The chapter before us – a single, self-contained narrative – is quite long, some 49 verses in our chapter 2. For that reason I’ve decided to take only a portion of the chapter this evening, vv. 1-30. The substance of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream we will leave until next time. The history recorded in this chapter immediately summons up comparisons with Genesis 41, where we read of Joseph being given the ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. That accurate interpretation led then, as it will here, to a foreigner being granted remarkable influence in the nation.
Before we begin to read, however, a thought. We have been told at the end of chapter 1 that Daniel served not only the Babylonian court, but the Persian one as well after the Persians conquered Babylon some sixty-five years after Daniel arrived in Babylon. We know nothing about most of those years: how did Daniel balance his obligations to the Lord and to the Babylonians day by day? Most of the time, as a court official, his was a life of routine. What did he and his friends do for worship? How did they observe the Sabbath? How did they keep the biblical feasts? They worked with Babylonians and other foreigners but were they able to relax within the Jewish exile community? Such questions we cannot answer. There was ordinarily nothing dramatic about Daniel’s life, though it was an influential life. We have in the book of Daniel the few occasions when life became dramatic, the crises of his life, but most of the time life was ordinary. And so it has been and will be for virtually any faithful Christian. Our life is punctuated by crises, but dominated by routine. The trick is always to rise to meet the crisis and then to maintain as much as possible of what was gained in crisis in the inevitable periods of routine.
v.1 You may immediately recognize the problem here. In 1:5 we read that Daniel and the other exiles were to be educated and prepared for service for three years. But we are only in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, which would seem to be only the first year, or perhaps early in the second year of Daniel’s education. Moreover, we will read in 2:14 that Daniel is already numbered among the “wise men” of the kingdom and seems to be living not at court but away from the palace, suggesting that his three-year education had been completed. There are typical solutions to the problem, though, to be sure, no one knows for sure how to reconcile the chronology of chapter 1 with that of chapter 2. It is possible that during his three years of training Daniel did not always live at court and that the events recorded in chapter 2 thus occurred during the period of his training. Another possibility is, once again, that we are mis-reading the chronology of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, and that his second year is actually the third year of Daniel’s training, in which case Daniel may have recently completed his training. It is fair to admit both that no one knows, one way or another, and also that this is the typical sort of problem that confronts historians dealing with ancient documents. However, remember that a problem as obvious to us as this one, if it were genuinely a problem, would certainly have been noticed by the author of the book as well!
v.2 It is important that we understand who these professional advisors were. They were men who had been trained to interpret omens. They were not prophets. They didn’t claim to receive revelation. But, as was generally the case in the ancient near east, they believed that the gods provided information about the future and that this knowledge could be discovered in various ways. Dreams were one such way. They had books that taught them what would have been regarded by them as the science of interpreting dreams. Other sources of such information could be found in the heavens, in the livers of animals, and in unusual events. They had been trained to interpret such things as well. Of course, in order to interpret the dream, they had to know the content of the dream.
v.4 “O King, live forever.” If there is anything we will learn in Daniel it is that that is not going to happen. Kings come and they go. None lives forever; neither does his kingdom. The people of God will outlast any and every nation, empire, and civilization. So that polite form of words that these professional politicians use turns out to be highly ironical!
v.10 There has been a debate as to why Nebuchadnezzar refused to tell his professional advisors the dream. But it seems most likely to me that Nebuchadnezzar had never had a dream like this one before. We all know what dreams are like, and this was not such a dream. It had unsettled him in a way no dream of his ever had. He knew only too well – everyone probably realized this at some level – both how easy it was to provide an interpretation for a dream – after all, who could contradict you? – and how often those interpretations were falsified by events. In this case, he really needed to know what the dream meant. He wasn’t going to listen to some artfully crafted wild guess. And the Babylonian wise men, utterly unknowingly, utter the statement that sets the stage for what is to follow: “There is no one who can do what the king commands!” Oops! “And the gods do not dwell with human beings.” Double Oops!
In any case, what is being revealed is not only the fear and helplessness of Nebuchadnezzar, but his brutality. The world is a brutal, violent place and it is made so by men who are captive to their fears.
v.13 Daniel and the other three weren’t being singled out. They were simply part of the caste of wise men who had been ordered executed.
v.16 Daniel’s first concern is to gain some time. He didn’t know at this point whether the Lord would grant him the information he needed, but he knew for certain that the Lord was his only hope.
v.19 All four young men prayed to God for help and the interpretation was communicated to Daniel in a dream. The Lord himself sometimes communicated revelation through dreams. We have the case of Joseph, of course, but even earlier in Genesis the Lord had used a dream to inform Abimelech that Sarah, whom he had taken into his harem, was not Abraham’s sister but his wife. The Lord’s offer to give Solomon whatever he wished was likewise communicated in a dream. [1 Kgs 3] What is clear in this narrative is that Daniel certainly didn’t share the view of the Babylonian professionals that if only he knew the dream he could provide its interpretation. The whole thing was a mystery. Only God could tell him what the dream was and only God could tell him what it meant.
v.23 Daniel’s song of praise concentrates on God’s power (vs. the impotence of the vaunted Babylonian emperor) and his knowledge. Human beings, especially those possessed of common sense and, in some cases, of great learning, can tell us many things that we otherwise don’t understand or would not know. But only God knows the future and he knows it because he controls it, because it is the outworking of his own plan for human history.
v.24 John Calvin thought that Daniel only let the other wise men off the hook because he was an honest man and couldn’t accept that these men were to be executed to satisfy the King’s tyrannical fit of rage. Daniel would have preferred the death of these men – they were idolaters after all, and facilitators of falsehood – but not for such an unworthy reason. I think it far more likely, all the more given what follows in the book, that Daniel was a kind man, that he maintained friendly relations with many of these men, and wanted to save their lives. After all, he didn’t have to request that Nebuchadnezzar spare all the wise men. He could have asked only for the lives of the four Jewish men. But even in the OT God’s people were taught to love their enemies (Ex. 23:4-5).
v.28 Daniel keeps the focus where it belongs, on the living God who knows all things. How easy it would have been, all the more when anyone could predict with what lavish gratitude the King would reward the interpreter of his dream, to take some of the credit for himself for what Daniel was about to do. But the great theme of the chapter is found in v. 28: “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…” Indeed, so much is this the theme of the chapter that the words “reveal,” “show,” “declare,” “make known,” appear some 30 times in the chapter!
When archaeologists discovered and then deciphered the great library of the Assyrian emperors who reigned a century or more before Nebuchadnezzar, they found it to consist in largest part (almost 80%) of texts devoted to divination, techniques by which to discover the future. The Assyrians relied largely on hepatology, the study of animal livers. The Babylonians relied on livers but on other methods as well. We know that at this time the professional omen readers had at their disposal large manuals containing various actual dreams, then what occurred after the dream, and, finally, principles derived from comparing the dreams to the following events, principles that could be used to interpret new dreams. Any dream could be matched with dreams already recorded and its interpretation given accordingly. We might compare it to the practice of lawyers who search law books for legal precedents that they might use in arguing a new case. It was a time-consuming process and very often resulted, as you might imagine, in ambiguous results. Sometimes the diviners guessed correctly – probably more often they hedged their bets and made predictions sufficiently vague as to be impossible to falsify – but sometimes they were flat out wrong. Evidence suggests that the occupation of diviner in the ancient near east was a risky one. What Nebuchadnezzar proposed to do to his diviners had been done before and would be done again.
Don’t think yourselves too sophisticated for such superstition. Fact is, we have a lot of people nowadays doing much the same thing if in somewhat different ways. Horoscopes appear in most American newspapers and not as a joke. Even the interpretation of dreams has been a feature of modern social science, or, shall we say, so-called social science. The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung, wrote:
“People who have unrealistic ideas or too high an opinion of themselves, or who make grandiose plans out of proportion to their real capacities, have dreams of flying or falling. The dream compensates for the deficiencies of their personalities, and at the same time it warns them of the dangers in their present course.” [Cited in Baldwin, 92]
Really? Few people actually believe that nowadays. It sounded good at the time, like the Babylonian wise men must often have sounded very wise as they pontificated about the meaning of a dream. Florence tells me her dreams and if I were to predict the future from them I would have to say that the future is going to be an incoherent mess utterly impossible to understand! Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what is likely to come to pass. I should write a book about Florence’s dreams. And what of mine? I hardly ever have a dream that I can remember when I wake up. Perhaps I have no future!
Divination, the attempt to learn what will soon come to pass was a passion of the ancient near east. But it is no less a passion in modern American life. Everyone wants to know what will happen tomorrow. The stock investor wants to know so he consults economists and stock evaluators; the sports better wants to know so he consults statistics and bookmakers, the politician wants to know so he consults academics and policy wonks; the military planner wants to know so he consults the CIA; the young man or woman who looks longingly on the member of the opposite sex wants to know: will he, will she love me or not. They usually consult their best friends. Accurate knowledge of the future would make anyone phenomenally wealthy, powerful, and important. It is not hard to understand why people are so desperate to know what will come to pass tomorrow. But, the fact is, no one actually does know the future. To be sure, after some catastrophe takes place, there will be those who will say that they predicted 9-11 or the great recession or the Trump election victory or the home team’s win or loss in the big game. But even when someone got it right, it turns out that the prediction was hardly specific, or that it amounted to the prediction of some result that was one of only a few possible alternatives; or that it was the only one of a number of other predictions by the same person that did come true, while the others were falsified by the passage of time.
The economists didn’t know that 2008 would be the year of the crash, the intelligence community was as surprised by 9-11 as everyone else, and some 102 of 106 pollsters had Hilary Clinton winning the election. The fact of the matter is that there isn’t anyone who can predict the future. If there were the world would be a very different place! The proof that the future remains a mystery to human beings is that no one ever has or can today describe it ahead of time: not reliably, not consistently, not in that way that would give others any real confidence. That, by the way, is why so many biblical scholars don’t believe Daniel was written in the 6th century BC but believe it was written after its prophecies had already come to pass. Nobody can predict the future. It’s one thing to put a few dollars on a horse or a stock, believing that it will beat the odds. It’s another thing altogether to bet your house or your life savings. People who do that almost always lose their shirt and we shake our heads at their stupidity. And those who win big usually lose big the next time. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day!
Divination was a sin in Israel, the only place it was a sin in the ancient near east. It was a sin because it was based on the presumption that man could know what only God knows; because the practice assumed that such knowledge was necessary for life when God had already given his people all the information they needed to live a life pleasing to him (that is, it amounted to a lack of confidence in God’s Word), and because the practice of divination presupposed that a successful life, a good life, a righteous life depended not on character and obedience and godliness, but on the acquisition of secret knowledge. All of that amounted to believing that God was to blame for our problems because he hides the future from us. One of the most consequential statements in all the Bible, fundamental to its worldview or philosophy of life, is Deut. 29:29:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
We don’t need to know what will happen tomorrow to live faithful Christian lives. We need only to know the Word of God and live according to it.
However, as any reader of the Bible and any practicing Christian knows very well, the Bible itself does give us a great deal of knowledge about the future. From Gen. 3’s prophecy of the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent, from Gen. 12’s prophecy that the whole world would be blessed through the seed of Abraham, to Isaiah’s prophesies of the suffering servant, to the many New Testament prophesies of the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, the Bible is full of the knowledge of the future. This is, to be sure, not the kind of knowledge that ancient near eastern kings were after or the common folk who consulted oracles and sorcerers. Alexander the Great consulted the oracle at Delphi because he didn’t want to invade the east unless he knew he would be successful. He got an ambiguous reply from her – she saw, she said, a great victory; she didn’t say whose victory it would be, but he figured it must be his – and went anyway. Other folk wanted to know about their harvests, their romantic prospects, whether they would have healthy children, and so on. They wanted to know these things because they thought this was what was really important to know. But this sort of knowledge of the future is not found in the Bible, except in some unique circumstances. Hannah was told she would have a child after all; David was told his child with Bathsheba would die. But as a general rule, we are never told to expect such information about the future and we are certainly never taught that a godly life requires such knowledge. Nor are we taught how we would go about acquiring that knowledge if it were available.
In fact the Bible makes a great point of saying that human beings don’t know the future and can’t know it. The knowledge of the future is precisely what separates man from God. As Isaiah tells his contemporaries, who were tempted to try divination:
“All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, who at the new moons make known what shall come upon you. Let them save you from what is coming upon you. Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up.” [47:12-14]
Of God, however, we read this:
“…I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” [46:9-10]
Why do we get that full confession of impotence in verse 10: “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand”? Because the biblical writer wants us to hear the failure of paganism from a pagan’s own mouth. [Davis, 42-43] That confession sets the stage for the contrast in vv. 20-23 and v. 28: what man cannot do, what their idols cannot do, what their practices of divination cannot do, the living God can. Babylon was impressive. Its technology, its military might, its architectural splendor was the envy of the world. But, at the last, like any human kingdom or civilization or power, it was an empty shell. It was powerless before the future because it did not know what finally mattered in human life and what the future depended upon, that is faith in the living God who controlled the future. What Babylon needed to know was what God wanted the Babylonians to be and do. Ignorant of that, unwilling to submit to the one living and true God, the one thing Daniel could be sure of and could tell Nebuchadnezzar was that God was at work preparing the end of him and of the empire of Babylon. That, in fact, will be the substance of the dream that Nebuchadnezzar had.
And, today, we can say with confidence that this is precisely what God is doing with western civilization and the American state: he is preparing it for destruction. We don’t know when it will fall, or how, so you can’t bet money on its demise, but that it will fall is as certain as it was certain that Babylon would not endure. Centuries later the Roman Emperor Julian, the famous Julian the Apostate of the 4th century, led the Romans in battle against the Persians (or Parthians as the Romans called them). While Julian was away in the east with his army, one of his followers asked a Christian what the carpenter’s son was doing. The Christian’s reply: “The Maker of the world, whom you call the carpenter’s son, is employed in making a coffin for the emperor.” Within days news reached Rome of Julian’s death from a wound received in battle. [Davis, 48] The end will not always be so soon or so dramatic, but it is inevitable. Nebuchadnezzar would not live forever, and his kingdom, which seemed impregnable at the time, would outlast him only a few years.
Human life, as we all know, is oriented to the future. Because we are made to live forever, made as we are in the image of an eternal God, our lives lean always toward the future to what has not yet come to pass. It is unconditionally directed toward and determined by the future. The future can turn health into sickness, success into failure, happiness into despair, and vice versa. All of us do things today in order to achieve something tomorrow. We work today to be paid tomorrow; we take pills or exercise today to be healthy tomorrow; and we could enjoy nothing today if we knew that disaster loomed tomorrow. To prove this to yourself, that you are a person whose life always leans toward the future, you have only to ask yourself what would become of your thoughts, your plans, your emotions, and your actions if you were to learn at this moment that your future would be profoundly different than you imagine: that your next paycheck will not arrive, that you are soon to learn that you have a deadly disease, or, on the contrary, that your present sadness is soon to be replaced by great joy, that the thing you most fear will turn out to be nothing of concern, or that surprising turns of events will utterly transform your life for the better.
Because this is true, because this must be true, thoughtful human beings realize that ignorance of the future, not knowing what is to come, leaves human beings rootless and hopeless. The famous impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, wrote on the painting which he completed just before attempting suicide: “From where do we come? What are we? Where are we going?” Unable to see the future he could not explain the meaning of his own life, all the more when the one thing he knew he could count on in the future was his own death! To be sure, most people are neither as honest as Gauguin nor as serious. They sell out and simply refuse to think about the future. They suppress their fear of an unknown future and of the certainty of death, though the fear of death leaks out of them and expresses itself in many ways. But, when the unknown future forces itself upon them, as it did Nebuchadnezzar, and as it always does sooner or later in everyone’s life, you get a deeply troubled spirit, anger, and desperation.
But Christians actually know what the future will bring. To be sure, they don’t know its details, only the grand sweep of unfolding human history and of their own personal history. But that is enough. We don’t need to know precisely what is going to happen in America over the next fifty years or what will become of us over the next year or decade. We are not going to be given, as Nebuchadnezzar was, a sketch of world history over the next few centuries. Such revelations served a specific purpose in the king’s life, but they serve an exemplary purpose for us. If God knew that future in such detail that he could describe geo-political events centuries beforehand, then we can trust him when he tells us what will happen in the world at the end of time and what awaits every human being at death, whether heaven or hell.
You remember the famous statement of the Lord Jesus:
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” [Matt. 11:25-26]
He was speaking of the mysteries of the kingdom of God, which mysteries included the unfolding future, both of the world and of each and every human life. Much remains unknown to us. We know that. But the knowledge of the future necessary for us to understand our life and, still more, to find eternal life, that knowledge of the future has been given to us first in the Word of God and then by the Spirit’s opening our eyes to the truth of that Word. The human race is thus divided in two: those who know what the future will bring and those who do not.
What do you really need to know? You don’t really need to know what the stock market will do tomorrow. Up or down it doesn’t change your situation before God or the meaning of your life. What you need to know is what will become of you when you die? What is to happen to this world of which you are a part? Where is history going? If the future determines the meaning of the present, this is the only future I need to know! Imagine that Jesus Christ were to appear to you in a dream at night, in the sort of dream that Nebuchadnezzar had, the kind of dream that makes you realize that this is no ordinary dream, that this dream is telling you something. And suppose the Lord Jesus were to say to you in your dream, that you were going to die, but that because you were part of his body, because you had committed your life and future to him, because you had trusted his power to save you from sin and death, your death would transport you from this world into a world beautiful and happy beyond the power of words to describe. He still didn’t tell you when you were going to die. He just told you that you would die and that heavens was your future.
Can you possibly tell me that your life would remain the same? To have had the answer to the great question of your existence answered so personally, so immediately, and so powerfully by the Lord himself would transform your days and nights for the rest of your life. Well, you are unlikely to get such a dream – though I know there are a lot of dreams in the Middle East these days leading people to Christ – but the fact is, the knowledge of that future has already been given to you. And that knowledge must, absolutely must, transform your life. If it doesn’t, it must be because you don’t really know the future. You may have a bare acquaintance with what the Bible says will come to pass, but you don’t know that truth, it is not in your heart as living knowledge, assured conviction, and so as a basis for action. Your acquaintance with the Bible’s message is not yet hope as the Bible defines hope: the certain knowledge of things yet to come.
The reason the world lives as it does is because it doesn’t know what we know. And knowing what we know, just imagine for a moment your life if you didn’t know any of this; if you had no idea what would become of you at the last. In a way this is the most wonderful thing about a Christian: he or she knows what is to come. No one else does. They don’t have the foggiest idea and so they live in the darkness of ignorance and uncertainty.
Daniel’s ability to foretell the future was perhaps more striking, but, at the last it is not more remarkable than yours. And what you know is more important than anything Daniel was able to tell Nebuchadnezzar. Every one of us can tell others around us what is going to become of them, how the world will end, and what will happen to human beings when they die. Remarkable! Wonderful! You people, sitting here this evening, can do what no Babylonian magician, enchanter, or sorcerer could ever do, or the wisest unbeliever who ever lived on earth: you can predict the future.
Scholars point out that the poem in vv. 20-23 is the key to the entire passage. That the narrator should pause in the midst of his gripping narrative to let us hear Daniel’s song of praise to God is significant. This is what he wants us to think as well. This is how a devout man or woman responds to the knowledge of the future that has been revealed to him or to her. This singing of glory to God is the heart of the chapter, a praise that Nebuchadnezzar will also give to God at the end of the chapter in v. 47, but without the deeper understanding or true appreciation that faithful Daniel showed.
A story is told of Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher of Victorian Britain. He was explaining the gospel to a woman who seemed to be on the verge of entering the kingdom. As understanding began to dawn she burst out with: “Oh, Mr. Spurgeon, if the Lord saves me, he shall never hear the end of it!” [Cited from Kent Hughes in Davis, 42-44] Well, that is precisely as it should be. He should never hear the end of it from us. He has given us what others crave but cannot have: the knowledge of the future and so the way to everlasting life.
Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
To whom belongs wisdom and might.
To you, O God of my fathers,
I give thanks and praise.