As the narrative in the book of Daniel has progressed, it seems like the focus has been stolen away from Daniel and put on Nebuchadnezzar. Could there really be redemption for the tyrant who besieged Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and scattered the people of God into exile? The story up until now has given us the crazy idea that yes, redemption seems possible, although the pathway there for the king hasn’t been linear.
Nebuchadnezzar has now again been plagued by bad dreams, has again called his sages to interpret, and has again been disappointed by their inability to deliver. The man for the job is Daniel, clearly. So he tells Daniel of his dream of a big important tree that gets chopped down to the stump. Daniel helps us fill in some blanks. The tree is a representation of the highly powerful and influential king. But he is going to be driven away from society, go live with the animals, and be bathed by the dew until he learns a lesson. And when he learns that lesson, recognizing that God is sovereign, he can be re-established as king, extending again from the stump and roots that were left.
A year after having this dream, Nebuchadnezzar goes to his roof and delights in how powerful and great he is for creating such a beautiful Babylon. This is the perfect moment for God to come in and knock him off his high horse. If I may paraphrase God, he says, “I warned you this would happen.” And it seems like our creaturely ignorance requires him to say this a lot.
Just as he was warned, Nebuchadnezzar wanders off into the wilderness and lives like an animal, eating grass, getting all wet in the dew, growing his hair out scarily long and tangled, and letting his fingernails become like that of small velociraptor claws. But don’t worry, he is unable to open doors. I like to imagine that during this time, he also became the vocalist of a local metal band, but they had to let him go because of creative differences. It was like someone flipped his beast mode switch.
And then one day Nebuchadnezzar suddenly snaps out of this terrible phase, acknowledges the sovereignty of God, and has all his former glory restored to him. I love what he says to close out chapter four: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice; and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.”
Amen to that. But the last part can sometimes be a hard reality to swallow. We’ve all heard that pride comes before the fall, and we’ve seen here one more example of how that pans out as a true proverb. Having healthy levels of self-esteem and confidence is a good thing. The kind of pride we saw in Nebuchadnezzar seems to be an amped-up and unbalanced version of this that made him believe he was all that. And when you prop up that delusion long enough, painful and humbling reality has to come out eventually.
So now we can add big bad Nebuchadnezzar to the long list of unlikely redemptions. I’m on the list, and so are you. Praise God that he seems to like orchestrating these all the time.
With Nebuchadnezzar ending his appearances on a high note, he has left a legacy in the air. He is an answer to the question of what can happen when God gets through to someone and they yield to him, however painfully. Enter Belshazzar. He is an answer to a contrasting question: What can painfully happen when you not only don’t yield, but also add a large amount of idolatry and blasphemy to the equation?
Belshazzar is in the middle of throwing a very well-attended and sexy drinkathon when he comes up with a great idea. He asks for the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar looted from the temple in Jerusalem, because he thinks it would be extra classy to drink wine from them. So that is what they do, along with worshiping gods of various metals and materials.
What happens next is what any reasonable person would expect. Of course, a disembodied hand writes on the wall. The terrified and probably self-wetted Belshazzar calls for his experts, but they are unable to figure out what the writing means. The queen knows just the man for the job.
Daniel agrees to help and even indicates he doesn’t want the rich rewards. But first he recounts the story of Nebuchadnezzar and how he humbled himself after his prideful fall. Belshazzar knows this story well, yet he has not followed his example and humbled himself before God. Daniel tells Belshazzar that “the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored.”
The writing is on the wall. That’s right, the phrase we utter in the face of impending doom comes from this very story. If you are like me, you have read Daniel’s interpretation of “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin” many times and not really understood how he got there. Somehow it means that the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom are numbered, that he’s been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom is going to be divided and given to the Medes and Persians. At least the Medes and Persians part seems to groove with the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s nightmare about the gold headed statue. But did Daniel skip a step on the board?
This is the kind of thing that would have been a little more obvious to the original audience, but gets totally lost in translation for us. To compound the confusion, Daniel maintains its reputation for being a weird book by being written partly in Aramaic (from the middle of 2:4 to the end of chapter 7). So you thought knowing Hebrew would get you out of this pickle? Think again. I know only English. This is where commentaries or the internet come in handy.
As it turns out, the words are all measures of weight: a mina (or 60 sheqels), a sheqel, and two half-minas. So the first layer of this is that you can take the succession of kings and plug them in according to their weight or legacy. Nebuchadnezzar, the king who humbled himself, is worth more, so he is the mina. Belshazzar is a joke, so he is like 1/60th of Nebuchadnezzar, or a sheqel. Then the two half-minas would be the decently presented Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian. But in this schema, they are each only half the man Nebuchadnezzar was.
Okay, this will work, but it isn’t the angle Daniel is taking. There is wordplay that hopelessly eludes us. Mene is interpreted as a similar word mena, a verb that refers to something like counting or reckoning. Teqel is interpreted as a verb meaning “to be weighed” but also it is interpreted as tiqqal (to be light). Belshazzar? Nothing to him. Daniel is clever and says Peres, which is the singular of Parsin (half-minas). Peres gets us to more wordplay since peras means assessed or divided. But to top it off, paras means Persia. Like I said, this all hopelessly eludes us as English speakers separated from the writing by more than two thousand years. The Bible is full of wordplay and puns like that, but sadly, we miss most of them. My apologies go to anyone who is actually familiar with Aramaic, as I’m sure my Jedi-waving over the vocabulary probably wasn’t adequate.
Belshazzar richly rewards Daniel for the interpretation and makes him third in rank in the kingdom. That night, Belshazzar is killed, and his kingdom is handed off to Darius the Mede. After all, the writing was on the wall.
Darius retains a very high rank for Daniel, which makes the satraps extremely jealous. They are unable to find any dirt on Daniel, because he lives with integrity. But they know Daniel prays, so they come up with a conspiracy to make it illegal to pray to anyone except the king for thirty days. The penalty is being demoted to Temporary Cat Sustenance Technician. This is always a demotion.
Daniel knows this, yet continues to faithfully pray, neither concealing nor broadcasting what he is doing. According to the satraps’ scheme, he is caught, and the king has no choice but to follow through with the punishment, since he signed the law, although he does not want to harm Daniel.
Here is another friendly reminder that doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee you anything. Maybe you will reap benefits. Maybe you will be granted protection. Maybe you will upset people very close to you. Maybe you will be hated and persecuted. Maybe you will be physically injured or even killed. Especially when faced with extreme situations like Daniel’s, the idea of doing the right thing might sound like it is not an option. But there is an option. It could be that the only thing you are guaranteed by doing the right thing is never having to wish that you had done the right thing. And that’s the right place to be, wherever it takes you.
In this case, where it takes Daniel is a miraculous deliverance much like his friends had just a few chapters ago in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. They have almost identical stories of faithfulness to God, resulting in peaceful noncompliance with the authorities, and ending with the miraculous skirting of the death penalty. Most of the time, you can be faithful to God and honor the authority of your Babylon without a conflict (Matt. 22:21, Rom 13:1), and even when faced with a conflict, for most of us in this modern world, the consequence for being faithful to God instead of the state doesn’t result in death. But sadly, persecution, violence, and martyrdom are still the fate of many of our brothers and sisters.
This next part is probably not mentioned or illustrated in the toddler bedtime bible, although kudos go to anyone with the audacity. Darius doesn’t let the satraps get away with their act of deception, so he orders them, their children, and their wives to be thrown in the pit. The lions tear them all to pieces before they even hit the ground. Barbaric and chilling? Absolutely. This is one of many examples that would earn the Bible an R rating for its content, if not worse. Anyone who thinks of the Bible as just a bunch of nice bedtime stories hasn’t read it. If you run across these types, it is probably best not to correct them, because if they knew what was in there, they might be offended and launch a campaign to have it banned. I kid, but only halfway.
Overlooking his feeding of the lions with women and children, Darius seems to be a decent king and understands how it works, without the same kind of power struggle and roller coaster that Nebuchadnezzar had. He orders that all the people tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, “For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; for he has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.”
Darius gets it. Way to be, Darius.
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Daniel 4-6
Tomorrow we will read Daniel 7-9 as we continue on our