dream that caused him anxiety. Again, he summoned the wise men of Babylon to interpret it. And as before, only Daniel could do so.  In the dream, a large tree at the center of the earth grew until its height reached the “heavens” and it was visible from the extremities of the earth. The animals of the earth were fed by it, and 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 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 its 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, once more, the servant of Yahweh exercised sovereignty over the king of Babylon. God gave true sovereignty to the “lowest of men” - Daniel. The mighty king of Babylon had become 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 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 final ruler of Babylon - Belshazzar. The chronological reference locates the event in 539 B.C. when the city fell to the “Medes and Persians.” The story begins about twenty-five years after the death of. Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s greatest king. Unfortunately, his reign was followed by less capable rulers, internal strife, and inevitable decline.

In 550 B.C., the Persian ruler Cyrus II annexed the Median Kingdom and established the empire of the “Medes and Persians,” as it is consistently known in the book of Daniel. This set the stage for conflict with the empire of Babylon.

On this fateful night, Belshazzar hosted a feast during which he and his retinue drank wine from the vessels removed 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 lampstand 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 could interpret the writing.

Daniel was summoned. Belshazzar offered him rewards if he could interpret the sign. In response, he retorted that he would interpret it regardless of any gifts from the king. Daniel reminded him 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, that is, “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.” Instead, he exalted himself against the Lord of heaven by profaning the vessels of the 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 is the equivalent of the Hebrew “talent.” Tekel equates to the Jewish shekel, and Peres to the “half-pieces” or the “half-mina.” The last term is a double wordplay - First on the name “Persia,” the power about to overthrow Babylon; second, 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 to be arrayed in purple and with a gold chain. The Prophet was proclaimed the “third ruler in the kingdom.” However, that very night the “Medes and Persians” captured the city and slew Belshazzar. One World-Power fell - The next one arrived on the world scene. Through the words of a powerless Jewish captive, Yahweh had 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 – He was tasked with managing the state finances of the province of Babylon. However, certain officials envied Daniel and sought to discredit him.

Lions' Den
Unable to find fault with the execution of his duties, his detractors 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 set.

Daniel did not alter his daily routine and his accusers “found him making petition and supplication before his God,” then informed the king. His enemies accused him of disloyalty. This distressed Darius who valued the services of Daniel, so he determined to save him. 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 and the pit sealed shut. The king passed the night anxiously, rising early the next day 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. He was removed from the pit and his accusers were cast in instead where they died an immediate and horrible death.

Darius then issued a decree to “all the peoples, nations, and tongues that dwell in all the earth” – All 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 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 of the “Medes and Persians” for evil ends instead caused the demise of the men who plotted to destroy Daniel. The first edict compelled all men to petition no one other than Darius, however, God used the situation to cause the ruler to command his subjects to acknowledge the everlasting sovereignty of the God of Daniel.

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. The stage is now set for the second half in which Daniel receives dreams and visions outlining the future course of empires and kings.

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