David C. Innes
The sixteenth-century political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli turned the world upside down when he introduced the notion that man, through an astute understanding of his world, could rise above the vicissitudes of life and actually overcome fortune.
In chapter 25 of The Prince, the infamous author states that though people had previously thought that fortune and God govern the affairs of men, it is rather that fortune governs half and men the other half. (Machiavelli was no Calvinist.) In saying this, he implicitly identifies God with mere fortune. As his argument continues, he reduces the role of fortune to those circumstances in which men have not taken prudent measures to resist her. When "wise" princes heed this advice, they secure their power and glory. Machiavelli was not the first to think like this, but he was the first to state these principles openly and shamelessly with a view to making them respectable.
In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is one such prince who is ambitious to expand his empire. He delights in the vastness of his dominion and in the glory of his accomplishments: "Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?" (Dan. 4:30). As the cultural descendants of Machiavelli and the spiritual descendants of Adam, we have similar ambitions. They may be petty from a political standpoint, but they are spiritually no less a rebellion against the kingdom and glory of Christ than Nebuchadnezzar's boast.
Nebuchadnezzar is a man in control. He even controls his gods through priests and sacrifices. When he conquers other countries, he thereby controls their gods. However, he will see that he cannot conquer the Lord along with Israel. Rather, he will learn that the Lord is the God of all nations.
Daniel 2 opens by telling us that "Nebuchadnezzar had dreams." Ordinary dreams come and go, but he had one that troubled him. It was filled with threatening images, and it portended a disastrous future sweeping down upon him. Wishing to conquer fortune rather than be conquered by it, he calls for the Chaldeans, magicians, and the like to give him the meaning of this dream. Probably suspecting that these supposedly wise men have been flattering him in their interpretations of his previous dreams, and wanting to be sure of the meaning of this one, he requires the Chaldeans first to tell him the content of the dream and only then the interpretation. Anyone with a ready wit and a good imagination can give a convincing interpretation of just about any dream. Nebuchadnezzar calls them "lying and corrupt words" (2:9)—words not in the king's service, but in the self-service of the interpreters.
He determines to learn the true meaning of his dream or expose the true character of his servants by offering fantastic rewards and threatening dreadful punishments (2:5-6). But his efforts are useless. They reply, "There is not a man on earth who can meet the king's demand.... The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh" (2:10-11). Hearing this objection, the king becomes "angry and very furious" (2:12). But his anger simply expresses his frustration over his inability to control the God of the universe. Even at the end of the account, Nebuchadnezzar's promotion of Daniel is arguably an attempt to bring God—this newly discovered world power—under his control.
There is an element of that in every sinner's heart. You cannot trust anyone but yourself because you do not trust God. Even though you have made many poor decisions in the past that have brought you suffering, at least you know that you were well intentioned, because you love yourself without qualification. Everyone else, on the other hand (including, you suspect, even God), is at least torn between his or her good and what is good for you when the two come into conflict.
It is not just a matter of interest, however. Even someone of exceedingly modest abilities and of frequently attested poor judgment jealously guards control over his own affairs. Indeed, despite all evidence to the contrary, you believe that if only you could control everything and everyone, then everything would be fine, not only for you, but perhaps even for everyone else. (Is that not what we see in American foreign policy at its most idealistic points?) Then, when everything goes well, who gets the glory but you? And if anything goes poorly, it is easily either forgiven or generously explained away. Such is the perversity of the human heart.
By contrast, Daniel does not rely on his own craftiness and other abilities. He speaks "with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the captain of the king's guard," but in doing so he relies wholly on God (2:14). After acting wisely, he seeks "mercy from the God of heaven" in prayer, along with his companions (2:17-18). The reader should notice the humility of Daniel's prayer. It is not demanding. It recognizes God's right to do as he pleases. Hence, the petition is for "mercy." He offers lengthy praise for previous answers to prayer. He recognizes that he is in God's sovereign hands, and that God is the source of all Nebuchadnezzar's power and the source of all his own wisdom (2:20-23).
Rather than putting himself forward, saying "I can reveal the meaning of this," Daniel directs Nebuchadnezzar's attention to God: "No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries" (2:27-28 niv). He is consistent in deflecting glory from himself to God: "But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living" (2:30a). He is concerned also that the king understand the meaning of the dream that God has sent, that is, that he understand God's personal concern for him (2:30b).
Daniel understands his authority, his ability, and all his hopes as subordinate to and dependent upon God's ultimate authority as the Creator, and his heart is focused wholly upon magnifying God's glorious name, not his own. Daniel goes on to distinguish himself as a great ruler with an indisputably honorable name, something he could not have done apart from his humility before the Lord.
Whereas Daniel's humble service fits beautifully with God's worthiness of all glory, Nebuchadnezzar's pride puts him on a collision course with the Lord. It is striking, not simply that Daniel praises Nebuchadnezzar, for that was the custom, but that his praise more fitly describes the Lord Jesus Christ (2:37-38). Is Daniel, in this manner, mocking Nebuchadnezzar, who is obviously unworthy? Daniel goes on to talk about the One who is indeed worthy, the one who will one day be King of kings, and will indeed rule over all creation. He interprets Nebuchadnezzar's dream as picturing four successive kingdoms: the Babylonian (Nebuchadnezzar), the Medo-Persian (Cyrus), the Greek (Alexander the Great), and the Roman (the Caesars). When the last one appears, Christ comes to establish the kingdom that never ends. Indeed, he has done this, but his work will be completed only at his second coming. The kingdom is inaugurated, but not yet consummated. It is simultaneously already here and not yet here.
God has placed Nebuchadnezzar on a great throne, but unless he bows to the throne in heaven, his power is not what he thinks it is. In the dream, Nebuchadnezzar sees a statue that represents his kingdom and those that will follow it. By itself, though perhaps beautiful and impressive, it is just lifeless rock. So too, just as Nebuchadnezzar is dead without Christ, his works are dead and ultimately meaningless unless done for Christ and in Christ. Nothing has changed. The same is true today of anyone in power and of anyone who aspires to power.
Calvin wisely remarks that the human heart is an idol factory. We naturally incline toward building empires, whether those of borders, of businesses, or of fame and popularity. If Christ is not at the center of them, he will shatter them. Until then, they will come to nothing. After 1945, America was one of the world's two superpowers. We could project our power across the globe, not only militarily, but also diplomatically, economically, and culturally. Since 1990, we have been the sole superpower, number one and proud of it. That is an amazing providence that should make us at the same time both thankful and humble.
But if Christ is not number one in America, that awesome power, and the responsibility that accompanies it, should also make us tremble. The Lord will expose the empty, cold statue of our fleeting glory. The same is true of any empire we build in our private lives, whether it is an empire of popularity at school or of dominance at the office or within one's professional field. The biblical account of Nebuchadnezzar is a warning for everyone in the exercise of his gifts and talents to bear in mind that all glory belongs to Christ and that all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow ... or else they wither and are forgotten along with those who have sought them.
The author, an OP minister, is assistant professor of politics at the King's College in New York, N.Y. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2007.